By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service
ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO (June 1, 2017) — You’d think that my Russian history course I took my first year in college would have mentioned Pavel Florensky (1892-1937). Sadly, I don’t recall every hearing the name. I first caught a reference to him in the early 1990’s in relation to his martyrdom in communist Russia, dying in a web of intrigue under Vyacheslav Molotov’s regime on the heels of Joseph Stalin’s rise to power.
What I didn’t know about Florensky at the time is that he was a brilliant polymath, mathematician, art theorist, and priest, considered by some the “da Vinci of Russia.” I only knew he was a martyr, a person that refused to deny Christ. Yet over time and much reading, Florensky has become an example of a man who used his full faculties for the cause of Christ, a hero for those of us who admire the two streams of knowledge: faith and reason. And as an artist I look to Florensky’s deep insight into the nature of art in uncovering the essence of reality. As an art theorist, Florensky paved the way for a modern view on art (relying heavily on ancient interpretations), helping outline an understanding of abstract fields of artistic expression.
Born in 1882 to a Russian engineering father and a mother of Armenian descent, Pavel spent his early years traveling with his family as his father worked on various civic projects (bridges, etc.). He entered Moscow State University as a math student, graduating in 1904. Instead of taking a position in mathematics, Florensky entered seminary, the Ecclesiastical Academy of Sergiyev Posad. During his studies, Florensky became interesting in a host of fields, including art, becoming a leading voice in the Symbolist movement in Russia.
While in seminary he formed the Christian Struggle Union, a group dedicated to rebuilding Russian society upon Christian principles outlined by the radical, Vladimir Soloyov. Florensky soon lost interest in the radical form of Christianity and firmly affiliated with the Orthodox Church. After graduation from seminary in 1908, Pavel taught philosophy and was ordained to the ministry in 1911. By 1914 he had finished his doctorate dissertation on About Spiritual Truth. Between 1914 and 1924 Pavel edited Christian publications, wrote scientific articles, attempted to interpret Einstein’s theory of relativity in geometric forms, and continued his pastoral care. Florensky married and had children, loving both his wife and kids with unfettered devotion.
Things changed for Florensky when the communist uprising — the October Revolution of 1917 — took Russia by storm. By March 1918 the Bolsheviks were in control of the government, leading to the formation of the Soviet Union in 1922. Florensky did much of this later work under the watchful eye of the newly established Soviet party.
After the communist takeover, Florensky was exiled to Novgorod — a prison camp, but allowed to return to Moscow where he was given a position as a scientist, working on physics and electrodynamics. Florensky’s witness for Christ never wavered under communist rule. He continued to wear his pastoral garments and refused to denounce his Christian faith.
And even though his scientific work was held in great esteem, Florensky was accused of agitation and on February 26, 1933, he was arrested based upon trumped up charges from a lawyer he never met, a man named Pavel Gidulianov. Florensky was sentenced to ten years in a labor camp under Stalin’s newly enacted criminal codes.
While in the labor camp the Soviet authorities continued to use his scientific mind for research on seaweed. Yet more accusations were fronted against him and by 1937 he was sentenced to death. Along with hundreds of other prisoners, Florensky was taken by train to a camp near St. Petersburg and was murdered by a firing squad on December 8th, 1937.
The world lost a brilliant mind, but the Lord received a faithful witness.
Since his death, Florensky’s influence has continued to rise, particularly in artistic circles. Florensky’s view of the spiritual nature of art is valued and greatly pondered. As an example, in his work Reverse Perspective, Florensky said, “It is possible to represent space on a surface, but only by destroying the form of the thing represented. Yet it is form, and only form, that visual art is concerned with.
Consequently, the final verdict is proclaimed for painting, as for the visual arts in general, to the degree that it claims to provide a likeness of realty…Henceforth, by things we mean not the things themselves, but only the surfaces that demarcate regions of space.” Florensky is arguing that perspective-based painting (a “form”) can only provide a glimpse into realty, but for a full-orbed view of reality a painting must include a spiritual understanding (“not the things themselves”) something that reverse perspective (objects depicted in a scene are placed between the projective point and the viewing plane) helps accomplish.
For Florensky there’s more to art than just images taking up space on a canvas, there is the essence or countenance of the image, that which the image or artwork represents and points to. Put simply, Florensky believed that art holds both a physical and metaphysical nature. Florensky argued that ancient Christian art, particularly icons—though void of traditional perspective — help the viewer attain a spiritual, metaphysical perspective of the artwork. Reverse perspective helps the viewer understand that there is more to life than just the physical components of being — biology, chemistry, and the like; there’s the metaphysical – spiritual — elements of our existence as well.
Florensky’s sentiment concerning the two natures of art and life is best summarized in his famous quote from his book Iconostasis, “Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity exists, therefore God exists.” In this quotes we find the physical aspect of art represented (a painting by the famous Russian artist Rublev) and the metaphysical necessity derived from the artwork: “therefore God exists.” As a trained scientist and theologian Florensky was well aware of causality, the relationship between cause and effect. And derived to its fullest expression causality leads to an uncaused-cause, God, the great artist and architect of all that is. In this cause and effect relationship one finds both physical and metaphysical truth, something that Florensky bent over backwards to make a case for during his life, ultimately loosing his life over his stance concerning spiritual truth.
At his core, Florensky wanted people to know — be it through art, mathematics, or science — that the physical world is not all there is: there is a spiritual reality, a heavenly Kingdom of God that works in concert with the physical world. No wonder the materialistic, atheistic regime of the communists wanted to rid the world of his voluminous voice. But what a gun can’t do is silence the truth of what God continues to do through people like Florensky, a will surrendered to the greatest Will, a life consumed by Christ.
Largely through the resolve of his family — who kept most of his written works — Florensky was one of the first Christian authors to be re-published under communist Russia. There is now a Florensky Foundation in the family home on Burdenko Street in Moscow.
For further study on the life of Pavel Florensky — particularly as it relates to art, I recommend the following:
Books by Florensky:
Reverse Perspective, Pavel Florensky
Beyond Vision: Essays on the Perception of Art, Pavel Florensky
At the Crossroad of Science and Mysticism, Pavel Florensky
Iconostasis, Pavel Florensky
Books about Florensky:
Pavel Florensky: A Quiet Genius by Avril Pyman
The Avant-Garde Icon, Andrew Spira (though not all about Florensky, Spira’s book has a segment on his influence).
Photo captions: 1) Pavel Florensky. 2) Pavel as a prisoner. 3) The Quiet Genius. 4) Beyond Perspective. 5) Brian Nixon.
About the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, artist, and minister. He’s a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA), Veritas Evangelical Seminary (MA), and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon.
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