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ICON Conference

October 8-9, 2010

A conference that marked the opening of the Rubin Museum of Art exhibition Embodying the Holy: Icons in Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism. The exhibition explores the iconographic, conceptual, and customary similarities between the sacral representations in Tibetan Buddhism and Orthodox Christian traditions.  The conference took place from October 8-9, 2010.  Many of the sessions from the conference are available on iTunes.  Click on the iTunesU button and type "Rubin Museum of Art" in the search field.





Friday, October 8

6 p.m.: Cocktail Reception in the K2 Lounge (cash bar)

7 p.m.: Keynote discussion: Are Icons relevant today? Hegoumen Nicodim Balyasnikov, Abbot of St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral in New York City, and Archpriest Igor Vyzhanov, representative of the World Russian People's Council to the United Nations, With independent Russian journalist Maxim Trudolyubov, moderated by Ellen Barry, Moscow Correspondent, New York Times (separate ticket price: $15 / $13.50 for RMA Members) Tickets can be purchased online below.

9:30 p.m.: Screening of Zorba the Greek in the theater (optional)  Free with a $7 bar minimum


Saturday, October 9

8:30 a.m.: Coffee and continental breakfast

9:30 a.m.: Session I - Indo-Himalayan Iconography



Ramon Prats, Senior Curator, Rubin Museum of Art


Phyllis Granoff, Lex Hixon Professor of World Religions at Yale University
Koichi Shinohara, Senior Lecturer of Religious Studies, Yale University

Divine Appearances, Images, and Ritual: Some Reflections from Chinese and Indian Texts

Tadeusz Skorupski, Director, Centre of Buddhist Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

The Buddha's Stupa and Image: The Icons Embodying his Immanency and Transcendency

Matthew Kapstein, Numata Visiting Professor of Buddhist Studies, The University of Chicago Divinity School

Locating the Portrait in the Icon: A 13th Century Thangka from the Rubin Collection Reconsidered

1:30 p.m.: Session II - Orthodox Iconography





Michael S. Flier, Oleksandr Potebnja Professor of Ukrainian Philology at Harvard University

Envisioning the Ruler in Medieval Rus: The Iconography of Intercession and Architecture

Annemarie Weyl Carr, University Distinguished Professor of Art History Emerita, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX

The Eleousa Kykkiotissa:  A Byzantine Icon in Ottoman Cyprus

Gary Vikan, Director, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore MD

Icons and the Brain: Neuroscience and the Icon Experience

5 p.m. Close


Registration covers programs on Oct 8 & 9

$35 per person ($31.50 RMA Members)

$20 students (advance)

Call during Box Office hours: 212.620.5000 ext. 344

Purchase Entire Conference Tickets Here
Purchase Friday Evening Keynote Address Only Here



Annemarie Weyl Carr is University Distinguished Professor of Art History Emerita at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. Her scholarly work has been devoted to the history of Byzantine art, especially the history of the icon; to questions of cultural interchange in the eastern Mediterranean Levant in the era of the Crusades, above all on the island of Cyprus; and to women artists in the Middle Ages.  A long-time trustee of the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute in Nicosia and former president of the International Center of Medieval Art, she received the 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award for Teaching from the College Art Association of America.


Michael S. Flier is the Oleksandr Potebnja Professor of Ukrainian Philology at Harvard University. He received his Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of California at Berkeley. He has taught at Berkeley, UCLA, Columbia, MIT, and Harvard. He has published extensively in the fields of Slavic linguistics synchronic and diachronic and the semiotics of medieval East Slavic culture including studies on art, architecture, literature, history, and ritual. He is the Director of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute and Chairman of the American Committee of Slavists.


Phyllis Granoff teaches Indian religions in the Department of Religious Studies at Yale University. She received her BA from Radcliffe College and her PhD from Harvard University, in the Departments of Sanskrit and Indian Studies and Fine Arts. She has done research on early and medieval Indian art and religion and translated contemporary literature from Bengali and Oriya into English. Her current projects include a study of false accusations and attitudes towards the justice system in Prakrit and Sanskrit literature and reflections on the sin and the body in Jain and Buddhist literature. She curated the Rubin Museum of Art exhibition Victorious Ones: Jain Images of Perfection.


Koichi Shinohara teaches East Asian Buddhism in the Department of Religious Studies at Yale University.  He grew up in Tokyo and received BA (sociology) and MA (religious studies) from the University of Tokyo.  After completing his doctorate at Columbia University, he taught for many years at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, before joining the Department of Religious Studies at Yale about six years ago.  His field of study is East Asian Buddhism.  Among the topics he has focused on in his research are Buddhist monastic biographies, image miracle stories, construction of sacred places in Buddhist literature, Chinese commentaries on Buddhist monastic rules, and more recently the evolution of early esoteric Buddhist rituals between the fourth to ninth centuries.


Matthew Kapstein is directeur d'études in the division of religious studies of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris, and Numata Visiting Professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of Chicago. He has worked primarily on the philosophical traditions of later Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, and on the relationship of these with the practical and experiential aspects of religious life, including art, ritual, meditation, and yoga. His publications include: The Presence of Light: Divine Radiance and Religious Experience (University of Chicago Press, 2004), The Tibetans (Blackwell, 2006), Buddhism Between Tibet and China (Wisdom, 2009) and a translation of an eleventh century Sanskrit allegory, The Rise of Wisdom Moon (Clay Sanskrit Library, 2009).


Tadeusz Skorupski is Director of the SOAS Centre of Buddhist Studies, University of London. His academic field covers indo-Tibetan Buddhism. The specific areas include Buddhist history, doctrines, rituals and iconography. Current research focuses on the nature of consciousness and the existential and transcendent configurations of Buddhist morality. He has published several books and some fifty articles. He is also editor of Buddhica Britannica Series (11 issues) and the Buddhist Forum (6 issues).


Gary Vikan was named Director of the Walters Art Museum in 1994 after serving as the museum's Assistant Director for Curatorial Affairs and Curator of Medieval Art since 1985. Before coming to the Walters, Dr. Vikan was Senior Associate for Byzantine Art Studies at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC. Since 1995, he has assembled at the Walters the finest collection of Ethiopian art outside of its native country. An internationally known medieval art scholar, Dr, Vikan has curated a number of the most significant exhibitions in the museum's history, including Silver Treasure from Early Byzantium (1986); Holy Image, Holy Space: Frescoes and Icons from Greece (1988), Gates of Mystery: The Art of Holy Russia (1992) and African Zion: The Sacred Art of Ethiopia (1993). His most recent book, Early Byzantine Pilgrimage Art, will be published in 2010 by Dumbarton Oaks; he is currently working on a book-length study entitled Pilgrimage to Graceland.



The Eleousa Kykkiotissa:  A Byzantine Icon in Ottoman Cyprus

Annemarie Weyl Carr

The icon of the Mother of God at Kykkos Monastery in Cyprus, known as the Kykkotissa, is among the rare icons from the Byzantine period that are still in their original shrines and venerated as miracle-workers. It is veiled from view, but its appearance over seven centuries is documented by hundreds of replicas. They offer an unparalleled view into the way an icon endlessly renegotiated its identity.  Seemingly changeless, the Kykkotissa was in fact constantly being remade anew. This paper will look at one segment of this story, in the 17th century, after Cyprus' conquest by the Ottomans. Economically harrowing, the era was ecclesiastically dynamic, and Kykkotissa shared this dynamism. It became known internationally, and in the process assumed a new name, a new image, and a new notoriety for the fact that it was veiled. These changes effectively remade its image, as a miracle-worker. The implications of this shift are regularly acknowledged economically, for Kykkos throve on the icon's fame. But its implications for the visual economy of the icon have been studied less carefully. Here, a new balance of reference and representation was developed, as the replicas ever more explicitly represented the miracle-worker at Kykkos, its miracles serving as proof of the capacity of the iconic image to reference its original.


Divine Appearances, Images, and Ritual: Some Reflections from Chinese and Indian Texts

Phyllis Granoff and Koichi Shinohara

This paper explores the process by which images were gradually incorporated into esoteric Buddhist rituals. We are so accustomed to seeing images of the deities of the esoteric Buddhist pantheon across Buddhist Asia, in India, Tibet, Indonesia, China, and Japan, that we often do not realize that their centrality in esoteric ritual was the result of a lengthy process of negotiation. Beginning with a study of early Chinese translations of ritual texts, the paper argues that images had no role to play in the earliest esoteric rituals, which were centered on the recitation of sacred words or mantras and the bodily gestures of the officiant. In these early rituals, the success of the ritual was signaled by the appearance of the deity. The first role accorded images built upon what were probably widespread beliefs in image miracles; such beliefs are attested in a diverse range of texts. In their first role, images emit light or sound as a sign that a ritual has been successful. In some cases image miracles and visions of the deity even occur together. On the basis of an examination of Sanskrit texts the paper then argues that this is an important clue to understand the logic behind the incorporation of images into rituals that were aniconic. It was believed that images attract the deity into the ritual space. Finally, the paper comments on the observation that in these ritual texts images are most often painted and not sculpted.


Locating the Portrait in the Icon: A 13th Century Thangka from the Rubin Collection Reconsidered

Matthew Kapstein

In the study of Tibetan art, persons depicted are frequently identified by means of iconic features-clothing and ornament, attribute and posture, colors and associated figures, and so forth. In some case, in particular in connection with Tibetan bronze sculptures, however, it has become increasingly apparent that, besides iconography so understood, iconographical features may sometimes have had their origins in portraiture, in the effort to depict subjects "as they were." In this presentation, I wish to suggest that a relatively early thangka in the Rubin collection may be a case in point. Catalogued as a painting of Padmasambhava, it includes, beneath the main figure, a bearded and long-haired ritual practitioner. I will offer here a hypothesis concerning just who this person is.


The Buddha's Stupa and Image: The Icons Embodying his Immanency and Transcendency

Tadeusz Skorupski

After the Buddha's demise his body was cremated, and his relics were shared and enshrined in stupas. As such the stupa is not considered to be the Buddha's burial ground, but rather the site expressive and symbolic of his enlightenment and nirvana, in the sense of his complete emancipation and disappearance from the bonds of phenomenal existence. Since the Buddha's bodily aggregates were completely dissolved, his anthropomorphic representation has also disappeared, and hence he was depicted not in iconic but only in symbolic forms. However, some centuries after his demise, he was also depicted in anthropomorphic forms. This paper focuses on the doctrinal and devotional interpretations of the Buddha's stupa and image. Some sources assert the Buddha's immanent presence in stupas and images, some postulate his transcendent presence, and some his complete absence. Next the paper ascertains the architectural and iconic symbolism of stupas and images. Finally a comparative evaluation is made of the significance and function of the Buddha's stupa and image. The evaluation is not invented but based on selected sources. The broad vision is to demonstrate how emptiness assumes forms, and how forms dissolve into emptiness.


Icons and the Brain: Neuroscience and the Icon Experience

Gary Vikan

Semir Zeki, the neurobiologist at University College, London, who a decade ago invented the term "neuroaesthetics," says that all artists are neuroscientists, even though they don't know it. By that he means that artists have learned how to achieve their aims by intuitively understanding the workings of the brain, and playing off that understanding. Textual sources of the medieval period tell us that as a Christian supplicant, you will "read" this icon to match your state of mind. Contentment and a sense of self-worth will gravitate toward and be vindicated by the proper right face of Christ, whereas anxiety and a sense of guilt will gravitate toward and be harshly judged by the proper left side - literally, the "sinister" side - of Christ's face. Neuroscience has also layered on an approach/withdrawal distinction as well, whereby we are literally drawn to the benign side of Christ's face and are very much inclined to flee the threatening side. (Which is nothing more than common sense, rooted in our evolutionary wiring, under the heading of escape!) But of course for the medieval (and modern) Christian, this is no escape for the guilty.