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Pavel Florensky Martyr of the Reverse Perspective

Pavel Florensky, Martyr of the ‘reverse perspective’

By Stefano Caprio

He was killed on a December day at the height of Stalin’s terror. Priest, theologian, but also a valuable scientist. He collaborated on the country’s electrification and industrial modernization projects. He was scientific director of the Soviet Electrotechnical Institute. He saved the Lavra of St. Sergius, the most important monastery in Russia, from destruction. He revealed the secret of the icons.

Among the many Russian ”modern day martyrs” of state atheism, remembered in this centenary  anniversary of the Revolution, one figure stands out for its prophetic originality and the uniqueness of its destiny. The priest and theologian Pavel Florenskij.  He was shot on an unspecified December day of 80 years ago, in that 1937 which marked the pinnacle of Stalin’s terror. His execution took place in the wood in Sandormokh, in the extreme north of the country, together with the other prisoners of the ”ecclesiastic lager” of the Solovki islands, after its closure. His body was thrown into the mass grave together with the others, and today an altar in the wood recalls his sacrifice.

Unlike many other intellectuals, Father Pavel did not want to leave the country, despite having the possibility, and was never expelled. A convinced monarchist, to the point of hypothesizing a theocratic government under the leadership of the Church (following the inspiration of his teacher Vladimir Solov’ev), Florensky agreed to collaborate with the Soviet government. Before being a priest and theologian, he was a valuable scientist, and he collaborated on the projects of industrial electrification and modernization of the country. He taught mathematics in high school, directed a plastic materials factory, was scientific director of the gigantic Soviet Electrotechnical Institute; he succeeded in obtaining the post of superintendent of the Fine Arts, thanks to which he was able to preserve many treasures of religious tradition, starting with the great Lavra of St. Sergius, the most important monastery in Russia of which he was the curator on behalf of the government. This also allowed him to save, in a very daring fashion, the mortal remains of St. Sergius of Radonezh, the patron saint of medieval ”Holy Russ” whose relics are still venerated today in the monastery that bears his name, for which in 1400 the iconographer Andrej Rublev had painted his famous icon of the Holy Trinity.

Florensky had already been imprisoned under the tsars, after a fiery homily denouncing the execution of a revolutionary and patriotic soldier, Petr Schmidt, condemned for having requested the convening of a constituent assembly. Florensky was not yet a priest, and he delivered his speech before the other seminarians in Moscow; soon after he founded the ”Fraternity of Christian Struggle” together with his friends Ern and Elchaninov, also great philosophers of that period called the ”silver century” of Russia. They too wanted to achieve a revolution, starting from the Gospel and from the ideals of ”integral knowledge” and ”Christian wisdom”; another philosopher of the time, Nikolai Berdjaev, illustrated in some famous essays how much the apocalyptic and revolutionary Russian anxiety found inspiration precisely from the particular Christian vocation of Russia, from its ”spiritual mission”.

The participation of Pavel Florensky in the actions of the revolutionary government is therefore particularly significant, precisely because of his radical opposition to atheist and communist ideology in the name of a utopian ”Christian socialism”. For over 10 years he remained an active protagonist of social and political life, always vested in his priestly habit; he is credited with the words ”better to go to ruin with your country and your people than to feel you are on the right side without them”.

In those dramatic and turbulent years, he continued to write essays and treatises on theology, art and philosophy, which developed the principles of his main work, The Pillar and the Foundation of Truth of 1912, perhaps the largest text of Russian theology. His work was unknown  for many years due to censorship, and only rediscovered in recent decades, making Florensky a very current and popular author in the West. In one of his treatises, the Reverse Perspective, Father Pavel relaunched the authentic traditions of Eastern iconography, long forgotten in Russia, revealing the secret of icons precisely in the different relationship with the human person. While in the western perspective the vanishing point is at the opposite end of the gaze, the icon meets the contemplator, who can no longer remain merely a spectator, but is involved in the experience of the one who is represented in the image of the Archetype, the only true image of man, the Christ. Thus the martyrdom of Florensky and his companions becomes not only memory, but an experience of communion possible for all.Asia News



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