Deesis_Hagia_Sophia

Abstract:

This short paper seeks to define the nature and substance of Greek Orthodox iconography, as it is ‘written’ with its prototypal energy modality notion of ‘Presence’ and cultural rite transference adopted into contemporary abstract visual art practice.

 

The power of images in the 21st century is as powerful as images of the Byzantine Orthodox iconography of the great Macedonian influence of the 10th century is today. A satiated pervading and suffocating superabundance primarily of self assured and nauseating advertising of the ‘you mush have this’ or ‘buy me now’ envelop our every being from the massive overpopulated city metropolis to the magnificent Transylvanian Mountains with its Coco Cola insignia café umbrellas. It is endemic and penetrates the very mind of modern man to such a degree that we casually and subliminally become unaware and indifferent of the ruthless assault on the senses.

Byzantium, from its inception in Constantinople of Agia Sofia, 330 AD, provided to the new world a refreshing innovative style of art that would come to be established as Byzantine Iconography which flourished in all of its myriad styles until the Crusader sack of Constantinople in 1204. [1] The art that adorned the churches and monasteries in the form of transportable icons, wall paintings and scrolls became the means by which an amalgamation of doctrinal theology and aesthetics sustained the edifice of principles that would establish significant power between mystical theology and the arts. The two important elements of theology and art played an intrinsic capacity that fulfilled a mutual union in which church and art established simultaneously an understanding of the Gospels and the churches Liturgical vitality. Aesthetics and theology meet to serve the church in a new language, not in an ‘other worldly’, or ‘out of this world’ experience but very firmly and formally placed within that area of the Divine, not a neoplatonic worldview of ‘otherness’, rather as part of God’s created reality which is both seen and unseen. [2] Central and most importantly to this aesthetic theological synchronicity is the notion of ‘Presence’.

Within the act of the Orthodox liturgy, the aspect of veneration of the icons plays an immensely serious and important contribution not only to the life of the church but also to the life of the individual. The act of venerating, or the state of being venerated is the highest degree of respect and reverence; respect mingled with awe and dignity. The icon, is not simply an image contained of this world, but is that of a transfigured world, a transcendent image of heavenly peace and serenity. And this is not to divide the reality into many divisions or plains or forms but simple to understand that actually reality is composed of both the seen and the unseen, the visible and invisible as our thoughts, ideas, love, creativity, longing, these are very real and only their outcome may be seen otherwise as entities of their own remain invisible to us.

Theology of Presence

The nature of the icon is to be the image of the Archetype, [3] that is, the icon echoes and simulates the likeness to the Prototype, the Archetype of the past saint, Christ, Panagia or angels. To be truly understood, the icon necessarily requires that it be viewed not as a religious picture or separate work of art but rather to be seen as the vital essence that allows an undeniable reality. This particular essence, is achieved by way of using an anagogtic posture of the figure in the icon, which allows a frontal view, face forward. This position is an invitation through the portal/window of the image, which is at this point, in veneration paying homage, that the viewer’s soul encounters the unity of that one that is portrayed. It is both a symbolical and personalized depiction of the person represented as Archetypal, written (icons are not painted but are known to be ‘written’) in the symbolical aesthetic language that needs to be read. Some of the symbolical notations for example are the large eyes to remind the viewer that the depicted person has seen the Divine. A large head symbolically renders the person having received wisdom from above. The icon here is “hypostatic” in that it depicts the hypostasis (Greek ὑπόστασις) of the depicted one. The phrase, ‘liturgical analogy’ refers to the importance of the icon as having the authority and value as the Holy Scriptures, “the Liturgical texts are to hearing as the icon is to sight”, [4] so that this condition is not simple a didactic reference for illiterate people of the church but an instant accessible symbolic world-view that contains a Presence as the viewer participates in the nature that the icon symbolizes via the name and style. To achieve this participation, when in the church approach is made to the iconostasis, standing in front of the icons, say of St. Michael the warrior angel, veneration in the form of homage and gratitude is made, thinking of the great endeavors and acts of grace that he has carried out as messenger, it is then that participation unfolds through the portal/window of that moment as one enters into communion with the Archetype.

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This participation may initially imply a static Neoplatonic ‘other worldly’ persuasion of appearances. However Orthodox iconography is not static in that it is merely wood and paint (which would lead to idolatry) but manifests as a living and energetic dynamic, conveying the notion of presence through the formalistic style and name of the icon, thus the essence and power to appeal to the presence of the person depicted. It must be further noted that an icon is not worshipped but rather venerated, worship being for God alone. Yet an icon is merely a window through which symbolical presentation is made to the prototype of the original. St Basil the Great said: “The honour rendered to the icon passes to its prototype, for the person who venerates an icon venerates the person represented on it.” The modern empiricist-materialistic worldview would find the above distinctly incoherent and intolerable. To better understand the nature of the icon and its veneration, it is paramount that an understanding of the history of the icon, its semantics, aesthetic and stylization characteristics be understood.

History of the Icon

The art of the icon differs markedly from the art of the west. The freedom and overwhelming diversity of subjects expressed throughout the ages of western art has produced many varying schools and famous names the world now recognizes as ‘masters’, from the earliest Giotto to the modern day conceptualists, western art has travelled far and wide in the service of mankind, promoting and praising the mighty achievements reflected through the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Age of Reason, the Industrial Revolution, and the 21st century evangelical scientific humanism. Just as America had its Founding Fathers so to western art had its ‘founding fathers’ in the form of Byzantine Iconography which were originally painted (‘written’) by monks and priests, father’s of the church, not even signing the names on completion of the icon. Byzantine art was not in the service of mankind but rather in the service of the church. Byzantine art from its inception of the 1st century AD grew to expand and incorporate particular techniques and canons that would become recognized from Saint Catherine’s on Mount Sinai, Mount Athos of Greece, Constantinople, Crete, Cyprus and the Balkans. Various schools of iconography gradually established in Pskov, Novgorad and Moscow, the northern Russian monasteries: from the earliest monastic communities in the Egyptian desert near Thebes to the monasteries of the Solovetski islands in the White Sea. In the service of the theology and the church, this form of art with its symbolic imagery evoking divine contemplation, spanned from the 4th to the mid 15th centuries and maintained the basic canons of Byzantine art, even to the present day. The Middle-Byzantine Period c. 843-1204 saw during this period that Byzantine art reached its greatest height. There is an element of the scared during the service, sacredness of character, by consecration to sacred services, or by association. This aspect of venerating the icon, is the means of paying homage to the person depicted, ultimately to the prototype. Understanding the life of that saint has long passed away, in reality however, respect for that life is greatly valued and honored hence the act of veneration to that image of a human being whilst living – the prototype. Within the image of the icon abides the presence of the individual, through that timelessness, through memories and deep affection. This is what we do with photographs of our loved ones and friends, the photographs are memorials to their lives, we place them on our walls or place them on some shelf, we even in moments of deep reflection, gently touch the face of that loved one with our hand. We remember them, we honor them as we mindfully glimpse back of memorable times. The notion of presence in that instance is what we experience, it’s that communication we make as a connection between us and them.

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However, during the Late Byzantine Period, 1204-1453, artists became increasingly influenced with Latin styles, they began to sign their own artwork. Previously of course this was deemed as inappropriate due to the nature and role of the artist, which was considered to be a priestly act and thus a member of the great liturgy within the church. Further, the artist maintained to the formula and precise nature of the prototype of the image, where there was no room for self-expression, apart from the application of technical expertise and use of his materials. The expression of the spiritual and symbolic, came not from the hand of a single artist but rather from the complete corporate and unify composite didactic procession.

With Latin influence, there seemed to be a gradual shift of identity and context within the work of the artist. Self-expression was now the medium of applying the new found style. The identity came as the new style was incorporated into the previous ‘orthodoxy’ and thus changing the context in which the imagery had always maintained a unified element, that in the service of the church. This came about over many centuries, a steady but continues growth of influence but only now, towards the end of Byzantium do we see a shift in style. Byzantine art had changed in style as we know, even its subject, but always remained within the parameters of the prototype. As regards icons, Robin Cormack writes, ‘icons became more a personalized work of human hands and less a vehicle for communal values’, [5]

As no art form or style originates in isolation, the question to ask is whether Byzantine art influenced and actually gave birth to the Renaissance form or did the introduction of the Latinized elements change Byzantine art. Here it is not so much a matter of the visual imagery, the icons, wall paintings, frescoes or even the architecture, which played such an important part within Byzantium, but rather the context in which all this has played out on the world’s stage.

‘The aesthetic program that developed in the Orthodox Church strictly adhered to the idea of rendering the invisible visible and thus provided the viewer with opportunities for the contemplation of divine presence within the edifice’. [6]

With the inspiration of the Latin’s, came an element that required the artist to implement or execute the fresh art form, which was self-expression. To be free of the confinement of the rigorous stylization of orthodox iconography, the artist was now free to express his personal attributes, which of course influenced the rest of Byzantine art, now a moving away, a digression or at the very least a dichotomy for the Byzantine artist, in that the new found social world contained a new worldview. It is this world of humanism, this new means of thought which attaches importance to human rather than divine matters that will be the driving force for the development of art that we now see from Giotto and Duccio, who paint a more ‘human’ form onto those of scared figures, with an art not restricted by canonical considerations. Thankfully, Byzantine iconography continues, certainly in Cyprus where many monasteries produce icons, as in many of the Balkan states and of course Russia. It is of course without doubt that the fledgling southern Italian new style turned out to give the world – the remarkable Renaissance.

Contemporary Visual Abstract Art and the notion of Presence

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Presence relates to representation in most circumstances. Presence may be defined as the presence ‘felt’ of some one in a room or the presence of a loved one in a photograph. This notion may also be applied to something or some one that is not present, in that it/they are absent. This dichotomy within a natural environment prohibits the existence of both at the same time in that we are unable to make present that which is absent, not being able to be in two places at one time. Byzantine iconography Archetypal prototype does not have this dichotomy as the thing it seeks to represent is not absent but rather eternal as the representative saint/figure is living within a reality of the unseen world of God, giving a sublime experiential threshold.

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The question now arises what is the situation and circumstances that allow for an aesthetic response, not from viewing any figurative elements of a painting but purely from an abstract expressionist canvas, representational yet without being figurative? An emotional response through this aesthetical engagement, based upon human experience allows for imaginative and varied identifiers with the painting, sensitive emotions of reflection, remorse, reconciliation, joy, rapture may be attained in contemplation or reflection. The paintings are completely clear of all narrative content and devoid of overt clues and is mostly confined to a single formal theme. No doubt this latter factor allows for imperceptive comments from impatient critics and viewers. The work is aligned with the Haiku process of poetry, the compression of means and the total concentration on a single nuance of feeling, something like a suspended attention, prolonged suspension of the moment of reaching conclusions, where interpretation would have time to deploy itself in several dimensions, between the grasped visible and the lived ordeal of relinquishment. There would also be, in this alternative, a dialectical moment consisting of not grasping the image, of letting oneself be grasped by it instead: thus of letting go of one’s knowledge about it. It is here that the Byzantine prototype of the saint/figure is abandoned but in its place the viewer, places their own spiritual engagement with the artwork through a memorial of past loved ones or situations.

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This notion of ‘presence’ within the paintings is hard to realize, with brush strokes satiated with oil colour, blending and shifting one hue into another thus giving birth to new and changing forms of colour to realization. The canvas undulates under the brush pressure and application of paint, as if welding an instrument that gives sustenance and vigor to the life blood of the artwork as it imperceptibly gains flesh and bone toward the creation of a new being. The intended outcome of the paintings is that the viewer brings to the piece in memories, moments of delight, reminisces of past thoughts but also to gain fresh energy and vitality as time allows in meditation and reflection.770C3921

The intended shape and form of the paintings work towards the goal of proportional rightness, together with the sense of colour, allows for emotional possibilities of ancient Byzantine forms. Inspiration and creative outflowing originates from a love that emanates out of Greek Orthodoxy, of liturgy, plain song, incense and iconography.

Dimitri Tsouris – England & Cyprus

2015

[1] Cormack, Robin. Byzantine Art, Oxford University Press, 2000. pp 187.

[2] Walters, Albert. Creation Regained, Paternoster Press. 1996.

[3] St Basil the Great, BEPES 55 (Athens, Apostolike Diakonia) 63, 10-13.

[4] Archimandrite Vasileios of Stavronekita, Hymn…, 123.

[5] Comack, Robin. Byzantine Art, Oxford University Press. p.217.

[6] Isabelle Sabau, The Power of Symbolism in Byzantine Art, unknown date.