Eikōn – The Windows of Heaven
Eikōn:Icons of the Orthodox Christian World
Art Gallery of Ballarat
The honour paid to the image passes on to the prototype. Now what in the example the image is by reason of imitation, in the divine case the Son is by nature. As in works of art the likeness is dependent on the common form, so in the case of the divine and uncompounded nature the union consists in the communion of the Godhead.
(Saint Basil of Caesarea, On the Holy Spirit)
As the Christmas period approaches, an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ballarat offers viewers the opportunity for quiet reflection, and perhaps some respite from the relentless hype and crass commercialism that so often characterises a feast central to the Christian liturgical year.
Eikōn: Icons of the Orthodox Christian World (until 26 January, 2015), explores the mystery and abiding appeal of these emotive works whose artistic worth is often subordinate to their devotional purpose as a focus for prayer. Icons have been part of the religious life of Christians from Greece to Russia, the Balkans, Georgia, Armenia, Syria and Ethiopia down to the south coast of India since the ninth century. They vary in scale from those appearing on the walls of a church, or on its iconostasis (icon screen), to those carried in procession and displayed publicly. The Second Council of Nicaea (787 AD) endorsed the veneration of icons in domestic situations (the ‘icon corner’), and in private chapels, thus mingling the sacred and the mundane. Smaller and more portable icons were also produced as objects of personal reverence and contemplation. Of this varied tradition, Henry Maguire, Emeritus Professor of Art History at Johns Hopkins University, has observed, “For the Byzantines, it was the image, whether in icons or in visions, that made the unseen world real, and the unseen world that gave real presence for the image”.
Curator Gordon Morrison, Director of the Gallery, has assembled nearly seventy icons, decorative metal works, coins and seals, including the most significant work from the Byzantine era in any Australian collection, the manuscript folio The Gospel Book of Theophanes (Tetraevangelion) produced in Constantinople (c. 1125-50). The work is most remarkable for its opening frontispiece; a self-portrait of the cowled monk Theophanes who describes himself as the donor, scribe and illuminator of the work. To reinforce this bold pronouncement, he depicts himself in a full-length portrait standing at the same height and with the same proportions as the Virgin Mary, who adopts the stately form of Hodegetria (Mary the Guide, Mother of the Church). Theophanes has accorded himself a halo to match the Virgin, who is shown extending her hand, not to indicate her son, but towards Theophanes, to receive the proffered volume. This action represents a remarkable departure from the traditional format that defines the Hodegetria icon, coupled with a self-portrait rare, if not unique, in Byzantine illumination.
The exhibition draws heavily on the significant private collection of former Australian diplomat John Philip McCarthy, AO who served as Australian Ambassador to Vietnam (1981-83), Mexico (1985-87), Thailand (1992-94), the United States (1995-97), Indonesia (1997-2001), and Japan (2001-04). He was High Commissioner to India (2004-09), and is currently National President of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. Assembled over twenty-five years, McCarthy’s impressive group of Greek and Russian icon works spans six centuries. Institutional loans come from the National Gallery of Victoria, and the Abbey Museum of Art and Archaeology in Queensland.
Sir Richard Chartier Carnac Temple, the fifth Baronet (of The Nash) established the eponymous Temple Gallery in London in 1959, and has contributed two works to the exhibition. The Gallery has since developed into a leading centre for the study, restoration and exhibition of ancient icons and sacred art. “Even as a teenager I felt instinctively that icons brought a message from another world, that while truth is veiled in this world it undoubtedly exists – somewhere – and the enduring masterpieces of sacred art and music, productions of what is highest in the human spirit, seemed to convey meaning and order that elude us at the material level”, Temple remarks. “Icons can express by both form and content the highest truths of man and his relation to eternity. While the form of icons does not change- this is part of what defines them- it is the living content that can transform us, when it is there … It is a mystery felt in the soul and certainly not to be grasped by the mind”.
Eikōn is a very personal project for Morrison who had a similarly transformative experience with these religious objects through the influence of his maternal grandmother. She arrived in England as a refugee from Poland in 1940, and began to perpetuate the artistic traditions of her homeland. “She started painting icons, I think as a means to memorialise a life to which she knew she would never return. In those days, icons were not displayed in art galleries, so she had recourse to old books and of course to her memories of icons from home: Our Lady of Częstochowa [the so-called ‘Black Madonna’] and the Image of the Mother of God of the Gate of Dawn, in what is now Vilnius”, he remembers. “Having fed my interest in the art of Orthodox Christianity over the years, [she] insisted that I had to familiarise myself with the Byzantine objects in the Victoria and Albert Museum. She also directed me to visit the Temple Gallery, then located close to the V&A. This was the only place, she said, where I was likely to see good examples of ancient iconography. How could I have imagined thirty-seven years ago that the founder of that gallery would be lending significant works to this exhibition?”
The Image Not Made by Human Hands, also known as The Mandylion, or The Holy Face of Edessa (17th century), is an example of Acheiropoieta (‘made without hand’), a particular type of icon said to have come into existence miraculously, or to have been divinely wrought. The term is also used of icons that are only regarded as copies (produced by a human painter), of a miraculously created original archetype, like this Russian version of the ‘icon of icons’. According to various accounts, most notably those recorded by the early church historian Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea (c.260/65-339/40, AD), King Abgar V (‘the Black’) of Edessa (in Osroene, now modern Turkey) was afflicted with an incurable sickness, probably leprosy or gout. When Abgar heard of the miracles performed by Jesus, he wrote to plead for his help and offered him asylum in Edessa. In his reply, Jesus reportedly declined to visit the king, but is said to have promised to send a disciple bearing a token of his divine power following his Ascension.
In due course, Thaddeus (Addaï) of Edessa, one of the seventy-two Disciples, arrived at the court of Abgar with a linen cloth (mandylion, derived from the Arabic word for a face towel) on which the physical likeness of Jesus’ face was imprinted. Abgar was miraculously cured of his affliction, and the divine portrait was preserved in the royal treasury. Writing in about 593 AD, the Syrian scholar Evagrius Scholasticus reported that a portrait of Jesus, of divine origin, delivered Edessa from a Persian attack in 544 AD. The Mandylion legend assumed great importance in subsequent debates within the church hierarchy because it implies divine sanction for the use of images as an aid or inspiration to worship. By pressing the Holy Cloth to his face, and sending it on as a cure for King Abgar’s illness, the story supports the idea that Jesus himself, while living, created the miraculous prototype for all icons. Other accounts held that St. Luke the Evangelist, a talented painter, depicted Mary and the infant Jesus on several occasions from life. St. Luke is credited as the possible originator of the Virgin Hodegetria image, and other works depicting the Saints Peter and Paul.
In subsequent centuries, bitter doctrinal conflict flared in the Eastern Roman Empire (726-843, AD) between iconodules (from the Greek eikono-doulos, ‘one who serves images’), those who favoured the use of icons and depictions of the Holy family and saints, and iconoclasts who forcefully decried the practice of the veneration of inanimate representations as idolatry, and contrary to the Third Commandment. Iconodules asserted that the physical incarnation of Jesus Christ, being the second figure in the Holy Trinity, superseded, or made obsolete, the Old Testament commandment forbidding images of (an invisible) God because Jesus was fully human, as were his earthly family and the saints. Icon painting is based on the theology of the Incarnation, and the precept that God made man in his own image (in the Septuagint Greek translation eikona). According to Genesis, “So God created man in his own image; in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (1:27). Thus, the Eastern Orthodox view holds that sacred images have existed since the beginning of the Christian church. As Saint Paul writes to the Colossians about Jesus,
Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist. (1:15-17).
Iconoclasts held that such images were a return to pagan practices, and that no true icon of Jesus could represent both his human and divine nature, something only possible in the Eucharist. Separating the ‘natures’ of God, pictorially or otherwise, was tantamount to Nestorianism, which was declared heretical by the Council of Ephesus (431 AD), and again at the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD). Wood and paint were empty vessels devoid of spirit and life, therefore icons were inherently flawed objects with the potential to mislead and corrupt the faithful. Following the instructions of Pope Gregory I ‘the Great’ (c.540-604) to Bishop Serenus of Marseilles, the position of the Roman Catholic Church has been to emphasise the role of images as an instructive tool to assist the illiterate, and to elucidate Biblical narrative: the so-called Biblia Pauperum (‘Bible of the Poor’). Debates about the use and veneration of images were revived during the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. The Roman Catholic taste for three-dimensional statuary and ornaments was deemed to be particularly objectionable by reformers, as such works were perceived as idols, and appeared to defy the Biblical prohibition against ‘graven images’.
Orthodox icons are not three-dimensional or lifelike sculptures, and they usually adhere to a prescribed format enabling the subject to be readily identified. Icon ‘types’ were meant to be copied and copied faithfully; an oral tradition eventually recorded in an icon painter’s manual (a Herminia). As Morrison notes, “Over time, and in response to changes in emphasis in devotional and liturgical practices, new image types emerged regularly, and these in turn were copied and disseminated… [but] innovation, the constant introduction of new things, has little place in this mode of thinking”. The wood used varies from one region to another: in the Mediterranean birch, lime, alder, olive and cypress were used, while in Russia oak and pine wood were preferred- Russian pine being less resinous than more southerly varieties. The wood surface has generally been primed with gesso, a mixture of ground calcium carbonate (usually baked gypsum), and glue binder, which is then sanded and buffed to form an even surface suitable for applying paint. The paint is applied in several film-like layers, and it is this layering that contributes to the rich colouration so characteristic of icon painting. In some painting traditions, a fine linen cloth is glued to the panel before the gesso is applied.
The oldest surviving icons were made using the encaustic process, a technique that has its origins in Egyptian funerary painting of the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, where pigments were added to molten beeswax and applied to a panel using a heated metal stylus. By the eighth century, the egg tempura technique was devised whereby pigments were added to egg yolk to create a paint that is remarkably durable, in spite of its fragile organic content. Gilding became an important feature of icon painting, but as gold leaf will only adhere to a very smooth surface, the wood must receive an additional layer of a clay substance, the particles of which are ground to a minute fineness; this medium is referred to as ‘bole’. The use of oil paints became more widespread in the fifteenth century. A small display of demonstration panels prepared by Ballarat-based artist and iconographer Diane Micich, alongside workshop implements and pigments, provides some explanation of painting techniques and how these works were originally produced.
The proximity of candles and oil lamps, a build-up of soot and other grime from incense, and reverent handling or kissing of the icon, presented another difficulty in preserving the colours of the work. This led to the development of the practice of covering the icon with a protective outer shell or metal sheathing, known variously as an oklad or epenthysi (cover), or a riza (robe). In the Greek-speaking world, an icon might also be described as epargyres or epichryses, silver-covered or gold-covered, respectively. Often these covers extend to all parts of the icon other than the face and hands of the saint, and were studded with pearls and other gemstones. Two of the founders of the Solovetsky Monastery, an important frontier fortress on an island in the White Sea in the far north of Russia, are depicted on an icon with a patterned and chased silver oklad. Saints Zosima and Savvatiy (c. 1760) stand facing each other and hold between them a model of the monastery, not as it would have appeared when it was founded in 1436, but from the early eighteenth century when it had become one of the largest religious establishments in the Russian Empire.
Designed to attach to the front and back covers of a bound text, Revetments to the Cover of a Gospel Lectionary (18th century), shows images in low relief created in silver repoussé, a technique where the artisan produces the desired form by tapping the metal panel from behind. The revetments for the front cover depict the Evangelists, Matthew, Luke, Mark and John in the corners. Each is attended by the winged figures from the Book of Revelation (4:6-7) which tradition associated with them: an angel for Matthew, a winged bull for Luke, a winged lion for Mark and an eagle for John. The central cartouche depicts the Crucifixion, with the three Marys on the left, Saint John and Saint Longinus of the Holy Lance on the right. The reverse cover revetments feature figures from the Old Testament: the Patriarch Moses, King David, the Prophet Isaiah and King Solomon. The central cartouche shows an image of the Resurrected Jesus Christ, with the angel and Roman soldier at his opened tomb. Possibly produced in a provincial city in Asia Minor, this example was presented to the National Gallery of Victoria by Major General Francis James Rennell Rodd (1895-1978), the second Baron Rennell of Rodd. A linguist and explorer, Rodd made two great expeditions into the central Sahara (in 1922 and 1927), which provided him with the material for his book about the nomadic Tuareg people of North Africa, People of the Veil (1926). After his extensive service in World War II, Lord Rennell went on to be president of the Royal Geographical Society (1945-48).
An Orthodox church is designed as a symbolic representation of Heaven, and the Orthodox liturgy is a ritualised reenactment of the life of Jesus. A set of conventions developed as to the positioning of particular images throughout the church, in a symbolic or meaningful way, to be viewed as the faithful progressed through the building. Royal Doors (late 16th century), referred to in Russian as the Tsarskie Vrata, and in Greek as the Oraia Pyli (‘Beautiful Gates’), formed a barrier between the Nave (Naos) and the Sanctuary (Bema) at times during the Divine Liturgy, or when there is no service. These doors are directly in line with the formal entrance to the Nave of the church and in front of the Altar or Holy table in the Sanctuary. Behind these doors the bread and wine are consecrated, after which they are brought out to the faithful. By tradition, only consecrated people may pass through the doors into the Sanctuary, limiting the lay people permitted to use this entry to crowned or anointed monarchs.
Here, the Annunciation appears at the top of the Royal Doors, representing the first point in historical time when the Word of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, manifests himself on earth. Below that, two of the ‘Three Holy Hierarchs’ of the early church are depicted, credited as being authors of the two most commonly used forms of the Divine Liturgy. On the left with the long beard is Saint Basil of Caesarea (329/30-379 AD), called ‘the Great’, one of the three ‘Cappadocian Fathers’. He is wearing a phelonion (mantle) with a repetitive pattern of black crosses, and the omophorion (ceremonial stole) with deep red crosses. Basil carries a bound book which represents his text of the liturgy, which is used on ten days of the year including Holy Thursday and Saturday, the Sundays of Lent, Christmas Eve, the Eve of Epiphany, and the Saint’s own name day. Saint John Chrysostom (c. 349-407), from the Greek Chrysostomos (‘golden-mouthed’) on account of his eloquence, was Archbishop of Constantinople. He is shown wearing a sakkos (chasuble) decorated with a cross pattern in deep red, while his stole bears black crosses. The service named in his honour is the standard liturgy used throughout the Orthodox Communion on most days of the year.
The somewhat impassive face of Russia’s most beloved saint, Saint Nicholas (270-343 AD), traditionally an early fourth-century Bishop of Myra, is far removed from the jolly red-and-white clad North Pole resident and bringer of presents. Known in Byzantium as Saint Nicholas Thaumaturgos (the Miracle-Worker), translated into Russian as Nikolai Chudotvorets, he is considered to be a friend of the common people, who fought against oppressors and showed generosity and compassion towards the poor. His reputation for secret gift-giving led to Nicholas becoming the template for Santa Claus (from the Dutch Sinterklaas). Clad in his robes as a bishop, Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker (16th century) holds the Gospel in his left hand, while with his right hand he makes the sign of the sacred benediction, forming the letters IC XC, the sacred monogram of Jesus Christ. The roundel images of Jesus holding a closed Gospel, and the Virgin with her hands covered by an omophorion, are associated with a miracle that occurred at the Council of Nicaea (325 AD). Nicholas is said to have slapped the heretic Arius across the face, for which he was stripped of his bishop’s rank and was incarcerated in a dungeon. There, he was visited by apparitions of Jesus and the Virgin who restored Nicholas’ tokens of office to him.
The captivating story of a couple undertaking a perilous journey, with the expectant mother giving birth in an inhospitable stable, has resonated down through the centuries as one of the most popular subjects for artistic interpretation. The Nativity of Jesus is one of the most important feasts of the Orthodox calendar, and the exhibition presents two similar scenes, and one depicting the Adoration of the Magi (17th century). The birth of Jesus is described in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, but also in the apocryphal Protevangelium (or Infancy Gospel) of James. In this account, the weary couple take shelter in a cave within a fairly bleak mountainous setting, as if to emphasise the physical discomfort of the world into which Jesus was born, and which prefigures his cave-tomb. The primary purpose of this particular type of icon was to reinforce Mary’s status as the Virgin, the Mother of God Theotokos (‘God-bearer’), as declared by the Council of Ephesus.
Victor of Crete was a priest and prolific producer of icons in the second half of the seventeenth century. His identity is known only because he signed his icons, following the Italian or ‘Latin’ manner; this was alien to the Orthodox tradition where the interests of the artist were considered irrelevant. Nativity (1660-76), presents a complex visual narrative with a large number of characters crowding the frame around the recumbent Virgin and Jesus in his manger. We see the Hebrew midwives Zelomi (who believes Joseph’s tale of Mary’s divine pregnancy) and Salome (whose incredulity will be redeemed). Joseph himself is assailed by uncertainty as he is approached by an elderly shepherd in skins who is often interpreted as a disguised demon come to cast doubt over Mary’s virginity and the Infant’s divinity. Meanwhile, one of six angels announces the birth of Jesus to a lone shepherd in a field. The three Magi on horseback point towards the sky as they endeavour to following the star that guides them towards the Holy Family.
The aesthetic continuity and longevity of the pictorial elements found within these various icons, ranging from the twelfth to the mid-nineteenth century, is remarkable. Regardless of when and where they were made, these works continue to serve their purpose as the spiritual conduit to another realm. “Even more worthy of note is that the Orthodox faithful, from sun-drenched Crete and Cyprus to the bitter shores of the White Sea, all knew, understood and lovingly venerated these images. This was a deeply conservative art form, but it was one which was embedded in the lives of the people to whom Orthodoxy had been transmitted”, Morrison asserts.
Eikōn: Icons of the Orthodox Christian World, Art Gallery of Ballarat until 26 January 2015 – artgalleryofballarat.com.au
Inga Walton is a writer and arts consultant based in Melbourne who contributes to numerous Australian and international publications. She has submitted copy, of an increasingly verbose nature, to Trouble since 2008. She is under the impression that readers are not morons with a short attention span, and would like to know lots of things.
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