By +FotisKontoglou


By +Nikos Hatzikyriakos Ghikas

By +Fotis Kontoglou


he art of Icons in the Eastern Orthodox Church is a holy, liturgical art, like all the ecclesiastical arts, which have a spiritual purpose. The aim of these arts is not merely to decorate the church with paintings, in order to make it more pleasing to the faithful, or to delight their ears with music: it is to elevate them to the mystical world of faith by the spiritual ladder, the steps, or rungs, of which are the holy arts, the composition of hymns, church -building, religious painting and the other arts. All these work together cultivate the mystic Paradise in the souls of the faithful. Accordingly, works of art in the Eastern Church are commentaries on the divine word.

The art of Icons in the Orthodox Church is called "hagiography"*or "holy painting", because it depicts holy persons and subjects. The painter, or "hagiographer" is not simply a craftsman executing a painted representation of a religious subject: he has a spiritual office, which he fulfils in the church, just like the priest, and the preacher. The liturgical Icon has a theological meaning. It is not, as we have said, a painting made to delight our eyes, or even to remind us of holy persons, like the pictures we keep at home to remind us of our beloved relatives and friends; it is painted in such a way as to elevate us above the corrupt world. It therefore has nothing in common with paintings that portray people in a material manner, including Saints, as we see in the religious art of the West. In the liturgical icon, holy persons are portrayed in their purity.

For this reason, liturgical art does not change like other human affairs, for it is immutable, like the Church of Christ to which it gives expression. The holy tradition is the column of fire that leads the church through the wilderness of the unstable world. This comes as a surprise to men of the present century, who are not prepared to plunge into the depths of the spiritual sea, but swim on the surface of the senses, carried away by the currents and eddies of the waters.

Liturgical art nourishes the believer with spiritual sights and sounds, filtering what enters through the gates of the senses, delighting his soul with the heavenly wine, and bestowing upon him peace of mind. Technical skill in this art is not merely a mechanical matter, but partakes of the spirituality and sanctity of the things it wishes to portray. For this reason, the technical vocabulary of religious painting, the names of the tools and the expressions used for all aspects of it, have a religious character. The very materials used by the religious painter are blessed, humble, fragrant, delicate. To make carbon with which to draw, the craftsman uses the wood of dry hazel or myrtle; to make a panel on which he can paint the icon, he uses cypress, walnut, chestnut, pine, or some other fragrant tree. His paints are mainly earth pigments that give off a sweet aroma when they are mixed with water, especially in the art of painting walls, when they smell as sweet as the mountains with the first rains of autumn, or like a new pitcher of refreshing water. His lacquers are as fragrant as incense, and whoever kisses the icon senses an aroma of spiritual fragrance. The materials used in the icon, in addition to earth pigments, are egg mixed with vinegar, wax, pine resin, fragrant realgar, mastic, honey, and almond gum. This sacred art does not make use of coarse, thick materials like secular art, which uses foulsmelling linseed oil and thick paints and coarse-haired brushes.

When they speak of technique, religious painters frequently use religious words, for example, "do not paint the "psymmithiai"** pure white, but with a little ochre, so that they are humble and penitent", or, "dyes have so much sweetness and piety", and so on. The beauty of liturgical painting is a beauty of the spirit, not of the flesh. The art is abstinent and austere, expressing richness through poverty, and just as the Gospels and the Old Testament are concise and laconic, so Orthodox religious painting is plain, lacking in excessive ornamentation and vain diplays.

The old religious painters fasted when they worked, and when they began an icon they changed their underclothes, so as to be pure both internally and externally. As they worked, they chanted psalms, so that their work would be executed in a spirit of contrition and so as to prevent their mind dwelling on worldly matters.

For this reason, the most preeminently liturgical Icons seem malformed to those who have the spirit of the world, and in their eyes the people portrayed have neither "form nor beauty" for "the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God" (Romans 7,7.) "For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh" (Galatians 5, 17). In holy icons, "the flesh is crucified along with passions and desires".

Their spiritual beauty is "the fine distortion" through which Saint Symeon the Younger Theologian said that he saw in the fasting faces of his spiritual children during the great fast of Lent. The Mystic Gate, the gate to the East, is and shall be closed to all those who occupy themselves with knowledge of the flesh, which, "inflates" or makes a man proud, according to St. Paul. Whereas "the eyes of the Lord are on the humble, to delight in them". Just as the religious painters who made the holy icons had piety, humility and faith, so should we who venerate them, in order to be worthy of the mystic grace shed from them. In the words of St. Gregory the Miracle-Worker: "This power is needed both by those who prophesy and those who listen to prophets, and one should not listen to a prophet, upon whom the spirit of Prophecy has not bestowed judgement in what he says".

* One should perhaps explain that the term "hagiography"is used in Greek to denote painting, not writing about saints as in English and other western languages.
** Psymmithia is the name for the fine white lines added to high-light various parts of the icon.

By +Nikos Hatzikyriakos Ghikas


or us Greeks, the other side is still alive: the Byzantine tradition. The very one that is mocked and reviled by the 'moderns' like Sassetta or Giotto. In Byzantine painting we do not encounter the naturalistic elements that we observed in the Italian Early Renaissance, and even less so its sensual extensions.

Even the narrative intent is confined to a minimum. There are no worldly saints, no worldly deeds or scenes, none of the portraits, private dwellings, lord's palaces, cities, architectural landscapes, ruins, and trees, with which the Italian Renaissance abounds. If a building may be seen here and there, it is always the same conventional shape, with the same inverted perspective, with invariably the same drawn curtain. If rocks are depicted, they take the form of trapeziums and polyhedrons piled one on top of the other, ignoring tone and colour perspective. 'Nature', essentially, does not exist. The background is neutral, gold or monochrome. If it is meant to be a forest, a single tree suffices. The Byzantine artist, never gives us a romantic landscape, like those of Claude or Poussin. And yet in Saint Mark in Venice, the mosaic depicting Christ praying alone on the Mount of Olives, there are superb, 'real' rocks, and thorns so dry and aromatic that they fill you with amazement and make you wonder what the Byzantine artists would have done, what miracles they would have achieved, if they had allowed themselves to depict nature. But they did not allow themselves, nor did the ecclesiastical authority permit them to.

Byzantine art had other aspirations. Another purpose. Byzantine art is unique and unequalled in that it devised forms that were tantamount to transcendental symbols of timeless mysteries, liturgical narratives based on unearthly geometry, reflections of heavenly visions, conceptual archetypes - rather like different kinds of Indian or Tibetan 'mandala'. There is no art more strict. Looking at the elaborate sequence, gradation and interdependence of the forms, one is drawn to the conclusion that this is an art that applies the relentless inevitability of mechanical science to the expression of religious feelings. Here we do not have the lyricism of Sassetta, nor do we have sentimentality. There is no sentiment, just a cold, icy construct which does not admit of addition or completion. The aesthetic machine works and produces so much. If anything is added, it will inevitably change in kind and will acquire a different form. Everything has become standardised. Forms, light, half-tones, shadows. At bottom is a linear-geometric composition that continually recalls the mathematician's protractor. Every form is set within and derives from the preceding ones. It is Aristotelian logic, an unforgettable algebraic equation. The artist does not exist. He is assimilated in the portrayal of an entity that absorbs him and comprehensively annihilates him. The supernatural beings that he paints have the completeness and lustre of steel. The sage placing of triangular or angular lights, the delicate linear white highlights; the linear shadows and the entire rhythm of this abstract chiaroscuro transforms these beings into moving suits of armour that reflect or absorb the light with their edges and super-smooth surfaces. Their stances are frontal and hierarchical, their faces have a rudimentary expression, severe and sometimes almost grim. The drapery is executed with straight lines and a few carefully balanced curves, that give the impression that they were drawn with a ruler. Stretched like bowstrings, like the hypotenuse of a triangle, like chords of a circle, like parabolas and hyperbolas, drawn, incised, pinned on the panel or the plaster, so that they cannot escape, sag, slacken, bend and wither.

It is a conceptual construct that has volume, but only minimal volume, which occupies three-dimensional space, but only just occupies it. We do not know who was the first to invent and devise this style, but some wise, idiosyncratic, bold artist must have composed these idealising elements. They could not have come about sporadically or by chance, with the passage of time. The starting point, of course, was in Hellenistic art, mainly during its decline. Indeed, Byzantine art has faithfully preserved the lesson of Hellenistic art. Beneath its austere, stern, harsh presence one will observe knowledge of planes, axes, composition, chiaroscuro and relief, based on the ancient system. I suspect, some intellectual, inspired master-craftsmen first devised this other-worldly Byzantine style based on Hellenistic art. We do not know when, but possibly during the 3rd century AD.

The Byzantine artists were not content with adopting the knowledge of colour, the Classical line, the concept of composition. They also took over some conceptual principles that go back to two sources: one to the mathematical and scientific achievements of the mathematician Hero, such as the Pneumatica, Belopoeica ('manufacture of Missiles'), and Dioptra ('Theory of Reflection'), and the other to the metaphysical and aesthetic theories of Plotinus, and through him to Plato's theory of ideas. This profound, complete system of knowledge was preserved by Byzantine art and transmitted to many other arts, above all to the infant art of the West. If it was defamed as barbarous, it was only by those who did not realise what it contained and what it had to offer. In essence, it offered everything. It was the teacher-art, as Cavafy would have said: 'In all words, in all deeds, the wisest'. Unhappily, there are still many handbooks in the West, and histories of Art or Drawing, that are ignorant of and omit these principles of Byzantine culture. They therefore present a distortion of reality, and begin arbitrarily with the Art of Florence, with Duccio, Orcagna and, finally, Giotto.