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Protopresbyter Stamatios Skliris

The Person of Christ and the Style of Icons

From: A Mystery Great and Wondrous, Athens, Byzantine and Christian Museum.
Exhibition of Icons and Ecclesiastical Treasures 28 May - 31 July 2001.

The Jubilee celebrations and indeed the present Exhibition present opportunities for deliberation on the Person of Christ, the truly 'mysterious stranger' in man's midst. Here we shall concern ourselves chiefly with evaluating the contribution of Christians to art, through the worship and veneration of the Theanthropos. That is, the fact that a special style derived from the worship of Christ.

The Person of Christ, as experienced in the Orthodox East, played a very specific historical role. Instead of creating primarily a theory of the cosmos, a philosophical or ethical system, it was lived and experienced par excellence as the Church, as the Eucharistic congregation. As a gathering of believers in a particular place and at a specific time to celebrate the Eucharist, to constitute in unison the people of God, the Body of Christ that draws its identity from the eschatological expectation of the Resurrected Christ and his kingdom. The Person of Christ influenced art in this way; as a living presence of Christ within the Eucharist and as a painted narration of this event on the walls of the liturgical space within which the Eucharist took place. It is thus worth investigating this specific phenomenon, what new impetus this special congregation of men gave to painting, in the way that it lived and experienced Christ through time and depicted him in icons. An evaluation such as this would also show indirectly the significance of this exhibition of icons and treasures of the Church of Greece, as well as help us to understand and appraise the exhibits better.

The particular artistic characteristics of icons

Historically Christian painting began as a branch of Hellenistic and Roman art. Quickly, however, it showed a propensity towards developing a peculiar and particular figurative imagery, which was due to the new content of life brought by the eucharistic experience of Christ in the life of believers. This change in the content and purpose of life not only brought new pictorial subjects over the pagan ones, but also formed a new artistic language. This singularity was expressed visually through the following special characteristics:

1. Light plays the principal role in the icon, no longer as natural light that is governed by the law of rectilinear diffusion, but as a metaphysical light that is free from obligatory obedience to physical laws. It is a light that illumines uniformly and centrally both the whole and the parts, while at the same time cancelling the cast shadows (the shadows of the bodies which fall on the ground or on other bodies).
2. Colours are by definition bright or at least have bright reflections and rays.
3. Perspective is virtually overturned and things distant come close to the viewer.
4. Light and shade are differentiated. They exist on the parts, but not in the naturalistic manner in which a whole body can be in shadow while others can be in an area of light. All the bodies depicted and all the parts are illumined by a centripetal light, light that falls centrally on each part and pushes the shadow to the edge.
5. The figures are weightless and stand on the tips of their toes, as if dancing. The manner of lighting and the manner of drawing contribute to this effect.
6. Plasticity takes another form, appearing in a manner that is crystalline, prismatic, cubist.
7. The landscape is painted like a miniature of the composition as a whole. It functions decoratively and its strong colours impart a jubilant character even when it frames sad subjects.
8. The face, which basically continues the Hellenistic tradition of portraiture, is simplified and acquires abstract features. The drawing alludes to ancient red-figure vases with spare, clear, elegant lines and the modelling enhances its volumes with fine white lines, the highlights. The highlights create the impression that the face shines with a light similar to that of the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor. This element in conjunction with intensity of the gaze give the viewer the impression that the Christ depicted is not an ordinary person represented at an ordinary moment, but a unique person whom the venerator of the icon beholds at a unique moment, in which he comes into a unique relationship with him, which surpasses time and death.

These characteristics constitute the definitive difference between Christian and other painting, with regard to the stylistic manipulations of the image. And they represent the birth of a truly new manner of painting. For the Italian Renaissance constitutes a re-nascence of old ancient Greek pagan manners and not the birth of a radically new style. The Christians of the first centuries put 'new wine' (new Christian subjects) in 'new flasks' (new style). Later, after the thirteenth century, the Western version of Christian art appeared, which lost the special characteristics mentioned above. But in the East too these characteristics were altered somewhat from the fifteenth century. They became more severe and standardized, losing their joyous character and freedom of drawing, coloration and expression, yet gaining something else, the mystagogy and unction of icons during the period of Ottoman rule in Greece ('Cretan School').

The originality of icons

Although the repetition of iconographic models and the believers' demand for immediately recognizable images led to a relative standardization, in all the phases of the development of iconography originality is encountered. It is this originality that enables us to classify icons chronologically. Originality is achieved through the light, which expresses a remarkable freedom. This freedom is due to the authenticity of the ecclesiastical liturgical experience of Christ lived by believers.

For believers Jesus is not simply a man, but the corporeal bearer of all the fullness of divinity. This uncreated, divine dimension of the Theanthropos evoked the astonishment experienced by the Apostles on Mount Tabor during the Transfiguration. There they saw the wholly new man, the man no one had set eyes upon before. Not simply because he had the qualities of other men to a greater degree, but because, as uncreated, he transcended the definition of the qualities.

In order for us to comprehend the originality of Divine Grace, it is essential that we understand the distinction between created and uncreated, on which the Fathers of the Church insisted. Created means created by God, that which is subject to the natural laws and is known through its qualities. Uncreated is the divine, which is not plasma but source of creation; that which becomes known through revelation and which always evokes astonishment, because it introduces to the created the freedom from physical laws. The uncreated, whenever it is lived by the saints, always evokes astonishment and is always original, simply because, by definition, it transcends the human experience of created beings. Whereas all human experiences at some time grow old, because at some time we become psychologically familiar with them, the experience of the uncreated Grace is always something ontologically new, which evokes astonishment each time. If the Apostles had witnessed ten Transfigurations, the sense of astonishment and originality they experienced on Mount Tabor would never grow old. Just as the heavenly hosts praise god eternally, not out of duty nor by observing a liturgical ceremonial, but through an authentic sense of ecstasy towards the uncreated majesty that surpasses every created experience, so the authentic experience of Christ lived within the Church is a continuously original experience as far as the physical qualities are concerned and indescribable as far as physical descriptions are concerned. This is why icon-painters of all periods (except the present) render the Person of Christ in a manner which is on the one hand recognizable to believers and in accordance with tradition, yet on the other hand has always the uniqueness and the originality of the uncreated, as far as it is humanly possible to render these. Today, unfortunately, the model and ideal for icon-painters is how they will imitate the Christ painted by Panselinos or Theophanis, and not how they will render in an authentic manner the Theanthropos and the astonishment he should evoke in the believer. Thus they age and debase the eternally renewing message of Christ, which is the hope of the world, and deprive him of the eschatological vision of paradise.

The theology of the originality of the Person of Christ has not been emphasized sufficiently, even though it is Taborian, hesychastic and consequently radically Orthodox. It is frequently obscured by a conception of tradition as repetition of known and not original things. The fact frequently escapes us that the liturgical repetition of the same ceremonial and the insistence on the tradition of the past, in order to avoid the error of heresy (things absolutely essential for the life in Christ), are no more than the trappings of Love. But Love itself is ecstasy. We forget that author of the Icon of Christ is the Love of the Church to its Bridegroom and not historical and anthropological research. This freedom of Byzantine painting, which emerges from the authenticity and originality we have mentioned, can be identified in the following points:

1. In the way in which Christian art utilized borrowings from Antiquity. It kept the transcendence, the beauty and many pagan elements, boldly and fearlessly, so long as they served its needs. And concurrently, with equal daring and freedom, it doubted canons of measurements and proportions distinctive of art, and introduced an unprecedented surrealism, aimed at expressing the resurrected, the uncreated, the supernatural, that which was beyond measurement.
2. In the originality with which the Byzantines painted, so that nowhere in their art is there the dichotomy between the Byzantine and the naturalistic pictorial conception of the world.
3. In the free and fertile conception of tradition, in contrast to the sterile and timorous traditionalism of today. Tradition is seen not just as what was handed down from the past as an irrevocable total of parts, but as what was handed down to us, with special emphasis on the us, as the managers of tradition here and now, with self-awareness and self-motivation. That is, the future of tradition depends on us, who do not take from tradition ready-made solutions to emerging problems, but are inspired by the experience and the criteria of tradition, to find new and specific solutions to specific problems.
4. In the eschatological priority over historical accuracy, which inspired them to paint the Crucified Christ with the eschatological inscription: O ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ ΤΗΣ ΔΟΞΗΣ (KING OF GLORY) rather than with the historical legend: Ο ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ ΤΩΝ ΙΟΥΔΑΙΩΝ (KING OF ΤΗΕ JEWS).
5. In the anachronisms in the imagery, which are due to the authenticity of the experience. The icon-painter lives the events of the Divine Economy, which he paints with such familiarity that he dresses Christ in a chiton and a himation (and not Jewish garments), he presents him in front of Hellenistic buildings and not Hebrew tents, and he equips the soldiers who arrest him with Byzantine armour and weapons, not Roman.
6. Specifically in the imagery of the Person of Christ, we see the freedom in the diverse depictions, different from each other, which intervened until the Byzantine type of Christ was elaborated; such as initially the beardless youth, then the soldier with short beard and hair gathered behind, or with long beard and loosened hair.

The differences in style

In order to understand better this sustainable originality and freedom, it is worth examining some icons of Christ, characteristic of the era and of the creators, in which we shall try to identify the changes in style from period to period.

1. Encaustic icon of Christ. Sinai,6th century (Cat. no. 52). Here the Christian painter, employing the technique and expression of the Fayum portraits, gives a new solution with the dynamism of the Person of Christ. This is no longer the funerary portrait with the sorrow in the face of death, but the portrait of a completely new man, who triumphs over death. This is expressed through the light of the face and the expression of the eyes, which gaze upon us full of love and mercy. Christ does not behold us with the sadness of the suffering fellow mortal, but with the redemptive and salvationary love of the victor over death.
2. Icon of Christ in egg tempera. Sinai,11th century. The painter perceives Christ as a person entirely in light. The participation of light alters him, distances him from the naturalism of the encaustic Christ and endows him with the transcendence of the uncreated light, which suffuses the portrait in a manner that does not follow the naturalistic linear diffusion of light.
3. Mosaic icon of Christ. Berlin Museum, 12th century. The era of the Comneni endeavoured to express the Resurrection and the transcendence of death through a special style, based essentially on wavy lines. The rhythmical mobility that these undulations impart to the icon is artistically tantamount to eternal life.
4. Wall-painting of Christ, work of Panselinos, Protaton, Mt Athos, 14th century. Panselinos and Byzantine painting of the fourteenth century compose two things, humanism and hesychasm. The natural light that illumines the Person of Christ becomes simultaneously a visual language that reveals the participation of the
Divine Light. Concurrently, the expression of the eyes shows all the philanthropy and mercy of a God who became man out of love for man.
5. Icon of Christ. Monastery of Stavronikita, Mt Athos,16th century. The Cretan School presents the portrait of the completely new man through the mystagogical contrast between the strongly illumined and the deeply shadowed parts of the face.

It is clear that the Byzantine icon-painters did not believe that the Mystery of Christ was expressed hapax in the first icon and that they were bound henceforth to copy faithfully this one and only 'accurate' rendering of the portrait, as if it were the true photograph that constitutes the model for all periods. For them the Mystery of the Person of the Theanthropos was unspoken. Thus they attempted to depict the Theanthropos precisely to show his ecstatic, original and unrepeated character in relation to the other persons, who were created. It is this eschatological theology concerning Christ that is the source of the style of the holy icons, with all its details as discussed above.

The exhibition of icons and keimelia of the Church of Greece held in the Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens. on the occasion of the Jubilee, tried to show this 'mysterious stranger' in all his aspects, in works in various materials and techniques, as well as of different periods of ecclesiastical history. Revealing is the unity and cohesion of this tradition and the parallel variety and singularity of each work and each creator.

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