Orthodox Iconography II
The Invisible things of God have been made visible.
(St John Damascene)
The Invisible things of God have been made visible.
(St John Damascene)
In the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, the clergy prayed at the Epiklesis that God would send down his Holy Spirit to transform the Eucharistic bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Yet as early as the fifth century, there is evidence that Christians doubted this invisible transformation. Byzantine artists drew on biblical narratives of the Spirit’s descent to illustrate the Eucharistic mystery. In the Early Byzantine period, gold and silver doves hung above altars and fonts to represent the Spirit’s descent. In the post-Iconoclastic period, spatial icons near altars served similar functions. This paper presents four such images: the Annunciation, Pentecost, the Hetoimasia, and the Ascension. It argues that these images encouraged worshippers to visualize the Spirit’s descent and the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.
The celebration of the Eucharist was central to the religious life of the Byzantine Empire.1 But even in Byzantium, before the dawn of the modern age, the notion that the Eucharistic bread and wine were Christ’s actual body and blood could apparently be a little hard to swallow. Historical sources from as early as the fifth century suggest that some Christians had doubts. In the sayings of Abba Daniel, one of the desert fathers of Egypt who died in 449, a sceptical monk comments, ‘The bread which we receive is not really the body of Christ, but a symbol’. When the monk is attending the Divine Liturgy on the following Sunday with two other monks, they all see a vision: ‘Their eyes were opened and when the bread was placed on the holy table, there appeared as it were a little child to these three alone.
I am grateful for support from an Andrew W. Mellon Mediterranean Regional Research Fellowship from the Council of American Overseas Research Centers and an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship with Smarthistory, the Center for Public Art History, which I received while researching and writing this paper.
Paul Klee’s short book Über moderne Kunst (‘On Modern Art’) was the stimulus for the dialogue attempted in this particular text. It is a dialogue on the part of an artist who has built his reflections on aesthetics on the basis of what is known as Byzantine art, which is a continuation of the Greek artistic tradition. It presents, as counterpoint, the particular mode of thinking of an iconographer on all the central issues and themes which govern artistic practice. It therefore discusses the role of the artist, how nature is perceived, the function of pictorial elements and, of course, the deeper reason determining the composition. It shows the wide gap which exists between an artistic creator belonging to modernism and a painter of the Byzantine/Greek tradition, for whom painting is conceived as a liturgy, as regards the community, and is not primarily a tool for the artist to express his personal visions.
In 1924, Paul Klee wrote a series of notes to sketch out the basic points of a lecture he then gave at the opening of an exhibition in Jena, Germany. These notes later became the book published under the titleÜber moderne Kunst (‘On Modern Art’) and became one of the most important texts written by an active Modernist artist. Despite the fact that these notes are of a fragmentary and often vague nature, with many points not particularly well developed, they still, to this day, constitute significant and valuable material for any artist, art historian, and those interested in the arts in a general way, who would like to understand how an artist conceives the style and the nature of creation and of a work of art in general.
This article has two aims. One is to offer a bird’s-eye view of the Byzantine icon as it evolved from the sixth century to the thirteenth, when the great icon collection at the Monastery of St Catherine on Mount Sinai saw its medieval apogee. The other is to assess one thirteenth-century icon that exemplifies that apogee. It is an icon of the great martyr Marina of Antioch in Pisidia smiting Beelzebub and belongs to the group of close to two hundred ‘crusader icons’ that survive almost exclusively on Sinai itself. Just what the ‘crusader icons’ were has been debated since they were first given that name in the 1960s. The article argues that the icon of St Marina, though appearing at first to be Byzantine, was most probably made for a Latin owner, and brings out one of the most fundamental ways in which the purposes assigned to the image by the Greek Church were distinct from those assigned to it by the Roman one.
The monastery of St Catherine on Mount Sinai harbors one of the world’s largest preserved legacies of panel-painted icons from the Byzantine era. Thousands of color photographs of them taken during the research expeditions of the Universities of Michigan, Princeton, and Alexandria between 1958 and 1965 are now being made available online by the Visual Resources Collection at Princeton University.1 The icons date from the sixth century onward, but they cluster especially in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, partly because panel-painting seems to have escalated in Byzantium itself in this span, but at least as signifi- cantly because of historical conditions in the eastern Mediterranean region to which Sinai belonged. Crusades, pilgrimage, and escalating commerce spurred a surge of cultural dynamism in the Christian communities, which crested in the thirteenth century.
This paper traces the impact of Christ’s words quoted in the title on Christian culture. Although well-known and highly appreciated, this biblical motive, nevertheless, does not seem to be highly influential in actual ecclesiastical life—against the backdrop of its easily recognizable striving towards sublimity and earnestness. Or maybe simply the advancement of theoretical tools has been needed (awaited) in order to detect this kind of influence? The introduction of the notion of play, which only in twentieth century got a proper theoretical framing, is the key methodological innovation that will be proposed in order to answer the questions opened on following pages. With the help of this tool, not only the influence of the ‘become as little children’ strategy in the history of ecclesiastical life becomes evident, but the deep intersection of arts and worship gets wider cultural grounding, while artistic style(s) developed on this line of intersection are further elaborated—in historical and in contemporary ecclesiastical contexts.
Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. [Mathew 18:3–4]
Very famous verses—whosoever has any familiarity with the Christian Bible could hardly have missed these words. Among Christ’s sayings recorded in New Testament, moreover, this one brings a message so important that it needed to be included in all three synoptic Gospels [cf. Mark 10:15 and Luke 18:17].