In his highly readable Byzantium, The Early Centuries, John Julius Norwich introduces the first age of iconoclasm:
Ever since the dawn of history, when man first became a religious animal and almost simultaneously – give or take a millennium or two- made his first clumsy attempts at adorning the walls of his cave, he has had to face one fundamental question: is art the ally of religion, or its most insidious enemy?Byzantium, The Early Centuries – John Julius Norwich
The Iconoclasts came down heavily on the later view for two extended periods in the history of Byzantium. Iconoclasm literally means “the smashing of icons” and some of the great works of Eastern Christian art were destroyed when they had the upper hand. Fortunately, for the art world at least, the Iconodules won out and icon painting spread throughout various parts of the Christian world and they are still being created today.
Last week in Athens we saw icons on display in shops everywhere. Some were strictly for the tourist trade – fine iconographic art from Chinese workshops, some were silver and gold encrusted meant for church use or private devotion and others were being sold as fine art in high end shops.
One such shop was across from our hotel on the Plaka. Koukos displayed some wonderful jewelry and beautiful art work in its windows. There was one piece that caught our attention immediately. For five days we went past it, looked at it, discussed it and even photographed it. Finally Friday morning I went in and asked the price. A quick exchange of text messages with Laurent, who was in Patras and we became the owners of this beautiful icon:
I don’t pretend that I have any great knowledge of the styles, schools or symbols of icon painting but several things had struck me. The borders are decidedly unconventional, almost like the decorations on a medieval manuscript. But more important the grouping is very unusual: Jesus with the Virgin Mary and her mother Saint Anna. These three figures seldom appear together in any type of Christian art. And though they have that slightly distant spiritual look you associate with Eastern religious art I also sense a warmth in the women’s faces that drew me to it immediately. And I find the drape of St Anna’s arm around her daughter’s shoulder a particularly lovely detail.
The artist, as with most Icon painters his name is not provided and the piece is unsigned, is from Salonika in the north of Greece and he is known for his unusual subjects and decoration. His central figures always follow the icon traditions but what surrounds them is often taken from other sources. He also follows a very old tradition of painting on canvas and attaching it to the wood rather than painting on the wood direct.
After I made the purchase the two shopkeepers showed me another of his works which again had an unusual appeal – a very traditional figure of St Mamas, the patron of Animals in a lovely miniature farmyard right out of a medieval book of hours. It was a struggle but I decide the family fortunes just couldn’t afford it. But who knows it may still be there on our next trip back in the spring.
Addendum: I received a comment from djedushka who tells me that icons are “written” not painted. As I look at our Icon and think about it, that is a wonderful way of describing its creation. Many thanks.
03 dicembre – San Francesco Saverio