Historically and in the modern era, the religious artwork of the Eastern Christianity, namely the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches, is dramatically different from the art that developed in the western Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. The art of the Church began to diverge following the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century. Prior to then, Christian iconography developed in rough parallel in the east and west.
As the Western Roman Empire disintegrated and was taken over by Goths and others, the art of the Byzantine Empire reached levels of sophistication not seen before in Christian art, and set the standards for the parts of Middle Age Europe still in touch with Constantinople.
Eastern Christian iconography is an ancient art form that art historians trace back to the earliest Christian art found in 3rd century catacombs of Rome. However, as a matter of faith, eastern Christians believe the first icons were painted by St. Luke the Evangelist shortly following Jesus’ crucifixion. The subject matter was Mary or Theotokos (literally God Bearer.)
However it is in the eastern churches of the Byzantine empire that iconography first came to fruition. Traditional images like Christ the Pantocrator (Ruler of All), seen at the top, have continued to be created since the 5th century unto the current day. From the 7th century, icons have had an amazing continuity of style and subject; far greater than in the images of the Western church. At the same time there has been change and development.
Iconography continues today, particularly in the Eastern churches by modern iconographers. There has been great growth too in artists from the Roman Catholic Church rediscovering this tradition. These iconographers paint both traditionally in form and symbols and expand on the methods and subject matter.
Above is an icon of Christ: Pantocrator painted by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM. He was born in 1946 and is a Byzantine Rite Catholic and Franciscan friar. This image of the Pantocrator has been continuously painted for 1,500 years.
Lentz’s work takes the traditional form in many ways. Like all traditional icons of Jesus, Mary or the saints, the body of Christ stylized and other worldly, no hint of naturalism so common in the later western depictions. As in all Pantocrator icons, Christ is shown giving his blessing with his right hand and holding the Gospel with his left. The blue cloak signifies his divine nature and the red his human nature. The gold background symbolizes the eternal light that surrounds God.
Lentz’s differs from tradition in one very important way. He depicts the Gospel being open, and open to a passage not used in traditional Pantocrator icons. This passage is from the 25th chapter of Matthew in which Christ describes how the saved will be those who treated the poor with compassion and identifies himself with the marginalized. This particular Christology is of particular importance to Lentz and he writes and portrays icons in this light frequently. For instance he has portrayed Christ as an ethnic African in traditional African garb to remind the viewer that Christ is present in, and available to, all peoples especially the oppressed.
Fikos is a Greek artist known for his building sized murals, traditional church iconography and his own interpretation of Orthodox icons. He was born in 1987 and describes his work as “contemporary Byzantine painting.”
The work above is a 2014 work titled, Virgin and Child. In this he used the traditional egg tempura used in church icons, but he painted it on handmade Japanese paper that is glued to wood.
I find this icon interesting in that the motif is common, but Fikos dispensed with using the traditional colors common to icons of Theotokos (God Bearer). Typically Mary wears a red veil to show that she has been blessed by God while the clothes underneath are blue – to show her humanity. This is the opposite of what is seen in icons of Christ that show his divine nature with a human covering.
In traditional Byzantine icons of Mary three stars are highly visible on her veil. These symbolize Mary’s perpetual virginity, before, during and after she gave birth to Christ. They’re here in Nikos work too, but he dispenses with highlighting them as while one star is clear, one is partially hidden by the infant Christ’s arm and one is totally hidden.
Something I find striking, touching in fact, is the Christ child’s left foot which is shown outside the edge of the icon proper and seems to be resting on the border of the icon. It’s as if to show him outside of the icon, to remind the faithful viewer that this is a depiction of reality.
The Annunciation of the Theotokos is an egg tempura painted on wood done by Charles Rohrbacher, a contemporary iconographer from Juneau, Alaska. His icons are displayed in Orthodox (Russian), Byzantine Catholic and Roman Catholic churches throughout the state.
Rohrbacher’s The Annunciaion is traditional in all ways. Unlike the previous two artists we looked at, Rohrbacher doesn’t stray from traditional forms and symbols. Since the earliest 2nd century painting of the Annunciation, all have been brightly painted to show the joy of the scene, and are composed of two parts – the Archangel delivering his message and Mary’s response.
And like a hundred generations of anonymous iconographers that came before him, Rohrbacher doesn’t add his originality or self-expression to the icon. Traditional icons are not about the artist and his or her creativity or ideas, nor are they painted to please the viewer’s physical senses, but rather to, as Photios Kontoglou the famous 20th century Greek iconographer said, “raise the soul and mind of the believer who sees the icon to the realm of the spirit, of the incorruptible, of the kingdom of God, as far as this can be achieved with material means.”
(Charles Rohrbacher was selected in September for a solo exhibition at the Alaska State Museum sometime in 2017/2018)
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