Reviews, News and Commentary

Heavenly Beings: The icons which helped create a Christian brand

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Onoufrios of Neokastro, Royal Doors with the Annunciation, Albania or Northern Greece. Private collection London.

 Heavenly Beings: Icons of the Christian Orthodox World

Auckland Art Gallery

Until September 18

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

“Heavenly Beings: Icons of the Christian Orthodox World” consists of 118 icons of the Christian Orthodox faith drawn from Eastern Europe, Russia and the Middle East.

These examples of devotional art which are from the mid fourteenth century through to the beginning of the nineteenth century are icons by some of the masters of the time such as Angelos Akotantos, Andreas Pavias, Nikolaos Tzafouris and Constantine Tzanes many of whom followed in the styles created by more significant artists such as Andrei Rublev.

These exhibition shows how icons had a place  in the lives of ordinary Christians, pilgrims and priests of the time. They also relate to the systems of prayer and everyday liturgical events in churches and at shrines.

Viewers of the exhibition should bear in mind that at the same time as these works were being created, artists like Piero della Francesco, Leonardo de Vinci and Titian were producing very different art works.

Where the artists of the Renaissance and later sought to create complex narratives with emotional connections as well as conceiving of a doctrinal basis and history for the church  the icon painters saw their works as a way of directing prayers.

While they  represent the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Angels, the Heavenly hosts, and events Orthodox icons, unlike Western pictures, change the perspective and form of the images so that they are not naturalistic. This is done in the belief that the works look beyond appearances of the world, and instead look to the spiritual truth of the holy person or event.

The purpose of icons was to assist in worship and the church allowed that they could be venerated although  it was never intended that they be worshiped, a distinction which often confused and divided the church authorities, Initially there was a fear that the viewer would misdirect their veneration toward the image rather than to the holy person represented in the image and for many years the veneration of icons was banned. This approach failed and to this day many in the Orthodox religion worship the physical objects and have strong beliefs in their curative powers.

The invention and development of icons can be seen as  parallel to the construction and elaboration of the complex beliefs and  liturgy of the Christian church itself. This entailed using iconography to support teachings and writings so the icon is part of the widespread public relations exercise by the church to create a brand and a belief structure which would appear to be consistent.

The church needed to have images for veneration and instruction but this also created problems. One of the main issues was how to depict The Trinity, Christ, his mother and the saints so they could be seen as divine or special but also in human form . Were these invented people like the previous iterations of gods? Did they have human characteristics or were they a different form of deity?

While the church leaders / advisors often laid down what the depiction or iconography should look like many of the aspects were left to the individual artists who followed the models of Greek and Roman gods or copied the work of previous Orthodox artists and were not concerned with innovation or originality and the exhibition also shows how the artists over this period developed their iconography, often unclear as to how to depict individuals and events.

In  depictions of the Annunciation there were issues around who were the main players. While Gabriel normally  makes the announcement to the Virgin there are different representations of the divine.  In the work by Onoufrios of Neokastro, three  shafts  from above signify The Trinity but in another a dove represents this while in another it is represented by the sole distant figure of god,

The problem of the depiction of The Trinity can be seen with other icons. In one three figures sit at a table in others there are obvious distinctions made between Father Son and Holy Spirit. There is also a problem of depicting the Trinity in scenes such as the Nativity where god is essentially separated between the heavenly figures and the earthly based Christ child.

There were  also minor technical issues such as the depiction of halos. Were they a sign of divinity? Who were they to be used on? Should they contain symbols and what size and shape should they be? Were they are some form of physical attachment to the head or merely an aura, what shape should they be and how should they  be displayed in a three-dimensional manner. The Western tradition later solved some of the  problems by dispensing with halo altogether.

Saint George and the Dragon, Crete, circa 1500. Egg tempera, gold leaf and gesso on wood. Private collection, Canberra.

The invention of stories and an allied iconography can be seen in the myth of St George. The story seems to have had  pre-Christian origins but early on was depicted as a Roman soldier with  the dragon sometimes including a princess whom he saves. The dragon presumably based on the Devil / Snake and an evolving George became a myth which fitted into Christian notions of good overcoming evil and then adopted by various parts of the church and societies ending up being the patron saint of England a long way from his Middle East origins.

Another area which had to be invented by the artists was the appearance of Christ, the Virgin and the many saints and prophets. The saints were dealt with by having their attributes or symbols attached to their “portraits”.  A more challenging aspect was the depiction of Christ  which was aided by some early appearances of his image supposedly “made without hand” which are said to have come into existence miraculously. There is no consistency to the images but this was a useful means of having an image of Christ without the artist being responsible for the accuracy.

The Virgin’s image was based on Greek and Roman models but the icons of her only occur from the fifth century. However, once a formula was created for her appearance it became a template for  other artists to use.

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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