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Monday, 11 August 2014

Sabbatical art pilgrimage: St Nicholas Paphos

Saint Nicholas Church in Kato Paphos was opened during August 2013 by the Bishop of Paphos. It has been described as being a ‘captivating new Church’ which is modelled on the churches of the Greek Islands with their blue domes and white walls.’ It has a piazza which ‘stretches down to sandy shores and the azure blue Mediterranean sea.’ Some of the best sunsets in Cyprus can be captured here. ‘Inside it is richly furnished, finished with beautiful hand painted icons, solid oak iconostasis, and furniture. The walls are white, and the floor marble inlay, and a cool and restful ambience is felt within’.

The interior of Orthodox churches, such as St Nicholas and others that I visited during my sabbatical art pilgrimage, with their iconostasis and many icons, has a history which stretches back to the Early Church:

'Icons constitute a part of Christian painting. They do not stand for its beginning for they were preceded by pictures of a different kind, concerned with symbols and with scenes of symbolic significance appearing in the catacombs and on the sarcophagi, as well as on small-scale works, and later - after the era of persecution - by extensive cycles of pictures, illustrating the scriptures and the lives and sufferings of individual martyrs ...

Where they were not used purely as decoration, they were intended for educational purposes; they were a kind of biblia pauperum, a Bible of the poor, representing a selection of important biblical events, made comprehensible through the language of pictures ...

As the belief in the active character of ... pictures increase ... Veneration of them grew at the same time as their power to perform ... miracles increased. Candles and incense were offered to them, and they were kissed, washed, anointed ...

in the year 726 ... the Byzantine Emperor Leo III began to attack icons, and a few years later to proceed with the whole authority of the state against all figurative religious art and those who venerated such things. This was the start of the age of Iconoclasm ...

The theological problem ... was decided in theory at the Seventh Ecumenical Council at Nicea in 747 ...

St John of Damascus ... though he did not live to see the Council ... prepared for the supporters of iconography the arguments with which they were to achieve victory at a later date. Of the nature of pictures he says: "A picture is a semblance, representing the original likeness in such a way that there still persists a difference between them." By saying this, he obviated any reproach that the veneration of pictures was idolatry. St John also quoted repeatedly a saying of Basil the Great, and used it to refute further the reproach: "The veneration shown to the icon devolves upon the prototype which it represents." The picture is, however, also a "semblance of something, a representation or copy, indicating the objects copied." Because of this resemblance the prototype is closely bound up in a spiritual sense with its representation, an association which Theodore the Studite circumscribed as follows:

“Just as to the seal belongs its impression, to each body its shadow, so to each prototype is its representation." According to Dionysius the Aeropagite the picture is merely a reflection of the invisible, but the contemplation of this visible reflection can raise us to a conception of the divine invisible’ (Heinz Skrobucha, Icons, Oliver & Boyd, Edinburgh & London, 1963).

The history of the Church in Cyprus is even older than that of the icons found within it: 'The church of Paphos was founded by the Apostles Paul and Barnabas in A.D. 46. It was later organised by the Apostle Barnabas and St Heracledius.' Paphos was destroyed and rebuilt on more than one occasion as a result of earthquakes and conquests. As a result, the first figurative images to be preserved are 'figurative representations of the floors of the Paphos Basilicas at the end of the fourth century.'

At the 'end of the ninth century the church of St Paraskevi was built in Yeroskipou where wall-paintings of the tenth and eleventh century are preserved. During the twelfth century part of St Paraskevi church in Yeroskipou was repainted, while in 1183 St Neophytos the Recluse, who had lived in the cave of Encleistra since 1159, had the Encleistra painted.'  Theodore Apseudes was the artist who undertook this work for him, although the wonderful paintings which can be seen today at the Monastery of Agios Neophytos actually date from the time of St Neophytos' successor, Isaias.

'The icons in the Byzantine Museum in Paphos, dated from the end of the twelfth century to the beginning of the nineteenth century, indisputably express the religious faith of the Paphomions and enlighten us about the high artistic quality of times past.

The productivity of icon painting is evident from the great number of icons originating in the Paphos area' (Byzantine Museum, Holy See of Paphos, 1987).

Ten painters, including Theodore Apseudes, are known by name out of the many who have painted icons in the area up to the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Iconographer Aidan Hart has argued that ‘the characteristic feature of last century’s iconography, world-wide, is a shift from a somewhat decadent, sentimental style back to traditional models.’ Although there were scholarly and social influences helping to effect this revival, he suggests, the return to the actual painting of traditional icons was initiated by just a few iconographers.

He writes that, ‘The revival of traditional iconography in Greece is mainly attributable to Photius Kontoglou, who actively used his abilities as a painter, scholar and writer to promote the cause.’

In Russia Hart writes: "From the 1930’s, a secret nun named Sister Yuliania (Maria Nikolia Sakalova in the world) was secretly painting icons based on the recently restored medieval icons. Immediately after Stalin officially recognised the Church in 1944, St Sergius’ Lavra was re-established and with it a seminary and academy. Here Sister Juliania immediately began teaching iconography and restoration to seminarians and monks, and continued to do so until her death in the 1970’s. Hers was the first official academy of iconography in communist Russia and to her is primarily due the restoration in Russia of traditional iconography … More recently, Archimandrite Zenon has become among the most famous of Russian iconographers. His characteristic feature, at least since the latter 1980’s, has been the choice of inspiration from the Middle Byzantine Era (ninth to thirteenth centuries) rather than Russian models.’

Hart writes of Leonid Ouspensky and Fr. Gregory Kroug that few Orthodox "need an introduction to these two painters, particularly perhaps Ouspensky: "Leonid Ouspensky is known mainly through the many pupils whom he has tutored in Paris, and through his books "The Meaning of Icons", written jointly with Vladimir Lossky, and "The Theology of the Icon", now available in expanded form in two volumes … Among Ouspensky’s best known pupils is the American, Thomas Doolan, now the monk Father Simonas. In our own country [UK] another pupil, Mariamna Fortunatto, is known for her teaching the art of iconography … The other key figure for the Russian tradition in Europe is Fr. Gregory Krug, who lived also in Paris and often worked with Ouspensky.’

Juha Malmisalo, in Pursuit of the Genuine Christian Image, has written about the revival of icon in Lutheran churches, with a specific focus on the work and influence of ErlandForsberg: ‘Forsberg’s teacher, Uniat Father de Caluwé, is understood as the inheritor of a tradition carried on by the Old Belief Confessors Gavriíl Frolóv and Pimen Sofronov … the chain … through the Old Belief Confessors, the keepers of the original tradition ... proceeds to the Uniat Father and on to the Lutheran Erland Forsberg, to Kjellaug Nordsjö, and to Lars Gerdmar, who uses Forsberg’s name as a means of legitimization.’

In Great Britain Hart suggests that virtually all Orthodox iconographers have been working in the Russian tradition: ‘Mention could be made of Fr. David of Walsingham, perhaps known most for his icons of British saints, and his pupil, Leon Liddament. We have already mentioned Mariamna Fortunatto, whose teaching on the theology and the practice of icon-painting has been of great service over the past decades. Although I do not know her work personally, I understand that Matushka Patsy Fostiropolos is busy. The nuns of the Monastery of St John the Baptist in Essex have under the inspiration of Father Sophrony been producing for fifteen years portable icons, frescoes, mosaics, carvings, enamels and embroidery. And then there are numerous other iconographers in various stages of development painting as much as their family or work commitments allow ... Sergei Fyodorov, a pupil of Fr. Zenon, has become well known through his commissions for Anglican and Catholic cathedrals and abbeys.’

In 2007 the Wallspace gallery gathered together 15 contemporary, traditional iconographers who live and work in the UK for what was believed to be the first exhibition of its kind. Epiphany included works by some of the best current practitioners of traditional iconography, including: Matushka Patricia Fostiropoulos, Aidan Hart, Dr Guillem Ramos-Poqui, Dr Stéphane René, Silvia Dimitrova, Sister Petra Clare, Sister Nadejda (Owiny), Sister Esther (Pollak), and The Revd Regan O'Callaghan. Peter Murphy, whose work I saw at Tewkesbury Abbey, could also be added to this list.

In Cyprus itself, Stavrouvouni Monastery has been a centre of spirituality and worship in Cyprus over the last century with a long tradition in icon painting and frescoes. Its most famous icon painter monk is Father Kallinikos. 'The milestones in the life of Father Kallinikos include his apprenticeship to Ioannikios Mavropoulos, his three-year long imprisonment during the liberation struggle of EOKA from 1955 until 1959 and his apprenticeship to icon painter Fotis Kontoglou.' Father Kallinikos writes icons using the encaustic technique, or using egg tempera on wood, or using oil.

George Kepolas has brought the old tradition of Byzantine Mosaic Art back to life and with his brother Alkis, brought hagiography into the 21 century as well. Hagiography, literally the writing of the saints has a long history, and includes the painting of icons and of course Mosaic Art. In 1984 George Kepolas established, together with his brother Alkis and his associate Nicos Christodoulides, the Icon Painting and Mosaics Workshop.

Dionisiy Kouznetsov became 'a novice at the monastery at the St. Panteleimon Monastery on the Holy Mount  Athos in Moscow' before he was 'sent to the Monastery of St. Neophyte in Cyprus'. A 'local icon painter Charalambous, at Strumbi village' gave Dionisiy his first lessons in icon painting'. 'Later he met Nikita, another icon painter from Paphos'. 'Father Kallinikos from Stavrovouni Monastery has also taught him'. He painted many  icons and frescos in Cypriot churches. He has worked with Father Amvrosiy, the monk of St. Seraphim of Sarov monastery in Evrychou village. 'Initially Dionisiy combined the Russian technique with the Venetian or “anagenisi” of the 15 - 16th century. The painter is now changing his technique to the Byzantine one, which is close to the 12th century'.

George Goutsev was born in Bulgaria but works in Cyprus. He works 'under the influence of the magnificent mosaics of Ravenna (Italy), of Istanbul (Turkey), the icons in Bethlehem (Israel) and the murals and the icons from 16th century in the Monastery of Stavronikita, located in the Holy Mountain, Greece.' . Evangelia Psaltakis also creates beautiful icons in Cyprus. 

Hart concludes: ‘We can characterise twentieth century iconography first, by a return to traditional models in the Orthodox countries, and second, by the reintroduction of the icon tradition itself to the west. Though we might regret icons being bought and sold as art objects on the commercial market, at least this process, along with often secular scholarship, has brought the icon tradition and Orthodoxy in general much more into the western public consciousness. Icons have a life of themselves, independent of the reasons people might buy or sell them.

Thirdly, and I think this is what concerns us most, there was and is still, a growing feeling that in fact we might not have returned to the tradition as much as we thought we had. Having effectively lost the tradition, we are finding that it is not so easy to regain it in all its subtlety and profundity. We need to dig deeper still, to understand the icon’s timeless principles so that new icons can be more authentic, can go beyond the extremes of fearful copying and impatience “to do one’s own thing” before humbly imbibing the tradition.’


John Tavener - Ikon Of The Nativity.

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