Archive for Byzantine icons

Ethnography by the Bay, Artifacts (Part II)

Posted in Folk & Tribal Art, Liz Hager, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2009 by Liz Hager

The observation Karen Armstrong makes about Palaeolithic peoples applies equally to many tribal societies today—

Today we separate the religious from the secular. This would have been incomprehensible to the Palaeolithic hunters, for whom nothing was profane. Everything they saw or experienced was transparent to its counterpart in the divine world. Anything, however lowly, could embody the sacred. 

—Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth (p. 15)

Along with the usual suspects on display at this year’s Tribal & Textile Arts show—i.e. African masks, numerous Oceanic shields and a number of  Colima figures—there were a few stunning and thought-provoking items, obvious and subtle invocations of the sacred. A small selection of these follows. 

Architectural Element, Borneo


Architectural element (Dragon motif), Borneo (Kenyah tribe?), hardwood with pigment, probably early 20th century (courtesy Primary Source).

Located in the South China Sea just north of Java, Borneo is the third largest island in the world. Not an independent entity, it is divided into four main precincts administered by the nations of Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia.   The island is a giant mountainous rain forest, and tribes traditionally live both in the highlands and along the river ravines. 

All interior Bornean peoples make use of carved and painted elements in the construction of their longhouses, granaries, mausoleums, and other buildings. While the gods don’t normally interfere with human life, the forest is filled with malevolent spirits. As spirits are thought to enter a building through the front door, a lot of Kenyah tribal carving takes the form of powerful figures placed on various parts of the building. In addition to carving beams and posts, they apply distinctive finials, like the one above, to the roofs of their buildings.  

This finial probably represents the all-powerful dragon or perhaps a lizard or other reptile. Surely a lowly forest spirit would be frightened out of its wits by this regal and imposing being. Additionally,  those spiked tentacles would  prevent a bolder spirit from slipping through. Although somewhat faded, lime enhanced pigments (similar to milk paint) are usually added for bold visual effect. 

Fertility Figure, Papua New Guinea


Fertility Figure, Papua New Guinea (tribe ?), wood, (courtesy Michael Hamson Oceanic Art).

Unusual for her splayed pose, the robust articulation of this female fertility figure visually demonstrates what anthropologists working in Papua New Guinea have long observed—that tribal men are generally in awe of women’s natural fertility.  Except for the articulation of female sexual organs, the figure is without surface ornamentation found on so many of the objects from Papua New Guinea. The lack of design enhances the eye’s focus on the purity of the form and lends uniqueness to the object. 

Fumi-e, Japan


Fumi-e, stone and cast bronze, before mid-19th century (courtesy Axel Michels).

Fumi-e (fum-ee-ay), literally “a stepping on picture,”  was a representation usually of Christ on the cross or the Virgin Mary used during the Edo period by religious authorities of the Tokugawa shogunate (rule of  Ieyasu Tokugawa)  of Japan. 

The Portuguese brought Christianity to Japan when they first landed in Kyushu in 1542.  The Japanese barons on Kyushu welcomed foreign trade particularly for their supply of new kinds of weaponry. They tolerated the subsequent Jesuit missionaries, thinking that their presence would diminish the power of the Buddhist monks.   In 1629, however, persecution of Christians (Kirishitan) began in earnest in Nagasaki, and scores of monks were martyred.   During this time, suspected Christians were required to step on a fumi-e, the idea being that true believer would never defame the religion by stepping on an icon. If individuals would not renounce their religion, they were tortured and even killed. Executions sometimes took place on Mount Unzen, because bodies could be dumped into its volcano.

The use of the  fumi-e was officially abandoned in April 13, 1856, when the Japanese opened their ports to foreigners, although some remained in use until Christian teaching was placed under formal protection during the Meiji period.

What makes this particular fumi-e rather unique is that it doesn’t depict the crucified Christ. Rendered in the style of of 12th and 13th century Greek and Byzantine icons, it may be a rare depiction of the triumphant Christ (seated upon the throne) or possibly an image of St. Peter or St. Paul.

For a round up of unusual textiles at this year’s SF Tribal & Textile Arts show, see Ethnology by the Bay, Part I


Wider Connections

Mark Johnson—Art Borneo

More Kenyah finials

Tribal Arts Magazine—The Kenyah-Kayan Tradition

Upper Sepik (Papua New Guinea) Shields

Fertility Goddess (Aiwai Meri)

Lawrence Ethnographic Collection—Upper Sepik River

Haiku Topics on Fumi-e

13th Century Shock & Awe

Posted in Architecture, Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Mosaic, People & Places with tags , , , , , , on July 12, 2008 by Liz Hager


Unknown Artist, Deësis (Entreaty), mid 13th century
Glass mosaic,Hagia Sofia, Istanbul
(photo ©Liz Hager)

Justinian consecrated his famous church in Constantinople (Istanbul) in 567. It  was to stand as the largest church in Christendom for over 1000 years, until the completion of St. Peter’s in Rome.  In the mid-1970s, sitting in a darkened art history classroom, I never imagined that one day, 30 years later, I would be standing underneath the huge dome of Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom of God) blissfully mesmerized by the shafts of light streaming down through its nearly 40 clerestory windows. Along with frescoes and other ornament, the church—later mosque and now museum—is filled with large, exemplary mosaics of a quality rarely now found anywhere else in the world (with the possible exception of Ravenna). The “Deësis (Entreaty) Mosaic” is probably the most famous of the Hagia Sophia’s Byzantine mosaics. The theme shows up often in the world of icons—Christ is flanked by Mary (on the left) and St. John the Baptist (right), both of whom gaze at him imploring him to intercede for humanity on Judgment Day.

This mosaic dates to the period known as the “Restoration of Constantinople.”  From the 7th century until the early 13th century,  Byzantine aristocrats (Greek Christians really) ruled Constantinople in an unbroken line.  After the Third Crusade failed miserably in its attempt to recover Jerusalem, subsequent Popes agitated for another Crusade. Nearly a century later, when forces were mounted , the political situation in Byzantium (as the city was then known) had changed dramatically. The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) never made it to Jerusalem, rather it was permanently diverted to Constantinople.  In attempt to reunite the two Christian empires, the Crusaders drove out the Byzantian emperor, and installed one of their own.  It was the most profitable Crusade with most of the spoils going to the city-state of Venice. In fact, you’ll need to go to St. Mark’s Basilica to see the riches of Hagia Sophia. (The horses that guard the Basilica are perhaps the most well-known items of booty.)

Christ Figure (Deësis) detail, mid-13th century,
Mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
(Photo ©Liz Hager)

On July 25, 1261, the forces of Michael VIII Palaiologos, a Byzantine aristocrat and commander, recaptured Constantinople from its last Latin Emperor, Baldwin II.  Their actions served to divide the church forever into the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic sects. (The city’s conversion to Islam was another  Michael, who ruled as Emperor for nearly 25 years, became embroiled in his own political intrigues, while trying to wrestle his kingdom from the clutches of the Italian merchants and defending it against the Turks, the Slavs, and the various peoples of Europe.   So what does the Deësis Mosaic have to do with the Crusaders? Legend has it that it was commissioned to mark the end of domination by the Roman Catholic Church and return to the Orthodox traditions.

By comparison with the rather stiff and formal icons of the period, the Christ of the Deësis Mosaic is more naturalistically depicted—his face composed of many fleshtones and softer contour outlining, no mean feat when dealing with little squares of pre-existing color. In fact, many compare the Deësis Mosaic stylistically to the work to an Italian painter of the same time—Duccio.  You be your own judge, but I think the tiny specks of glittery light thrown off by the mosaic’s tesserae create an otherworldly aura no painting can match.

Mary & Child Icon, ca. 13th century
Tempera on Wood
(courtesy: The Icons of Cyprus by D. Talbot Rice)

Beyond the associations with the color gold, the shimmering squares enhance the overall majesty of the image, already a potent one as a result of its larger than life-size dimensions. I can imagine the Deësis Mosaic as the 13th-century equivalent of a religious billboard, broadcasting its message about the Christ Pantocrator and the potency of true faith.

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Madonna and Child, c. 1300,
tempera and gold on wood
(photo courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Wider Connections

Stolen (and recovered) antiquities in a modern venue — Cypriot icons

History of the Deësis Mosaic

Egg Tempera

David Talbot Rice—Art of the Byzantine Era (World of Art series)

The Making of an Iconoclast

Posted in Fine & Decorative Arts, Liz Hager, Painting with tags , , , , , , , on May 21, 2008 by Liz Hager

El Greco — St. Luke Painting Virgin & ChildSt. Martin & the Beggar, El Greco

(Left) El Greco, “St. Luke Paints the Virgin & Child,” tempera and gold on canvas attached to board, ca. 1560-70s? (photo courtesy Painting the Soul by Robin Cormack)  (Right) El Greco, “St. Martin & the Beggar,” oil on canvas, 1597/99 (courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington)

A few months ago, while researching the history of Byzantine icons for one of my own art pieces, I stumbled across a picture of El Greco’s (1541-1614) early-career icon, St. Luke Painting the Madonna and Child.  At first, the work startled me—I had not seen it before and never would have made a connection to the El Greco I knew, if the attribution hadn’t been staring me in the face. The subject of El Greco’s icon is a venerable one—the painting of the Madonna icon by  St. Luke, who, as the legendary first to paint her, was himself the first iconographer. Cleverly, El Greco’s painting is an icon within an icon.  The Madonna within conforms to the rigorous standards in pose, style and technique established within the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Charming though it was, St. Luke pitched a nasty curve ball into my neat, although broad, compartment labeled “El Greco—unorthodox, passionate, strangely-modern, Italian-trained 16th-century painter.”  Who knew that his artistic roots lay outside the Western-driven Renaissance??? Well, as it turns out, not the art-world at large until recently when a newly-uncovered restoration photograph from 1938 proved the existence of the master’s signature on an icon. As it turns out, St. Luke himself was attributed to the painter only a few years ago.

My personal “uncovery” of this piece surfaced my own questions regarding El Greco’s artistic style.  First and foremost, the flat-plane, lacking perspective, highly-symbolic world of icons could not be farther removed from the humanistic Renaissance and back-to-naturalism Baroque periods in which El Greco lived and worked.  You can see on a superficial inspection that the icon bears little likeness to examples of the artist’s more mature work. How,  if at all, had his early work as an icon maker influenced El Greco’s later style.  In short, how did the painter get from St. Luke to St. Martin?

Certainly, El Greco’s peripatetic lifestyle (Crete to Venice, Rome, Madrid and finally Toledo) with its exposure to a variety of artistic styles, assisted his transformation from the Eastern to Western artistic tradition.  A little from Titian in Venice, a little from Correggio and Raphael in Rome. All artists borrow and reformulate elements into their own original work. There is no doubt that El Greco’s stay in Italy was fruitful in that it produced a major reworking of his stylistic expression.   

And yet, the more I pondered his mature style, the more bewitched I became by St. Luke. By the time El Greco painted his icons (1560s-70s), the bloom was off the Renaissance rose, Michelangelo and Raphael were long gone, and the artistic world was moving through its Mannerist phase toward the Baroque. Against all artistic odds, El Greco latched onto the Mannerist style. It’s possible that he found the artistic isolation in Toledo, far from the orbit of Rome, to his liking. After all, it’s easy to imagine that out in the provinces the artist would not necessarily have felt pressure to keep be au courant.   To the end El Greco embraced the recognizable hallmarks of the Mannerists—e.g. compositions organized in intricate patterns; elongated figures twisted into contorted poses; style for its own clever sake.    But then again there are those most unManneristic of elements, his counterpoints— the otherworldly color palette and pathos so heavy that it almost oozes out of his figures. For me, these are precisely the attributes which elevate El Greco above the Italian Mannerists. Their use of a more conventional palette only draws attention to those silly contorted figures. There is no feeling there!  Without it what’s left is pure artifice. Style for style’s sake. 

Now for the icons. Icons (from the Greek “eikon” meaning image) were an art form borrowed by the Christians from the Romans in the first centuries AD. At first they replicated the Roman art form—commemorative portraits of the dead, often affixed to the body or coffin as a mask. Gradually,  in the centuries after his death,  they came to display specific images of Christ and the saints, as a method for conveying stories to a flock who wouldn’t have had any knowledge of them.  Fourth-century Christians would have made no distinction between the holy personage himself and the image, believing that Christ, for example, was really present with them through the icon. They believed the icon had divine and miraculous power.  The icon was literally the window to Paradise through which devotions and worship could flow.  As early as the 7th century icon making was not an arbitrary artistic endeavor, but was subject to strict rules of format and technique outlined by the Church. In the 11th century the Holy Roman and Byzantine Empires irrevocably split, and Constantinople went on to become the foremost center of the icon industry.  Demand being huge for these religious pieces, production was farmed out to other locales, Crete being a primary one.  To become good enough to have his own workshop, El Greco would have had to master the strenuous the intricacies of the icon tradition, including the very specific rigid poses of the iconic figures, which were highly-symbolic in nature. He would have understood the ritualized color schemes that applied to various clothing worn by the figures. He would have excelled in flat spatial representation, which served to emphasize the subject over distracting background action.  El Greco would have had no need to learn the conventions of perspective, that most Renaissance of inventions.

El Greco was a devout Catholic. Above all, he would have had a deep belief in the mystical power of the icon as a spiritual guide, the means by which he as an Orthodox Christian came to know God. As an icon artist, continually in their presence, he must have felt intense emotion, perhaps awe.  I can imagine that those icons worked their spiritual magic on El Greco day in and day out. I can imagine how he wished to take them with him on his transformational journey. 




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