The Altar and The Portico (II)

Head 6. By Aidan Hart, 1979. Ceramic.

THE SACRED AND THE SECULAR

The Relationship of Orthodox Iconography and Gallery Art

Part II: Gallery Art (here for Part I)

The journey of an artist  

At this stage in our story, by way of illustration I would like to be a little biographical. I will speak a bit about my own journey first as an artist in the world and then as an iconographer.

Though born in England, I was raised in New Zealand. Although as a child I had a modicum of education in Christianity, I ultimately came to believe in God’s existence through trees. In my childhood home there were splendid samples of trees and bushes in which my friends and I used to play hide-and-go seek and build huts. The many hours spent in their branches nurtured a deep respect and love for trees. Quietly I came to believe that a higher Wisdom must have made such splendid things. In them, function and beauty married. Trees were my proto-evangelists, leading me to belief on God.

It is pertinent that the Psalm verse set for feast days of Evangelists  -“Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (Psalm 19:4a) – is actually referring to the skies, to creation. The previous verses read:

The heavens are telling of the glory of God;

And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.

Day to day pours forth speech,

And night to night reveals knowledge.

There is no speech, nor are there words;

Their voice is not heard. (Psalm 19:1-3)

In other words, the beauty of creation is a form of proto-evangelism.

This early experience of being led a step closer to God through creation is the seed of my belief in the importance of threshold beauty. In fact, in gratitude to trees for being my proto-evangelist, thirty years later I planted 5,000 native trees in the hermitage where I then lived.

After graduating in literature and biology I began work as a sculptor, eventually going full-time. By then Christian within the Anglican/Episcopalian church, I was seeking ways to indicate in my sculptures the spiritual nature of the human person. Most of these works were not for church commissions but for gallery exhibitions.

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This period reinforced for me the role of threshold art, art that was not overtly religious or liturgical but which might draw some people a little closer to at least a primitive belief in the spiritual.

As a Christian I wanted this spirituality to embrace the material world, not to be a flight from it. I felt that this incarnational approach was all the more important in a secular age which worshipped matter and where one could not assume any prior knowledge of Christianity.

There was a parallel in the then communist and atheistic Russia. I had heard that many people there began their journey to Christian faith with Buddhism. They could not take the step straight from atheism into fully-fledged faith, but  they could took their first steps by following what is essentially an agnostic philosophical system, and one that did not require a communal and liturgical commitment as did Christianity. Having discovering some truth within Buddhism, but eventually finding it incomplete, many of these seekers then progressed onwards to Christ. I came to believe that the right sort of art, portico art, could do a similar thing, and so I wanted to make art that would affirm the numinous quality of life.

But before attempting this numinous quality I was convinced that as a sculptor one had to begin with technique and gain proficiency in depicting the material world, particularly the human body. Only then could one progress to suggest invisible realities. St Paul’s advice seemed pertinent: But it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual (I Cor. 15:46).

Since God had created both the material and the spiritual realms I believed that one would echo the other.

After mastering the essentials of modelling the human body, including making anatomical studies.

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I then concentrated on how to indicate the spiritual nature of the human person. I tried varying degrees of abstraction.

Head 6. By Aidan Hart, 1979. Ceramic.

Man with a White Turban. By Aidan Hart, 1981. Ceramic, plaster and fabric.

Man in Green Shirt. By Aidan Hart, 1982. Ceramic, pigmented plaster, fabric.

To abstract means literally to “draw out”, and in its original meaning it denotes the discovery and manifestation of the essence of the subject, and not departure from reality as it tends to be understood today.

The art most influential for me at this stage was Egyptian and African work. Although perhaps too disembodied, too extreme in their abstraction, these sculptures helped me to reach some conclusions about how to indicate the spiritual. Most notably I learned the importance of a strong vertical axis or elongation; stillness rather than agitated movement; and emphasis on the eyes. Constantine Brancusi and Modigliani were also influences.

Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne. By Modigliani, 1919.

Bird in Space. Constantin Brancusi, 1930.

Having thus studied the two poles of figurative naturalism and abstraction I then sought ways of uniting them, of incarnating the spiritual in flesh. In retrospect I see now that I was trying to hint at holiness – essentially, to sculpt icons.

Gradually I came to some conclusions how to do this stylistically,  but knew I still needed help in such a task. In due course a friend suggested that I should visit two Orthodox monks in New Zealand, one of whom was an icon painter. My friend said that icons did what I had been trying to do for some years. So I visited the monks, and found at their little monastery all that I had been seeking, both artistically, spiritually and historically.

Man in a White Turban, 2. By Aidan Hart, 1982. Ceramic, plaster, fabric.

In 1983 I was received into the Orthodox Church and soon afterwards returned to my birth place of England, where I began work as a full-time iconographer.

The last thirty-three years I have spent more or less full time as a liturgical artist, working first in relief wood carving, and then panel painting, fresco, stone carving, silverwork, and more recently, mosaic. But my earlier labours in pre-iconographic work as an exhibiting sculptor taught me the potential of gallery art to draw people a little closer to faith, to a sense of the numinous.

Crucifix,  at St John of Kronstadt Convent, Bath, UK. By Aidan Hart, 1985. Limewood/linden.

The Annunciation. By Aidan Hart, 2012

The Transfiguration. Our Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic Church, Leeds, UK. By Aidan Hart, 2012. 20 feet high, fresco.

Our Lady of Lincoln. Lincoln Cathedral, UK. By Aidan Hart, 2014. Polychromed limestone carving

Episcopal staff, for the Patriarch of Russia. By Aidan Hart. Solid silver, 2016.

St Mary Magdalene and The Mother of God (unfinished). Detail from crucifixion for St George’s Orthodox Christian Church, Houston, Texas. By Aidan Hart, 2016. Mosaic.

How can gallery art operate as a portico to belief?

For me personally there are two types of artwork that do this: that which depicts suffering but with compassion, and that which suggests the world transfigured by light. The creators of such artworks are not necessarily people of faith, but they have grasped some truth in their search, and because this truth is an image of spiritual reality it elevates us.

Art of compassion

So first, compassionate art. Such works can help us see the divine image beneath suffering, and even behind ignorant acts. They show us that what makes us capable of suffering is also what makes us human. The Church Fathers tell us that although only holy people are in the likeness of God, all people are made in the image of God. It is precisely our God-given freedom that allows us to choose the wrong as well as the right. Compassionate artists do not idealise, but nor do they judge the wrong doer or feed on their suffering.

Dostoyevsky was the literary genius of such compassionate work, as was also the Greek writer of short stories, Alexandros Papadiamantis (1851-1911). In his short novel “The Murderess”, which is about a lady who kills the daughters of poor islanders so the parents don’t have to pay their dowries, without in any way condoning the murderous acts Papadiamantis somehow manages not to condemn or hate the woman herself.

In the artistic realm, compare a Rembrandt painting, a Van Gogh, or an Alberto Giacometti sculpture with the works of Francis Bacon.

Self Portrait. Rembrandt van Rijn,1659.

Rest from Work (after Millet). By Vincent Van Gogh,1890.

The Walking Man I. By  Alberto Giacometti, 1960.

Self Portrait. Francis Bacon, 1969.

The first two indicate the suffering of humankind with pathos and compassion. Bacon on the other hand – despite his undoubted brilliance as a colourist and the visceral power of his work – seems to feed on the suffering and torment of his subjects. One feels that he needs suffering to feed his inspiration. Indeed he said:

The feeling of desperation and unhappiness are more useful to an artist than the feeling of contentment, because desperation and unhappiness stretch your whole sensibility.[5](Francis Bacon)

It is true that great art needs a certain tension. Sentimentality and its consequent flaccidity is the bane of those trying to be positive in their art.  But even iconographers, who are trying to suggest an harmonious world, feel the tension between aspiration and reality, the struggle to express both brightness and sadness, joy and sorrow, strength and gentleness.  But to feed on negativity is different from depicting it with empathy  and identity.

Art of illumination

Another form of threshold art is the art of illumination. Ascetic writers both East and West describe three stages in the spiritual life: purification, illumination and union. In the degree to which the soul is purified it experiences the created world illuminated by God’s grace, animated by the divine logoi or words that direct and sustain each thing. We see not just the bush, but the bush burning. In due course this leads the person towards union with God Himself, with the Logos who spoke the logoi.

Icons indicate this luminous grace symbolically by such things as gold lines on trees, furniture and garments, and of course also haloes and golden backgrounds.

Threshold artists will indicate luminosity in less symbolic ways. And most critically, they personally will not necessarily relate this light to God. But through their fascination with the way light interacts and animates matter they, perhaps inadvertently, hint at a world aflame with grace.  The Impressionists are the obvious school that come to mind.

The Japanese Bridge at Giverny. Claude Monet, 1896.

The Impressionists have been criticized for being somewhat too sensual in their depiction of nature, even sentimental. Most Impressionists were not particularly religious people, but I suggest that their preoccupation with the interaction of light with matter meant that they inadvertently hinted at a transfigured world, a world not just reflecting light but radiating light. One feels just this when standing before a Monet haystack, as also a Van Gogh sunflower, landscape or farmers.

First Steps, after Millet. Vincent van Gogh, 1890. “I want to paint men and women with a touch of the eternal”.

The light seems to emanate from within these objects and not merely reflect off their surface.

Unlike the Impressionists, Van Gogh was quite deliberate about the spiritual aim of his painting. He wrote:

And in a painting I’d like to say something consoling, like a piece of music. I’d like to paint men or women with that je ne sais quoi of the eternal, of which the halo used to be the symbol, and which we try to achieve through the radiance itself, through the vibrancy of our colorations…[6]

And in the sculptural realm Constantin Brancusi too was conscious of his purpose. He wrote:

The artist should know how to dig out the being that is within matter and be the tool that brings out its cosmic essence into an actual visible essence. [7]

Brancusi’s Paris studio.

Might not such an art of illumination help keep alive in us nostalgia for the paradise that is our true home? What is the fall if we do not know the heights from which we have fallen? What is paradise lost if we have forgotten paradise? What is salvation if we do not know into what we are being saved? If hell is darkness, then it is a place where luminosity is absent, where all appears without light, where we experience the flame of the bush without its light.

From prophecy to evangelism

In conclusion, we ought to have no time for a religiosity that wants to keep us enclosed within church walls, makes us fearful of the outside. True faith finds and rejoices in the good wherever it is found. As Saint Paisius of the Holy Mountain taught me, a healthy soul is like a bee that seeks flowers and ignores rotting flesh. An unhealthy soul by contrast is like a fly that ignores vast fields of flowers and is attracted to a little rotting flesh.

One task of the Church is therefore to find the partial good in its surrounding culture and bring it to fruition. In this respect, living as we are in an increasingly non-Christian but educated epoch, our task is akin to that of the Apologists of the first centuries after Christ. They sought for truths in the Greek philosophy of the time, putting aside what was wrong, adopting what accorded with truth, and adapting what was partial. We need to embrace this creative and theological activity in our own times.

Some contemporary icon painters have done the same with modern art, most notably Gregory Krug.

Christ the Saviour, Fr Gregory Kroug.

Whether or not he consciously adopted aspects of modern art, the fact remains that his unique icons could only have been made in the 20th century. Dr. Isaac Fanous certainly adopted aspects of Cubism into his Neo-Coptic iconography in a deliberate synthesis of old and new.

The Transfiguration.  By Dr Stéphane Réne, of the Neo Coptic school founded by Dr. Isaac Fanous.

A prophetic assessment of a culture will not always of course be affirmative; it will also be critical. I suggest, for example, that an Orthodox Christian’s reading of art history will differ from the dominant narrative of secular scholarship. Scholarship reveals facts, but these facts need to be interpreted. Too often, for example, the history of art has been measured against the assumption that naturalism equals realism. So Byzantine art is considered without perspective, while Renaissance to be the champion of proper perspective.

In reality, Byzantine art uses five or six systems of perspective. These offer a far richer palette with which to express spiritual reality than the mathematical one-eyed system propagated by the Renaissance.

The Annunciation, showing different perspective systems.

They also accord more closely with our subjective experience of reality. For example, even though I do not see both sides of a building I know that they are there, and therefore the icon will often depict these sidewalls simultaneously through its multi-view perspective.  Unlike single view perspective, icons depict what we know and not just what we see. This is in fact the metaphysics behind much of early modernism, which reacted against the neo-Classicism then dominant in Europe.

The secular art historical narrative has also been too silent about the spiritual impetus behind much of the early modernist movement. Kandinsky for example was quite articulate about the spiritual aims of his art, most notably in his work “On The Spiritual in Art”, which was particularly influential in its English translation. Although perhaps more a Theosophist than an Orthodox, his Orthodoxy nevertheless informed a lot of his thinking, and sometimes, as in his “Sketch with Horseman”, icons provided inspiration for his compositions.

Sketch with Horseman. Vasily Kandinsky, 1911, showing the influence of icons, in this case, Elijah in the fiery chariot and St George slaying the dragon.

For Kandinsky painting was a spiritual exercise with spiritual aims. He wrote:

The artist must train not only his eye, but his soul.[8]

The world sounds. It is a cosmos of spiritually affective beings. Thus, dead matter is living spirit.[9]

We have already discussed the consciously religious basis of Brancusi’s work. (for more discussion see my article  “Constantin Brancusi” in http://aidanharticons.com/category/articles/).

The Scriptures and the history of the Church teach us that the best missionaries first discover what God has already revealed to the culture they are addressing, and only then begin to proclaim the Gospel. These evangelists are first listening prophets and seeing seers, and only then preaching missionaries. They perceive the words of God already accepted by the people and then try to take their listeners to the next stage.

The Apostle Paul. By Archimandrite Zenon, crypt church of Feodorovsky Cathedral, Petersburg.

Although St Paul was indignant about all the idols that he saw at the Areopagus, he began his address not by condemning his listeners for idolatry but by praising them for being so religious. He went on to base his message on their inscription to “An Unknown God”. He built his Gospel narrative on this germ of truth, even quoting their own philosophers and poets.

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[5] Quoted in Art, Robert Cumming (DK, London, 2005), page 433.

[6] Vincent van Gogh, Letter to Theo van Gogh, 3 September 1888, (Letter 673), in Vincent Van Gogh: The Letters.  http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let673/letter.html.

[7] Brancusi, in F. Bach, M. Rowell and A. Temkin, Constantin Brancusi. MIT Press, 1995. Page 23.

[8] Quoted in  Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art (New York, 1994), eds. Kenneth C. Lindsey and Peter Vergo, page 197.

[9]  Kandinsky, in “The Blaue Reiter Almanac”, quoted in  Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, page 250.

Source: Orthodox Arts Journal

 

 

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A Greek Dostoevsky (I)

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.. and Charles Dickens

One of the greatest figures in modern Greek literature, Alexandros Papadiamandis was born on the Greek island of Skiathos on March 4, 1851, “the second Sunday of Lent and the feast day of Gregory Palamas, while they were singing the triadiká in church” (as we are informed by his fellow countryman Papa-George Rigas, distinguished scholar of folk traditions and specialist of the liturgical typicon).

[For those in a hurry, you may skip the short biography, and go straight to his short story link at the bottom of the page]

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While this first intimation of God’s favor appeared during Papadiamandis’s birth, the second took place during his Baptism:

“He was baptized on the Monday of Bright Week and named Alexandros. Something unusual happened while the priest, Papa-Nicholas, performed the Baptism; as he poured the oil in the baptismal font, the oil immediately made the form of the cross on the water. Papa-Nicholas interpreted this strange phenomenon, saying, “This child will be great.”

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His father was the pious priest Adamantios Emmanuel. Papadiamandis writes that he was “a beneficent guide in all ecclesiastical questions and a sublime adornment of ecclesiastical celebrations” in the church of the Three Hierarchs and in the country chapels of Skiathos.

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From an early age, Alexandros followed his father around the island helping him, sometimes in the altar and sometimes at the lectern as chanter. With his exceptional sensitivity, Alexandros treasured his experiences of sharing this liturgical service with his father. His heart was filled with and his nous was instructed by images from the priestly life and the Church’s services. He was so influenced by them that most of the scenes he chose to paint as a child were taken from the life of the Church. Reflecting on this time, he writes in his autobiographical memoir, “When I was young I would paint Saints, or I would write [hymnographical] verse.”

From his childhood years, Alexandros had the opportunity to live the tradition of the Kollyvádes fathers (those Greek Orthodox Athonite elders involved in the eighteenth century movement that inspired spiritual renewal and a return to more traditional liturgical and spiritual practices). This tradition had been preserved on Skiathos through the presence of a monastery built by the Kollyvádes, the Monastery of the Annunciation. Although the monastery was in decline during Papadiamandis’s later years, the diligently preserved kollyvadian tradition remained alive in the inhabitants of the island. He would later write, “In this small monastery [of the Panagia of Kounistras in Skiathos] at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century, six of my relatives were priest-monks.” Papadiamandis gives an account of the monastery’s spiritual life and foundation on Skiathos:

Papa-Gregory…the ascetic, descended from the heights of Athos(7) together with his elder, Papa-Niphon, and thirty other monks. They sailed to the island of Gregory’s birth [Skiathos], and there, in the gorge of Angallianous, they built a beautiful, awe-inspiring monastery—patriarchal, Stavropegic, and coenobitic—with an exquisite, very fine church, built with great care. It was so beautiful that during those years, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was famous and enjoyed great respect among the monasteries of Athos. These ascetics…were the so- called Kollyvádes, who were under persecution on the Holy Mountain, as they insisted on precisionx (regarding frequent communion), and on many other things.

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The renowned Elder Dionysios was a distinguished spiritual father and learned priest-monk who lived on Skiathos, whose roots were in the kollyvadian tradition. Papadiamandis knew him personally and did not hide his admiration for him. He was “the inspired spiritual father in the small monastery of the Prophet Elijah.” Papadiamandis had such monks and monasteries in mind when he wrote, “the rule of prayer should be complete, following all the old typicons, with the vigils and pre-dawn Matins, with all the appointed verses and readings from the Psalter.”

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Papadiamandis was initiated into this kollyvadian—the genuine Orthodox—tradition, in his own home by his father, Papa-Adamantios, and by the broader world of the Church in Skiathos. In an unsigned obituary for his father, he wrote that

Papa-Adamantios, like all of the older priests of the island, was taught how to celebrate the Mysteries(12) by those venerable Kollyvádes (http://orthodoxwiki.org/Kollyvades_Movement), who, at the end of the last century, established the Monastery of the Annunciation…which became a seedbed of humble priests for our island, priests who were lovers of the divine services. Simple and virtuous, they enjoyed the love and respect of the inhabitants, having no affectations or hypocrisy, and displaying no vanity as they lived their lives as priests.

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Seeds of spiritual struggle that had been planted in Papadiamandis during his childhood and adolescence at home and in the wider environment of Skiathos were brought to fruition when he went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain for a few months at the age of twenty-one. In one of his stories, we read about some of the events of his visit, mainly at the Skete of Xenophontos, and we perceive how the charm of the Holy Mountain was an inspiration for him. While there, he met many ascetics and hesychasts and became familiar with the liturgical life of the monks. He was enthralled by the vigils of the monastics and recorded in his heart not only the strict typicon and the Byzantine melodies but also the spirit that governed it all. In this way, Athos and its traditions affected the path his life took and enriched it with unforgettable memories.

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Given his rich spiritual upbringing, experiences, and heritage, it is only natural that Papadiamandis would choose to spend his life within this rich Orthodox tradition, preserving the Orthodox liturgical ethos through his writings and life. The critics of his age believed that there was little value in a detailed description of “how a village priest went to celebrate the liturgy in a country chapel for a little community of peasants or shepherds, who and how many took part in the festival, and what their customs were like.” Papadiamandis, however, did not regard the celebrations as mere holidays, but himself lived the events and the life of the Church as the center and foundation of all events and all life.

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Papadiamandis moved within this ecclesiastical environment and within the wider Greek tradition. He lived both aspects of this tradition, Ancient and Byzantine, in a diachronic unity, which spanned the ages. He had utter integrity, both as a person and as a Greek, within whose Hellenism was Byzantium and in whose love for Byzantium might be discerned Hellenism. In his texts, Ancient Greece resembles a flower that, wilting from its desire for the truth, then bears great fruit in the warmth of the Sun of Righteousness [Christ]. When history is viewed as a progression toward the discovery of the fullness of the truth of Orthodoxy, tradition truly lives, and history is kept from being fragmented. Other important figures in modern Greek literature such as Photios Kontoglou and, even more so, Nikos Gabriel Pentzikis would act from this perspective later on, with both their pens and their brushes. Together with our author, they are regarded as solid links in this tradition.

God favored Papadiamandis with many gifts, and he struggled to use them in a way that would bear the most God-pleasing fruit. The reverent and liturgical ethos expressed through Papadiamandis’s writings and life bear witness to the successful cultivation of his gifts.

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Papa-Nicholaos Planas

“It was in 1887 that he found what could be described as his spiritual bolt-hole in the turbulent and often harsh world of the metropolis: the small church of the Prophet Elisha, set in the courtyard of a private house in the old part of the city, under the rock of the Acropolis. There Papa-Nicholaos Planas, a simple priest born in the same year as Papadiamandis, a man of prayer and of great spiritual gifts, would regularly hold vigil services, gathering people from all walks of life into the crucible of the little church. Papa-Nicholaos was canonized in 1992.

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Papadiamandis never married. He was a shy and retiring man, as the few extant photographs of him testify, a man seemingly not of this world despite his acute observations of it. He also had to provide for his unmarried sisters at home. But despite his introspective nature he had a small circle of close friends, including Pavlos Nirvanas and Yannis Vlachoyannis, well-known Athenian men of letters who on various occasions undertook the role of literary agents and helped him during hard times.” (http://deniseharveypublisher.gr/people/alexandros-papadiamandis)

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Papadiamantis’ longest works were the serialized novels “The Gypsy Girl,” “The Emigrant,” and “Merchants of Nations.” These were adventures set around the Mediterranean, with rich plots involving captivity, war, pirates, the plague, etc. However, the author is best remembered for his scores of short stories. Written in his own version of the then official language of Greece, “katharevousa” (a “purist” written language heavily influenced by ancient Greek), Papadiamantis’ stories are little gems. They provide lucid and lyrical portraits of country life in Skiathos, or urban life in the poorer neighborhoods of Athens, with frequent flashes of deep psychological insight.

Papadiamantis’ deep Christian faith, complete with the mystical feeling associated with the Orthodox Christian liturgy, suffuses many stories. Most of his work is tinged with melancholy, and resonates with empathy with people’s suffering, regardless of whether they are saints or sinners, innocent or conflicted.

His work is seminal in Modern Greek literature. … It is a body of work, however, that is virtually impossible to translate, as the magic of his language is founded on the Greek diglossia: elaborately crafted, high Katharevousa for the narrative, interspersed with authentic local dialect for the dialogue, and with all dialectical elements used in the narrative formulated in strict Katharevousa, and therefore in forms that had never actually existed.

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Papadiamandis desire to glorify God is shown even more in the way he ended his life and in his attitude toward death. In a prayer he offered at the end of a poem entitled, “To the Little Panagia in the Turret,” he beseeches her, “comfort me, as well, my Panagia, before / I depart and will be no more.” In a letter written by Papa-George Rigas, we learn about the last moments of Papadiamandis’s life on earth:

His repose took place as follows: He became ill on the 29th of November 1910. On the third day of his illness, he fainted. When he revived, he asked, “What happened to me?” “It’s nothing, a small fainting spell,” his three brothers who were at his side told him. “I haven’t fainted,” Alexandros said, “in so many years; doesn’t it seem that it’s a prelude to my repose? Get the priest immediately and don’t delay.”… Soon after, having been called [by his brothers], the priest and the doctor arrived at the same time. Papadiamandis was, above all things…a pious Christian. So, as soon as he saw the doctor, he asked him, “What are you doing here?” “I came to see you,” the doctor told him. “Keep quiet,” the sick man told him. “I will first follow the ecclesiastical path [and call upon the help of God], and then you can come later.”…

He had control of his faculties until the end and wanted to write a story. Until the end, his mind was dedicated to God. On his own, a few hours before his repose, he called for the priest to come so he could partake of Holy Communion. “Perhaps later on I won’t be able to swallow!” he explained. It was the eve of his repose and, as irony would have it, it was the day they told him that he would receive the medal of the Cross of the Savior. On the eve of his repose, the second of January, he said, “Light a candle [and] bring me an [ecclesiastical] book.” The candle was lit. The book was about to be brought. However, Papadiamandis wearily said, “Don’t worry about the book; tonight I will sing whatever I remember by heart.” And he began to chant in a trembling voice, “Thy Hand Touching” [a troparion from the Hours of the eve of Theophany].

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Papadiamandis sang this final hymn and, as day broke between the second and third of January of his sixtieth year, he wearily fell asleep. After passing through the furnace of pain and trials and tasting many of the bitter dregs of life while faithfully living the liturgical life of the Church, he now stretched out his strong wings to fly to the upper chapel of the angels, toward which he had oriented his whole life. It snowed on the following day and, like Uncle Yiannios in the story, “Love in the Snow,” Papadiamandis lay down his worn-out body, presenting himself, his life, and his work before the Judge, the Ancient of Days, the Thrice-Holy. This was, finally, the only judgment with which he was concerned as he passed through life. Though his life and struggle in this world have ended, his work will continue to give witness to his devotion to the liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church for generations to come.

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A Short Biography of Alexandros Papadiamandis, From the First Chapter of A. Keselopoulos, Greece’s Dostoevsky: The Theological Vision of Alexandros Papadiamandis (2011)

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Unfortunately not many of his stories are online, but I found one titled “The Gleaner: A Christian Story” from 1889 at http://deniseharveypublisher.gr/assets/0000/0372/PAPADIAMANTHS_-_The_Gleaner.pdf

 

Beauty Spirit Matter: The Theology of An Icon

richyoungruler In-Depth Insights Into The ‘Writing’ of An Icon

“… This spring, I received an email from an American client which left me both intrigued and slightly anxious. Would I like to paint a new icon depicting Christ’s interaction with the Rich Young Ruler described in each of the Synoptic Gospels? Yes, of course!

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… I had heard this story before of course – it is the moment when Christ says “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Heaven”. Like many Christians I was both baffled by the imagery but also struck by a few words in the sentence before, when we hear “Christ looked at the young man and warmed to him”. Does this mean that before this moment, Christ had not felt warmth – or love – for this rich young person? What changed for Christ in that moment that it is marked in the gospel? My client was very clear that THIS was the moment to be shown in the icon – that second when we are told how Christ felt agape for this person who had approached him with such an important question.  In our correspondence, he said “The wealthy need a savior too, and they know it. Their spiritual position is precarious even if not their social and logistical position.”

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Initially I drew the figure of Jesus sitting – traditionally he would sit and the crowd would gather and sit around his feet. However, my client suggested both should be standing – this was a dynamic interaction between Christ and the Young Ruler, rather than a more simple ‘teaching’ scene. As we are told in the Gospel of St Mark:

As He was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to Him and knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments, ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to Him, “Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.”  Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”  But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.

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And Jesus, looking around, said to His disciples, “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at His words. But Jesus answered again and said to them, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” They were even more astonished and said to Him, “Then who can be saved?” Looking at them, Jesus said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.”

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Christ is ever so slightly taller, as He is mature in body and of course His Divine Nature. He is clothed traditionally, with the red robe of His human nature adorned by the blue outer garment of His Divinity. He is shown with a clear, compassionate expression – with His right hand He blesses and I chose that His left hand should be open, extending towards this young man who has come seeking His teaching on life and how to be saved. It is not a begging, not a pleading – it is an open, loving invitation to the young man (and all of us). “Here, take my hand, and I will lead you into Paradise”. He is shown not quite standing, not quite moving – Christ was about to leave at the end of a long time answering, telling parables, teaching. Yet He hesitates, having heard the direct question and honest response of this wealthy young man.

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The Young Ruler is, obviously, dressed very differently. My client and I discussed at length how we could show his material prosperity and how that should be illustrated. Garish colours? Gold and jewels? Furs even? It was very tempting to have some real ‘fun’ with this ensemble, to communicate just how extravagant his wealthy behaviour had become. And yet there is nothing intrinsically wrong with his wealth – it is a fact of his life, like brown hair or a straight nose. I felt that although he was rich, he was not intrinsically ‘bad’ or even tasteless  …

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I sat down and gazed at the form of the young man. I had spent hours drawing him, over and over, until I got the combination of supplication, enquiry and so on, combined with the transformed nature of the icon as right as I could. I knew that I wanted him to be bright. Yet as I sat there, I knew that, underneath the almost turquoise terre verte I wanted for his robe, there must also be a deep layer of azurite – the same as Christ’s robe. Here was a young man who wants to be saved, who wants to be with Christ – and yet he already is with Christ, and he already partakes of that Divinity in his person by virtue of being human and therefore already formed in God’s likeness and image. I had to find a way to show that all humanity, whether rich or poor, is a part of God’s likeness and that his wealth was no bar to this – if only he (and we) can recognise it.

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This led to a slightly different choice for his cloak – the inner red, which grabs our attention here, and on his delicately shod feet is a genuine (and poisonous) vermillion. This is the most intense colour I ever use and it certainly grabs attention. Who other than a very rich person would travel with such impractical, highly decorative garments? His shoes illustrate that he does not have to walk for miles; he rides a fine horse or is perhaps carried on a litter. His cloak is sewn with pearls and yet they would not help protect him from weather; this is all about displaying status, like designer labels in our day perhaps. His hem and crown are both gold, as is the decorative panel on his cloak. However, you might be wondering why I didn’t use real gold, as there is lots of gold leaf on the background of the panel.

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Gold, in an icon, is not used to depict the metal gold on this earth (or not solely that). In this instance, the gold in background is a 23 ½ carat gold leaf, double layered over a red clay base. As simply put as possible, the gold is the presence of the unseen God “in whom we live and move and have our being”. He is closer to us than our own breath and yet cannot be seen with eyes. This gold is a reminder of that presence and part of the ‘transfigured reality’ that icons show us.

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When gold is used on a garment, it is not to show itself but the light of divinity transforming material, fabric, garments, just as Christ’s robes were transfigured on Mt Tabor; the Light of God transforms the very matter around us as far as we are able to see it. So the lines of gold on the robe of the Virgin Mary, the lines of gold on the robe of an infant Christ etc., all are signs of the indwelling of God possible within His good creation when it is transmuted by His presence and in the fullness of its potential reality.

The crown, hem and cloak are therefore painted with a bright Italian yellow ochre to illustrate the decorative nature of his garments but not their essence. They are finely figured in the Byzantine style of the 12th-13th centuries and, I hope, communicate how wealthy this person would have been to wear such finery.

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…. Behind Christ, there is in the distance a waterfall – He is the life-giving water which not only quenches all who thirst but is so essential for life in the hot, desert country where this icon will live. Around Christ’s feet, there are a few native plants from the Colorado region as well – Columbine, blanket flower and a reference to Christ as the vine.

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There is also an element of ‘sacred geometry’ involved. Between the figures, one can see the shape of a chalice. There is a Communion taking place between Christ and this rich young ruler, similar to the Eucharist celebrated daily in churches throughout the world. A similar chalice shape exists in the Rublev Holy Trinity, which I was studying at the time.

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I was sad to complete this icon. I am always reluctant to let them go, having been blessed by spending so many hours in prayer with them and getting to know the Saints or the passage of the Gospel in this case. But I am more delighted than I can say to know that it is going to be shared with so many who wish to bring the Gospel and good news of Christ’s love to more in the community and that it will be so well cared for, and prayed with. I should perhaps say I feel sad, but also immensely blessed.”

For the complete article “A New Icon Composition: Christ and the Rich Young Ruler” by Katherine Sanders • October 9, 2015 • Orthodox Arts Journal go to http://www.orthodoxartsjournal.org/a-new-icon-composition-christ-and-the-rich-young-ruler/