I. Iconography, a recovered artistic language
It would have been impossible to imagine a public conversation on icons and their veneration a quarter of a century ago in communist Romania. (…) However, in the last 25 years that have elapsed since the anti-communist revolutions in Eastern Europe, changes have been impressive. (…) In the aftermath of the atheist regime, religious life has revived in all its dimensions: art, liturgy, parish life and monastic communities. There are new parish churches, new monasteries, new canonized saints as well as new Christian martyrs of the communist persecution receiving a large popular veneration and waiting to be canonized. In this context, the icon has become a common presence in homes and offices.
The most remarkable aspect of this revival is that the abundant iconographic demand and the high number of skilled iconographers gave rise to a competitive ambiance that led to an obvious advance in the quality of iconography and, subsequently, to a new iconographic movement.
Our interest focuses on these latter artists who have reached an advanced aptitude of mastering the painting of icons and frescos. Socially, they are also the most visible category, knowing how to promote their creation, how to set up events and integrate their art in the larger cultural and artistic phenomenon. Their personalities are complex: in addition to working in the studio or on the scaffold, they organize symposia, open exhibitions and workshops, invite colleagues from the country and abroad, some of them teach religious art and, generally, they bring iconography to the public attention. One may observe that, over the past five to ten years, the phenomenon has become more alive and has configured a group of iconographers and church painters who are not only talented artists but also curators, theorists and project managers. Furthermore, one of the most significant aspects is that a few artistic values have been gradually assumed by the most valuable iconographers:
1. A thorough education in classical art. ( …)
2. A personal spiritual life. All of them assume, with the Orthodox tradition, that a spiritual dimension is a necessary ingredient to painting an icon. Painting an icon is not a mere artistic activity but a facet of the larger spiritual growth, both personal and part of the community in which the iconographer lives. Painting an icon, therefore, becomes a way of expressing their creativity, a spiritual search in a direct continuity with their ancestral Orthodox legacy and a way of life to which they dedicate themselves entirely. Thus, they strive to understand the icon in a theological manner, as a sacred image, and to address it from a spiritual angle. There are a few cases in which the artists even chose the monastic life; and icon painting became their main obedience in the monastery.
3. They do not imitate but innovate within the canons of tradition. (…)
II. Some iconographers and their work
Gregore Popescu. He is the oldest among the Romanian church painters and has the largest artistic oeuvre.
Elena Murariu represents the middle generation. She worked as a fresco specialist who restored different mural assemblies of the fourteenth to eighteenth centuries and subsequently commenced painting her own icons.
Gabriel Toma Chituc. Also primarily educated as a classical painter, Chituc is an original and gifted iconographer with a special artistic expressivity. In the last decade, he has become a prolific iconographer striving to find the mystery of the authentic icon inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Ioan Popa. Although he is only 38, Popa has already painted in the fresco technique two churches in Bucharest and Alba Iulia, the church of a monastery in the Apuseni Mountains as well as baptisteries and small chapels in Southern Italy, Cyprus and Mount Athos.
Mihai Coman. He teaches church painting techniques at the Faculty of Theology in Bucharest and studied restoration in Romania. However, in what regards his skills of painting icons and frescos, Coman affirms that he “learned the technique on Mount Athos and understood the icon with the professor and painter Georgios Kordis,” whose doctoral student he is in Greece.
Deacon Nicolae Bălan. After his studies in iconography at the Faculty of Theology in the Department of monumental art, he attended the Faculty of Fine Arts in order to improve his drawing and composition techniques. Bălan is a gifted draftsman and he painted the metropolitan chapel from Limours (France) and St. Trinity Church in Alba Iulia.
To these iconographers should be added many others, all of special talent and abundant production. We will mention here a few of them for a few particular reasons. First, some have composed new iconographic themes, like Răzvan Gâscă with his St. Maximus the Confessor with scenes from his life, painted to mark the presence of the relics of St. Maximus the Confessor to Iaşi in 2010.
Likewise, Marius Ghinescu for his St. Pachomius at St. Dimitry of Rostov, which represents a moment in the life of Venerable Pachomius of Gledin (1674-1724), a Romanian hermit and bishop who spent his last years at the Pecerska Lavra in Kiev.
Others should be mentioned for the original manner in which they reconceived certain classical themes, for example Daniela Toma Musat, St. M. George.
Finally, we should mention some who are talented artist monks able to innovate within the canon, such as Mother Olga, St. Joachim and Anna, Monk Haralambie, The Venerable Founders of Monastery Vatopedi, and Monk Iacob, Mandylion.
The last example belongs to Sorin Dumitrescu, a talented metaphysical painter of the old generation converted into an inspired and charismatic theoretician of the icon as well as an original iconographer in spite of the smaller number of icons he has realised. While in his early career as an iconographer he filtered Palaeologan tradition in a personal manner, he searches his present sources of inspiration in the times which preceded iconoclastic controversy.
With this we close our short excursion into contemporary Romanian iconography. The diversity of artists, styles, techniques, media and sources of inspiration unveils a fascinating artistic and spiritual phenomenon. It will be worth seeing in which direction Romanian iconography will evolve in the future.
By Jonathan Pageau