The tradition of religious painting in Greece

yzantine and post - Byzantine religious icons have a triple character: they are works of art; they are objects of cultural heritage; above all, they are what they were in the first place —sacred symbols of religious faith.

There are very old, crudely made icons which only have the last two properties, just as there are collectors who only recognize the artistic character in some exquisite specimens, or devout people who only perceive the religious aspect. It is only in recent years that icons have acquired a fourth identity as goods with a trade value.

While the religious art of the Western Middle Ages had always been a tradeable commodity in demand, the case for its Eastern counterpart was entirely different. I think that the explanation lies in the long exclusion of Eastern Christianity from the dominant art centres of Europe, on both historical and cultural grounds: on the one hand, the Greek and Balkan territories where the Orthodox dogma flourished went under the Ottoman Empire after 1453; on the other hand, Western scholars had long rejected Byzantine art due to their aesthetic prejudice in favour of classical "Beauty", which Orthodox hagiography had abandoned in its aim to represent the intellectual rather than the physical aspect of its themes. In his book "An Aesthetic Appreciation of Byzantine Art", P.A. Mihelis (1926-1969) makes the aesthetic distinction between the 'beautiful' in ancient Greek art and the 'sublime' in Byzantine art, pointing out that the icon "participates in the holiness of its subject because it is identified with it in terms of essence, even if it differs in terms of hypostasis".

Until recently, Byzantine and post-Byzantine religious icons had always had their own special, narrow circle of collectors who were able to find real bargains in this almost untouched market. The sudden surge of interest in these icons emerged 3 or 4 years ago, after some major exhibitions such as "The Glory of Byzantium" at the Metropolitan Museum of New York. In Greece, Thessaloniki as the Cultural City of Europe for 1996 hosted as one of its major attractions the show "Treasures from Mount Athos", with icons, manuscripts and sacred objects which were out of the monasteries of Athos for the first time. The record attendance and the huge queues of people forced the organizers to extend the show for several months beyond its scheduled duration. In the same year the Museum of the city of Zakynthos presented an impressive exhibition of local works of post-Byzantine art which had been spared by the great fire of 1953 and were kept in the museum's store rooms all these years.

On December 13, 1995 Christie's, reckoning that Byzantine and post-Byzantine religious icons were ready for a grand entry to the international art market, held a big auction exclusively for icons. In his foreword for the auction catalogue Prof. Angelos Delivorias, director of the Benaki Museum, played with the double meaning of the Greek word ‘timι;’ [= honour / price]:

"We are experiencing an acutely painful time when the honour of man declines as much as the price of certain objects goes up. Given this rather unwholesome system of values, art historians may find some consolation and encouragement in the steady improvement of prices for Byzantine and post-Byzantine art."

There is a logical explanation for this sudden 'boom' in the icon market: I believe it is a function not so much of the New-Age trend for a return to religion but rather a symptom of a political/historical phenomenon: the opening up of the ex-socialist countries and the restoration of the free movement of people and goods to and from them. The dominant religious faith in these countries, especially in Russia and the Balkans, is the Orthodox dogma the ritual of which gives a prominent position to icons.

The fact that the Byzantine and post-Byzantine icons are museum items found only in finite numbers has finally lead to a revival of the art of icon painting which, until recently, served the needs of churches and religious people; it is only in recent years that icons are also seen as decorative elements.

At this point we need to distinguish between the artistic and the commercial revival of religious painting, although both these terms are debatable. Let me put this in another way: there is a contemporary religious painting which respects the themes, the techniques and the style of Byzantine and post-Byzantine art, and there is also the production of bad copies. As usual in the revival of an older artistic movement, next to the serious specimens found in museum shops and select galleries one finds a host of crude, mass-produced copies.

Art Topos introduces its new section on traditional Greek art with the works of Sophia Portalaki, an artist who works on the revival of the Cretan School of icon painting and cooperates with museums for the replicas sold in their shops. The works you can see on the following pages are not the same as the ones the artist paints for museums.

Anna Hatziyannaki

© ART TOPOS, 1996, 1999
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