Byzantine icons originated in the 1st century as both a visual text book for teaching Christianity to members of the early Church as well as a “spiritual gateway,” a medium for the faithful to establish communication with the sacred. Religious icons require a fixed, disciplined technique, intended to eliminate personal artistic style, which is considered a distraction from their intended spiritual purpose. Byzantine icons still play a vital role in the theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church, with many contemporary iconographers still practicing the same techniques used centuries ago. Can contemporary artists move away from the constraints of iconography to create a more relevant, yet still spiritually meaningful, style? I strive to explore the questions, can the sacred be translated into the secular, and how would that look.
Diamantis J. Cassis (1934-2015), Byzantine Iconographer and Joni's Father
The archangel Michael is another mystical figure. We don’t know much about him, but he is supposed to be at the Judgment of Christ during the Second Coming. He is a warrior and holds a spiritual shield with the first letter of the name of Christ, a bold “X”. One eye fixes on the viewer, on earth, and the other looks up at the Heavens, showing he is ever vigilant against the forces of evil in the world. He has the scriptures opened to the book of Revelation. An aside note: The face of Michael is a friend of my sons, named Michael, whom I’d thought fit the profile of his namesake quite well.
In my version, Mary is dressed and ready, with her bags packed. She is distressed to hear the words of the Archangel, as she thought her life had a different path than the one given to her. She is special, picked out from the crowd because of her purity and goodness, but in this case, she is much like you and I, who have plans and dreams for our lives but they don’t always go the way we want. God’s plan is not always ours.
Here it is, just another day of fun down by the river. People are swimming and doing their own thing, while something quite mystical and miraculous is actually happening. Jesus stands with arms crossed, resolute to begin His ministry. John the Baptist humbly does his duty, bathing Jesus in milk (a subtle reference to the Land of Milk and Honey). The dove flies above them, and the voice of God with the hand and pitcher coming out of the clouds, tell Him, “Good job, Son!”
Make Love Not War (2017)
This is a direct reference to the social and political rhetoric of 2017 America. Christ here is the “righteous and compassionate judge”, the Pantocrator.
As in the byzantine style of iconography, the Crucifixion here gives many symbolic images. The scull of Adam rests at the foot of the cross. The three “Mary’s” stand in lament and vigil beside Christ. A soldier pierces His side. A single white rabbit also sits at the foot of the cross. I couldn’t resist adding this very American version of Easter here by placing the rabbit into the scene. The wording above and below says it all. He is “the Miracle Worker” and yes, “the Time has Come.”
The highest priest mentioned in Genesis, who visited Abraham and brought him bread and wine as gifts, is a mysterious figure. He has no beginning and no end. We don’t know much else about him except that Abraham gave him hospitality. He is said to be a prefigurement of Christ. Here I’ve depicted him as a man well into his years, almost ethereal in nature because he looks above to the heavens. A Snake crawls at his feet but he isn’t bothered by it. The butterfly at his head is a representation of the Holy Spirit and all that is good in the world.
Mystical Supper (2014)
This was the piece that started the series of works I’ve created and sparked my interest in depicting the ancient byzantine images in a more modern context. Christ is front and center at the supper. In his hand he holds an eye, representing the Eye of God, which is all seeing and all knowing (a vague reference to the Hindu thought “keep your third eye open”). The disciples all gather around the table as friends, eating, drinking and socializing, barely aware of any “mystical” event taking place that evening. They would only recognize what actually happened that evening much later. Judas is only aware of his own plan for the night. He holds a wad of cash and has a gun pointed to his head. His eyes are bloodshot and lacking any emotion or empathy.
The Fall (2016)
Ah, the aftermath of war. The fruit has been eaten, they have put on clothing so as not to be ashamed, and Adam sorrowfully clings to a scull, recognizing his grave error in judgment. The result is that sin is allowed into the world, so we see elements of both in the depiction. The moths, snakes, weird creatures peeking around the tree are somewhat gruesome, while the birds and butterflies are the spirits of goodness remaining with us, perhaps giving us courage to carry on in our fallen world. The fruit in the tree is transparent, and literally translated, is called “Honesty” fruit. I loved the irony of it so I placed them in the tree.
The Good Shepherd (2016)
Christ here is depicted as a rock star, an idol of sorts. He stands among the crowds of listeners who clamor to touch his garments and hear his words. In this case, the words are the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (written in the background sky). The crowds consist of both good and evil people, and there are other elements of good (butterflies) and evil (snakes and insects), representing the fallen world in which we live.
The Sweet Kiss that Humbles the Proud and Pierces the Soul (2016)
The Glykofilousa, the Christ child clinging to the Panayia in a loving gesture, is the main idea for this piece. In this case, He also clings in fear, as hands are already clamoring around to reach Him, touch Him, love Him, and ultimately deceive Him.
Wedding at Cana (2015)
The miracle of Christ was His changing the water into wine at the wedding feast. The newly married couple already look as though they’ve gone through many obstacles being married for years and years. The servers pour out the newly converted wine and it spills out onto the banquet table. In the top right corner, the hand of God points to the miracle of his Son. A funny note is that the hand is actually that of former President Barak Obama.
Other places I look for inspiration and influence:
Orthodox Arts Journal – Articles and news for the promotion of traditional Orthodox Christian liturgical arts. See in particular: article Towards Indigenous and Mature Liturgical Arts
Photios Kontoglou, a great artist and iconographer. Though he followed the prescription for iconography, his style remains quite beautiful and unique. See article: Photios Kontoglou: The Greatest Icon Painter of 20th Century Greece
Theofilos Hatzimichail is of Mytilene, Greece, my mother’s birthplace. He was a Greek folk artist 1868-1934: See article: TheofilosHatzimichail
Alekos Fassianosis a Greek painter. A former student of the School of Fine Arts of Athens and studied in Paris and showed around the world. See article: AlekosFassianos
Tassos Haraktiki – He helped take independent engraving from just illustration lending it size and dominance. See article: Tribute to A. Tassos
Fotis Varthis – He is an engraver and print maker. The byzantine painting, as a visual language, is related to the themes depicted in his works. See website: About FotisVarthis