Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Images and Religion

The various religions I have heard about have strong opinions about imagery in places of worship. Sculptural depictions of religious figures are all right in some cases and strictly forbidden in others. The beautiful calligraphy of Islam may stem from the forbidding of actual images. The terrifying images of Tibetan Buddhism are a world away from Michelangelo or a plastic madonna on a taxicab dashboard.

The Eastern Orthodox Church, for ten centuries one and the same with Roman Catholics, does not allow graven images but embraces the flat, stylized style of painting which is ikonography in the Byzantine style. They believe that the first ikon was painted by St. Luke. (I am retaining the “k” in the word to distinguish it from computer pictures.) The images of the saints have been so traditionally depicted down the ages that many are recognizable by certain traits: Paul, for instance, is balding; John has curly hair. Some of the apostles are bearded and others are not. John the Baptist has wild leonine hair and wears an animal pelt.

Ikons are not objects of worship, but rather are foci for meditation. The figures are always painted with their ears exposed, as if they could listen to a prayer. Many ikons have had miracles attributed to them, of course. Fire walkers in northern Greece hold ikons as they walk across live coals, sometimes in socks, and are not singed. Two ikons I saw last year in San Francisco are said to be emerging from what seemed to be bare boards. (Ikons are painted on wood.)

We became acquainted with Eikonurgia, a Greek ikon-painting group headed by the master painter George Kordis, through an Internet bulletin board. Nicodemus posted a question about gilding which was answered by one of the teacher/painters from Athens in the group. We have been to Greece several times to observe the group’s stunning work in churches and monasteries.

Now the group has come to America for the first time and has been painting a new Orthodox church in Columbia, South Carolina. Through YouTube, Facebook and Skype, we have followed the painting all month. The amount of surface covered with raw pigment suspended in liquid glass, their fresco medium, would be staggering even without the images.

But trying to describe the images is almost beyond me. Starting with the dome, 70 feet above the floor of the church, is a Christ image whose halo is probably five feet across. Thie image is circled by scriptural words in Greek. Below the Christ image is a 360-degree frieze of angels and seraphim among the stars, and a circle-framed madonna and child. Below this are the words of Psalm 104 in English, the Western letters painted in the Byzantine style. “When thou openest thy hand all things shall be filled with good.”

The next tier down has 20 windows, and between each window is painted an Old Testament Prophet perhaps eight or nine feet tall, identified by name. The windows themselves are painted and decorated. On the next tier is the story of Creation, replete with the sun and moon, the oceans, plants, birds and animals. A short narrative in English describes each part of the painting, which continues through the eviction of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden. On one of the YouTube videos, a photographer asks George why he is putting shoes on Eve after she has left Eden. “Vanity,” George answers.

Now we are almost on the ground floor, and the paintings are of the four evangelists. As of the latest postings, a painting of the Last Supper is being sketched in charcoal, freehand as always, by George, who will complete the sketches, faces, draperies and highlights, followed by the other four members of the team, who know exactly what to do. Every square inch of the church above the ground level has been painted.

The scaffolding alone is an engineering marvel. “This is the best scaffolding we have ever worked on,” my friend Yotta said (even though she stepped on a nail when someone overlooked an upturned board .)

I have seen hundreds of examples of Eikonurgia’s work, but the Columbia project is surely the most beautiful (and vast) project they have created. Every figure is painted with such care and reverence that, even if you don’t really believe in what it represents, you must appreciate the genius, the energy, the discipline and the faith which has produced the image.

I am reminded of the first time I saw Delphi, the site of the ancient oracle and the focus of any number of religions in ancient Greece. It left me breathless. All the reverence which had gone into that rocky piece of mountain was palpable. You could feel it from a mile away.

Ikon painters do not sign their work except for an occasional “through the hand of...”This morning, George posted a photograph of the ikon in the church dome, taken from outside, at night. The few words which accompanied the picture showed so clearly that he does not consider this his work at all, but only something which has come through him. “Is always there,” he wrote. “Taking care of...”