Byzantine icon painting
Byzantine icon painting: When the religious disagree
From idea to painting
"Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus …" (Acts 17:34, New International Version). This biblical passage marks the beginning of a long hagiographic tradition. The Dionysios mentioned here is afforded many more biographical details over time through countless vitae written by various authors. This Dionysios becomes the first Bishop of Athens, in other versions a martyr in Gaul and also the author of manuscripts that were in reality not written until the end of the 6th century by a writer of unknown name from the Syrian region. In the Byzantine Iconoclasm – the Byzantine “image struggle” – both the image worshippers and their opponents will try to claim the writings of Dionysios – and thus the high authority of an author from the apostolic age – as proof confirming the validity of their respective views.
In the project “KAIROS. The Right Moment” an icon is being created that, while tying in with the perspective of the image worshippers, also expresses the complexity of the game played with tradition and previous authorities that the two parties had practiced during the iconoclasm. In keeping with Byzantine pictorial tradition, it shows the frontal image of Saint Dionysius Areopagites. He carries an open book in one hand, and the stylus in his other hand makes reference to his authorship of the book’s contents and to the passage his book about “Heavenly Hierarchy” is opened to. In this manuscript, the interest of the unknown author, who pretended to be the disciple of Paul the Apostle, is the representability of higher beings, such as angels, by means of language that appeals to the sensual perceptions of humans. The passage depicted in the artwork says that a higher being, which might mean God, has taken on the form of a worm. The unknown author uses what at first seems to be a rather odd process of thought to formulate the question of whether a worm is similar to God or not. Behind this lies the core thesis of the pseudo-Dionysios: images are similar and dissimilar at the same time to tthat which is illustrated in them. This paradoxical perspective makes it clear why his writings were attractive to both iconoclasts and iconophiles. The iconoclasts repeatedly emphasized that images contained only a partial view of the truth, or rather concealed the truth rather than revealing it. The iconophiles, on the other hand, were of the opinion that the truth can also be sought with the senses.
The word “icon” is derived from the ancient Greek word eikón meaning “picture”. Interestingly, the Greek language used the same word for painting and writing (graphein). Das Verfassen von Texten und die Herstellung von Ikonen waren also in der Sprache schon als eine und dieselbe Tätigkeit dargestellt. Die »Bildschreiberei« wurde nicht als kreative Kunst angesehen, sondern eher als religiöses Handwerk und blieb daher traditionell ohne Signatur.
1. A good background
The tradition of icon painting is not limited to the medium of the wooden panel. Particularly in churches, we can still admire magnificent frescoes and mosaics, wonderful representatives of the pictorial tradition of icon painting.
2. Better be hot
In contrast to the tempera technique, which is much easier to handle, the use of the encaustic technique requires a high degree of craftsmanship. Color pigments are added to wax mixed with oil, and either fired onto the surface using hot tools or the hot liquid is painted onto the surface with brushes and shaped during the cooling process. Brushes, spatulas and pointed objects leave their traces when modelling the faces and make their production traceable to this day.
3. According to all the rules of art
Die Ikonen wurden nicht von den Malern »erfunden« oder »kreiert«, sondern nach dem strengen Bilderkanon ausgeführt, an dessen Vorgaben sich jeder Maler zu halten hatte. Beispielsweise wurde eine Christusikone entweder mit einem Kreuznimbus kenntlich gemacht oder dem einzigartigen Handgestus. Die sich berührenden Finger stehen symbolisch für die beiden Naturen, die Jesus in seiner Person oder Hypostase vereint, das Göttliche und das Menschliche. Drei ausgestreckten Finger stehen für die Trinität.
4. Significant perspective
Für unser modernes Auge erscheinen die byzantinischen Abbildungen »verschoben«. Im Gegensatz zu einer Zentralperspektive, folgen die einzelnen Elemente einer Erzähl- oder Bedeutungsperspektive – die Vogel- und Frontalperspektive etwa sind in einem Bild vereint. Denn im Zentrum steht, die Aspekte klar dazustellen, die für die Übermittlung des Inhaltes besonders wichtig sind – ohne Rücksicht auf eine illusorische Tiefenwirkung.
5. Divine light
Icon painting spread beyond Byzantium, in terms of both region and time. The golden backgrounds of many icons are particularly striking. All other colors require light to glow and therefore cannot represent light. Gold, however, stands for light itself. Light is interpreted here as the divine principle that permeates the whole of creation and brings it to life. The figures on the golden background thus emerge from an ocean of divine light that surrounds them.