The Historical Course of Hagiography Through Time


Ecclesiastic tradition mentions that the first icon, with the essence of representation, was made by the Lord Himself and in fact without hands. The story of this icon briefly is as follows: The king of Edessa of Mesopotamia, Augarus, suffered from leprosy. He wrote therefore  to the Lord a letter, in which he implored Him to visit Edessa and heal him. His servant Ananias brought the letter to Palestine. He tried to draw the Lord but did not succeed. The Lord having noticed the effort of Ananias, asked for water to wash His face which He then dried with a handkerchief. The holy face of the Lord was miraculously imprinted on the handkerchief. This is known as the "Holy Mandelion" (handkerchief).

Augarus, as mark of his gratitude for his healing which happened through the grace of the icon and completed later with his baptism, raised the icon of the Holy Mandelion at the entrance of the City's gate, having first written on a plank underneath it, the phrase: "Christ God, whoever hopes in You never fails". The icon of the Lord made with no hands, after quite a few centuries in Edessa, was brought in 994AD to Constantinople, during the empire of Romanus Lekapinus.

Tradition also mentions as the first hagiographer, the Evangelist Luke. The Evangelist was the first to draw three icons- using wax, gum and colours - of the All Holy Theotokos, holding in her bosom our Lord Jesus Christ and offered them to her, wishing to know if they were pleasing to her. The Mother of the Lord accepted them saying, "The grace of the one who drew me goes through me to them". Of these three icons, one is in Peloponnesus, in the Monastery of the Great Cave which is made with wax and gum. The second it is said to be in little Russia, in a town called Vilina which was given as a gift by the byzantine emperors to the Russians, so that they may be their allies. The third icon according to the assurance of the golden sealed decree of John Gregory Giga Boeboda, ruler of Hungarovlachia, is in Cyprus at the Monastery of Kykku. Moreover according to tradition the Evangelist Luke drew some icons of the Holy Pre-eminent Apostles and some others and since then the art of drawing of the Holy Icons was passed on to good and pious people.

The history of the Byzantine Iconography was divided by historians to various periods.

1. The first centuries until the Iconomachy. This period is subdivided:
A) In the proto-Christianity (until the time of Great Constantine).
B) In the early Christianity during 320-720AD (From the period of Great Constantine to the iconomachy)

2. The time of the Iconamachy (724-843AD).

3. The time of the Macedonians and Comnenus (867-1204AD).

4. The Paleologian Renaissance (1204-1453AD) or the final byzantine period.

In the first centuries of Christianity, the proto-Christian period, was what was known as the archaic iconography, which had a symbolic characteristic also known as the art of the catacombs. The art structure of the catacomb depictions was liberal. It started with motifs received from idolatric art, such as Orpheus. The purpose of this art was plainly educational. Symbols such as a ship, fish, olive, anchor, vine etc, were used. The wall paintings of this period were basically non artistic. They had more religious than artistic significance.

In the early Christian period, following the cessation of persecutions, they started to use drawing depictions of holy persons and situations from the Old and New Testament. In this period we have use of mosaics. There are some important wall paintings that were worked with the art of Fresco. Important art works of this period are: at the Basilica of Saint Demetrius in Thessaloniki (5th Century), of Saint Appolinarius in Ravenna (Italy), the fresco of Castelserpio near Milan (6th century) etc. Of the portable icons of this period (6th century) is the magnificent burning art of the Sinai Monastery.

During the dark years of Iconomachy, the condemnation of the icons and in general the depictions of human forms, stopped temporarily the course of the byzantine paintings. The iconographic circle was replaced with decorative motifs especially from the animal and vegetable world. Iconomachy did not create a new art but it mainly brought back the proto-Christian ornamentation of the Churches. This period sees mainly the development of the theology of the icon with Saint John Damascene, the apologetic and champion of the iconophiles of the 1st phase of iconomachy (726-787AD) with the 7th Ecumenical Synod at Nicea (787AD) which condemned the iconomach heresy and with Saint Theodore the Studite, the other flag bearer of Orthodoxy, who defended the icons during the second phase of iconomachy (813-843AD).

The commotion of iconomachy ended decisively with the endemic Synod of 843AD in Constantinople during the reign of Saint Theodora. The Synod decided to restore the holy icons and decreed the Sunday of Orthodoxy.

In the period of the Macedonians and the Comnenus we have the renaissance of Orthodox Hagiography. The victory over the iconomachs brought about substantial change in painting as well as to the whole byzantine art. The decoration of churches is forbidden on liturgical and dogmatic reasons. A hierarchal order is decreed as a result on iconographic topics. This order is decreed by the Church which at present under the decision of the 7th Ecumenical Synod, has assumed the direction of hagiography. Thus are three iconographic groups formed: the dogmatic, the liturgical and the historic (festive). The topic relates to a dedicated place in the Church to which it will turn out into a canon of byzantine hagiography.


During this period we have also features of the art. The type of the monk with dried up face, with almond shaped eyes due to strict fasting, enters into iconography etc. We then have a return to the Alexandrian tradition. Angelic features and saints in mosaic remind of forms in the Hellenistic world. The posing and movement of the depicted ones are done according to the prototypes of ancient Greek sculpture. The prophets have the raiment, the pose and expression of orators. Generally there is a blending of ancient and new features and the tradition is harmonized with the contemporary art. Charles Delvoye calls this period the classical age of Byzantium. Magnificent works of this period are: the Church of Saint Sophia at Ahrida (1040-1045AD), the Church of Saint Panteleimon at Nerezi in Skopia (1164AD), the magnificent mosaics of Saint Sophia of Constantinople (12thth century), of the Daphne Monastery (11th century) and many more. century), of the church of Saint Luke in Libadia.

The Paleologian period is considered the golden age of hagiography. Whatever the art of the previous centuries offered came back with renewed life. The renaissance of the Paleologus' should be considered as a consequent natural progression of the previous years and not as a phenomenon that appeared suddenly. It should be explained as a re-enlivening (by the ideas and the climate of the paleologian years) of the brilliant art of the Macedonians and of the Comnenus'. The 14th century is an anthropocentric century. The characteristic therefore of this renaissance is the deep humanism. There is a turn towards the humanistic, hagiography becoming more narrative, with the art intending to cause emotion, to touch the feelings. Mainly, the French specialist G. Millet divided the paleologian art into two "schools", the "Macedonian" and the "Cretan". Of course the term "schools" which have since held, is not correct. Rather it concerns two different currents, two different ways of approach of the paleologian hagiography.

The "Macedonian School" was born in Constantinople and bloomed mainly in Macedonia, centered in Thessaloniki and passed on to Serbia. The School is characterized by its realism and freedom. It has intensity, movement and rich colours. The face and clothes are broadly illuminated, for this they call it "broad style". It was viewed - without being of course absolute - that this art was most inclined to the learned, the educated classes and the courtiers. Its main proponents were Manuel Panselinus (who drew the Chapel of Saint Euthymius of Thessaloniki and the church of the "Protatou") Michael Astrapas and his brother Eutyhius who practiced in Serbia, George Kalliergis etc. In the same period belongs the unrivalled in craftsmanship and beauty monument of the Monastery of the Country in Constantinople.

From the reigning city (Constantinople) the art passed on to Mystra during the end of the 14th century. There it assumed a close character and produced the "Cretan School". This School remains more faithful to the byzantine idealism. It is a conservative art, with its characteristic conservative motions, the simplicity, the nobility of the faces and generally its attachment to the byzantine traditions. The light in the close style is scant and feels like it emanates from some depth, an element that brings the faithful to profound devoutness. It was considered as an art of monastic circles. The genuine Cretan School was first formed in Crete from which it derived its name- after the historically significant event of the fall of Byzantium in the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th century. The main representative was Theophan the Cretan, who was an hagiographer at Meteora and at the Holy Mountain. Well known for the drawing depictions on the Catholicon (nave) of the Monastery of Dionysius is also Zorzis (1547AD). During this period Francis Catelanus and his brother George were hagiographers who however began to accept foreign and western elements.

Finally, in the 16th century and all of the 17th  a great peak is noted in the portable cretan style, represented mainly by: Michael Damascene, Ganee, Lambardo, Victor, Poulaki, Mosko etc, who however make use by a large degree of elements from the prevailing western art.


On the 18th and 19th century the lay art bloomed, characterized by the expression of the spirit of the era, namely the desire of liberation from the Turkish yoke. The main contributors were Theophilus, George Markus, Zographus etc. The faces are expressed with simple forms, the colours are darker and generally the quality is inferior to the previous centuries. The byzantine art had to large extent disappeared and the western art took hold until the second half of the 20th century. Dionysius from Fourna tried during his time (around the 18th century AD) to bring back the byzantine art but his effort was not fruitful for the flow thus far led to the West. Even at the Holy Mountain they used Western art. Not until 1940-1950 the great Fotis Contoglou after superhuman struggles managed to bring back to light the art of byzantine hagiography and to cultivate a climate of revival of the painting tradition. During our times, the blooming of the byzantine studies, the researches for the byzantine art, the meeting sessions, all created a favourable atmosphere. Contemporary artists having finally gained the necessary knowledge, can and should as an obligation become guardians and undertake the creative continuation of the long tradition that is called the Orthodox hagiography.  





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