This is an edited transcript of the site talk and discussion conducted by Father Chris Dimolianis on Monday the 6th of December, 2004. It took place at St. Eustathios, the Greek Orthodox Church he presides over in South Melbourne. This was the eighth site in the current Melbourne AMPEdS program.
Father Chris Dimolianis: Initially maybe well start with a little bit of structure as in a bit of background and then a bit of historical background before getting into a little bit of technical background. As thoughts and questions arise please feel free to go ahead and go for it at the time.
I think the first thing we need to say in a Western 21st century society gathering - because that’s what we are right now - is that what we are going to be looking at this evening, although initially we may think that this is something the Orthodox have and do, it’s actually a common tradition of all of us. Iconography is, if we look at it historically – and I’ll explain in a moment what I mean – part of our common Christian heritage. It’s just that the Eastern Orthodox have run with it right to the present whereas other Christian groups have set it aside for whatever reason. Historically if you look through the of Christianity you’ll see why that’s been done so, but very important to emphasise right from the onset that this is a common Christian tradition, Western, going right back to the early Church.
Historically speaking, iconography, the earliest Christian iconography at least, was in the form of abstract symbols. You may be familiar with the fish. Sometimes you see people with bumper stickers on the back of their cars with the fish - that was from an anagram from ancient Greek. The word fish as an anagram means ‘Jesus Christ Son of God Saviour’. So, a Christian could recognize another Christian back in the first few centuries of Christian history by the symbol of the fish. Why they had to use abstract symbols was that in the first three hundred years or so of Christianity if you were a Christian it was an illegal religion, you could be arrested, tortured and killed, you and your whole family. It was underground for the first three hundred years and there were waves of persecution - you may have heard of the Caesars of the time, Nero particularly, who used to persecute Christianity. So the initial symbols of the Church were abstract; there was the figure of the lamb that represented the Lamb of God, Christ, the slaughtered lamb who came to sacrifice his life; there was the symbol of the so-called ‘chi rho’, it looks like an English x and a p, which were the first two letters in Greek of the word ‘Christ’. When you saw those symbols you recognized this was a symbol representing Christ. They were some of the sort of things that early Christians’ had as iconography. Also at the time, and it’s particularly evident in the catacombs of Rome, there are expressions in human form of Christian symbols.
Eventually we came to have what we’ve got here in this church. The icons that you see around you are very much in the Byzantine style. Historically they have developed to this form to today but this form was established around the period of the Byzantine Empire, which was not early Christianity, but say, middle Christianity.
Now the best thing I can say as an introduction of what an icon is meant to be is to use a synonymous term that we often use to describe an icon. Icons, we say in the church, are ‘windows to eternity’. As we look through a window in our bedroom and we look out, some of you may see water, others might see a bit of bush or something, but an icon is as if you are looking through a window and you are seeing the dimension of the Kingdom of Heaven: you are seeing eternity. That’s why they are often referred to as the ‘windows to eternity’.
So when you look around and you see people depicted here in these icons, as you may have noticed already you will not expect to see people looking like this (gesturing to an icon on the wall) walking down Collins Street. There’s something quite unusual about them.
This is a good example: St. Nectarios (of Aegina) – there’s one icon of him there and one over there just on the right of the window where the stained glass is, with the white beard, they’re the same St. Nectarios – he’s a fairly recent saint of the Greek Orthodox tradition who was canonized in 1960. Now there are photographs of St. Nectarios so the question would arise in your mind, ‘Why don’t we stick a photograph of St. Nectarios on the wall?’ Instead we have these depictions that look quite unnatural, so why don’t we stick a photograph there? Well it’s deliberate. What we’re meant to see when we see a saint or, when I look at that icon of St. Nectarios; firstly I know that he was a bishop of the Church even if I know nothing about him because he’s dressed in the Orthodox bishop’s vestments, but secondly, I see something of the Kingdom of Heaven, eternity, which this person has attained. It’s meant to show in one phrase what becomes of ordinary human beings when God touches them. When we are sanctified by God it’s supposed to depict what we become through God’s grace, as we say in the Church.
There is a lot of symbolism in icons and I’ll get to that in a moment. One other aspect that helps us see the icon as a ‘window to eternity’ is evident if you look at the icon of Christ distributing Holy Communion to his Apostles, up there above the icon screen. Take notice of the lines of that table. Those of you who know how to draw - more than I do at least - know you don’t draw a table with that sort of perspective; you would rather draw the lines so that if you connected them right up they would meet at the horizon. Like when you draw a train track disappearing into the horizon, it appears as if the lines meet - so the perspective is in the distance when you look at a normal sort of photographic style of portrayal. But if you notice there the perspective is reversed. The focal point of that perspective becomes yourself; you are the focal point, you are drawn into it and it opens up, and the reason why the distance opens, as I said before, is, it’s a window to eternity. It’s meant to portray that you are looking into eternity, you are drawn into what is happening and you are drawn into the eternal portrayal of the event that is shown.
That’s why in the Orthodox tradition in many of the hymns of the Church you’ll find things referred to in the present tense. As we are about to celebrate Christmas it’s not being celebrated as an event that just took place 2000 years ago as an historical event, rather, it’s being celebrated as an event that is happening today. In fact all the hymns say, ‘Today Christ is born in a manger,’ so all the references in the hymns point out that eternity has become today or today is eternity, the eternal presence. So you see that sort of symbolism happening.
An important thing to mention about iconography – we had this discussion a little earlier with a couple of people before we started – is that an iconographer is not necessarily meant to be a wonderfully skilled artist. It’s obviously good if you are because your iconography maybe a bit more pleasant to look at, but an iconographer in the true understanding of an iconographer is rather a person who is living their life in Christ and who is expressing the theology of the Church in colour and in line.
So it’s no surprise then that an iconographer, before they can even pick up a brush to commence painting, they would pray and fast for a period of time - that’s why by the way most iconography today is done is done within monasteries, simply because they are living a life of prayer and fasting continuously. It’s only natural for them to then continue their expression of prayer and worship and theology as part of their general life.
An iconographer then is not meant to be just a great artist. Libby (Brown) was just saying to me before we started that at a monastery they visited in Essex, England, people where literally assigned the job of being an iconographer when they went to the monastery; ‘Your going to do this job, your going to do that job and you’re going to be an iconographer.’ You can imagine this poor person saying, ‘But I can’t draw!’ You’re going to be an iconographer: so what does that mean? In the Orthodox tradition, particularly in a monastic tradition, the importance of humility and obedience are paramount. Without humility and obedience you simply cannot be a monastic, it doesn’t work, it’s contrary to a life of monasticism. So humility and obedience means when the abbot says, ‘This is what you are going to do’ then, this is what you are going to do! You’re going to learn how to do this and you’ll find that the abbot would not do that without a reason, he would not send someone and say, ‘This is what you are going to do’ without realizing this is what this person needs to learn, this is what this person needs to live.
So are there any questions at this stage before I continue; anything that I may have said or anything that you may have in mind?
Those of you who are artists yourselves will know this, but one of the things that are very important to you as artists is to know how to express yourselves; after all isn’t that what art is all about, to sit and express yourself in whatever field you have chosen to express yourself in a creative form? Iconography, although it’s an aspect of expression, of personal expression, it is not really meant to be that; it’s meant to be an expression of the common knowledge, the common faith, the common worship, the common prayer that we all have as a family, together. Although yes, there will be parts of myself in the icon that I write, and notice that I say, ‘Icon I write,’ because an iconographer is not referred to as someone who is painting an icon but rather writing an icon. That’s what iconography means, ‘to write an icon’.
Therefore there are certain canons within the Church, guidelines that the Church has established for iconography and you must abide by these canons. One example: as an iconographer I’m meant to start with the darkest colours and work to the lightest colours. So the darkest colour will be black, dark brown or navy blue and I would paint in such a way that the very last colour that I apply is literally white. That’s deliberate from a theological point of view, this coming from darkness to light, but also it creates a look – something I’ll show you when we take a close look at the icon of Christ later on. The effect that it gives is that the light is not simply reflected from the person, it actually looks as though the light is coming from and out of the person. The person themselves is radiating light rather than just being reflected as we’re seeing on others faces right now. That’s the impression it gives.
When I look at an icon I’m meant to know who it is that I’m looking at. I can’t just see a vague representation of somebody and say, ‘I wonder whom this is meant to represent?’ I should be able to see it, assuming I can read the text of course, and know not just by reading the text, but something of the Saint. A good example: the second icon across there, that’s St. Barbara who celebrated her feast day in our church last Saturday, the fourth of December. If you can see there in her right hand she is holding a cross. Now even if I know nothing about St. Barbara by looking at that icon I know immediately that she is one of the Martyrs of the Church because she is holding a cross in her right hand. It is something that would always be portrayed in the hands of a Martyr of the Church. So as we look around we see certain things that symbolise who the person actually was and I’m meant to see the icon and know who it is that I’m looking at; it can’t be just a vague representation of whoever and I’m wondering, ‘Is this Christ, is this St. Paul, who is it?’ I’m meant to know who it is.
Now the other thing about iconography, particularly in the layout of the church, is we can’t just go putting icons wherever we feel like putting them aesthetically speaking. I can’t just say ‘Yeah, I reckon the icon of the Virgin Mary would look really nice over there’ or ‘I think I’ll take that one down and swap it with that one.’ In the Orthodox tradition there are canons as to the placement of icons as well and the front part of the church indicates this well, although this isn’t a traditional Orthodox church, it was built as a Presbyterian church and has been adapted for Orthodox usage. Why I say that is, for example, the ceiling would be completely different in an Orthodox church; it would have a dome at the top with a large icon of Christ. One part that is familiar and the same in every Orthodox church is the layout of the icon screen. Behind the screen is the altar itself. These curtains, these altar doors, are open during the service. This icon screen is a good indicator of how the layout of icons takes place in the church. What I mean by that is - and this goes for any Orthodox church you may ever visit anywhere in the world, no matter how large the church is or how small - you have three doors: the main ‘Royal Door’ and on the right of the ‘Royal Door’ is always placed the icon of Christ, in honour of Christ himself and his position in the Church. Let us move up to the altar for a closer look.
This icon of Christ, as I said, is placed on the right of the ‘Royal Door’ in honour of Christ himself. You can see as you are closer now that the light and the shading is coming from the dark to the light, it is like light is radiating from his face: that very serene look. One thing you will notice in the faces of the icons is that they are emotionless. You can’t tell whether they are sad or whether they are joyful - What’s going on here? – as there is no emotion. It’s not mean to show that they literally have no emotion, what it’s meant to show is that they are beyond human emotion. Remember, this is a ‘window to eternity.’ They are in a different dimension, a different realm of life than what we experience here in our human existence. So it’s not that they are without emotion but it’s trying to indicate and emphasize that they are beyond human emotion.
The features are very important too. As I said before, you wouldn’t expect to find anyone walking down Collins Street looking like this, so the distortion of the features is deliberate to indicate symbolically the existence in the Kingdom of God, in the beyond, in the supernatural, maybe supra-natural existence. We see that, for example, the ears are large and elongated and turned out, that they are always listening to the word of God. That’s what it is symbolically meant to indicate. The eyes are wide and open and very attentive, very aware, seeing clearly, seeing things of God clearly. The mouth is usually very small and tight with very small lips symbolically indicating communion, not just simply receiving Holy Communion but rather communion of the Saints, the communion with God. The nose is shown long and thin showing that it is ready to experience the spiritual fragrance, as the Bible calls it, the spiritual fragrance of the Kingdom of God. This is all symbolic portrayal, it’s not meant to be photographic.
Christ is always holding the Gospel, the Bible, which is the Word of God – he is the Word of God, as the Bible calls him – and his distorted-looking hand like this is simply a symbolic representation of the word ‘Christ’, ‘Jesus Christ’. He is forming the first few letters of Jesus Christ with his fingers. What that is saying - sometimes you’ll see in our icons of priests and bishops they are holding their hands like that – is, ‘receive the blessing of Christ,’ not my blessing, I’m a human being like you, but receive Christ’s blessing.
Now with the icon of Christ - and I’ve spoken of the canons and the rules of how it’s meant to be - the halo around his head is always meant to have the impression of the cross on it so that when I look at an icon of Christ I know straight away that it is Christ as opposed to another saint. It usually has the letters on there, ancient Greek letters which simply means ‘He Who Is.’ I don’t know if you know the Bible very well but when Moses with the burning bush came across God he asked, ‘God, who shall I say is sending me to the pharaoh and to the Hebrew people?’ God responded to him in the Bible, ‘Tell them I Am sent you.’ That’s how God described himself. So, ‘He Who Is’ is saying that this is God who has come among us and lived among us in human form. The letters up the top are just calligraphic terms for Jesus Christ as it is in Greek.
So what I’m supposed to see here in this icon as I look at it is the fullness of God that has taken on the fullness of our humanity. That’s what Christmas is all about, not just that he was born as a baby, but rather God took on the fullness of our humanity. I’m meant to see this when I see the icon. Notice if you look at Renaissance paintings of Christ you’ll see very beautiful human model, literally like the artist has chosen some beautiful AFL player or something, Warwick Capper or someone - not that I could imagine him as Christ! They used whatever model he found or she found to bring out the beauty of Christ’s humanity.
For those of you who are interested in the history or the development of iconography in the history of the Church, the best thing to look at are the 'Declarations and Proclamations of the Seventh Ecumenical Council of the Church' that took place in 787 AD. There the Church clearly spells out what iconography should be and it says there that the portrayal of Christ should not show him simply as a beautiful human being, rather I should be seeing when I look at the icon of Christ the fullness of God present in humanity. That’s why this distortion and all the portrayal symbolically: it’s meant to show me in some sort of tangible way that my human mind and eyes can grasp, the fullness of divinity, God, dwelling in humanity. And that’s what I’m meant to see when I see the icon of Christ.
If you where to be in an Orthodox church on a Sunday when people are walking into the church and you stood at the back and watched people, and what they did, what you would notice is that after lighting a candle they would go to an icon at the back and they’d bow before them, do the sign of the cross and they would kiss them. Why they do that is for exactly the same reason when you enter the house of your friends the first thing you do is, obviously, greet your friends. You don’t just walk into the house and sit on their computer, you greet you friends first and then you go in and sit on their computer!
In the same way when we enter the House of God, this sacred space, we come through and greet. We have them at the back and people would greet there, where we have the icons. A good way to understand the idea of kissing the icons is, it’s exactly the same as if you had a photograph at home of a loved-one who maybe is living overseas or maybe has even died, or someone that you really care for and you haven’t seen for a long time and you may never see again, and, if you saw someone kissing this photo and hugging it to their chest you’d understand why they are doing it. It’s not the person by any means but it definitely represents the person. That’s what iconography is meant to do for us. It’s not meant to be simply an aesthetic picture that I look at and think ‘Wow isn’t that wonderful!’ Not even to just sit in front and contemplate it! It’s not meant to be just that, it’s meant to bring to me the presence of the reality of the prototype: Christ and the Saints and the Virgin Mary or whoever.
Any questions before we go on?
Penny Trotter: Are you going to talk about iconoclasm?
FCD: If you want me to I can.
PT: I’d like to know the reasons why.
FCD: Yes, sure. What happened was - and that’s a good point to bring up when speaking about iconography - in the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries there was a period within the Church – this is what led to the Seventh Ecumenical Council – where there were people within the Church who believed that icons were idols, that people were worshipping idols. And many people today believe that about Orthodox Christianity, many of the Protestant Christians particularly think when they see people kissing them or whatever, they think we are worshipping the idols, you know, ‘What’s going on here?’
What these people held up as their argument as to why we should not have them is they quoted, for example; in the Ten Commandments the Second Commandment from God to Moses was that you shall not create any graven image and bow down and worship them. When you hear that you might think, ‘Yeah, maybe they’ve got a point,’ but people who quote that Second Commandment of Moses forget that straight after God gave Moses that Commandment he also said to him that, ‘I want you to build a temple and I want you to build it a certain way’. Even though the Second Commandment says you should not create any graven image of anything in Heaven and anything on Earth and bow down and worship it, he also said he wanted the Arc of the Covenant built in a certain way where it had the Cherubim Angels, which are heavenly beings. So, he seems to contradict himself but he is not. The point is not what you portray but rather what you do with the portrayal.
If you worship the portrayal as a god then you are missing the whole point of the Commandment given by God through Moses. The Iconoclasts however emphasised that these guys are worshipping these things as idols, so what they started to do was to attack these things and they were helped by certain emperors of the then Byzantine Empire who came along and basically declared that all icons should be destroyed: that’s what iconoclasm means, to break icons. They started to eradicate and smash icons and to replaster walls and put in their place the old abstract symbols that early Christians’ had, like the cross, the lamb etc. All these abstract symbols they thought were ok but not pictorial representations of Christ or the Saints or even Christian events or feasts.
There was a dispute that took place then that the Church took more than a century to deal with and that’s basically why the Seventh Ecumenical Council was called; to bring the whole Church together and say ‘Hey, we’ve got to see is this really worship of idols or is it something that from the beginning is a transmission of the truth as given to us by Christ and the Apostles?’
Apart from going to the Declarations and Proclamations of the Seventh Ecumenical Council there is a book by St. John of Damascus, sometimes known as St. John the Damascene, called “On the Divine Images (: Three Apologies Against Those Who Attack the Holy Images).” It’s probably the greatest text on this and it’s only a small book, quite short and easy to read. You can also download that from the web. What it really sums up beautifully and what he says - this is a very brief summary – is the justification the Seventh Ecumenical Council put forward for iconography. St. John of Damascus says ‘God took on upon himself matter, he became matter in order to save me through matter’. So basically he took on the fullness of our humanity, the fullness of his own creation in order to elevate that creation, that matter, us, and to elevate it to the realm of God himself. The fact that he took on tangible matter, he became fully a human being - the fullness of God took on the fullness of our humanity – and because he did that, where in the past I could not portray God because I’d never seen God before, but, from the moment God was born and was born in the fullness of our humanity, now I can portray the God that I can see, the God that I can know in a tangible human way. That became the justification of the expression of icons.
You can see that the establishment of icons after the iconoclastic dispute became not just an issue of religious art – ‘Is it alright to have religious art or not?’ – the real issue was the incarnation of God: did God really take on the fullness of our humanity or did he not? If he took on the fullness of our humanity therefore we can now portray him in the fullness of his humanity, not as a lamb, not as an abstract symbol but the fullness of you and I, our humanity.
Tom Nicholson: Is the place of the image in religious practice, or for that matter the conventions that operate within the icons, still the subject of much theological debate, or was that settled?
FCD: No. That was settled at the Seventh Ecumenical Council and was finally settled in 843 at an event referred to now as the ‘Triumph of Orthodoxy’. It was the reestablishment once and for all of iconography as an important aspect of prayer and worship within the Church.
TN: Do disputes arise about the depiction of recent figures ever?
FCD: The only time since 843 that’s there has been any sort of dispute was after the Protestant Reformation when people like Calvin and Martin Luther decided to get rid of everything out of the church except for the Bible. They literally chucked everything out because they thought, ‘Ok, we’ve got the Bible, we see that as the Word of God, but everything else we see as ‘man-made’ additions so let’s get rid of everything and just keep the Bible.’ But they forget that the Bible itself came out of the Church too, the Bible as we have it, the New Testament, we didn’t have until the end of the fourth century.
TN: Did that activate any debates within the Greek Orthodox Church at all?
FCD: No. So from 843 once a year on the first Sunday of Lent we celebrate what we call the ‘Sunday of Orthodoxy’ where we have a procession of icons in the church and we read a short passage from the Declarations of the Seventh Ecumenical Council on that day. What that celebration is, is not just simply the restoration of religious art in churches - though that’s what it looks like to a lot of people - but a celebration about the proclamation of the full incarnation of God as human. That is really what we are commemorating and the icons are tangible expressions of that.
Christian Capurro: When I spoke to you previously one of the things that stood out for me was you mentioned that an icon can’t just be brought into the space and ‘work’, that it’s not yet ‘activated’ but needs to reside here first for a period of time.
FCD: The purpose of an icon, as I said a moment ago, is not meant to be as religious art; we call it ‘religious art’ but it’s not meant to be an aesthetic object of art, never was intended to be that and still isn’t. Having said that, at home you’ll find many people have icons on the wall, I too have icons in various rooms of my home, but even at home how it’s meant to be used is in the format or within the context of prayer and worship. We have a little corner in a particular part of our house where the family or individuals might gather for prayer, where they light incense and have an oil lamp burning, just as we have oil lamps here in the church.
When an iconographer writes an icon the first thing they would do when they complete the icon is they would place it into the church for a period of forty days. The reason for this is not that suddenly through the forty days of being in the church it magically absorbs the vibes of the building, it’s not like that, rather it’s because it is placed in the context of what it’s meant to be, prayer and worship. So having it within the church building, and most people when they travel - say someone has travelled to Greece and they come back with a new icon that they’ve bought at a monastery or someone has given them, the first thing they do when they come back is to bring that icon to church and they leave it here in our altar area for a period of forty days and then they come and pick it up and place it in their home. The idea of that, of ‘churching’ the icon is that it is introduced to this context of prayer and worship. From there it continues that life at home, as well, which is the home church.
Adam Rozsa: Do you know when these icons were done?
FCD: This church was bought for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in the 1960’s so they would have been written around the early to mid sixties I believe, in a monastery at Mount Athos.
The importance of the halo is another thing about the icon I think I should be mentioned - I know you will be familiar with the halo from Renaissance painting of religious figures. In a Renaissance painting if they don’t have a halo you won’t know who the Saint is or if it’s Christ; in an icon it is clear who you are looking at even without a halo, you know you are looking at a saint or a holy person. The word we use in Greek for halo is ‘photostephano’ meaning, ‘the crown of light’. So what it’s meant to represent is not just the holiness of the person but also represent their reward as well. The Saints were crowned in light as a reward from God for their endeavours.
I started to talk about the layout and the canons of where these icons go: Christ as I mentioned always goes on the right here, on the left is always an icon of the Virgin Mary and she is usually depicted holding Christ and pointing to him. This is very important because what this icon is saying is, it’s like her saying, ‘He is the one’ and that’s very important because we don’t worship the Virgin Mary as we don’t worship the Saints, we worship God. That icon says so much. Even when you look at Christ’s face you can’t work out whether it’s a child or an adult, that’s deliberate. Like the wisdom of the years, you might say.
On the right of Christ is always placed the icon of St. John the Baptist. He’s the last of the Old Testament prophets and his whole mission in life was to prepare the way and point out who the Messiah was to be. So he’s placed in honour at the right of Christ. He is usually depicted with angels’ wings because the word ‘angel’, in Greek ‘angelos’, means messenger, and he was the messenger of God sent to point out the Messiah. He’s usually given a fairly rough appearance because he lived as an ascetic out in the desert.
Now the icon next to the Virgin Mary is always the icon of the saint who the particular church is dedicated to. In this case it is St. Eustathios in Greek and St. Eustace in English. He was a Roman general and that’s why he is shown with all the weaponry and the armour; that armour in a spiritual sense is symbolic of spiritual warfare and so he’s depicted in that light. In whichever church we happen to go to that icon next to the Virgin Mary is of the Saint of the church you happen to be in. If you walk into the church of St. Nicholas you’d expect to find an icon of St. Nicholas there. If you went to the church of the Resurrection of Christ you’d expect to find the icon of the Resurrection of Christ.
On the doors are the Archangels; Archangel Michael is usually depicted with a sword because he’s the great fighter against Satan and evil and on the other one is the Archangel Gabriel.
Now it’s over to you for questions because I know time is running out.
AR: You explained how the canons have shaped the history of this iconography but I was wondering what you know about the progression of the image: is there an evolution of the image of God and the Saints or do you think the canons will reign?
FCD: I see. The expression can differ and often does. A good description of that is if you look at different Orthodox traditions. If you look the Russian iconography as opposed to Serbian or even Asian, if you look at Japanese Orthodoxy - many people aren’t aware that Orthodoxy is across the whole world – you will see different expressions and cultural and artistic styles coming in. There’s no doubt that will happen, different personalities and abilities will show that too, but, the main layout of the symbolism, that basic structure, I will recognise no matter which icon I see of Christ. I will recognise that as Christ no matter which person has done it or from which background. So yes there is difference, or a change, or an evolution of styles – remember I said earlier this is the Byzantine style of iconography that’s come out through that period of history, which by the way had very ancient influences as well. If you look at ancient Egyptian paintings you’ll see in the depiction of the features of the face it’s very similar to Eastern iconography, very similar.
TN: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the two banners that are up there, how you use them and how the connections might differ.
FCD: Iconography can be in different sorts of mediums. We’ve spoken about the iconography on panels so far, which is using paint, usually an egg yolk tempera and the colours that are primarily earth colours. But there can be other styles like embroidered icons. As you leave the church you will notice an embroidered icon of the Burial of Christ above the door. You can have carved icons. You won’t normally find three-dimensional statues but you will find panels that are carved, that are two-dimensional but almost three-dimensional. These banners are sometimes carried in processions but we hardly ever use them that way. You’ve just reminded me that when we have the Sunday of Orthodoxy, when we have the procession of icons, we could perhaps carry those banners as well.
TN: Are they carried inside or outside or both?
FCD: Both. When we celebrate the 25th of March, Greek Independence Day, we have a parade down at the Shrine down the road here; we commence the whole parade of all these people marching, it starts off with one of these banners being carried at the front.
TN: You’ve spent a bit of time describing the relationship between the image and what it depicts and how it’s not meant to be an artistic representation or that it has some kind of indexical relationship. Is it the same with the banners?
FCD: Oh yes, it’s exactly the same.
TN: Do they get what you described as ‘churching’, that they reside in the church for a period of time first?
FCD: They would. These icons here, for example, having been written in a monastery over in Mount Athos, they would have dwelt in a monastery for that long and the whole place is a sacred space, the whole monastery, so whether they have to then had to lift those icons up and carry them into the literal church building is probably unlikely because the whole monastery was a sacred space. So the room where the iconographer would have prepared these would have been sufficient to then bring into the church and placed there.
TN: You talked of the luminosity and the importance of that in a technical sense, but also that it contains a whole series of theological meanings, so I just wondered how you responded to the magazine (the Another Misspent Portrait of Etienne de Silhouette erased magazine) as a visual item, and, if in any way it corresponded or contradicted what you expect from an image in this context?
FCD: Well, many, many years ago when I was at school my best friend was an artist and when he was studying at a particular college out in a country area I went and stayed with him on a farm for a while. He introduced me to art, but I’m not familiar with visual art and I didn’t grow-up studying it or lean much about it, but he introduced me to a lot of concepts I didn’t know about before. He also introduced me to a lot of people who were involved in the art world and I saw a lot of strange things and, because of that, I’m not surprised by anything at all.
In fact, I was saying to a couple of people before that, after meeting my wife - before we were married - we decided to go out for a date together and it was to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. I remember seeing there - I’m not trying to draw comparisons by the way, I’m just saying that I really have seen a lot of things - one particular part of this art exhibition. It was a television set to the ABC test pattern and, literally, a dead cow sitting there watching it! Being at the entrance to the art gallery it caught me by surprise; I looked at it and thought, hmmm. So, I was wondering what was happening when I first met Christian. I thought, ‘What’s going on here?’ and then I realized what the concept was. I don’t know how it relates directly to iconography and I know that doesn’t explain anything.
CC: It was quite wonderful because after I’d been speaking to you for a little while, and we’d been looking at the magazine, you looked at me and said, ‘But what do you show people?’ It did make me think, ‘What is it I’m showing people or, <what is being shown here?’
FCD: I remember flicking through it and thinking, ‘There’s nothing here!’ I was waiting for something to be in there. If you’d told me something before hand I would have been prepared, but you shocked me a little bit. Then when you explained the process I thought, ‘Ah right, ok, I get it.’
CC: It was a very natural response: what is at issue here and am I meant to see something or not. That was very interesting I thought.
Libby Brown: I was just thinking how different this church is from say the one in Essex (Monastery of St John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights). There it was so dark, and when it was so dark the icons really glowed, it was extraordinary, very unexpected.
FCD: Even during the services?
CC: Yes, very dark.
LB: Incredibly dark.
CC: I don’t know whether it was the time of year.
FCD: Did they have the flickering oil lamps?
LB: Yes. Sometimes you could only see the glow and not the image.
CC: When I saw that I realized how this sort of gold leaf works in very low light conditions with flickering light.
FCD: I notice as we prepare to close things down and to turn the church lights off, all the oil lamps are still on, and I know what you mean, it’s the flickering play of the light from the oil lamps on the icons. It’s quite an awesome thing. Anyone who’s been in the church as we are closing the church down has commented on that.
Nikos Papastergiadis: You said that there was a deliberate intention of putting the icons beside the ‘Royal Door’ and if there were a dome there would be…
FCD: That’s right, all the iconography that would be on the wall. Maybe if I explain it this way it might be clear as to one of the reasons why that is happening. In a traditionally built and designed Orthodox Church the idea of a vertical and a horizontal is happening: Heaven and Earth (gesturing). We are here on earth and that’s the Almighty looking down on us. Even the chandeliers are meant to represent the heavenly bodies as we look up above. So, in the paintings up on the dome are the Almighty Creator, then coming down, the Angels and then the Prophets and the Apostles, right down to around the walls, as we have here, with the Saints who are ordinary human beings who have be sanctified, and, here we are as well. So there’s the vertical thing and then there’s the horizontal of Earth/Heaven, the Holy of Holies (gesturing), and that sort of progression happening.
NP: One of the other features I’d noticed at Mount Athos was that outside of the churches on the exterior walls there were always these paintings, very intense paintings of torture scenes, the torture of the Martyrs. It was always on the outside, exactly as you describe, some incredibly violent acts, sometimes men carrying their own heads, but the look on the face was exactly as you said, it was beyond emotion. So that explains it, as I was always wondering why if they were meant to be in agony could they look so calm! I suppose the purpose of having that on the exterior is it is part of a transition towards the Holy.
FCD: I don’t know, I’ve never heard of iconography being on the outside.
NP: Not only on the exterior of the building but just as you enter, before you came into…
FCD: Through the entrance of the church, in the foyer part?
NP: Yes. In the foyer on the wall just above where you enter. It was very common. I noticed about half a dozen of the churches had these and they were very, very powerful scenes.
FCD: The narthex, as we call the foyer there, is now usually small. In those churches it was probably quite large, much larger than that (pointing). Traditionally in an Orthodox Church it’s meant to be quite large. All the candles and the icons are usually out in that part of the church so, in speaking of the canons of the Church, maybe that’s what is meant to be in that section of the church. I’ve never seen a church with that because all our churches here are either bought or have been adapted for use in our worship. A few have been built here but haven’t completed iconography, so I’ve never actually seen a church with that in it, in the foyer part.
CC: If there are no other questions I’d like to thank Father Chris, as I know you are very busy – our scheduling was quite a feat I think - and to get you here tonight has been wonderful. So thank you very much for your time.
FCD: It’s my pleasure. Thank you all for coming and good to meet you.