My curiosity began when I saw them every day as I drove to and from work. As I made my way through Chicago’s Greektown, I would see the maroon banners on the city’s street lights. The Icon of Saint George would stare at me, seeming to call me.
“HEAVEN AND EARTH: Art of Byzantium from Greece
September 27, 2014 – February 18, 2015”
Of course, I knew it wasn’t artwork but iconography, ancient writings of religious significance. However, it would still be enticing to see. I grew up in the Orthodox Church, and therefore, the icons were part of the natural environment in the church. As a small five-year-old boy, the large Platytera served as a form of amusement as it seemed the Theotokos’ eyes would follow me in the church. When I got older, serving as an altar boy, the icons on the Iconostasis served as a place for us to stand behind and hide from the view of the congregation. In other words, being born into the Faith, the icons were just there. Sure, I would do my cross and kiss the icons, but these banners on the street lights were an invitation to a new world within the Orthodox Faith, the world of church history.
That world opened up to me via an invitation that was extended to my wife and me. It was for a private tour of the exhibit led by Pavlos Yeroulanos, the former Greek Minister of Culture and Sports (then the Ministry of Culture and Tourism) and current Deputy Director of the Benaki Museum in Athens. Both the Benaki Museum and the Ministry helped bring this exhibit to America, which premiered in Washington, D.C., and then made its way to Los Angeles before coming to Chicago.
Now, I must admit that my anxiousness got the best of me, and, as a result, my wife and I actually experienced this exhibit prior to the tour. However, it was nowhere near as educational it was when we went on the tour with a knowledgeable guide. After the tour, we felt intellectually and spiritually enriched.
Upon entering the exhibit, visitors are greeted by marble busts of Aphrodite and others from a pre-Christian Greece. The busts were slightly damaged, and the explanation given during the un-guided tour was that excavation and handling were responsible. But during the guided tour, we learned that although early Christians considered the statues pagan, they were also an important part of a cultural history. Thus, as a compromise, the faces were deliberately defaced by early Christians and crosses were etched into their heads. It was a way of Christening the busts and, subsequently, allowing them to still be displayed.
Next were beautiful mosaics which look flat upon first inspection, but, as Mr. Yeroulanos explained to the group (members of the Hellenic American Leadership Council), the gold tiles were actually installed with a downward tilt. This was so the tiles could catch, reflect and amplify the light from the candles’ flames. This would give the gazing eye the appearance of gold walls. Throughout this whole experience, Orthodox chants were playing through the speakers, which shamed me into thinking that I probably should have been in church.
Then there were the large double-sided icons. These were roughly four feet tall. One showed the Theotokos presenting Christ to the world, while the reverse side featured Christ of sorrow with His weeping head tilted downward, wounded hands folded over one another, and the spear’s wound in his ribs.
These two-sided icons were typically affixed to a long staff, similar to a Roman standard, and early Christians used these for processions. Icons similar to these were used to bless the walls and soldiers of Constantinople before it fell to the Ottoman Turks. Gazing at these icons, one will see a series of crosses carved into them. This was explained as the beginnings of the Greek tamata, or votive offerings in Catholicism. Some icons were said to have healing abilities, and anytime someone was healed after praying to the icon, they would return and leave the mark as a sign of gratitude.
Icons were not the only items displayed in the exhibit. A beautiful epitaphios, hand-woven by monks using silver thread, lay in a secured glass case. Because it was made with delicate silver fibers, it could never be rolled or folded. It sat next to a page of an early lamb-skin Bible dyed in a royal purple and written with silver. Of course, over the years, the purple had faded to a maroon and the silver oxidized into black.
Mr. Yeroulanos also pointed out how the Iconoclasm changed Orthodox iconography. Some of the early icons were elaborate and even seemed to depict emotion in their faces. After the Iconoclasm controversy was settled, the faces became more “austere,” to quote Mr. Yeroulanos. As the centuries passed, extravagance returned to the icons, and it is here, at the end of the Byzantine world, that we see how Byzantine Iconography laid the seeds in the west for the Renaissance. This includes El Greco, who started out as an iconographer in Crete.
I would encourage any Orthodox faithful willing to make the trip to visit this exhibit. It is a journey through time that is worthwhile and highly educational. The Chicago showing has been extended to May 10th, due to its popularity, and should this exhibit come to a museum near you, definitely mark it on your calendar. Furthermore, if you ever are in Athens, include the Benaki Museum as an attraction you visit.
This exhibit is showing at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network. You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+