Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Essays about Orthodoxy


"Byzantine" Hagiography -

A Rational Depiction


by Nestor Patialiakas - Hagiographer

Source:  http://www.euart.gr/


“Byzantine” art has two basic starting points:

Mosaics – An art that the Byzantines, like Roman craftsmen that they were, were totally familiar with (being the continuers of the late classical and Hellenistic traditions), and

Fayum (portraits of deceased personages) – late antiquity 1st – 2nd century A.D., which was the continuation of Hellenistic painting during Roman times.

In 313 A.D., Constantine the Great imposes religious tolerance and in 324 A.D., he transfers the capital of the Roman Empire to the straits of the Bosporus (later renamed Constantinople, 330 A.D.).  

The Christian artists can now apply themselves undistracted to their work.

With the passing of the following years, whether heroic or decadent for the “Byzantine” Empire, and amidst religious fermentations, spiritual quests, dissents, quarrels, heresies and enlightened Ecumenical Councils, sprang forth what we now call “the Byzantine Art of Hagiography”.

During its first years, the pictorial representations were limited to a few timid sketches of a symbolic or decorative character, and non-pictorial representations.

However, as Orthodox Theology gradually began to take shape and the new faith with its dogmas was being clarified, the artists now more courageously embarked on depicting in a more realistic manner the persons of the Saints on wooden icons, as well as on more densely populated murals, on the walls of the churches.

In 726 A.D., the Iconomachy (opposition to iconography) broke out.  A violent conflict, which divided the “Byzantines” with its tragic, condemnable behaviors, and plagued the Empire for entire centuries.  However, from within this turmoil and upheaval came forth in all its clarity and luminance the Orthodox Theology on the Icon, under the 7th Ecumenical Council.

The Icon is a means of worship.  It is an object, not to be worshipped, but merely honoured;  that honour is directed to the person depicted and –naturally- not to the wood itself.   

During the illustrating of a sacred person, it is his/her hypostasis that is depicted, and not their nature (which is unique). To say this in more romantic terms, we could say that the faithful honors and respects the Icon, in the same way that a mother kisses and strokes the photograph (image) of her emigrant child, as though clasping it in her arms, and then keeps that image hidden away in her bosom, with a sweet longing for their reunion lingering inside her.

The historical continuation was more pleasant, with a production of works of great value and small intervals of non-activity, on account of invasions from abroad and other, internal troubles.  Important works appeared during the period of the Macedonian Dynasty (867-1056 A.D.), of the Comnenes (1081- 1185 A.D.), and the Angelos (1185-1204 A.D.).

After the Frankish occupation (1204-1061 A.D.) during the Paleologos dynasty, Byzantine art reached its apogee with the murals by Emmanuel Panselinos. Later on, after the sacking of Constantinople (1453 A.D.) Theofanes the Cretan was a dominant name.  From him onwards, the remaining hagiographers became influenced by western art, as did, for example, Domenicus Theotokopoulos (El Greco), then passing over to a period of stagnancy, up until Photis Kontoglou (+1965), who stoked the ashes of Byzantine tradition and brought back to light this traditional sacred art.

Therefore, the Byzantine hagiographer - thanks to the way that he was shaped by the centuries-old search for the appropriate way of depicting the “beyond” - produces his hagiography being fully conscious of his ministry within the Church.  He does not try to impress with his masterful brushstrokes. Just like the theologian, he similarly avoids provoking with the powerful rhetoric of his word.

His purpose is to present whatever is revered and Evangelically quoted by Orthodoxy, in a simple, comprehendible and respectful manner.  He keeps his imagination reined in when he paints, because it can breed deceptions and heresies.  He teaches the illiterate properly, and prompts the educated towards prayer, devoutness and logical worship.  He strives to soften, to sweeten, to relax the soul from the neuroses of everyday toil, and to lead it to an instinctive search for the Divine.  He portrays the figures of the Saints in a simple and apposite way.  He avoids shouting with brilliant and gaudy colors, with an anatomically perfect design and outline, with a realistic play of light and shadow and with beautiful shapes. On the contrary, by “humming softly”, he draws the well-meaning observer close, so that he may admire and emulate the very Saint that he has painted, without making his personal artistic style obvious.  He attempts to bridge his world with this, Spiritual world.  He finds himself hovering above both worlds, and invites the faithful to transform their life, from a mortal, material and finite one, to an immortal and a true one.

If, therefore, he were to paint with an absolute realism and in implicit detail, his creation would be a beautiful, almost real artistic result, that would satisfy human curiosity as regards the anatomical details of the portrayed object, and would evoke the observer’s admiration of the hagiographer’s sublime technical abilities.  It would focus their mind on the observation and regurgitation of everyday, finite images and would not inspire them towards the logical theory of Divine Truths or the drawing of useful, soul-saving conclusions.  The mind of the faithful would remain trapped in the artist’s imagination and the ordinary, everyday, mundane description.

How can one properly depict the Divine Truthsthose truths that few have seen, but also those that have been seen but could not be described?  In Byzantine hagiography, one does not seek only to admire or to become ecstatic over what one sees, but to enter into another kind of perception, which will later become a way of life and will attract the mercy of God for their salvation.

This, therefore, is why Byzantine art splits the form into segments, depicting them harsher than they naturally are, and re-connects them all in a gracious harmony, thus incessantly representing the unification of the Church’s faithful into one body, with Christ the Savior as its Head.  It avoids anatomical perfection, yet the figure is discerned intact, within the liturgical time-space continuum; there, where we shall hopefully be led after our own personal labour and the Grace of God.

The holy personages appear to be moving towards this contemporary world, opportunely and truly. This is also the purpose of the inverted perspective that is used, so that the observer need not sink into the realm of conjecture; instead, the truth of Divine reality is diffused outwards, into his realm.

The source of light is purposely omitted from the artistic synthesis, since everything is illuminated by the Uncreated Light, which is different to our temporal one.

Finally, Byzantine art moves about on its canvas in three dimensions and not two, as certain hasty observers like to comment.

In both the conventional “height and width” frame, as well as in transcendental liturgical time-space.

The Byzantine hagiographer above all adapts his personal lifestyle and his outlook according to the word of the Gospel, and seeks Divine enlightenment and purification through the Sacraments of the Church. In this way, there is a chance that his work will relate correctly to the supernatural Divine activities.

The best way to artistically materialize Byzantine Hagiography, is the way that is now the outcome of so many centuries of experiential and artistic practice, theological revelation and mystical experience.

Nevertheless, it is quite possible that new proposals for Christian iconography may appear in the future; however, ecclesiastic tradition is the only thing that will eventually show, with the passing centuries, whether it will embrace the new form.


Nestor Patialiakas – Hagiographer

Source: http://www.euart.gr/

Greek text

Article published in English on: 1-11-2006.

Last update: 1-11-2006.