A Review of “Distant Relatives: Ancient Imagery of the Classical Pagan Past and Modern Byzantine Icons”

by Kassandra Ibrahim

Zavitsanos, Contemplating the Creation

This fall, Fordham’s Museum of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Art opened a new exhibition entitled “Distant Relatives: Ancient Imagery of the Classical Pagan Past and Modern Byzantine Icons.” The exhibition features large mixed media collages by artist Joni Zavitsanos, whose work combines the traditional aspects of Byzantine Christian iconography with motifs of modern society. I had the opportunity to explore the exhibit in depth and speak with Zavitsanos about the exhibition. Initially, some viewers may be offended by the artist’s choice to use elements of traditional Byzantine iconography in modern creations. Yet, Zavitsanos explains that her work can be seen as a break from tradition because of her drastic modifications to longstanding pictorial motifs. While Zavitsanos makes her own artistic interventions, it is not her intention to undermine the authority of Orthodox Christian imagery.

Zavitsanos’s artwork is heavily influenced by Byzantine iconography. She learned about this pictorial tradition early, since her father, Diamantis Cassis, was a Greek Orthodox Iconographer or painter of icons in the Greek Orthodox tradition. Orthodox Christianity holds certain modes for representing Christ, the Virgin Mary, and other saints to be authoritative.  Because of this, Orthodox icons feature a limited range of motifs leaving the iconographer with minimal room for individual interpretation. A Byzantine icon from the early centuries of Christianity can look much like one made today. The consistency of imagery invites viewers throughout time to understand the message that these icons are meant to communicate: the everlasting and the divine.

However, Zavitsanos sees the value of making her own interventions. She utilizes linoleum and wood cut prints, which she made, along with cut outs from popular magazines, scriptures and other media, to create new compositions of these devotional images. Through her mixed media work, she produces a message about Orthodox Christianity and weaves in her own perspective on the connection between humanity and the divine. In each collage, Zavitsanos modifies the colors and adds unexpected elements to motifs found in traditional icons. A prominent recurring motif is the butterfly, which, to Zavitsanos, represents the Holy Spirit. Butterflies embody beauty and weightlessness, while their metamorphosis resembles the resurrection. In her embrace of the butterfly motif, she steps away from the traditional use of the white dove as representation of the Holy Spirit, and thus pushes boundaries by reinterpreting a centuries-old tradition. Her intervention sparks new questions: Can we actually fully understand the nature of the Holy Spirit? And further, is there a single right way to represent theological concepts through art?

Perhaps the most familiar Byzantine icon reinterpreted by Zavitsanos is the Christ Pantocrator. Zavitsanos’s take is strikingly different. Usually, Byzantine iconography must have consistently proportional facial features. In her depiction of Christ, a mixed media composition entitled “Make Love not War” (2017), Zavitsanos rejects traditions for representing Christ in his Divine form with a smooth and youthful face, instead, underscoring his humanity by exaggerating His wrinkles and giving Him a weary expression. Zavitsanos’s new mode perhaps indicates a Christ that has overseen exceptional human struggle and sin.

Zavitsanos, Make Love Not War

Zavitsanos, Make Love Not War [2017]

Through her various modifications to the traditional Pantocrator, Zavitsanos communicates the constant duality and connection between humanity and divinity. Christ’s garments, in her version, are simplified to a modest black with thin parallel lines rather than the traditional vibrant colors that are commonly used the Byzantine tradition. This contrast of black clothing on top of a gold background may refer to the complement of the human and divine natures of Christ: black to indicate that He is in this world and gold to remind us that He is not of this world. The nature of mixed media continually allows Zavitsanos to accomplish the constant connection and contrast between man and God. Zavitzanos integrates objects of our Earth, like the butterfly and the flower, with indications of the divine such as Christ’s halo and traditional composition of the icon. Most significantly, she includes a sign that is centered in the foreground within Christ’s hands which reads “Make Love not War.” She could have put this message at the top as a title, but she purposefully chose to place it within His hands, perhaps as if he is offering to the larger viewership. The placement of His hands and what He is holding is a subtle but drastic departure from standard compositions. In traditional icons, His left hand holds the Gospel to represent judgement and His right hand is held upwards with His fingers aligned in a blessing gesture. The choice to show Christ holding a sign advocating peace, rather than a judicious book invites viewers to understand the Lord, not as a figure who only dispenses judgments or blessings, but rather is a figure who symbolizes the triumph of good over evil.

“Make Love not War” is not just about promoting love, but knowing that it is God that ultimately offers unconditional love. While there is a constant battle between good and evil in our humanity, Zavitsanos’s work indicates that love always prevails. To further drive this message, Zavitsanos frames Christ with the beatitudes in the background beneath a gold layer of paint, similar to the original icon which would have gold leaf. The synthesis of Christ’s words and a gold background allows the viewer to read His words with the notion that He is divine.

Zavitsanos, Weeping Icon Series II: Malala

Zavitsanos, Weeping Icon Series II: Malala [2018]

One of the most striking works in the exhibition is “Weeping Icon Series II: Malala (2018)” (Fig. 3). Using a composition that is standard for Orthodox images of saints, the artist shows Malala Yousafzai with a halo and the rest of her body seems to melt away, covered by collaged photographs and text. When looking at a portrait, viewers are often drawn to the face first. Therefore, to include a contemporary face, rather than a saint, is a radical departure from tradition. Zavitsanos also draws our eye to her face by her use of line and contour around Malala’s halo; the halo is outlined black and accompanied by a lighter warm tint within the halo. And, the brightest part of this collage forms the right side of her face which is contrasted by the shadows on the left. Her use of contrast of dark and light serves to accentuate her facial features in order to invite the viewer to centralize the figure. In addition, the rest of her body is outlined by a thin silhouette which also serves to draw the viewer to her face. These elements are reminiscent of traditional Byzantine composition, where the figure is centered in the work and the body is covered by drapery.

These compositional choices are not a coincidence. Zavitsanos wants viewers to see Malala as a saint, not because of her particular religious beliefs, but because of her humanitarian actions. Saints in Orthodoxy are considered to be role models and, for Zavitsanos, Malala is a true role model. I believe that this work also expresses a similar message that her aforementioned work, “Make Love not War (2017). It promotes unconditional love; anyone can be revered if they are generous and work for humanitarian principles.

Overall, Zavitsanos draws from Greek Orthodox pictorial traditions, not to appropriate the tradition but to allow the traditional Christian depictions to be accessible to a contemporary audience. She understands the distinct difference between an icon that is venerated in a devotional space and an artwork that is displayed in an exhibition. Her artwork serves as an educational vehicle to bring others to the love of Christ and to share that message through a new medium. In the words of Zavitsanos, the holistic message of her exhibit is that “God is perfect love, we are imperfect, but He can make us perfect.”

*The Distant Relatives exhibition at Fordham ends December 12.


Kassandra Ibrahim is an undergraduate at Fordham University.

This essay was originally published on the Fordham University Art History blog “Art Ramblings.”

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.