“Since the time of the Renaissance, the religious painting of the West has been one massive untruth.” So wrote Fr. Pavel Florensky in his Iconostasis, one of the most important works of 20th century Orthodox iconology. The heart of Western religious painting’s “untruth” was its naturalism, understood as the attempt to depict figures and scenes in as life-like a manner as possible. As Evan Freeman has shown, theological critique of Western naturalism was a staple of late 19th and early 20th century Orthodox reflections on the icon that elevated Eastern iconography in order to diminish Western religious art.
However, if we turn to the theological reflections on art offered by Florensky’s erstwhile disciple, Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, we find an outlier to this dominant trend. For in the course of his lengthy 1930 essay Icons and Their Veneration, Bulgakov does not shy away from linking, linguistically and so also conceptually, artistic production as a whole with the idea of the icon, so as to ground his broader argument that the condition for the possibility of the theological icon lies in the fundamental iconicity of the cosmos, in the latter’s transparency to the ideal proto-images of being that reside in the mind of God and that grant actuality to the flesh of the world. Thus all art that succeeds in representing these ‘proto-images’ is iconic, though not every piece of religious art is a theological icon. Still, Bulgakov’s argument here places Western religious art and Eastern icons on a spectrum together, thereby relativizing the—nonetheless real—distinction between them.
The Orthodox art of the predominantly Eastern Christian regions of Eastern Europe has much to offer, yet it has been relegated to the margins of inquiry. Outside of local communities and circles of academic specialists, relatively little is known about the countries, peoples, cultures, and histories of Eastern Europe. This is especially true of the Middle Ages and the early modern periods, whose studies have been divided between the Western traditions and those of the Byzantine Empire, including the centuries after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, with few moments of contact and interchange explored in scholarship or in the classroom. The history, art, and culture of Eastern Europe and the rich Orthodox artistic production of these lands have been excluded from the geographical, thematic, cultural, and temporal purviews of art history. In essence, Orthodox art poses problems to the artificial periodizations and geographical boundaries of art history, but its study has the potential to enhance the picture and bring into the conversation voices that have long been silent (or silenced).
Inconsistencies and disagreements in the geographical definitions of Eastern Europe have contributed to the marginalization of the Orthodox cultural spheres within it. What constitutes Eastern Europe, or Southeastern Europe, or Central Europe, or East-Central Europe at any given moment has shifted over time. The regions of the Balkan Peninsula, the Carpathian Mountains, and further north into Russia have been included in specific periods in select conversations; on other occasions, they have been excluded and ignored altogether. For much of the late Middle Ages and the early modern period, Eastern European territories—like the principalities of Wallachia, Moldavia, and Transylvania around the Carpathian Mountains (which later formed the country of modern Romania), the powers of Kievan Rus’, Muscovy, Serbia, and Bulgaria—experienced shifting political borders that complicate the picture. Today, these lands are located in many different countries, each with its own language and customs. The history is complex but enriching as well and could offer much to our understanding of the interconnectedness of the medieval world and the different traditions that contributed to the development of local customs and visual vocabularies.
“Who is my neighbor?” This question, posed coyly by a slick lawyer looking for an easy answer, is most poetically answered by Christ in his parable of the Good Samaritan. The story involves a man who is robbed, beaten, and left for dead by the side of the road. Many supposed noblemen pass by and offer no help, while a foreign stranger of an offbeat faith comes to the man’s aid with great compassion and becomes the silent hero of the day. The Good Samaritan was insightful in its Biblical time, but I also find the story to be most relevant now in our post-pandemic world.
It has been over a year now since I began working on a tribute art piece honoring lives lost in the Houston, Texas area due to Covid-19. I’ve combed through obituaries, news articles, TV programs, and have spent literally thousands of hours trying to place a name and a face to the over 7,000 deaths that have occurred just in and around my own city. So many stories have come out of this project—the loneliness, isolation, separation of families, the inability to properly grieve and bury loved ones, the mental strain—so much sadness.
In preparing to participate in the services leading to Pascha, a memorable element of the Liturgy for many of the faithful is the Hymn of St. Kassia (ca.810-ca. 865 CE), “Lord, the Woman Fallen into Many Sins.” It is remembered as a heartwarming centerpiece of the Tuesday Evening service, and sung as the Doxostikon of the Aposticha, when the Wednesday “Bridegroom Matins,” is offered. The robust popularity of the “Kassiani,” as the hymn itself is often called, may stem from its appealing melody and the opportunity it provides for the chant to be elaborated on the tune with flourishes of extemporaneous melismatic ornaments which leave worshippers spellbound. Emotional urgency simmers through the story in light of the approaching Passion of Our Lord.
Because the text cries out from the inner landscape of the woman’s soul, there is a graceful fluid commingling in it of both the Gospel women who anoint Jesus at supper, the one in Luke read at the service (7:36-50) and the one in Matthew (26:6-13) as well; and, it is the same haunting amalgamation of women used by St. Romanos in his longer metrical homily, the kontakion, “On the Harlot.” So, this is a hymn rich with paradox and parallels, and a credit to the scriptural literacy of the Orthodox listener. Like Romanos, Kassia gives voice to the woman, here praising God for the majesty of Creation: