Like all Byzantine art historians, I am concerned about the conversion this year of Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Not being able to travel because of the pandemic, I only know about the current state of the building from images on the internet and from friends in Istanbul, especially David Hendrix, who has supplied the above image. The church’s great mosaics have been covered, so as not to offend Muslims at prayer times. Two are in the conch of the apse at the rear, the Theotokos was formerly seen in the center and a breath-taking beautiful angel at the right.
The great Byzantine floor of the nave has been covered with carpets, thus obscuring what the Greek sources call the “rivers,” the dark green marble bands that across the width of the nave. They once governed liturgical processions just as the chalk marks on the stage instruct the corps de ballet where to stand. Seeing those marble bands in the museum of Hagia Sophia, I imagined the grand processions of patriarch, bishops, priests, deacon, and choir members that once extended across the nave before all would exit to continue processing elsewhere in Constantinople. I have learned about the rivers and their use in the liturgy from scholars of architecture and liturgy. Others have done more to imagine the church during the Middle Ages. Here I want to cite the work of Bissera Pentcheva. With colleagues, she has scientifically reconstructed the space’s long reverberations. Using acoustic characteristics of the building that they discovered, the Cappella Romana has recorded chants the Feast of the Holy Cross, making it sound as if were there in Constantinople. As I type this, I am listening to that recording and am transported back to Constantinople.
Amid a nationwide BLM movement calling for the removal of statues and monuments that enshrine, even glorify, the genocidal, colonizing, enslaving, and imperialistic past of the United States, well-known BLM activist Shaun King tweeted that “The statues of the white European they claim is Jesus should also come down” and in his next tweet adds: “All murals and stained glass windows of white Jesus, and his European mother, and their white friends should also come down. They are a gross form of white supremacy. Created as tools of oppression. Racist propaganda. They should all come down.” Predictably, a swirl of some positive and extremely negative responses, including death threats, ensued.
What has struck me as I follow the fallout of King’s response is the opinion shared by some, perhaps by many, that simply put, King is wrong. That he is equivocating when he conflates Sunday’s liturgical art with social realities outside the ecclesial walls. That we can, and in fact should, draw a clear line between the sacred art of “white Jesus” and the atrocities committed on this continent (and others) by whites against native and African folk (in the name of “white Jesus”). In brief, that there is no complicity between the representational modalities of sacred art and genocide, slavery, cultural supremacy, and systemic racism. This perspective is historically and theologically untenable.
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. Continue reading →