“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.
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 →