Saturday, September 19, 2009

Photios Kontoglou

The current and universal availability of true Orthodox Christian ikons is probably due to the call and work of one man, Photios Kontoglou, who resurrected, as it were, Byzantine ikonography in the 20th century, so that our houses of worship and our homes could once again be illuminated by these true portals of the Eternal.

As recently as the 1970's, many if not most churches and homes were still filled with religious pictures standing in place of true ikons. By this I mean that reproductions of Western religious paintings, with an ornate border and sometimes a halo and Greek or Slavonic letters in gold added (examples shown above, click images to zoom), were what we called "ikons". Mostly these were Roman Catholic devotional pictures, often painted in pastel colors or even displaying Roman cult imagery, but there were some paintings by Protestant artists that found their way into an ikonic form as well.
Visiting the original stone temple that was built by my congregation of Aghía Triás in Portland, Oregon, in 1906, I noticed that such Roman Catholic images, even the sacred heart, were part of the motif in the stained glasswork.
(The temple is currently in use by the congregation of the Vietnamese Christian Community Church, and they have lovingly restored it as their house of worship.)

This blog is dedicated in some sense to Photios Kontoglou, a saint of modern times, who brought back to us the light of Christ as revealed in true Orthodox ikonography. Herewith follows an account of his life.

Photios Kontoglou (1895-1965), was the foremost ikonographer in Greece in the 20th century. The revival of Byzantine ikonography began in 1930 mostly due to this man. Byzantine ikonography has spread to Europe, America and elsewhere. This revival has also taken place in Romania and among the Russians of the diaspora. This form of ikonography is in demand everywhere. Photios Kontoglou's ikonography has been misunderstood by many. He had grown in his work from being somewhat rustic to his more stylized pieces. Often he diverged from his usual way of painting the ikon, in order to enhance his talent, gaining an appreciation for other techniques. Consequently, it is a mistake to stereotype his ikonography.

In 1943 he began to write about this sacred art in an extensive and authoritative way, wishing to explain its features and to show its enormous value. In 1960 he wrote Ekphrasis - the explanation of Orthodox Iconography. This book is a valuable guide for the ikonographer to learn the technique of painting the ikon according to Byzantine tradition. Also, for the general reader "to penetrate to the deeper, spiritual essence of the icons done according to this great tradition" (C. Cavarnos).

"Byzantine art," Kontoglou says, "is for me the art of arts. I believe in it as I believe in [the Orthodox] religion. Only this art nourishes my soul, through its deep and mysterious powers; it alone quenches the thirst that I feel in the midst of the arid desert that surrounds us. In comparison with Byzantine art, all the others appear to me trivial, 'troubling themselves about many things, when but one thing is needed'."

Byzantine ikonographers bring the spiritual world into time and space for which reasons the ikon is not "naturalistic" and "realistic." It's purpose has a religious function. It wants to express sanctified things to help man see with spiritual eyes the Holy Mysteries of the Christian revelation.

Ikonography offers a vision of time and eternity. Using sacred and symbolic forms and colors, Kontoglou represents that vision in a dramatic fashion. To demonstrate his purpose he employed sober colors, simple shapes and bold lines.

Photios Kontoglou never held the elitist position that painting ikons was restricted to intellectuals, or professional artists. Even the illiterate have painted them. Like the Holy Scriptures, the ikon is the work of the Holy Spirit.

His relics are incorrupt, a validation of his works.

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