Collective exhibition. National museum of Fine arts (Building of Universal Art), San Rafael street between Monserrate and Zulueta, Old Havana. January-March 2017
Havana's National Museum of Fine Arts has a small set of orthodox icons as part of its European art section. Its formation began in the 1960s from the entry into the institution of works transferred by the Office for the Recovery of State Assets. By the mid-1970s some 22 icons had entered the Museum, a figure that continued to grow until 37, with the last purchases made so far this century.
During these years several scholars have reviewed the whole and offered opinions on its classification and assessment (1) . Between 1968 and 1978 several icons were intervened by Czech, Russian and Cuban restorers, which allowed the Russian work San Mitrofán (cat.16) to be exhibited on that last date as part of the July Exhibition, and later, in 1979, the exhibition Icons of the National Museum, with twenty-two pieces, curated by Marlene Méndez and Mercedes López, was presented to the public. In 2005, four icons of the ensemble formed part of the exhibition Great Works of the National Museum of Cuba, with collective curatorship, which was presented in several Spanish cities, and finally, in 2013, six pieces were included in the exhibition The MNBA Today. The diversity of its collections, curated by Carlos Fernández, during the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Museum. The exhibition now being presented is a selection of twenty Greek and Russian icons, which once again facilitates the public's appreciation of such a unique pictorial production.
The art of icons emerged as part of the artistic expressions of Byzantine culture. After the gradual disappearance of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, the eastern area retained its unity and became the continuation of the Roman Empire, strengthening its political and military power, while its capital, Constantinople, became the most important cultural centre in Europe. Byzantine art is the result of the natural evolution experienced by the Paleo-Christian tradition in the East with the incorporation of important local, symbolic and formal influences. The separation of the Eastern Christian church - called Orthodox - from the Western church based in Rome also led to the emergence of different local positions on theological and liturgical issues, which would have their expression in art.
Byzantine painting expresses the ideology of Christianity, whose ethical principles of spiritual transcendence guide the sense of representation and the subjects it deals with. For this reason it responds to a canon that disregards naturalism, volumetry and real space, in favour of geometry, symmetry, the hierarchisation of figures according to their importance, different proportions and the unity of the composition. Byzantine art seeks to symbolically represent the divine and man in his transcendent aspect. The contemplative state requires stillness, contained gestures and the expression of the inner world through the deep gaze of a concentrated mind. The light must not cast shadows because it is interior, or in any case irradiated by the divinity. Gold backgrounds represent this superior luminosity and colours acquire symbolic meanings. That is why new art must be regulated and iconography must be respected in its essences. In this way, icons acquire not only an instructive function but also play a special role in religious ceremonies.
The icon is consubstantially linked to the Orthodox liturgical tradition. The holy persons constitute the object of representation and any other motive is subordinate to that purpose. For this reason the icon is in itself a sacred object venerated by the faithful, which facilitates their contact with holy persons. These paintings seek to create images (icon, from the Greek eikon: image) that can be identified and contribute to raising religiosity through contemplation. Their main themes are Jesus and the Virgin Mary, but they often manage to combine simple description with theological teachings or exemplary narratives. Although the term icon in Byzantine art refers to the representation of religious images -regardless of the techniques used in their realization, their dimensions or locations- we commonly call icons to the paintings made on small boards, which in modernity constitute the most widespread expression, thanks to its furniture and its uninterrupted production to this day.
Beyond mosaics or frescoes to cover the walls of the temples, icon painting had and still has its most important function in the conformation of the iconostasis, a kind of partition separating the presbytery from the rest of the Orthodox temple. In the iconostasis the icons are arranged consecutively in rows, each of them reserved for a theme related to the devotion of the temple, the main liturgical feasts, the Deesis, the prophets or the patriarchs. Outside the temple's habilitation, the so-called domestic icons are objects of veneration in the houses of the faithful, often made by popular artists.
The representative variety gathered in the iconostasis summarizes the thematic repertoire of the icons in an organized way. The Deesis is undoubtedly the most important iconographic formula and represents Christ Pantocrator in the center, to his right the Virgin Mary and to his left St. John the Baptist, both in an attitude of supplication. The supplications of Mary, mother of God in her human person, and of John, who preceded Jesus and baptized him, represent the highest expression for orthodoxy of intercession on behalf of man. In the iconostasis the Deesis usually extends to both sides with the icons corresponding to the apostles, but in independent pieces it appears in its basic form with Christ, Mary and John. Also very important are the so-called icons of the twelve feasts, scenes which refer to important moments in the lives of Mary and Jesus, derived from the New Testament, and which constitute feasts of the liturgy. The representations of the Virgin with the Child respond to variants determined by the positions and the relationship established between the two. There are also many hagiographical themes relating to saints and martyrs, but there are also those referring to miraculous events and to holy evangelists, patriarchs and the four Fathers or Doctors of the Church.
In the icons the wood is used as a support, although they can also be painted on paper glued on a fine cloth and then on wood (cat.3). During the Empire, the preparation of the support was a very complex task, even related to the spiritual disposition of the iconographer -usually monks and painters-, which proved to be less rigorous in the domestic icons made by itinerant artists. The encaustic, but above all the tempera, are the pictorial techniques of the icons, used since antiquity, and are those found in the so-called portraits of Fayum -immediate antecedent of Byzantine religious art-, produced in Egypt during the Paleochristian period, with a funerary purpose. Although the dimensions of the icon tend to oscillate between medium and small, some of them include a double structure in the representation that is organized horizontally, the superior -more allegorical- reserved to Christ or the Virgin, while the inferior can be dedicated to more earthly themes (cat.9 and 17). Other structures are more complex, such as those organized around a central representation surrounded by small "boxes" in even numbers, with narrative scenes generally dedicated to the main liturgical festivities (cat. 15).
The decorative sense of Byzantine art, associated with the idea of the correspondence between good and beauty, can also be seen in the complementary production of embossed metal plates - generally silver, but also patinated bronze, copper or brass - which are placed as a cover over some icons. These plates, made by goldsmiths, have "windows" through which the icon's painting can be appreciated. Generally they let us appreciate the faces and the hands -the so-called oklad-, but sometimes they let us see areas of greater complexity -the so-called riza (cat.15). Icons designed to start with covers are usually painted on the support only the areas that will be exposed (cat.21), but sometimes the covers are created after the realization of the icon, so the painting covers the entire support. In such cases, the "undressed" icon is usually displayed with the cover next to it. The covers are embossed, in a synthetic way, with representations equivalent to the painted areas that they cover -when the substrate is completely painted-, or that they replace -when the substrate is only painted in the areas that will be exposed. Covers may also recreate decorative motifs and may include fine embroidery, gems and colourful glazes (cat. 19 and 21).
The occupation of Constantinople by Turkish peoples in 1453 put an end to the Byzantine Empire and although its powerful culture survived under the Ottoman Empire, Byzantine art could only survive as an inseparable part of the Orthodox Church. Subsequent centuries would result in the formation of modern nations in their ancient territories and the emergence of national or local pictorial schools that maintained the tradition. The production of icons after the 15th century and up to the present day, known as post-Byzantine, developed distinctive features involved in the social and cultural histories of these peoples. The term post-Byzantine icons (or modern icons) can also be applied, in a more restricted way, to those created from the fifteenth century until the end of the eighteenth century - a period corresponding to the Modern Age, marked by the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and its end by the French Revolution of 1789. So contemporary icons would be those produced since the nineteenth century - in correspondence with the Contemporary Age - the realization of which continues to respect Byzantine canons but adopting more modern techniques and ways.
In post-Byzantine production it is possible to differentiate two large areas: Slavic and Greek. The evangelization of the Slavic peoples of the Balkan area, Ukraine and Russia took place from the 10th to the 12th centuries and the fitting out of the temples was in the hands of the Byzantine artists of Greece and Constantinople mainly. In later centuries, however, local production centres appeared, leading to the formation of three main schools: Bulgarian, Serbian and Russian. A number of schools appeared in Russia that flourished between the 12th and 16th centuries in Novgorod and between the 13th and 16th centuries in Pskov; but the most outstanding was that of Moscow, whose greatest splendour occurred in the post-Byzantine period, between the 16th and 18th centuries. The much more complex Greek area encompasses mainland Greece including Macedonia, Crete, the Ionian Islands, the Adriatic coast and the Anatolian peninsula, now Turkish territory. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Crete, which was under the control of the Republic of Venice, retained its primacy in the production of icons in the post-Byzantine world until the 17th century, when the Ottoman occupation took place in 1669. The other important school in the area was that of the Ionian Islands, which resumed Cretan production and flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries, incorporating a greater Western influence.
The set of icons of the National Museum corresponds to the post-Byzantine period and includes works produced from the end of the 17th century to the beginning of the 20th century. Most of them correspond to the Russian school, mainly in Moscow, while those corresponding to the Greek sphere follow in volume, with icons made in continental Greece, Constantinople, Anatolia, Macedonia and some in the school of the Ionian Islands. Finally, several pieces whose origin has not yet been specified correspond to the Slavic countries of the south. The exhibition Post-Byzantine Icons of the National Museum of Fine Arts presents a selection of twenty pieces - ten Russian and ten Greek - in which it will be possible to appreciate the Byzantine tradition between the modern and contemporary periods, according to the characteristics of the Russian and Greek spheres.
As a complement, the exhibition includes a portrait of Fayum from the 2nd century from the Conde de Lagunilla Ancient Art Collection and a 14th century Sienese painting that is part of the Italian Art Collection. Fayum's portraits are recognized as the indisputable antecedents of Byzantine icons, not only in their formal aspects and in their transcendent intention, but also by the technique of tempera on a wooden support. The Italian work, corresponding to the Gothic style, clearly shows the influences of the last golden age of Byzantine art on Western painters, before the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks in the middle of the 15th century, at the same time it allows us to appreciate the interest of these artists in the search for greater naturalism in the figures, something that in turn influenced the East, mainly in the post-Byzantine period. Both works constitute previous references - one remote and the other immediate - to the production period to which the icons of the exhibition correspond, and their presence in the exhibition will help a better aesthetic appreciation of the post-Byzantine icons of the Museum.
by: Manuel Crespo
1 Igor Skliarenko, restorer of the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow (1974); Elisabeta Shakurova, director, and Irina Bovnovnitskaya, specialist, of the Kremlin Armory Museum (1988); Pedro Bádenas de la Peña, lecturer at the Institute of Philology of the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas de Madrid and director of the magazine Erytheia de estudios bizantinos y neogriegos (1990); Peter Khotko, director of the National Museum of History and Culture of Belarus (2002); Angelos J. Dendrinos, researcher and collaborator of the Benaki Museum of Greek History and the Byzantine Museum of Athens (2004); Father Atenágoras, of the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas of Myra in Havana and Archimandrite of the Greek Orthodox Church of Cuba (2008).