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By Bishop Ignatije (Midić)
Church art, and thereby art of painting, cannot be independent from the Church and its own truth. It is expressing, or it is attempting to express, the truth of the Church. But, when we talk of the truth of the Church, as is the case with the truth of other beings and types of communion, we come to the conclusion that the truth is not so easily perceptible for everything and to all; especially so because the truth is mixed with something which is not the truth, but which is the destiny of every being in existence in history, and thus also of the Church itself. What is the truth of the Church?
Contrary to the inherited conviction that the truth of the being lies in the past, or the contemporary understanding according to which the truth of the being lies in its present (and is thus eclipsed and nullified by the tread of time), the Church sees its truth, and the truth of the world around her, in the future, in the encounter and the personal communion of man with God. Since the truth based on future events is still not a reality, the Church manifests its truth through faith. This is why the liturgical event is the most complete expression of the faith of the Church, because it is the personal encounter between God and man, as persons. To be more precise, liturgical way of life of the Church, here and now, portrays an icon of world’s future, of the encounter of God with man and with nature in man.
At the occasion of the personal encounter between God and man, and based upon liturgical experience, God reveals himself to man as a very concrete person, as the Father. And man also becomes a concrete person to God the Father, in the person of the Son. Through his love God, therefore, makes man a unique and an unrepeatable person in the same measure as He is being revealed in man as a unique and an unrepeatable person to man. In a word, God becomes man by the same measure in which man becomes God. In this encounter of man with God, created nature is not being lost either; neither time nor space disappear. They continue to exist but in a different mode, neither destroying nor creating other beings within which they continue existing; they exist as concrete persons in concrete persons immortally. This is the Mystery of Christ, which is believed in by the Christians, transformed into Liturgy and liturgical experience. This liturgical experience of the person (which is what it is in communion with God as the other person) is being confirmed by the panhuman experience of the communion of love. When you encounter and get to love another human being than you discover in him/her a unique and an unrepeatable person. In this communion of love you also become a concrete, a unique, and an unrepeatable person to this other person. Nature being present within this communion of persons is being transfigured. It exists in the loved person, and as the loved person.
Along with other forms of art within the Church, the art of painting also has as its goal to manifest, to depict the faith of the Church in the future encounter between God and man, and, through man, between nature and God. Furthermore, the art of painting strives to depict the consequences of this encounter as far as both man and God are concerned. In a word, the art of painting within the Church has as its goal depiction of the Mystery of Christ, the Future Kingdom of God as a personal union of God and man being revealed here and now in Liturgy. This is witnessed by Byzantine art. Of course, this goal is spontaneous, i.e. it depends on artist’s freedom, and it is not imposed from without. It can not be imposed in the same way as love towards the other can not be imposed on man. In a word, it depends on artist’s faith. Iconographic creativity, thus, has as its source artist’s personal experience, but such personal experience which is founded on Liturgy. This is why artist’s, i.e. iconographer’s, personal experience is at the same time the common experience of the entire Church, of the entire communion.
Iconography, or icon-painting, uses light as the means, i.e. the light consisting of colours, of revealing the truth of the world, i.e. the truth of the Church in its future state. To reveal, thus, the future encounter of God with man and nature, and their unity, as well as the consequences of this unity. The light bestowing being to that which is on the icon comes from without. It is not the being on the icon that is the source of light; illuminated from without, it emerges from the darkness of non-existence into the light of existence. This means that God as light, and the source of light, bestows being when creating the world, i.e. when realising communion with creation. As the fruit of this encounter, creation assumes a concrete, a unique, and an unrepeatable form which is reflected in the expressed plasticity of the icon. Beings have not turned into the source of light, shining like some light-bulbs and by doing so loosing their plasticity; by receiving the light from without, they become light, but by becoming light they do not lose the characteristics of darkness from which they have been called into being. In a word, by receiving light which is calling them from non-being into being, the beings on the icon do not lose their temporality and their spaciousness, i.e. they do not lose their historicity.
In this context the iconographer is in service of God the creator and, at the same time, in service of man who is bearing the consequences of God’s creativity on his person just as is the case with man and in his liturgical experience. He emerges as God who saves, not ceasing being man in need of salvation. This is why the artist in the service of God makes use of his love, i.e. of light, to shine with it upon man as his creation, and make him a unique and an unrepeatable person. At the same time he makes the entire nature different from what it is in its state of dependence upon its own nature; he makes it free in its existence in relation to determinability of existence.
It is this light, i.e. this love and its origin, that the identity of the being exhibited on the icon is dependant on. If the love is founded on natural laws, i.e. if the light is created, if it is determined by natural laws, then the beings will also be such in their existence determined, un-free in their existence, and susceptible to death; because the nature, being created, is in itself mortal. When this light is free, as the love of God is free in relation to the world and man (this love being also creative, able to endure, to have faith in all, not boasting, not envying, not asking for anything, giving itself entirely to the other), then beings embraced by this love also become like gods. Of course, the man on the icon, in whose service the iconographer is also being put, also seems to want to be embraced by God’s love, i.e. he also seems to desire to be created by God. He is surrendering to this love by his own free will; he is not refusing it. More precisely, he is fervently expecting it whether he is in a state of pain and suffering (being the icon of a martyr), or in a state of joy (wedding in Cana of Galilee), by widely opening both his eyes and his heart in anticipation of the beloved God. There is also some fear and unbelief involved here as is the case with each love encounter, since love is always an expression of freedom and we can never be too sure of it. This, however, does not denote any lack of love. On the contrary, only love as freedom brings the other to life, doesn’t kill him, makes the other a person, doesn’t petrify him, or objectify the being. It is in this manner, or better to say through this manner of existence that man manifests God as a person. We reiterate, all this is more or less evident in Byzantine icons. Within the context of these observations I should like, dear reader and visitor of this exhibition, to take a look with you at the paintings and icons of FrStamatisSkliris.
The first thing that meets the eye of every observer of FrStamatis’ paintings is the light used by the author whose intention is to bring space, time, and man into being on his canvas. This light, consisting of colours, is not the determined sunlight with its unalterable laws. Our painter illuminates beings by giving them form, thus leading them out of the darkness of non-being into the light of being. However, when illuminating beings he does not leave shadows, i.e. he does not leave other beings (finding themselves in the background) in the darkness of non-being; neither does he leave as partially illuminated those beings that have found themselves standing on the sidelines. His paintings do not resemble theatre stages where beings are being brought into existence by the beams of stage light, which makes some visible, others only partially visible, but some others entirely invisible. Light on FrStamatis’ icons is not rectilinear as is the case of created light which is in use by many artists (where this created light leaves everything which is not standing in its path to its ultimate goal in the darkness of non-being). Light on FrStamatis’ icons is as free as is its source. It embraces all beings regardless of their position on the painting thus bringing them to the same ontological plane and by doing so not cancelling space and time, but making space and time existing; however they both exist in a somewhat different manner when compared to the state of their existence in nature.
It is owing to this light that beings look different from their usual self. Their nature becomes free in its mode of existence and in relation to nature’s laws. In a word, this light liberates beings from the necessity of existence. This is evident by the fact that natural laws have no effect on beings, such as the law of Earth’s gravity, or ultimately the law of death. For example, in relation to the law of Earth’s gravity, the saints seem to float in the air; body of the crucified Christ seems to be hardly touching the cross, let alone giving impression that it is hanging from it in its full weight, and nearing the point of being tom off from it by gravity. In relation to the law of death, wounds on the resurrected body of Christ do not point towards a conclusion where they would finally prove to be fatal. Christ is bearing them, but they do not seem to represent a threat to his life. In a word, FrStamatis’ icons present man not as he is now, but as he shall be in future when he becomes one with God. This is because the light that gives form to the images and beings stems from a free person, and it is for that reason that it is also free.
Persons, space and time on FrStamatis’ canvas are organised, i.e. depicted in a state of growing perspective. You are under impression that that the persons are in motion, i.e. moving towards you, or to be more exact towards the One who is calling them into being; they seem to be drawing close into your face carrying along with them the entire space around them. Person being depicted on FrStamatis’ icon is not lost in an enormous space as is the case in the natural environment, or as it is often the case on renaissance paintings. Persons gather within themselves the entire space by moving forward in this growing perspective. And the more they move forward, the more authentic they are, since they grow ever closer to the source of light. The closer they are to the One calling them into being, the more concrete persons do they become. Each tiny part on them is visible. This is why they are at the forefront filling out the space; other beings and nature are strongly connected to these persons finding in them foundations of their own existence.
The movement forward of the persons, as depicted by FrStamatis, is the movement towards God. To be more exact, persons depicted on the icon express an association with God, i.e. they express their dependency on the association with God. It is thus that the image on the icon manifests God with whom it is being associated. This is similar to a person in love, which by its manner of existence manifests that he/she is in love, at the same time expressing the one he/she is in love with. In a word, FrStamatis depicts different persons on icons, but it seems that in their ontological segment each one of them resembles Christ. This ontological segment is reflected by the same personal association of saints with God the Father as it is the case with Christ, the Son of God. Personal communion, the free encounter of man with God, is manifested so compellingly by FrStamatis through the eyes, and the look in the eyes of the saints. Wide eyes and a tender look which is simultaneously filled with expectation, fear, and love, reveal a special state of a saint’s existence; similar to a person in love who veritably loves the other, but is at the same time somewhat scared of the loved one; because love is freedom, a gift of one person to another. When we talk of God and his love towards us, then this love is not psychological but ontological He is giving us our being. This is why on the icons of FrStamatis the eyes of our Lord and Saviour and Pantocrator, which express his love towards us, are widely open, and the look in his eyes is sometimes serious and stern. Time also has a growing perspective on FrStamatis’ icons. This is evident by the fact whereby saints become contemporaries both of Christ and of one another; Old Testament prophets become contemporaries of apostles; apostles belonging to different epochs become contemporaries both with one another and with martyrs, etc; all this points towards a unification of time on icons, and not towards a rupture of time into the past, present, and future. The icon, therefore, points towards the Kingdom to Come, and towards the state of the world and the man within. This desired state may be compressed into a single reality: liberation from death.
Through his paintings FrStamatis is continuing Byzantine tradition, or to be more precise, its spirit. That which is new is the means, i.e. the way of expressing this spirit. All styles of the art of painting may be recognised in FrStamatis’ work, i.e. all elements belonging to different styles which serve to convey the spirit of the Byzantine icon, the spirit of faith within the Church, the state of the Age to Come, as faithfully as possible. That which makes FrStamatis’ paintings different from all others is the expression of author’s freedom. As it may be noticed, real artists always strive to express their freedom through their pictures, i.e. through art that depicts beings as being different in relation to the existing world in its reality. This freedom is most often manifested through the change of the form of the being in relation to its form in nature. Sometimes this aspiration goes so far that it absolutely deforms the being taking it back almost into non-being. In a word, it is as if this freedom is being expressed as a revolt against that which exists and the way by which it exists; it is often destructive in relation to beings and the existence of beings in nature. Father Stamatis expresses his freedom in relation to beings and their realistic existence through his love towards them. This love is not natural, i.e. it does not leave beings the way they are, but, in an attempt to bring them into communion with God as the source of light, it liberates beings from being captive by the laws of nature. Thus, FrStamatis’ art of painting is not the reproduction of beings from nature, but a creative work which liberates beings on the basis of their personal experience, i.e. on the basis of liturgical experience of unification of God and man. This is why it could be said that FrStamatis’ painting work represents a new direction in the art of painting. We might call this new direction being created by FrStamatis the Neo-Byzantine or the Post-Byzantine Synthesis. Its spirit is Byzantine; i.e. freedom of painted beings stemming from their personal communion with God is that which we may call the Byzantine element in the icons of FrStamatis; it is the means of accomplishing this which are new, modern. These means are, however, in accord with freedom, i.e. with the Theandric ontology of the being.