THE THEOLOGICAL INTERPRETATION OF THE FRESCOES OF THE CHURCH OF SAINT MAXIMUS THE CONFESSOR IN KOSTOLAC, SERBIA

By Fr. Stamatis Skliris

It is fitting to conclude with a consideration of the frescoes that were begun in 2006 and completed in 2010, to which the Symposium attendees and participants were treated during the Divine Liturgy that accompanied the consecration of the church at the conclusion of the Symposium. The frescoes are a pictorial cycle representingthe theologyof the Confessor, which is, of course, the theology of the Church. Other frescoes are due to follow. Bishop Ignatius (Midić) of Branicevo, a specialist in Saint Maximus whopenned a thesis on his ecclesiology at the University of Athens, masterminded the approach to depicting visually St. Maximus’s teachings.

The wall-painting consists of three parts, which must be viewed together because, as three niches of a triconch, they combine and lead to one another. The interpretation starts from the side niches (apses) and leads from the apse to the Sanctuary. Each of the side apses represents one historical fact, which will find its ultimate meaning in the Eschaton, i.e. in the after-history, which is depicted in the Sanctuary’s apse. The north niche is symbolized by Alpha1 and the south by Alpha2, because they prefigure the End. The middle niche is above the Sanctuary and is denoted by Ω (Omega), because it represents the Eschaton to which the other niches lead.

NORTH or LEFT niche (A1)

Here the Son and Word of God the Father creates the world, galaxies, planets, etc. The planets of this composition are in agreement with the large planet earth depicted in the eastern apse of the Sanctuary, designated “Ω” above. The Creator is represented as blessing by the two hands, standing on the left side of the apse and look to the right side of the apse, where the planet Earth is, on which top are seated Adam and Eve. From Christ’s creative hand to Adam and Eve there are four different phases of the earth: a) The earth as invisible and unconstructed, b) the land with fish, the first form of life that emerged from the water, c) with trees and birds (one on loan from Exupery’s Little Prince) and finally d) earth with grass and flowers with Adam and Eve. Again it is worth noting that the "historic land" is more naturalistic, while the land on the eastern apse Ω shines like gold, whereby the eschatological logos (λόγος), is implied, which is to become not only the throne of the temporary and earthen Adam, but of Christ the new Adam. Here the theology of St. Maximus on the logoi of beings is manifest:both the earth and man have one logos (reason), which is stable and divine and will be transparent in the eschaton (at the last times). The earth will not remain one single planet – not merely Adam's throne– but the Kingdom will be revealed as the throne of Christ – the Judge of History. Man in history is not in the fullness of his existence. He is humic, mortal, and inconstant. His raison d’etre becomes evident in the eschaton where he will be revealed as risen and eternal. All the intermediate stages are the transient modes of existence of beings. Therefore, when viewed together, niche A1 and Ω lay bare the present condition; they also perceptualizein painterly fashion the theory of St. Maximus on logos and mode (tropos).

SOUTHERN RIGHT or niche (A2)

It consists of two zones, each one in its own way prefiguring the Eschaton of the central apse.

Upper zone: Christ as High Priest serves the eternal Divine Liturgy before the heavenly altar. It is a liturgical imaging of the Kingdom.

Bottom zone: Christ at the eternal Dinner (not the historic "Last Supper" that prefigures the eternal) with his fellow diners: the apostles, and men, women, and children who take part by offering each one of them the gifts for the eternal Dinner. The South Christ descending in glorious resurrectional manner from the place where He ascended into heaven.

EASTERN OR CENTRAL APSE Ω

In this fresco, Christ as Judge descends from heaven and is seated on his throne, which is the earth but not as it was depicted in Creation as a natural planet, but transformed into a golden sphere (this theme already exists in the mosaics of Ravenna and Sicily). He is surrounded by the "new heaven" with surrealistic clouds and the four symbols of the Evangelists. Close to His feet are the Virgin and the Baptist, and seated on the thrones are the Holy Apostles, Angels, behind which can be seen the "many habitations" of Paradise. Clearly, here is summarized the whole plan of salvation in Christ, according to the teaching of St. Maximus, and they are all depicted in the niches A1 (Creation) and A2 (Eucharist), proving altogether that in the Eschaton everything will find its real logos and the eternal and immutable mode (tropos.

LITURGICAL AND NON-LITURGICAL LIFESTYLE
(Portrayal of Hell)

Bishop Ignatius of Braničevo proposed to the iconographer that he present two ways of life: the Eucharistic and non-Eucharistic one, with the goal to allow the ontology of St. Maximus to be transpired in a painterly way. The two themes were painted in the Kostolac church below the south (right) apse. We have already remarked on the upper tier depicting the eternal Feast of the Kingdom, where women, men and children offer their gifts for the dinner. On the left side below itare depicted the preparations for the performing and participation in it, while in the bottom right is shown a way of life unrelated to the Eucharist.

LEFT: Wheat fields with bales and ears of grain prefigure the Bread of Life. Women carry flour and other fruits. A grandmother kneadsdough that will be offered in the Eucharist. A boy and girl work in a vineyard, where grapes are pressed so that they may become the "Nama", the wine of the Eucharist, which, as we said, is painted above the scene.

RIGHT (PROPOSAL FOR AN ONTOLOGICAL AND NOT ALLEGORICAL REPRESENTATION OF HELL): Within a crimson background evoking the Lord's Day and with the related symbols of fire etc., are factories producing pollution, tanks, shells, bombs and generally those human activities that express hatred and the desire to exterminate the other. These are "those who hate," mentioned by St. Maximus. Some negative relationships between people are also painted, such as a couple turned back-to-back, unableto achieve a loving relationship. Elsewhere, someone is depicted with his head down. Others try desperately to escape a system of entrapping gears. In the right corner of the composition, the red color of the background darkens, alters to purple and becomes like a black hole. A factory shrinks and darkens close to the black hole, threatening to disappear into it. The scene is marred by a landscape riddled with shells, tanks, and bombs. The beings diminish and become obscure according to the logic that refers to how demons are depicted in Christian iconography unlighted and shriveled.

We have here a painterly formulation of the teaching of St. Maximus about those who love and those who hate. Until now, the traditional image of hell was a fiery river of sinners leading to the dragon that swallows them. This imagery consists of symbols borrowed from pagan antiquity. Here we have another visual vocabulary, not metaphoric or allegorical. This one is freed from the platonic influence on Greco-Roman art, from which the Christian iconography is in debt. We would say that here at work is the ontological power of the words of St Paul in 1Cor 3:11-15:

For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.

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