Orthodox Christian Faith Makes a Fascinating Lens Through Which to Explore Island Nation
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Meet two acclaimed Cyprus iconographers: Father Kallinkos, a 90-year old monk considered an icon in some quarters, who died shortly after our encounter, and Myrianthi Constantinidou, a young mother who also enjoys acclaim as an iconographer.
As our car climbed a hill, my senses were hit by the acrid smell of fire and sound of hovering helicopters. Reaching the crest, we could see billowing clouds of smoke rising from the olive tree groves extending over the horizon.
Just as the helicopters released bags of water on the fire, the flames jumped the highway and the field to our right began to smolder.
Hitting the gas pedal, I laughed nervously that we were facing obstacles of biblical proportions in our quest to see Father Kallinkos. I was en route to meet a monk who is considered an icon in some quarters. From the highway we could see Stavrovouni Monastery ahead, atop a steep mountain that resembled a pyramid, overlooking Larnaka Bay. The syllables “stavro” at the beginning of a church’s name means that it possesses a piece of the “true cross,” on which Jesus was crucified. It is believed that this monastery was founded in 327 by St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine the Great, who stopped in Cyprus on her return from the Holy Land.
We turned off the highway, and motored into the hills, passing a quarry where gusts of strong wind stirred up thick clouds of dust and temporarily obscured our view. Reaching the monastery of St. Barbara, a “dependency” of Stavrovouni, I noted a hand-painted sign affirming “Entrance Allowed for Women.”
90-Year Old Priest & Iconographer Father Kallinkos An Icon Himself
I was eager to meet Father Kallinkos, who had come to the monastery in 1940 when he was 20 and at 22 had started doing wall paintings at Stavrovouni. In 1946, he went to Mount Athos where he took courses in icon painting. He took part in Cyprus’ liberation struggle from 1955 – 1959 and was arrested by the English, tortured and imprisoned. After being released from prison he moved to Athens and took courses from another great icon painter, Fotis Kontoglou. He studied techniques at various places such as Mystras, Meteora, Berroia, Thessaloniki and Mount Sinai. Age 90 now, he has had two bypass surgeries, and the years of wall painting standing on scaffolding has affected his knees.
In a small outbuilding apart from the monastery, I found Father Kallinikos with company and a twinkle in his eye. In his small and cluttered studio, the monk was in animated conversation with Vassos Christophides of Nicosia, who had been the head of a handicraft organization and has known Father Kallinkos for 30 years. The monk’s niece, Stamatia Zannikon of Athens, had come for the summer to study icon painting with him, something she has done for the past eight years. Her mother, the priest’s sister, painted too.
Father Kallinikos held up an icon painting and spoke in Greek. Vassos acted as the monk’s translator.
“He is saying the icon is immortal.”
“He is 90 in body but in his mind he is a young man, still searching for lost techniques,” Vassos said. “He has visited many of the ancient sites where Byzantine icons have been preserved, including the Holy Monastery of Saint Katherine on Mount Sinai in Egypt. Classical writers observed that the Egyptians painted with molten wax, using special tools. The Greeks and Romans wanted to paint pictures of their dead rather than create mummies. These portraits, created in the first century on wood and cloth, were the early prototypes for icons, which Christians adopted.”
Father Kallinikos was impressed with the process employed at Saint Katherine’s and practices it today. Called the encaustic technique, it involves liquefying bee’s wax with ammonia, resulting in a soluble substance like watercolor but one that can last thousands of years without the hues losing their vividness. The icons can be polished and burnished and their light will continue to shine.
Vassos said that the monk strictly adheres to the traditions of the Byzantine Macedonian school of icon painting and yet each piece is unique. Father Kallinikos puts his innermost thoughts in each icon he paints in the hopes that when people look at it, they will get the message. He considers icon painting to be a prayer, a way that he worships.
“All icon painters are taught that if they are not spiritual, they will fail,” Vassos translated. “You have to feel the philosophy. Someone can copy like a photograph, but not put anything of himself in it.”
“An icon is not just an object,” explained Vassos. “We don’t pray to them like idols, it is a reminder, you honor the person. The icons are revered not worshiped. The simple people in the past worshiped them. When the serfs were sick, they would scratch a painting and put a paint chip in water and drink to get well.”
The first icon Father Kallinkos painted hangs over the refrigerator in his studio. He had given it to his mother and reclaimed it when she died. His work is now in Russia, Germany, France, Switzerland—he has had 10 exhibits in London. The monk’s calling has enabled him to purchase his father’s house, where his sister now lives, as well as build a church in Athienou, the village from which he hails, and establish two homes for the community’s elderly.
His legacy also includes passing on his knowledge, some of which he was taught by another famous icon painter, Father Meletios. Father Kallinikos said that he couldn’t produce a son to “carry the line” but he had a pupil he instructed in the techniques for ten years. Now that student is an icon painter, as is his son.
The next day I headed to Limassol to meet another icon painter whose father had studied with Kallinikos. This area of Cyprus’ southern coast is another pocket of posterity preserved, with the site of the 7th century B.C. Sanctuary of Apollo, the sprawling ruins of the second century Greek town of Kourion and the well-preserved medieval castle of Kolossi, built by a Grand Master of the Knights of St. John.
Athanasios Papageorgiou, a former director of the Cyprus Antiquities Department and a Byzantine expert, explained that the iconography of Cyprus reflects its history.
“The occupation of Cyprus by Richard the Lionhearted in 1191 and the establishment of the French Kingdom of Cyprus in 1192 brought Roman Catholicism to the country,” he said. “The conquerors confiscated the property of the Greek Orthodox Church and gradually alienated the country from the direct influences of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine world. We have therefore a peculiar trend in icon painting in the thirteenth century. Painters go back to earlier sources and eastern elements take a hand, lineal lines prevail, the paintings are strictly “en face” and flat.”
“The 15th and 16th centuries are the most creative periods of icon painting in Cyprus,” he continued. “As a result of the fall of Constantinople in 1453, many icon painters came to Cyprus, creating a school of painting on the island that parallels the Cretan school. The decay of Byzantine painting after 1571 came as a result of the Turkish occupation, with many of the well-known painters leaving for Venice.”
We parked near Limassol’s harbor, and walked along narrow streets bearing names such as Sokratous, for the ancient Greek philosopher. In the heat of early afternoon, the city was largely empty; crossing through deserted neighborhoods, we trailed behind the form of a swaying skirt below a parasol, passing only a skinny, dark-skinned boy selling watermelons on a corner.
Young Mother Myrianthi Constantinidou Found Her Calling As Icon Painter
We found the storefront we were looking for and entered a sun-filled studio and the company of saints. We exchanged greetings with Myrianthi Constantinidou. The petite brunette welcomed us with a wide smile, pulling a chair over for me to sit next to her at her workspace.
She faced her easel, on which sat a large canvas depicting the image of a haloed and bearded man against a rich gold background.
To Myrianthi’s left was a table spilling over with paints and brushes, and propped up around her on other easels and the floor were other works-in-progress.
I asked the acclaimed iconographer about her process.
“Inside of me I feel something that pushes me,” she responded. “I might start an icon with one idea and something happens and that says ‘no, I will do a Virgin Mary instead.’
She said the way she feels on a particular day will influence her painting. Some days she comes into her studio and looks at what she had done the day before and says ‘What?!’ and starts over. She can’t predict how long a piece will take. In the morning she can think she will be done in an hour and she is still working at 7:30 p.m. If she has been commissioned to do a piece and is under a deadline, she gets nervous and anxious and it affects the flow of her work.
I nodded my head vigorously—I often had similar such experiences in approaching my writing. She smiled in acknowledgment; a connection had been made.
She explained there are two schools of icon-painting, the Cretan and Macedonian. Like Father Kallinikos, she is trained in the style of the Macedonian school of northern Greece. She said the Cretan school is more stern and austere in the expressions depicted and uses dark colors that she said “almost makes you afraid to look at them.”
Myrianthi said that there are strict conventions and technical requirements—icon painters are part of a tradition and you can’t just do whatever you wish. There are manuscripts and books that dictate the approach. When asked for examples, she reeled off a litany: the Virgin Mary is never in white; St. Peter is to be shown with a key, symbolizing heaven; martyrs are depicted holding a cross; if the figure of a bishop is shown, his robes will always have a design of crosses embellished on it. Different clothing symbolizes different social stations—royalty or commoners.
Nonetheless, as an artist, Myrianthi puts her own stamp on her work—people who are familiar with her style can immediately tell if a piece was created by her. She begins with the background color. Then she does a prototype sketch and paints the gold leaf, then she does the first layer of colors, then she does the details—eyes, nose, mouth, hair. Then she does two layers of varnish. She buys the gold leaf in increments of 20 books, each of which have 25 pages about the size of a playing card and cost 1,200 euro.
The Constantinidis family tradition in iconography began in 1961 when Myrianthi’s father George began studying the art in Athens. There, while studying at the Marasleio Academy, he attended painting and iconography lessons in the workshop of Sarafianos. On Mount Athos, the Holy Mountain, he enriched his knowledge, before returning to Cyprus. Originally from a village near Stavrovouni Monastery, he later studied with Father Kallinkos and became an Inspector of Art in elementary schools.
Her father did wall painting on Chrysorroyiatissa Monastery for ten years. Myrianthi helped him from an early age and saw from close up the processes and secrets involved in hand-painting icons and frescoes. Her brother does wall painting at churches; she believes they both inherited their passion from their father. Myrianthi said that in 1999 her father got sick and had a liver transplant. There was an order at George’s workshop at that time from the abbot of Chrysorroyiatissa Monastery for an icon painting of the Virgin Mary. George was so sick he couldn’t do it and he encouraged Myrianthi to create the painting. When it was completed, George told her that because it was her work, she should deliver the painting. It was the first piece she had done and she was anxious and insecure when she brought it to show the abbot. He told her that it was so good he wanted her to make a workshop in the monastery. Two years later her father died and ever since she has felt his presence, motivating her.
Her clients range from simple farmers to ecclesiastical art professors to the President of Greece. Her work has now been bought by clients the world over-in Africa, America, England, China.
As we began to say our goodbyes, Myrianthi’s 12-year old daughter burst through the door of the studio.
Myrianthi pointed to a figure in a painting of the Last Supper and asked Thelma who it was and she replied “Judas.” When I asked how she knew that, Thelma said “Because he is reaching for the fruit before everyone else.”
Myrianthi explained that the significance of the icons is that everyone used to be illiterate and they were used to get out the message of the history and values.
I asked Thelma if she aspired to carry on the family tradition and become an iconographer.
She told me she helps her mother by filling in areas with color but wants to be a doctor, although she’d like to carry on with it as a hobby. Thelma added “It is important work and it would be a great shame if the tradition died in Cyprus.”
During Myrianthi’s early years as an iconographer working at Chrysorrogiatissa Monastery, she would bring Thelma to her workshop there, where the child slept at her feet in a basket as she painted.
The monastery’s name means “Our Lady of the Golden Pomegranate.” The use of the syllables “issa” means “our lady of.” Throughout Cyprus, there are a host of places that are named for female saints. Panagia Chrysorrogiatissa is a place of special significance; along with Kykkos, it is one of the three Cypriot Orthodox sanctuaries believed to possess an icon of the Virgin Mary painted by St. Luke.
Arriving at Chrysorrogiatissa several days later, we were reminded that this was a place of reverence by a sign posted at the entrance stating “Visitors are kindly requested to respect the monastery and not to enter scantily dressed.” When founded by the hermit Ignatius in 1152, it was probably a safe bet that women in tank tops did not appear at his doorstep to tempt him, here in the pines at a lofty 2,723 feet above the sea.
In Chrysorrogiatissa’s founding legend, Ignatius discovered an icon depicting Mary, who then appeared to him, instructing that a monastery be built in her honor. The icon today is wrapped in gauze and kept in a special casket at the monastery. The church here was surprisingly small and the twilight-like lighting from its crystal chandeliers lent an air of mystery to the abundance of religious imagery displayed on every surface.
I was drawn to a particular section of the iconostasis, which was draped in a heavy lace curtain, behind which lay brocade and under that, a slab of engraved silver with a small door. Hanging from the hooked handiwork were small silver plates, into each of which images were etched. Several showed a disembodied arm, others depicted a leg, and another illustrated a person on his back, seemingly in pain. I later learned these bits of artistry represented specific prayers for relief from ongoing ailments.
Climbing marble steps, I entered a courtyard enclosed by whitewashed walls, with green potted plants clustered in twos and threes in doorways and niches. Visiting in the late afternoon, we were the only guests and not a soul was in sight.
I timidly made my way out into an expansive cobble-stoned plaza, the floor of which was adorned with a mosaic of a double-headed bird, gripping a sword and scepter in its talons. Past a bubbling fountain, at the far end of the terrace, benches beckoned. I sank into one, awed by the magnificent view beyond the pines to the lush valley below. My initial feeling of being an intruder gave way to a contented sense of peace, and I closed my eyes and enjoyed the warmth of the sun.