Interview with Renowned Iconographer Father Kallinkos of Cyprus

| Published: | Updated: July 16, 2022 | , , ,

Iconographer Monk Father Kallinkos Revived Lost Byzantine Techniques

Iconographer Father Kallinkos was himself considered an icon for his role in restoring Byzantine art techniques during his 91 years. Yet when I met the monk shortly before his death, he was a humble and gracious host.

Cyprus Stavrovouni Monastery
Cyprus Stavrovouni Monastery

I met Father Kallinko at Stavrovouni Monastery, which he first entered as a novice monk when he was 21 years old. The Monastery sits atop a steep mountain that resembles a pyramid, overlooking Larnaca 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.

Stavrovouni Monastery Sign
Permission to enter the monastery granted for women. Credit: Meg Pier

Ironically, women are not allowed to enter the main part of the monastery, but can visit the adjacent chapel. This rule is called avato and emulates a similar code at Mount Athos, is designed to keep the monks isolated from temptation. Happily, a hand-painted sign outside Father Kallinkos’ studio affirmed “Entrance Allowed for Women”.

90-Year Old Iconographer Father Kallinkos Is 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. When I met him, Father Kallinkons was 90 years old, and he said the years of wall painting standing on scaffolding had affected his knees.

Iconographer Father Kallinkos at Stavrovouni Monastery in the 1950s. Image Credit: Library of Cyprus University of Technology

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.

Icons are Immortal

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.”

Icon Painting used for Worship
An icon painting used for worship. Photo: Meg Pier

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.

The Back Story of Greek Orthodox Iconography in Cyprus

The styles of iconography that can be witnessed across Cyprus reflect the island’s history as a cultural crossroads.

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. 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.

Painting of Saint Constantine and his mother Saint Helena in the 15th century Archangel Michael church in Pedoulas, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Photo: Unbekannte Künstler zwischen via Wikimedia Commons

The 15th and 16th centuries are considered the most creative periods of icon painting in Cyprus. 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.

Iconographer Considers Each Painting a Prayer

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.”

Iconographer Father Kallinkos Icon Paintings
Father Kallinkos with one of his icon paintings. Photo: Meg Pier

“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.”

Father Kallinkos’ First Icon Painting

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 iconographer, as is his son.

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