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Photios Kontoglou, “The Mystic Zion”

An English translation of an article by the famous Greek iconographer, Photios Kontoglou, who was also a lover of the Psaltic Art. 

PHOTIOS KONTOGLOU (1896 - 1965)

Photios KontoglouA Greek Orthodox iconographer and author, was born in Aïvali, Asia Minor. After traveling around the world he eventually returned to his homeland, but was forced to leave after the Asia Minor catastrophe in 1922 and moved to Athens, Greece.

His writings and icon painting distinguished him as a soldier for Christ and struggler for the spirit of Orthodox Romeosini. His writings reveal the Christian-Roman/Byzantine Orthodox spirit of the neo-Hellene. His dedication to the traditional Orthodox Byzantine Iconographic Art form, at a time when even iconographers on Mount Athos were using Western prototypes, was instrumental to the reawakening of Orthodox liturgical art forms that was to occur, which we now enjoy.

His article, “The Mystic Zion,” reveals how the psaltic liturgical art form of the Church partakes of the same spirit. The purpose of the liturgical chant is one and the same with iconography, to be apocalyptic; to reveal God’s presence and to bring us into His presence.

The Mystic Zion

by Photios Kontoglou

Byzantine art (techni) is for me the art of arts. I believe in it as I do religion. I do not deny this, but it even gives me great pleasure when, most of the time, someone uses it as an accusation. Only this art nurtures my soul with its deep and mysterious powers, it quenches the thirst which I feel in the dry desert which surrounds us. Next to Byzantine Art, all other art seems to me light, “distracted by many things,” while only “one thing is needful.” That one thing, when it is perceived by someone, it is understood.

Many times I question myself how man was made worthy by divine grace to reach the unteachable, to express the inexpressible, and to express it with means so practical and simple: neither vain wisdom, neither foresight, neither false transcendence with soft delicateness, neither sentimentalism, theatrical and meaningless. Everything is serious, contemplative enough, mystical worlds revealed under phenomenal worthlessness and simpleness. A trigger descends to the depths of the oceans of the soul and, at the moment when most think it cannot descend another fathom, it reaches a world no one can measure. “Let no profane hand touch” (Canon of the Feast of the Annunciation; Ninth Ode, First Troparion.) Whoever does not understand that mysterious language “setting aside all worldly cares,” will not understand even till the end of his life. The root of his soul will remain dry of the dew of heaven.

The sweetness of this art is apocalyptic. Men who have need of triviality, cannot find anything other than—would be—rational comments, about crooked feet, unnatural bodies and the such, but how can its deep human content, which is the holy of holies, be weighed with such means? And when they praise it, then they say the worst, idiotic comments, generalities.

For man to commune with that which “is a fire and burns the unworthy,” no one benefits from those bulky tools which are called: smartness, education, rhetoric, diplomacy, analysis, etc., but something more honorable is needed, something which is usually found in the simplest man and is some magical characteristic, that reveals to man the depth of the divine harmony of the whole. “What do I look upon? None other but the gentle, the humble, and the quiet!” Souls which are deep and closed have the hidden privilege to be initiated into this revelation.

So, he who has this grace, only he understands the mystic and unearthly tongue which the East speaks, Byzantium. In the works of this “mystic Zion” he finds the fount and quenches his thirst, whosoever burns from the thirst for the original.

When he enters into a Byzantine chapel, he expects to find something apocalyptic in its paintings, something original, something which presents mystical things, while he can pass by a great European gallery, without satisfying this type of desire. It is, however, in the first drawer who drew “without prototype”—according to the image—where the true prototype is found, where the combination of colors and forms are not new, within a perception appointed from before nature, but it is the presentation of worlds and feelings by totally spiritual means, with the indefinite pulse of the hand, a bowing of the head, clothing where the threads disappear in an air which blows beyond the earth, a color which reminds of the depth of the sea, an exotic rock, a wild tree which brings you the mystical composition of the world. The colors and the forms retain their evocative power because they are not recreated by the artist to represent something natural, but they are utilized in such a way that their identity and their apocalyptic power becomes more intense. Whoever feels this will be left passionless to the external charms and pointless perfections.

The works of Byzantine art are the most apocalyptic man had done, architecturally, poetically, musically and artistically: the “O Gladsome Light,” poem of Athenogenous the martyr, the rolling melody of the Cherubic or Communion Hymns, immerse the soul into the mystical half-light of the East. This mysticism has no relation to the infirm mysticism of the North, but is full of health, happiness and richness, even as it is ascetic and austere.

One rich example of apocalyptic drawing is the icon of Saint John the Forerunner. Icon of Saint John the Forerunner This scene was created during the years of Turkish occupation (Turkocratia), that is, a period condemned by art history. Nevertheless, it is the most astonishing accomplishment! Saint John is shown as a wild bird, a bird of prey, bony, with hands and feet of sticks, sun-baked, with some great wings of a vulture. He stands perched in a deserted place, on soot and dry rocks, in one hand he holds the mystical hand blessing, and in the other he holds a paper on which he writes his complaint, as if telling it to Christ who bends down from heaven. In one corner, planted on a dry rock , is a wild tree which is troubled, tortured, like the Forerunner, an oak tree with a hatchet stuck into its trunk. His clothing is as green oil, a symbolic color made to match the face that wears it.

How many times, I ask, was man made worthy to create such sights, such fearful works as the Forerunner and the “O Gladsome Light,” poem of Athenogenous the martyr!

Translated: K. Terzopoulos: Charleston, South Carolina: December 27, 1994.
Original article in Greek is © “Astir,” Athens, Greece, and found in Volume 3 of the WORKS of Photios Kontoglou.
Graphics are also © “Astir,” 1993 and from the work of the same author, Ἔκφρασις.

ISSN: 1941-7616   Copyright © 2008, Konstantinos Terzopoulos.

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