Wednesday, March 17, 2010

While museums are great places, there is something to be said for seeing art in the place it was created, or at least NEAR the place. Maybe your appreciation is enhanced when more of your senses are involved (bus fumes, aching feet, coming in from the heat of the streeets). I remember the excitement of visiting Akrotiri in Santorini, and being so disappointed to learn that the mosaics uncovered there had all been moved to the museum in Athens. When we followed up a week later and saw them there, somehow they had lost a little of their enchantment.

Have any of you been to Sinai? I have not. Above is the monastery of St. Catherine's which houses the world's most important collection of Byzantine icons.

Get ready for this title: Archangel Michael with Donor Monk. I found these images in a beautiful book called Icons from Sinai by Robert Nelson and Kirsten Collins, but I have to say I chuckled to come across this description of the icon, depicting "the relatively diminished scale of the anonymous monk" who kneels before the archangel. Relatively diminished? I'd say so.

Although this dates to the 13th century, there does seem to be something contemporary about it, don't you think? What is it? The flatness, the expressionist lines of the wings and tunic, and I suppose that interesting way of playing with scale. What do you think?

It is fascinating to read about the details I'd never have noticed. Evidently archangel Michael is often depicted in court garb, but here he wears a purple tunic, dark blue mantle, and red shoes, which apparently are usually reserved only for the Byzantine emperor. Apparently Michael was important enough in Byzantium to have two feast days set aside for him.

Two possibilities are offered for the archangel's pose - the stance may call to mind the angels at Christ's baptism, who hold the clothes he will wear after he emerges from the Jordan; or the icon-maker was referring to the participants at the Divine Liturgy (Byzantine tradition) who receive the Eucharist with covered hands. (p. 151)

I'm not sure it matters that we'll never know what the intention was. It's just remarkable that something made with tempera on wood is still here at all.

1 comment:

  1. In the crucifixion scene of Grunewald's Isenheim Altarpiece, the gesturing figure of John the Baptist says: "It is fitting that He increase and I diminish." But how wonderful to illustrate the principle literally!