"The purpose of hagiography is the reduction, from the perceivable to the imaginable, from the material to the spiritual and from the ephemeral to the eternal. Through hagiography all is depicted not as a sight but as a mystery." 

Fotis Kontoglou

(The painter Nikos Gikas Hadjikyriakos)


For us Greeks there is also another side: The Byzantine tradition. She is scorned and underestimated by the "new" like Savetta or Giotto. In the Byzantine art, we will not encounter the naturalistic elements observed in the Italian Proto-Renaissance and even less its sensual ramifications. Even its narrative is limited to minimum. There are no secular saints, no worldly acts or scenes, no portraits, private homes, palaces, cities, architectural landscapes, ruins and plants with which the Italian Renaissance is full of. If there is a building somewhere it always has the same conventional shape with the same inverted perspective, always with the same outstretched curtain. If there are rocks, they take the form of trapezoidal and polyhedral squares which ignore the prospect of tone and color. Essentially the "nature" does not exist. The background is neutral, gold or monochrome. If it is a forest, one tree is enough. So, the Byzantine craftsman will never give us a romantic landscape like Claude or Poussin. Yet, in Saint Marco in Venice, the mosaic in which Christ is praying on the Mount of Olives alone, there are superb rocks, so "real" and thistles so dry and fragrant that make you wonder and ponder on what the Byzantine painters would have created, what miracles that is , if they had allowed themselves the representation of nature. But neither did they nor the church authority allow it to themselves. The pursuits of the Byzantine art are others. It has a different destination. The Byzantine art is unique and incomparable because it has invented shapes identical to the transcendental symbols of the Holy Mysteries, functional praises based on an unearthly geometry, mirroring celestial visions, imaginary archetypes - like other Indian or Tibetan 'mandala'. No art is stricter. Looking at the elaborate sequence, grading and interdependence of shapes, one is led to the conclusion that this is an art which implemented the inexorable necessity of engineering science in the expression of the religious feeling. There is no lyricism here like Sasseta, no sentimentality. Not even a sentiment, but a cold, icy construction that can neither be added upon nor perfected. If perfected, it will necessarily change its form and will become something else. Everything has been standardized. The shapes, the lights, the half-tones, the shadows. At its base there is a linear-geometric synthesis that constantly reminds of the mathematical rule. Each shape is included and derives from the past. It is an Aristotelian syllogism, an infallible algebraic equation. The artist does not exist. He has been assimilated by the performance of an entity that has him absorbed and completely exhausted. The supernatural beings that are depicted carry the completeness and luster of steel. The wise placing of triangular or corner lights, the finest linear final high-lights, the linear shadows and the whole pace of this abstract shading transforms these beings into mobile armors that reflect or absorb light with the edges and super-smooth surfaces. Their attitudes are frontal and hierarchical, their faces with rudimentary expression sometimes strict almost grim, their folds are designed with straight lines and few curves carefully weighed so as to give the impression that they are taken with a ruler. Stretched like the string of the bow, like the hypotenuse of triangles, like the strings of circles, like parables and hyperboles, written, engraved, riveted to the board or plaster, so that they cannot escape, relax, re-stretched, bend and wither.
It is an imaginary construction that has volume, but very little volume, which occupies a three-dimensional space, but only hardly. Who initially invented and fabricated this style of painting is unknown, but some wise and peculiar and bold craftsman should have composed the specific elements of these things. There is no way that they were born sporadically and randomly over time. The starting point of course is known as the decadence of the Hellenistic art. Indeed, the Byzantine style has faithfully preserved the lesson of the Hellenistic era. Under its strict, rigorous, and tough presence you find, if you dig, all knowledge levels, axes, compositions, and shadings and also the anaglyph of the ancient system. But through the Hellenistic art some intellectuals and some shrewd builders first shaped, as I suspect, nobody knows when, but maybe in the 3rd century AD, the so eerie Byzantine style. They did not merely adopt the knowledge of color, the classic line, the sense of composition. They got some conceivable principles pertaining to two sources: On one hand, the scientific achievements of the mathematician Heron, such as the "spiritual" and the "mirror". On the other hand, the metaphysical and aesthetic theories of Plotinus, and through him the theory of ideas of Plato.
This profound and comprehensive system of knowledge was preserved by the Byzantine art and was transmitted around to many other arts, above all to the infant art of the West. So if it was accused as a barbarian, it is only by those who did not realize what was beyond the dryness and severity of what is also offered. It has virtually offered everything. It was an art teacher, as Kavafis would say: "In every word, in every deed, the wisest”. Unfortunately there are still many manuals and art or design histories in the West that ignore and omit these principles of the Byzantine culture and therefore present a distortion of reality, starting arbitrarily with the Art of Florence by Duccio, Orcagna, and finally the Giotto.

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