Iconography in Palestine

There was an article in The Telegraph a few days’ ago about Ian Knowles who runs the two-year old icon-teaching centre in the West Bank. His work is on the israeli wall that divides the land and also in cathedrals and churches around the globe. The West bank centre began in a Coptic Church, is now housed in the Bethlehem university near the Church of the Nativity and is funded almost completely by private donations.

As I understand it, the Bethlehem school was an outreach programme from the British Association of Iconographers, for the most part a Catholic-inspired organisation centred around the benedictine Abbey of Our Lady of Peace in Bedfordshire.

Some years ago, I was taught how to gild and my gilder’s cushion is to hand even as I am typing in my office this evening! Gold is an essential part of the iconographer’s trade, but I am afraid that I have taken the Icon form cautiously into the digital realm: I explained many years ago to Metropolitan Kallistos that I had a plan to animate icons in some way and he was rightly suspicious. He did not completely dismiss my plans but -“I do not think I could pray to a cartoon”, he memorably said. I have not given up this idea, however, though I am aware of the time it takes to realise the detail of an Icon in a new medium, quite apart from the technical issues of trying to move in an inverted perspective. For now, I see my work as an academic exercise and I am currently writing a short course which I believe I will deliver at the Moscow State University sometime later this year. I will use animation simply to define the differences in posture and the significance of the arrangement of characters in traditional iconography. I will also, I hope be able to demonstrate on screen exactly what inverse perspective means and what it does to objects like tables and chairs. While Icons are religious artifacts, they are also an art form telling very specific stories with layered meanings. I see the Icon as the perfect combination of art and religion, so perfect indeed that even with the advances of the Renaissance, and the influence of Western art on both Greek and Russian culture in the 19th Century, the revival of the traditional icon by Photios Kontoglou in the 1950s continues to be a powerful force across the Orthodox world and beyond. It is now not uncommon today, for example, to see Icons in both Catholic and Anglican churches.

On 22nd January according to the Greek Calendar, and on 26th January (transferred from 24th) in the Catholic Church, is the feast of St Timothy, my patron saint.





tyrion lannister

I worry a bit that the best character in “Game of Thrones” is about to be killed. Not only the best character but one of the better actors, Peter Dinklage (brilliant in “Find me Guilty”). The immediate reason for this post, however, is the work of Photis Varthis which can be found here (http://www.lifo.gr/team/u13557/48270). Not only is there an icon of Tyrion but just below it, is a Greek icon of Gollum and then Saruman, Eddard Stark and less successfully maybe, Walter White from “Breaking Bad”. Tremendous stuff. What is exciting is that this approach to the traditional icon is quite within the scope of Photis Kontoglou who revived the tradition of Icon painting in Orthodoxy in the 1950s. One of Kontoglou’s projects was the decoration of the Athens Town hall which meant pictures of Socrates and Euripides as well as Alexander the Great.


The icon style lends itself to historical images, abstracting the characters and imbuing them with still dignity.

Now, there is another reason that I admire the actor who plays Tyrion. At an acceptance speech for an award in the US, Peter Dinklage drew attention to the fate of Martin Henderson who had been picked up and thrown around in Somerset. He was severely injured. Anyway, I wonder where this actor can go next. Certainly there are a number of theatre roles that should be considered- Hamlet is one. I would look forward to such a performance and the star billing would pack the houses as much as Dr Who’s Hamlet did a few years’ ago! While on the subject of “Game of thrones” it is well worth praising the animation of the dragons. It sets the bar very high indeed for cinematic dragons like Smaug. We have come along way from “Dragonheart” which was tremendous as well but the criteria have changed – our standards are simply dealing with the illusion of reality. This is along way from what Disney was doing in the 1930s and a long way from what the great special effects people like Harryhausen did in the 50s and 60’s. The Disney bible of animation is “the Illusion of Life” by Thomas and Johnson and is about believability rather than reality (though it is called “the illusion of life”, that is probably the point: we all recognise it is an “illusion” when we see a 2d Mickey Mouse walking and talking and we know it is not real. Richard Williams said that the beauty of animation and the beauty of art lies in the errors. Computers do not make such errors so with Smaug and all the special effects stuff as well as modern 3d computer-generated animation, we are dealing with something new – we are in the realm of quite an elaborate deceit- it is an art too, but not so obviously I think. I will post something soon about “automatonophobia”, it is very much the stuff of ETA Hoffmann so we are on familiar territory.) – when we see the dragon in “the Hobbit”, we do not need to “willingly suspend our disbelief”, the dragon looks real. In fact, we do not have to do any work at all. We are the passive watchers of a spectacle. I admire it alot but I would prefer to do a bit of work myself at the same time: and back to Game of Thrones- one of the few programmes on TV that I can generally watch without going to sleep, mostly because I never quite know what to expect. I was surprised by the gory end of Oberyn Martell, another excellent character.