Panagia the Hesychast: Reflections on a Universal Icon 

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INSIGHTS DR ADRAHTAS 3

“Our Lady of Athens” 

I will start my reflections with a statement as bold as possible, firstly because it encapsulates the gist of my view and secondly because it’s the only way that I can speak of an icon such as the one I present in this article. “Our Lady of Athens” (2013) by Uros (Ouresis) Todorovic constitutes the artistically most sophisticated image of the Virgin Mary and Christ in modern Greek iconography. But before I venture into substantiating my claim, let’s see some basic information about the icon. The work, a relatively small one (45x35), is mixed media: partly a drawing, partly a painting and partly a collage. It is executed on cardboard paper and in its title it reflects the connection of the Mother of God with the people of Athens at the worst moment of the recent Greek economic crisis. For Todorovic, in the midst of despair, the Theotokos became the loving and caring embrace that identified with all the suffering of the “little ones” (Mt. 18: 6, 10).     

 

All in One! 

Todorovic has managed to paint a Child-holding Panagia (Vrefokratousa), a Man of Sorrows (akra tapeinosis) and a Deposition (Apokathelosis) in one and only composition. And, on top of that, he has infused this innovative icon of his with subtle yet unmistakable significations of hesychast spirituality and cosmic contemplation. To be sure, in order to accomplish this kind and degree of integration, Todorovic has employed abstraction, has taken recourse to distortion, and has stretched Byzantine iconography conventions to their limits – or, better, he has re-invented them! The historicity of the figures is suspended – and at the same time, paradoxically, heightened – the bodies of the figures are just implied – sometimes more, sometimes less – while Byzantine presentationism, i.e., the treatment of images as real presences, acquires the proportions of totality. Everyone in front of this icon cannot but be part of it…!      

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Bittersweetness or Charmolype 

Structurally speaking, the totality of the composition is alluded to thanks to the circularity of the interlocked figures, as well as the manner in which colour has been applied. More specifically, there is a triple circularity – that of Christ, right in the middle, that of the Theotokos, embracing Christ in the guise of a true Vrefokratousa, and that of the clothes of the Theotokos at the outer circle. Within these successive levels of coinherence, one gets to reflect on Creation, the Nativity, the Divine Pathos, the grief of Theotokos, and the final restoration of all things. But, although the overall depiction gives the impression of a certain sadness, ultimately the icon is about the sweet embrace of the final restoration. Thus, one could say that until the final “then” – a “then” which is now iconically anticipated – the historical experience of the beholder is about and of a bittersweet eschatology.            

 

A Platytera of Introspection 

If one turns to the dialectics of colour in “Our Lady of Athens”, what comes to the fore is the ongoing interest of Todorovic in the cosmological rendering of his themes. Dark and light, shades of blue and shades of white, these are the contrasting forces that correspond to the universe, on the one hand, and the Uncreated Cause of the created order, on the other. The dark blue clothes of the Virgin are the skies themselves – the outer or external universe – while the lit area of her embrace – which, by the way, is also reminiscent of a womb – closes up to her Son, the Creator of the universe, who reclines, so to speak, on her heart – His heavenly throne! It is hard here not to think of the uncreated light, a light that in its abundance within the Theotokos constitutes the main reason she is “Wider-than-the-Heavens”. With her clothes being the cosmos, she becomes something more than the latter – not so much by turning outwardly, as in the traditional case of her depiction with her arms wide open, but by turning inwardly to her Son-God, the Uncreated Light, the very Light that gave birth to the rest of the Universe.

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Hesychast Con-volution 

We read in the writings known as the Corpus Areopagiticum – a set of works of profound theological importance, allegedly written by the New Testament figure known as Dionysius the Areopagite – that the soul that learns to pray perfectly turns from the external world to one’s interiority, performing a sort of con-volution, a spiral movement that leads to the centre of existence, where God is encountered as Uncreated Light. This is the famous synelixis. Todorovic has chosen to pose the figures in the icon in such a way that one is justified to conclude that he had indeed synelixis in mind, that is, the very practice of prayer that the Hesychasts of the 14th century will make emblematic of their spiritual message. Knowing the interest of Todorovic as a theologian in the texts of the Pseudo-Areopagite, I am absolutely sure that my interpretation is more than pertinent. But the most intriguing thing is that Todorovic chooses to “talk” visually about the con-volution of the Hesychasts through the depiction of Theotokos. Why?   

 

The Transformative Power of Originality 

From Patristic literature it is well known that the Virgin Mary is regarded as the prototype of Hesychasm – basically due to her experience of tranquillity in the Temple from a very young age, but also thanks to her existential mode of silence. However, this very personal connection between the Theotokos and Hesychasm – as far as I know – has never been visually depicted. No one before Todorovic had attempted to venture iconographically into these unchartered waters. Nevertheless, judging from the result, I would dare say that Todorovic not only succeeded, but also established a new iconographic type, namely, that of Panagia the Hesychast. This re-enforces within me a sense I always had concerning his artistic output since the very first moment I came across his work: an iconographer of sheer power, transformative power with regards to both tradition and the originality of his insights. Concluding my reflections, I would have to say that “Our Lady of Athens” re-capitulates the Marian iconographic tradition of Orthodoxy in a manner that takes it to a level of universal symbolicity, a level where Orthodoxy speaks loud to everyone!


ABOUT | INSIGHTS INTO GLOBAL ORTHODOXY with Dr Vassilis Adrahtas

"Insights into Global Orthodoxy" is a fortnightly column that features opinion articles that on the one hand capture the pulse of global Orthodoxy from the perspective of local sensitivities, needs and/or limitations, and on the other hand delve into the local pragmatics and significance of Orthodoxy in light of global trends and prerogatives.

Dr Vassilis Adrahtas holds a PhD in Studies in Religion (USyd) and a PhD in the Sociology of Religion (Panteion). He has taught at several universities in Australia and overseas. Since 2015 he has been teaching ancient Greek Religion and Myth at the University of New South Wales and Islamic Studies at Western Sydney University. He has published ten books. He has extensive experience in the print media as editor-in-chief, and columnist, and for a while he worked as a radio producer. He lives in Sydney, Australia, his birthplace.

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