Likenesses of the soul: EIKON at the Art Gallery of Ballarat

A dazzling array of medieval icons is currently on display at the Art Gallery of Ballarat. Unknown artist. Christ the Ruler of All ‘Pantocrator.’ Greece or Crete (circa 1550). Egg tempera, gold leaf and gesso on linen over wood. Courtesy of The Temple Gallery

In the 21st century, there is a trend towards art that needs to be “experienced”, as opposed to art that can simply be “seen”.

Video artist Bill Viola plays with the shape of time, and only by standing in front of his work for a prescribed period of time you can experience its full beauty. American artist James Turrell creates his works out of light and its effectiveness depends on how his art affects a viewer’s perception of space and colour. You cannot do full justice to the art of either Viola or Turrell by looking at reproductions of their work on the web.

The Byzantine medieval icon belongs to the category of art which needs to be seen in the flesh, rather than viewed through reproductions. Why? Icons are essentially a spiritual and functional art form. They are designed to allow the beholder to “enter” the image and through the icon to ascend to a higher plane of spiritual existence.

They are deliberately non-naturalistic images, where artistic conventions, such as ornate gilded golden backgrounds or blocks of pure colour, non-realistic hieratic proportions, symbolic, rather than naturalistic colour conventions and frequently the huge and exaggerated size of the eyes of the main figures in the icon, make it absolutely impossible to confuse an icon with a picture intended as a “window into the world”.

When Christ, the Mother of God or a saint is depicted in an icon, the icon-painter adopts deliberate devices to prevent the image from being confused with something in the seen in the observable world. About a hundred years after Christ’s death, in the Apocryphal Acts of St John, the difference is spelt out between a portrait and an icon likeness. The saint distinguishes an icon which is the “likeness of the soul” and the portrait which is “a dead likeness of the dead”.

Unknown artist. Adoration of the Magi. Russia, 17th. century. Egg tempera and gesso on linen over wood, 31.3 x 26.4 cm. Private collection, Sydney Art Gallery of Ballarat

Byzantine icon-painters over the course of many centuries perfected a special visual code through which to depict the holy figures of the Christian faith and the sacred events through a mystic and symbolic iconography.

As in Aboriginal art, one’s comprehension of the meaning of an icon depends on the amount of effort made by the viewer. Icons are immediately accessible on an aesthetic level – but a bit of study and meditation is required to reach some of the deeper levels of meaning.

The physical images themselves were not considered by the Byzantines as having any specific sacred properties. Rather, the power of icons lay in their ability to set up a channel of communication between the beholder and the sacred figures depicted on the icon and their spiritual prototypes which existed in the celestial sphere.

Unknown artist. Saint George and the Dragon. Crete circa 1500. Egg tempera, gold leaf and gesso on linen over wood. 27 x 21.3 cm. Private collection, Sydney. Art Gallery of Ballarat

Icons became these windows onto heaven. The faithful would frequently enter the images through the huge eyes and become involved in a prayer-like state contemplating the divine. Subsequently, it was realised that many of these icons were also great works of art, which had a profound impact on the development of Renaissance art and later on the emergence of the modern avant-garde in the opening decades of the 20th century.

EIKON, the icon exhibition currently on display at the Art Gallery of Ballarat is an amazing exhibition of some 75 priceless icons drawn from all around the world.

There is a spectacular illuminated Byzantine manuscript from the 12th century, sparkling with its fields of leaf gold on wonderful parchment. There is an awe-inspiring image of the Pantocrator (main image), or image of Christ as the Ruler of All, dated about 1550, where in a very subtle manner Christ is shown as both as Judge and as Man, one who is prepared to help humanity and ultimately die for them.

Unknown artist. Saint Gregory the Theologian. Northern Greece circa 1500. Egg tempera, gold leaf and gesso on linen over wood. 21.5 x 15.5 cm. Private collection, Sydney. Art Gallery of Ballarat

The Orthodox world embraces parts of Mediterranean, the Balkans, most of Eastern Europe and parts of the Middle East and this exhibitions brings together spiritual and artistic treasures from all of these countries.

And so, there are a couple of superb Syriac icons, including the wonderfully effective icon of the Archangel Michael from 1550, some great icons from Crete, including a graceful St George and the dragon, 1500, and an unforgettable and highly expressive Byzantine St Gregory the Theologian, also c.1500. Although the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the tradition of painting Byzantine icons continued on Mount Athos, Cyprus, Crete, Asia Minor, Sicily, Venice and throughout the Slav world.

Unknown artist. Mother of God of the Burning Bush. Russia, circa 1800. Egg tempera, gold leaf and gesso on linen over wood. Private collection, Sydney. Art Gallery of Ballarat

A number of the great icons in this exhibition are Russian, including several superb Virgin and Child images, mainly from the 16th century, including the profoundly moving Mother of God of Tikhvinskaya, circa 1560. This is an image of great love and tenderness where people praying before this very icon have felt themselves transported into a state of heavenly bliss.

A number of icons demonstrate the moment in time when the Byzantine tradition collided with forms of Western Gothic art, such as the strangely haunting image of the Pietà, where the Virgin Mary holds the body of her son, after it had been taken down from the cross. This particular painting was executed in Crete in about 1500, where Byzantine conventions and techniques of painting met with western imagery and a Venetian sense of colour.

After Nicholas Tzafouris. The Mother of God and Christ ‘of the Utmost Humiliation’. Crete, circa 1500. Egg tempera, gold leaf and gesso on linen over wood. Private collection, Sydney. Art Gallery of Ballarat

We have never had an exhibition of icons of this calibre in Australia before and, judging by their rarity, it is unlikely that we will have something of this quality again the foreseeable future. If you are interested in art and the spiritual, and in art which can change your life, this may well be an exhibition for you.


EIKON: Icons of the Orthodox Christian World is on display at the Art Gallery of Ballarat until January 26. Details here.