Leigh Hatts examines icons as 'windows' on heaven.
THIS year is the 1200th anniversary of the Seventh Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 787 which encouraged the production of icons.
Many of today's experts assumed that the occasion would pass almost unnoticed but late last December arrangements were suddenly put in hand for London's first major exhibition of Byzantine art.
From Byzantium To El Greco at the Royal Academy of Art (daily until June 21; admission £2.50) comprises seventy icons displayed in a specially darkened top floor cavern which successfully encourages whispering and silence.
For the first time since the Cimabue Crucifix was dramatically displayed at the RA during Holy Week, part of the building has again taken on the nature of a church.
Indeed there is even a real apse and the sanctuary of a small church dating from 1597.
This enclosed environment with its air of reverence is important, for when an icon is divorced from its context it ceases to be truly itself. In Britain, Byzantine art is not well known and icons displayed in shops are little understood by the tourist.
It is as if the wooden block bearing the painting loses a vital dimension when forcibly removed from church or Christian home.
The true icon is a timeless image reflecting eternity of faith and is therefore free from topicality or such distraction as a date or artist's signature.
Since the icon is a window on eternity so the church screen hung with icons makes the church into a heaven on earth.
The Orthodox faith spread to Russia after emissaries had' reported back that they knew not whether the inside of a Constantinople church was in heaven or on earth.
Such is the importance of the icon that the people of Syros have at the last moment denied the RA exhibition its advertised culminating exhibit. El Greco's Falling Asleep of The Virgin Mary remains at home as a cherished object of use.
The earlier the icon the greater its simplicity. But the figure is always easily recognised. One of the oldest icons in London is a double sided icon for processional use from Kastoria Cathedral.
The painting of The Virgin Hodegetria is derived from an icon in Constantinople which was believed to be an actual portrait of the Virgin painted from life by St Luke.
He was the patron saint of the
Iraklion Guild of Artists and the empty space at the end of the exhibition has been filled with El Greco's St Luke Painting An Icon of the Virgin.
The Mother of God is preeminent among the saints and the move towards narrative and complexity is seen in the 13thcentury Dormition where bishops and deacons betray emotion as they look at the body of The Virgin.
In the late 13th century Christ Pantocrator (to be found in every church) has a lively and expressive face and by the 14th century, in one of the largest Byzantine icons ever painted, there are prominent cheekbones and an anxious expression.
The familiar face of St Peter has come from the British Museum. England and Greece both share St George and St Nicholas.
St Marina tends to be more popular with the Greeks but in her red dress we find the hint of a great coming together. There is a trace of a 15th-century Venetian costume. Crete was under Venetian Control and the Renaissance and Byzantine traditions were meeting. West also met and this year, as we both by chance prepare to keep Holy Week and celebrate Easter simultaneously, there will be added interest in the Passion and Cruxifixion icons.
An icon is not only found on wood but on church walls to create a larger 'window on heaven'. The excuse of moving walls from Greece to Piccadilly is that earthquakes have caused the wall paintings to be removed anyway.
The Anonymous Deacon has been exposed to the elements in a ruined church for many years.
That young deacon is holding a censer which might be found among the metalwork in the complementary exhibition of East Christian Art at Bernheimer Fine Arts, 32 St George Street, WI (weekdays until May 1: admission free).
A hundred pieces are on view including Greek and Russian icons from the 12th to early 17th century as well as works of art from Constantinople dated as early as 5 AD.
The RA's souvenir shop is selling a superb catalogue but missing is the very latest and most helpful book, Doors of Perception by John Baggley (Mowbray £9.95), which will be welcomed not only by art lovers but by all Western Christians who wish to understand the significance and spirituality surrounding icons.
Icon art: St George and the young man of Mytilene.