Saturday, June 18, 2011


Karen is my museum buddy at home.  When our children were in grade school we became art afficionados, making pilgrimages to the MFA with the announcement of every special exhibit.  We lunched at the Gardener Museum.  We exchanged gifts that poked fun at our growing appreciation for art.  We even "field tripped" to the Met in NYC.  Much of my present tour could be described "art museum on steroids."

Our guide, Stathis, is an expert of all things Greek: geography, history, architecture, art.  He shares volumes of information with us at every stop.  I gobble up every word he utters about art.

We just visited the Monastary of the Holy Trinity, located in the Meteora region of Greece.  You might be familiar with another monastary in the same region: The Monastary of the Transfiguration.  Yes, you have seen this monastery, even if you have never been to Greece.  Think James Bond.  For Your Eyes Only.   You know, that place on the top of the rocky spire that James Bond parachutes to in the opening scene.  That's The Monastary of the Transfigurations.  Monastary of the Holy Trinity is on a neighboring spire....truly inspirational.

Not only does the view of the building, perched upon a precipace of rock take your breath away, so does the art that covers every square inch inside the monastary.  From floor to ceiling the walls are covered with art of the post-Byzantine era.  Some of the images are painted in the Macedonian style; others are painted in the Cretan style. What is the difference?   Oh!  I just knew you would ask!  Please, let me explain.

In the Macedonian style, figures are depicted against a dark, almost black background.  The faces of the portraits are expressionless, perhaps severe, harking back to the period of classical Greek art.  Poses are stiff and unnatural.  In creating an image in the Macedonian style, the artist uses a limited pallette: one tone of blue, one tone of yellow, one tone of red, and so on.  Finally, the faces of portraits are washed in white, giving the figure the appearance of being illuminated from the exterior or outside the picture.  Artists adhered strictly to these style elements, derived from the agreement between the eastern and western churches when they split in the early second millineum.  Towards the end of the first millineum the church had begun to incorporate the use of icons, or painted objects and scenes, into the religion and worship.  But many people didn't want these icons to appear inside the churches.  A compromise, of sorts, was agreed upon: icons could appear in church, as long as they adhered to a strict style that appeared other-worldly, thereby maintaining the separation between things of God and things of man.  Much of the Monastery of the Holy Trinity is adorned with images of saints, martyrs, and apostles painted in this style.

The Cretan style of the post-Byzantine era is completely opposite to that Macedonian style.  Of course, to my untrained eye I would never have deduced the difference between the two.  At first blush, I would have described everything I saw today as "cool, old paintings on the walls."  Now I know otherwise.  Well, they are still cool, and they are still old, but I now know how they differ in terms of style.  The Cretan portraits are depicted on a gold, bright background.  The figures are posed in a more fluid, lifelike manner.  Furthermore, their faces express the emotions from their hearts.  Clothes worn by the figures are painted in colors that span the spectrum and appear to drape around the bodies that wear them.  The draped clothing is more a nod to classical Greek art than to an attempt for realism.  Finally, the human faces are painted in a tone close to that of human flesh, and give the impression that the portrait's face is illuminated from within.

After learning all of this I felt very smart indeed.  I found myself examining the remaining walls of the monastary for evidence of all I learned, congratulating myself every time I recognized a feature.

Of course I'm compelled to write this all down.  Otherwise, I will forget...

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