The Iconography of Theophanes the Greek (Symphony no. 1)

Theophanes the Greek was a 14th-century Byzantine iconographer who, in the last quarter of the century, travelled to Russia, where he worked in Veliky Novgorod, Nizhny Novgorod, and Moscow. To the extent that he is known at all to Westerners (except to scholars of Byzantine and medieval Russian art history), it is as a supporting character in Tarkovsky’s film based on the life of Theophanes’ most famous pupil, Andrei Rublev. Theophanes’ style was so bold, striking, and strongly unique that most of his contemporaries did not even attempt to imitate him. There is a severity in his work, stern and ascetic, but also something deeply human, more Hesychast than Humanist. His brushwork is broad and sweeping, and it creates lines that have a certain geometric austerity, that compel the beholder to consider something greater than the forms they outline. His figures are almost perfectly static and conform to their usual positions in accordance with the iconographic tradition, but their faces depict inner lives of such subtlety and feeling that their essential personhoods shine forth like beacons. His colors also defy the simplistic rules of so-called ‘realism’, and the highlights on the figures are more like flashes of energy bursting through the layers of paint than they are reflections of some external earthly light. They seem almost to illuminate themselves, yet they all point beyond themselves—of all the figures, the only one whose eyes return the gaze of the observer is Christ. Theophanes’ icons, like all good icons in his tradition, fuse χρόνος—time in quantifiable motion—with καιρός—time as qualitative nowness. The spiritual world with all its eternal splendor crashes in upon material temporality, and the icons operate within, and draw the observer into, a timeless, ecstatic mysticism. He painted, as best as his craft would allow, what could not be painted, much like poets write of what cannot be written and theologians see what cannot be seen. Theophanes was a philosopher who, unable to remain silent yet finding words quite insu cient, spoke also through his painting.

This work is a symphony, performed without pause. It can be divided into three large sections following a very traditional symphonic logic: an opening sonata form with introduction, a slow middle theme and variations, and an allegro finale in a loose sonata form with coda. Each of these three sections is composed of five movements. Ten of these are associated with icons written by (or once attributed to) Theophanes the Greek. The two essential motivic seeds from which the entire symphony grows appear within the opening few bars—a symmetrical figure that expands into a perfect fifth played first by the violas and horns, and a descending step introduced by the clarinets. If this second motive is a symbol of χρόνος, then the first represents καιρός. The χρόνος motive grows into soft, searching melody, always reaching, but never arriving; while much if not most of the themes in the piece can be traced back to this, it is the καιρός motive that structures the work at its deepest levels. Like the iconography of Theophanes the Greek, this symphony explores the strange intersection of these two motives, at least, insofar as its composer can manage.

Excerpt from a Letter by the Hieromonk Epiphanius to his friend Cyril, c. 1415

Thou have seen once the cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople depicted in my Book of the Gospels—the one that in Greek is called the Tetraevangelion, whilst in our own Russian tongue it is called the Four Gospels. Now, it so happened that the edifice was painted in our book in the following way.

At the time of my sojourn in Moscow, living there was the famous sage and most accomplished philosopher Theophanes, born a Greek, well known as a book illustrator and by far the best among the icon painters, who had decorated many a stone church—more than forty: several in Constantinople and Chalcedon, as well as at Galata and Ca a, at Novgorod the Great and at Nizhni Novgorod. In Moscow, too, [he] painted three churches: that of the Annunciation, of the Archangel Michael and another one. On the wall in the Church of the Archangel Michael he painted a city, and in that city he depicted all its parts; and in the stone treasury of Duke Vladimir Andreyevich he also painted [the city of] Moscow; and [he] painted the palace of the Grand Duke wonderfully and amazingly; and in the stone Church of the Annunciation equally [extraordinarily he] painted the Tree of Jesse and the Revelation. Now, as he was drawing and painting all this, no one ever saw him look at models as is done by certain of our icon painters who, doubting everything, make constant use of them, looking hither and thither—not so much working their paints as compelling themselves to look at a model. But he, it would seem, painted on his own, all the time moving about, conversing with visitors, and while he discussed everything otherworldly and spiritual, with his outward gaze he saw the beauty of earthly things. This wonderful and illustrious person was fond of humble me, just as worthless I, was of him. And summoning up courage I came to him often to talk, for I enjoyed conversing with him.

And whenever one talked to him, either briefly or at length, one could not help marvelling at his wisdom, his allegories and the brilliant exposition [of his thoughts]. As for me, seeing that he loves and welcomes me, confounding insolence by shamelessness, I said: “I beg you to paint for me a representation of Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia, the one built by the great Emperor Justinian, who took a pledge in emulation of Solomon the Wise. It is said that for its skillfull design and dimensions it is like the Moscow Kremlin within its walls, its foundations equalling its circumference. Now, if some stranger happens to enter it and, thinking he knows everything, presumes to see it without a guide, he is sure to get lost in the maze of numberless pillars and surrounding ramps and porches and vaults and passages and various chambers, and altars, and stairs, and [holy] shrines, and sepulchres, and precious chancel screens, and chapels, and windows and pathways, and doors, and entrances and exits, and all the stone columns. Please paint for me also the aforementioned Justinian on horseback, holding in his right hand a brass sphere two-and-a-half water buckets in capacity. And depict all the above on a book sheet which I shall insert at the beginning of a book, and as long as I remember your work and keep looking at this cathedral, I will feel as if I had been in Constantinople myself.”

Sagely and wisely he replied: “It is impossible for thee to get this, nor can I paint it. But since thou desire it so much, I shall paint for thee something small as part of the whole, not even a part, but one hundredth part, as a tiny portion from much, but even from this part I shall paint for thee, thou will derive an idea and an understanding of the whole.” Having said this he boldly seized a brush and a sheet and rapidly painted a cathedral-like edifice, and then gave it to me.

That sheet proved useful also to other Moscow icon-painters, for many copied it for themselves, receiving it one from another and hastening not to be left behind. After all of them, I too resolved to paint it, as an artist, in four aspects. And I inserted this church in four places in my book: one at Justinian’s column, as the book opens with the Gospel According to St. Matthew, near this Evangelist’s image, another church at the beginning of the Gospel According to St. Mark, the third at the beginning of the Gospel According to St. Luke, and the fourth at the beginning of the Gospel According to St. John. And I painted the four churches and the four Evangelists that thou have seen when I was fleeing from Yedigai, of whom I was mighty scared, to Tver, where [I] rested at thy place from my troubles and related to thee my woes and sorrows and showed thee all the books that remained after flight and ruin. It was at that time that thou saw this church [I had] painted and [now] six years later—last winter, reminded me in thy kindness [of it].

That is all for now. Amen.

Recording: realization, with the icons and texts

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