A night at a unique exhibition
Few would argue that the huge poster covering most of the left side of Şişmanoğlu Cultural Center on İstiklal Avenue in the neighborhood of Beyoğlu (Pera) was a sight that they had seen before. It depicted a large-size Christian angel in his beautiful white robe and with the golden feathers of his wings surrounding his shoulders. His calm but pensive face was surrounded by thick curly hair and around that by the halo, the golden disk of divine piety. It is indeed an unusual sight along this busy street that “never sleeps” and where a multicultural crowd flocks for food, entertainment and shopping.
However, the poster is offering a different kind of “food,” a taste of religious art which for most Turks or Muslims would be entirely foreign to their perception of the divine. Even for Catholic Christians, that particular style of the depiction of their faith would seem a bit archaic and anachronistic, a bit too primitive when compared to their post-Renaissance religious art in Western Europe.
It was only natural that a large number of mostly members of the Orthodox clergy that serves the Patriarchate in Fener and members of the Orthodox community of Istanbul rushed to be present at the launch of the first ever iconography exhibition in Istanbul. All the pieces exhibited had come from the monastic icon painting workshops of Mount Athos. There were over 70 pieces, icons, enameled with golden crosses with semi-precious stones, gold-mounted bibles, mosaics, and even patriarchal sigilliums on real parchment. The patriarch himself was there to launch this unique event which was organized by the Greek Foreign Ministry, the General Consulate of Greece in Istanbul and the Monastic Community of Mount Athos.
So far, you would say, nothing unusual. Orthodox Christians of Istanbul are attending an exhibition of Byzantine icons and artefacts from Mount Athos.
However, there were some unusual aspects worth mentioning. First that there was a noticeably high number of Turks who came to see with their own eyes the holy artefacts from that mysterious monastic site which for more than 1,800 years retains ancient ascetic traditions of Eastern Christianity and looks up at the Istanbul Patriarchate as its supreme authority. For me, it was interesting to see among the Turkish attendees so many academics, especially art scholars, photographers and architects, and so many senior women who looked at a part of the canvas of the old Istanbul and who seemed familiar with the presence of Byzantine art in their own city.
But the most exciting part of the exhibition was the realization that what we saw and admired last Wednesday in the vast halls of Şişmanoğlu Center was not old. These were pieces actually created in our days by the scores of hagiographers and icon painters who live and work in Mount Athos using the traditional methods taught by their Byzantine predecessors. They use egg tempera for painting icons and ancient techniques for enamel and mosaics. I asked monk Lucas who has done most of the works exhibited, whether what we see today is a copy of old compositions and figures. He assured me that they are not. “Although there are rules of how you portray certain saints or symbols in Byzantine art which were set centuries ago, we can add our feelings and thoughts which relate to our time,” he told me.
I think that this was what drew such a crowd of Turkish experts to the launching of the Hagiography Exhibition in Şişmanoğlu Center. They wanted to check whether Byzantine art can still be produced not just as a copy but as the outcome of a “live conversation” of the artist/monk with a great tradition of religious art, the finest examples of which they can still see in Istanbul.