Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Photios Kontoglou: A Prophet of Suffering Romiosini


Yesterday marked the 44th year since the passing of the ever-memorable and blessed Photios Kontoglou (November 8, 1895 - July 13, 1965), the foremost iconographer of Greece in the 20th century.

Following the Asia Minor tragedy in 1922, Kontoglou was exiled to Greece and would come to have as his main goal to bring back to Greece all the best that Romiosini had to offer as opposed to the European spirit which was oppressing the Greek soul. So in 1923 he travelled to Mount Athos, a fashionable destination for the most prominent intellectuals, and became awe-struck upon his discoveries. He writes:

"I must say I had not expected to find such perfect art in the monastery churches. From what I had read about Byzantine art I had formed the idea that it was less worthy of attention than the art of the Italian Renaissance... [but] on Mount Athos there are paintings of the most superb artistry, such as the Archangel Gabriel and St. Mercurios by Katelanos. So far as I am in a position to judge, it is very seldom that one comes across paintings executed with such shrewd artistic judgment and charged with such powerful rhythm. I approached these paintings with a feeling which arises from a cast of mind similar to that of the Byzantines and from a strict Christian upbringing" (The Art of Athos, c.1923, quoted in Nikos Zias, "The Greek Tradition and Fotis Kontoglou", Zygos, vol. III, Athens, 1984, p. 58).

It is this experience which initiated a revival in traditional Orthodox iconography throughout the world and would many years later compel Kontoglou to confess the following:

"Byzantine art is for me the art of arts. I believe in it as I believe in Orthodox religion. Only this art nourishes my soul through its deep and mysterious powers; it alone quenches the thirst that I feel in the midst of the arid desert that surrounds us. In comparison with Byzantine art, all the others appear to me trivial, 'troubling themselves about many things, when but one thing is needed'."

Besides inspiring a revitalization in the culture of Romiosini (which included upholding all the traditions of Orthodoxy such as Byzantine Music, traditional clerical attire and appearance, faithfulness to the canons, etc), Kontoglou was also a prolific writer and theologian. Speaking against the cerebral, scientific and liberal forms of theology that Greeks were bringing to Greece from the West, he said:

"Such theologians regard traditional Orthodox theology, which comes from the roots of Christianity and from the Greek Fathers, as ossified, and they come as renewers of it. Actually, they lack real faith, lack interior, spiritual life. They view theology as a science, comparable to chemistry and physics, which employ discursive reason as their instrument and give rationalistic explanations" (Constantine Cavarnos, Meetings With Kontoglou, p. 128).

He would further write of such theologians:

"Todays theologians have become scientists, like the doctors, chemists and engineers, because by presenting themselves as such they will be honored by the world. And they go to Europe, the place of spiritual darkness, to receive a degree. They stuff their heads with a multitude of ungrounded and vain philosophies, and come to our land to transmit their unbelief instead of the Faith…. They do not enter into the Heavenly Kingdom, and hinder others from entering, as our Lord has said. Their punishment is that they do not see any of the wondrous things that are seen by believers, and hence they lack contrition and are cold. They are separated from God and His Kingdom, because they love the glory of men, instead of the glory of God" (Semeion Mega [A Great Sign], 1962, pp. 16-17).

In another book, Papa-Nicholas Planas, which was published three years later, again emphasizing the importance of faith and piety, he says:

"They endeavor today, with the plight of the Church, to find its causes, and hold that the answer is to be found in scientific theological education. But the evil is to be remedied only by education in piety…. What will it benefit the Church if students go to (say) Geneva? They will return with Protestant principles. We are told by these same persons that our Church has remained behind a whole century. How good it would have been if the members of the Church today had the piety of those who lived a century ago! External [secular] scientific education is fine when it is joined to piety" (Athens, 1965, p. 46).

The inculturation of the European spirit in all its forms was seen by Kontoglou as a threat to Orthodox culture in Greece (and of course even to Orthodox outside of Greece). This caused him to lament, what he called, "suffering Romiosini":

"Romiosini came out of Byzantium, or, to say it better, Byzantium in its last years stood the same as Romiosini. Even in the time of Phocas its characteristics appeared clearly, and in the years of the Paleologoi, even as the kingdom was at the point of death, tortured Romiosioni became stronger, a brand new Greece. Christian Greece grew in the midst of agony, because pain is the new mark of Christ. Romiosini is suffering Greece. Ancient Greece might have been glorious and strong, but the new one, the christian one, is much deeper, because pain is something that is much deeper than glory and joy and of whatever else. The people who live with pain and faith imprint much deeper their character in the hard rock of life, and they are marked with a mark that does not erase with misfortune and unbearable persecution, but they become more uneraseable. With such a mark is Romiosini marked. The nations which redeem every hour of their life with blood and agony, bear fruit with spiritual joys, which are unrecognizable to people who live the good life. These remain poor of both spiritual treasures as well as of human, because the good life weighs down the inner man."

The influence of Kontoglou in contemporary Orthodoxy as an artist and intellectual is unmistakable, and his faith and piety is inspiring. His life is worthy of emulation by all Orthodox men in the world, as his sanctity is testified by his incorrupt relics which lie in the Monastery of Saint Ephraim the Newly-Revealed in Nea Makri of Athens.

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