Seeking Rhythm in Byzantine Iconography

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// Yale

Saints, beards and egg tempera — the Byzantines are back! George Kordis is reconceptualizing Byzantine iconography to focus on the relationship between the body and the sacred, giving traditionally two-dimensional spiritual subjects a humanity visitors can relate to. Until April 25, you can check out his work in an exhibit titled “Rhythm and Light” at the Institute of Sacred Music’s Gallery of Sacred Arts, and experience a refreshing connection to this celebrated artistic tradition.

The collection’s presentation is underwhelming. When you visit, you’ll walk down the driveway just past the Divinity School to the white sign labeled “Art Exhibit.” Inside, you can grab a plastic bag for your umbrella and a printout listing the titles for the unlabeled paintings in the gallery. Expect a couple of New Testament scenes, some dome photographs and saints, saints and more saints. Information on George Kordis and the individual paintings would have been helpful, and unless you’re already familiar with his work, you’ll only be able to glean an uninformed first impression.

The title “Rhythm and Light” anticipates a mediocre middle school art lesson, but Kordis’ work is intelligent and precise. There’s plenty of light, to be sure — you’ll see it in the glowing streaks on his subjects’ cloaks, wound up in saints’ beards and reflected off gold frames. Kordis fearlessly experiments with red lighting, as in a pervasive tint over Last Supper or soaked over the background and frame of his portrait, Saint Martinianus the Ascetic, giving his reinterpretation of the Byzantine tradition a modern energy. But elements of rhythm do not translate as well — perhaps occasionally in the texture of a fabric or beard if I’m really searching, but it does not shine through as a compelling theme.

I do like the way that several of his subjects break playfully from their frames with a wing, sleeve or rosary, as in Saint Efriam the Syrian, or Saint Peter in Jail, which nearly bleeds out onto the wall. These compositions, along with Kordis’ use of light, successfully challenge the two-dimensional Byzantine tradition, and offer a fresh interpretation of typical iconography portraits of subjects that seem to lean out into the present.

But Kordis’ pieces do more than challenge the conventional appearance of Byzantine art. Although his subjects echo the two-dimensional Byzantine style, they take on an active, three-dimensional corporality that makes them more accessible to a modern audience. These sacred subjects may have been lying flat in their Byzantine renditions for centuries, but Kordis has given them a second life, a chance to lean forward from their paintings to communicate with their beholders. Many of Kordis’ icons have anxious, confused expressions, as though they’re disoriented in their three-dimensional portrayals. It’s jarring to see these prestigious, sacred subjects exhibit such human vulnerability, but it is this conflict that makes Kordis’ work engaging.

I spend several minutes with one of Kordis’ portraits, Saint Anthony the Great. I’m initially struck by Kordis’ decision to disregard the frame entirely, instead leaving the figure exposed against the bare wall. Compared to many of Kordis’ other portraits, this one is simple — just Saint Anthony posed in the center, with an orange robe, halo and a bit of Greek lettering above his shoulders. Light is at work in Saint Anthony’s clothing, beard and cheekbones, but it’s his expression that keeps me staring – he’s looking down at the right from an elevated, saintly pose, and yet there is a vulnerable tension that I can’t understand. I wish he’d turn thirty degrees so that I could get a better look, but it’s a moment lost in time.

Ultimately, Kordis effects the “Light” elements of “Rhythm and Light” with ease and precision. “Rhythm,” however, is less easily found. More information on the works could have helped remedy this shortcoming, but the lack of placards and the like means you’ll probably plow through the exhibit in twenty minutes or less. Nevertheless, “Rhythm and Light” is an interesting take on the Byzantine icon tradition, a worthy break if you happen to be at the Divinity School this month. But unless you’re an iconography aficionado or longing for a recreational Science Hill hike, you may want to wait for the Byzantines to return another day.

Contact Theresa Steinmeyer at theresa.steinmeyer@yale.edu .

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