Unorthodox icons …

Towards the end of my most recent trip to Bucharest I came across, almost by chance, the Art Collections Museum, located on Calea Victoriei about 10 minute walk north from the National Museum of Art.  It brings together a number of collections that have been acquired by the state over the years, keeping each intact so that they reflect the taste of the original owners rather than reassembling them into broader thematic groupings.  On the day of my visit it was almost deserted, with attendants outnumbering visitors, despite this being the first Wednesday of the month, meaning that admission was free.   Their eyes followed me as I browsed, and their footsteps tracked mine through the empty rooms.

A museum such as this inevitably has some parts that enthral whilst other parts that fail to enthuse me. Highlights for me were the expressionist art of Alexandru Phoebus and the odalisques of Iosef Iser, both artists I had not previously encountered who had brought emerging ideas back from Paris and Berlin.   Then I walked into a room with a wall closely-hung with some very striking icons.  Two aspects struck me: their luminosity and the almost cartoon-nature of the scenes.  Imagine what Roy Lichtenstein might have produced were he to have brought his Pop Art sensibilities to religious subject matter.   The luminosity, I discovered, was because they had been painted on glass – a practice that arrived in the largely Catholic area of Transylvania from Hungary in the late 18thcentury.  This period coincided with the destruction of Orthodox monasteries and, with this, the loss of traditional icon painting skills.   Glass painting was, initially, a secular art form but, over time, it became a medium for religious imagery, initially drawing on Catholic representations of religious themes but gradually returning to Orthodox themes.

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Three glass icons from the Art Collections Museum in Bucharest.

The Catholic influence is apparent in the narrative content of some of the images that I’ve included here (see the Lamentation over the Dead Christ on the right-hand side of the top row and the centre of the bottom row, and the Last Supper on the left-hand side of the bottom row). Compare these with more traditional icons (see, for example, “The art of icons …”).   The middle image on the upper row is the Mystical Winepress, drawing on the metaphor of Christ as the true vine (Isaiah 27:2-5, John 15:1).  At the bottom right there is a rather strange-looking image of a figure with three faces but just four eyes).  This is a depiction of the Holy Trinity: God being simultaneously three persons and one.  It is also the image, of those I have chosen to depict, closest in style to traditional Orthodox icons.

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More icons on glass from the Art Collections Museum in Bucharest.

It is hard for a modern viewer, steeped in the visual culture of the 20thand 21stcenturies, to appreciate the impact of these images.  These were produced at a time when painters in western Europe were preoccupied with realism and capturing the dynamism of the world around them.   These are pared-back, almost cartoon-like depictions.  On the one hand, they are folk art, produced by artists without formal training; yet, at the same time, they are depicting such familiar subjects (for the audiences) that a suggestion of the subject matter is all that is needed.  Icons on the wall of a gallery are divorced from their context and analysing them in terms of visual representation does not do them justice. Icons in a church or in the home of an Orthodox believer are catalysts to deep spiritual experiences and can achieve this without sophisticated painting techniques.   Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, says we have to “become like children” (18:3) and, remembering how cartoons were able to draw me into imaginative worlds when I was young, perhaps it should not be a surprise that such apparently simple images make effective icons.

 

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The heart of the matter …

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I have made no secret of my strong belief that the UK would be foolish to leave the European Union (see “What has the EU ever done for us?“).  Until now, I have argued the case for our environment being better protected by EU regulations and enforcement procedures.  However, that is only part of the reason that I will be voting to stay in the EU on June 23.  The emotional heart of my argument is encapsulated in the two photographs above.

They both show the road, Suffolk Street, in Forest Gate, East London, where my mother and her family lived during the Second World War.  The left hand picture shows my mother standing outside the house where she was brought up.  Like almost every house in the street it is a 19th century terraced house, with two rooms upstairs and three downstairs.   Right up to the time my grandmother died in 1989 it had an outside toilet and no separate bathroom.   The right hand picture shows three houses built in the 1960s that stand about 100 metres further along the road from my mother’s house.   Those houses stand on the site where a German V1 flying bomb landed in 1944.  My grandmother, mother and uncle emerged from the air-raid shelter at the end of their small garden to find their windows blown in and a gaping hole between two of the downstairs rooms.   I still remember seeing the crack in the wall when I visited as a child.   My mother’s favourite doll also lost one of its arms during the attack.

Seventy years on, I spend a proportion of my working life working with the European Union, and have a reasonable idea of the realities of getting representatives of 28 different countries to agree on a common path.  It is not always easy, and sometimes there are frustrations and disagreements.   The lack of uniformity across Europe is part of what makes travelling around the continent and working with people from other countries a generally rewarding experience.   We share many values, but the expression of those values is shaped by different cultures and histories.   Finding a way through the problems and disagreements is not always easy, but a brief pause to reflect on how far we have all travelled since Britain and Germany dropped bombs on one another is enough to put these disagreements into perspective.

There is much with which I do not agree within the European Union; the time is not right for greater movement towards a single federal state, and the Euro, for all the practical conveniences, was rushed ahead without thinking through all the implications.   However, major constitutional changes require agreement from all members, so the UK cannot be forced down paths with which it disagrees profoundly.  But all of these debates are fringe affairs compared to the recognition of shared values, achieved through the increased mobility of citizens around the EU, whether on holiday, to work or to study.  Perhaps the UK does not get the full benefit of the free movement of labour because our language skills are not as developed as in many other countries?  But that is a matter that we have to resolve ourselves and is hardly the fault of the EU.   That said, the working language of scientists within the EU is English and I am writing this on the way back from a business trip to Romania, so there is hope, even for the linguistically challenged …

Being in Romania also served as a reminder of the role that the EU played in encouraging democracy and economic development in the former communist states.   Liam Fox, the former Conservative Defence Secretary – and prominent “out” campaigner was scornful of the suggestion that the EU contributes to peace. That, he claimed, was due to NATO, not the EU.   That betrays a very limited understanding of “peace” as no more than “not war”.   “Peace” is a far bigger concept than Liam Fox’s definition, embracing all the interactions we have that make war inconceivable.   NATO, at best, contributes to a sense of security in situations where true peace has already failed.  But that’s a topic for another day.

A major limitation of the “out” campaigners is their appeal to a sense of nationalism that seems thoroughly behind the times in our modern interconnected world.  To me, being “European” is just one more layer to my identity.  It does not conflict with my nationality.  I was reminded of this as I listened to Sunderland fans taunting Newcastle supporters as their victory over Everton consigned Newcastle to relegation.  But I know that, as the European championships get under way, Sunderland and Newcastle fans will be standing side by side supporting England.  So the idea of nested identities is hardly new.  Europe is just one more layer to our identity.  Voting to stay in on June 23rd is a complete no-brainer…

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The Palace of the Parliament (“Casa Poporului”) in Central Bucharest, built on Nicolae Ceauşescu’s orders: a reminder of Romania’s Communist past.