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 art of icons …

A week off from algae, as I travel around Bulgaria on holiday.  In between exploring mountains (and, I admit, pulling a toothbrush from my knapsack on a couple of occasions for a sneaky diatom sample), I have been learning about the intricacies of Eastern Orthodox icon painting, as a break from my normal scientific and artistic routines.  My interest was piqued by a visit to the superb icon gallery at the National Museum of Art of Romania in Bucharest last year, though this mostly served to demonstrate how little I knew, either about icons or their context in Orthodox worship.

Context is important because, in our secular age, we are most likely to encounter religious art in a gallery rather than a church.  My initial response to an icon, such as that in the image below, is to place it into a Western art historical context.   I note the relatively simple modelling of the features, depicting archetypes of religious figures and the flat background.  There is no attempt to place the figure in three-dimensional space, as most religious painters from the Renaissance onwards would have tried to do.  They were trying to draw the viewers in, creating space inside the picture that encouraged them to engage with the subject matter.  Painters of the Counter-Reformation, such as Rubens, went further, painting the protagonists in their religious paintings life size and dressing them in contemporary clothes to encourage viewers sense of participation.

An icon of Christ Pantocrator from the Bankso school of icon painters (late 18th / early 19th century) in southern Bulgaria.  The image at the top of the post shows the iconostasis at Mānāstirea Stavropoleos, Bucharest, Romania.

By contrast, by flattening everything but the subject’s physiognomy, the Orthodox icon painter projects his subjects into our space, encouraging a different type of engagement.   Orthodox Christianity has a strong tradition of contemplative prayer, in which knowledge of God is attained through meditative practices such as repetition of a meaningful word or short phrase.  In this context, icons can serve as objects that help viewers to concentrate their minds while they step away from the everyday world and towards the divine realm.  One manifestation of this is that there is typically more activity in an Orthodox Church, compared to a Catholic or Protestant church, outside of organised services, as worshippers make their own private devotions in front of icons.

This use of repeated phrases suggests parallels with eastern religions – the Hindu incantation “Om mani padme hum” being the best-known example.  Look, too, at the right hand of Christ in the icon below.  That, too, resembles the symbolic hand gestures – mudras – found in Hindu and Buddhist contemplative practices.   Whether there is more than a superficial resemblance, in this particular instance, is a moot point.  Christ’s hand is raised to confer a blessing on the viewer and the position of the fingers is related to this.  They spell out “ICXC” –  IhcoyC XpictoC, or “Jesus Christ”.   The confusion with eastern practices arises, I suspect, from the way that the fourth finger is bent over to touch the thumb, similar to the Chin Mudrā.

On the other hand, there would have been ample opportunity for exchange of ideas along the Silk Road.  Early Christianity extended much further east, and Buddhism further to the west before the rise of Islam. Diarmaid MacCulloch has suggested that the principle of monasticism, for example, may have been brought into the church by early missionaries returning from the east and, if this is the case, then it is possible that practices associated with monasticism would also have flowed east.  And, equally, there is no reason to assume that the movement was entirely one-way or solely between Christianity and Buddhism.  Our first reaction on walking into Rila monastery in southern Bulgaria was to notice the physical similarities with the huge Madrassas that we saw in Uzbekistan earlier this year (see “Reaching for the stars …“).

What we can see an Orthodox icon, in other words, is a product of time and place, only if we also recognise that time and place are continua, that ideas can flow and that there is a ‘natural selection’, of sorts, that selects and shapes these to fit local circumstances.  Traveling broadens the mind, without a doubt, but sometimes you need to unload your preconceptions in order to free up the mind to see the world through fresh eyes.

The courtyard of Rila monastery in southern Bulgaria with the Church of the Nativity on the right.

Eat it to beat it …

Lacul_Snagov_June16

The second lake I visited on my brief visit to Romania makes it almost impossible to avoid mentioning two of Romania’s most infamous citizens.   Lacul Snagov, about 40 km north of Bucharest, is surrounded by the weekend villas of Romania’s current and past elite, including the notorious Nicolei Ceauşescu.  That connection, however, pales beside that of a monastery on an island in the lake, reputed to contain the grave of Vlad the Impaler, better known to the rest of the world as Dracula.   This is mostly due to Bram Stoker’s novel although he never actually visited Romania.  His interpretation of the Dracula legend was based partly on hearsay, but largely on his own vivid imagination, much to the despair of modern Romanians.

Whereas Lacul Cāldāruşani had turbid phytoplankton-rich water, Lacul Snagov was much clearer, with a varied assortment of submerged plant visible below the surface as we travelled across the lake in an inflatable boat.   Large areas of the surface were covered with water lilies, a mixture of Nymphaea alba, the common white water lily, and, of more interest to me, the Indian lotus, Nelumbo nucifera.   As the name suggests, it is native to Asia: I have seen this growing in Bangladesh, and eaten it in Korea and China, but here it was growing in abundance in a European lake.  The term “invasive species” has been applied to Indian lotus but, like many visually attractive plants, the “invasion” was helped by human agents. Records of lotus in Snagov go back to 1955, and now it covers large areas of the lake surface.   There is some evidence that the spread of Nelumbo nucifera  has altered the composition of other plants in the lake, albeit without detracting seriously from the visual aesthetics (see image above).

The topic of invasive plants and animals is controversial, and is one that can make usually mild-mannered ecologists sound like rabid xenophobes.  I enjoyed Ken Thompson’s recent book “Where do Camels Belong?” which questioned the whole concept of a “native species” in an ever-changing landscape.   If you cannot define a “native” species securely, argues Thompson, then nor should we rush to attach labels such as “invasive” or “alien” to non-native species.  Judge each on its merits.

And Nelumbo nucifera does have several merits.  There is the rather beautiful flower for example and, lurking in the bottom muds, a less attractive but very tasty rhizome.   We rarely encounter it in western cuisine, or even in Chinese restaurants in the West, but you can buy it frozen from Chinese supermarkets.   Were Europeans to follow the Asiatic lead, then a solution to this particular “invasive species” problem presents itself.   This tangential line of thought started with a blog by my wife Heather on a native British species, Alliaria petiolata (garlic mustard) that happens to be regarded as an invasive weed in north America.  Her internet searches led her to an entire cookbook devoted to ridding the world of this one weed (“From Pest to Pesto: Eat it to Beat it”) and I can vouch for the gastronomic qualities of British populations as a result.

In the same vein, here is my first attempt at cooking and eating lotus roots, admittedly based on frozen, rather than foraged, lotus and inspired by my recent trip to China:  boil about half a kilogram of (thawed) lotus roots for a few minutes, until just tender, drain and dry.   Roast a tablespoon of sesame seeds until they are brown.   Heat some sesame oil until hot, then stir fry the lotus roots along with two tablespoons of finely-chopped spring onions and a finely-chopped clove of garlic for a couple of minutes.   Add one or two tablespoons of light soy sauce (enough to coat the lotus roots) and finally stir in the sesame seeds. Stir it for another minute or so, then serve.

Repeat this until the invasive species has disappeared. It’s called “biological control”.

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References

Anastasiu, P., Negrean, G., Başnou, C., Sîrbu, C. & Oprea, A. (2007).  A preliminary study on the neophytes of wetlands in Romania.  In: Rabitsch, W., F. Essl & F. Klingenstein (Eds.): Biological Invasions – from Ecology to Conservation. NEOBIOTA 7: 181-192.

Thompson, K. (2015).  Where do Camels Belong?  Profile Books, London.

Reflections from a Romanian lake

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If you have followed my blog for some time you will know that two of my professional interests are ensuring consistency in the implementation of environmental legislation across the European Union and trying to make ecological assessment as straightforward and understandable as possible. These two interests sometimes collide briefly, particularly when I am travelling, as I have an urge to grab a sample from lakes and rivers that I pass and to make a quick judgement on their quality (see “Lago di Maggiore under the microscope” and “Subsidiarity in action”).   This isn’t quite as straightforward as it seems, as my specialism requires use of a microscope, and travelling light precludes carrying my field microscope on my travels.   Instead, I bring small, discrete samples home and have a look at the diatoms in their live state.  Enough are usually recognisable to allow me to make a rough calculation of the indices that we use to evaluate ecological status.

My visit to Romania included a trip to Lacul Cāldāruşani, on the flat lands of the Wallachian Plain about 40 kilometres north of Bucharest. It is a shallow lake, fringed by reeds (Phragmites australis) and it was from these that we collected our sample.  The reed stems were all smothered with the green alga Cladophora glomerata which, in turn, hosted a rich diatom flora.   Many of these could be either identified, or a plausible guess at their identity made, from the live state, so I was able to make a list of diatoms and, from this, to calculate the indices that we use in the UK to assess the quality of lakes.   My conclusion was that that this was definitely an enriched lake, some way below the standards set by the Water Framework Directive, which agreed with the evidence that my Romanian hosts already had.   That I can travel from near the western edge of the European Union to the eastern edge and still make a robust inference of the quality of the lake says much for the robustness of the methods with which we are dealing.

The most abundant diatom in the sample was Cocconeis pediculus, which lives on the surface of the Cladophora filaments.  This means that it is, in this case at least, an epiphyte on an epiphyte, as the Cladophora was, itself, growing on the reed stems.  Rhoicosphenia abbreviata is another diatom that lives epiphytically on Cladophora, and this was also common in the sample.  As well as these, there were at least three species of Encyonema, mostly free-living but a few in tubes, plus Navicula tripunctata and at least one other species and a few cells of Epithemia sorex.   There was also a rich assortment of green algae, but I had only limited time to dedicate to this sample, so these will have to wait for another day.

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Cladophora-smothered sections of submerged stems of Phragmites australis collected from Lacul Cāldāruşani, Romania, June 2016; b. and c. Cocconeis pediculus growing on living and dead filaments of Cladophora glomerata from Lac Cāldāruşani. Scale bar: 10 micrometres (= 1/100th of a millimetre).

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Diatoms from Lac Cāldāruşani, Romania, June 2016: a. two cells of Rhoicosphenia abbreviata on a stalk; b. Navicula sp.; c. Navicula tripunctata; d. Epithemia sorex; e. Encyonema sp (E. silesiacum?) growing in mucilaginous tubes.  Scale bar: 10 micrometres (= 1/100th of a millimetre).

One difference between this lake and most lakes in the UK is that the Romanians have a taste for a far broader range of freshwater fish than we do.  We enjoy salmon and trout, but there is not much enthusiasm for eating other freshwater fish here, in contrast to many parts of central and eastern Europe where fish such as carp are both farmed and eaten (we, in the UK, seem to have lost that taste, as many ruined monasteries have “carp ponds”).   Lac Cāldāruşani has a commercial fishery, and this probably contributes to the poor quality of the water.   Many shallow lakes and ponds are stocked with carp in the UK too, but for angling, not commercial fisheries.   Many of these are too small to feature on the regular monitoring programs (which only covers water bodies that are at least 50 Ha in size).   Carp, however, are fish that like to root around in the mud for food and, in the process, stir up the sediments releasing nutrients back into the water where they can be used by algae.   The algae, in turn, die and sink to the bottom where they decay and release the nutrients back to the water, only for another carp to stir them up again.  These shallow lakes are, in effect, not just polluted by this year’s inputs of nutrients, but also by pollution from the preceding decade, which is constantly being recycled as the fish search for food.

From here, we climbed back into the car to visit one other lake.  The story of that lake, however, will have to wait for a future post.

References

More details about the methods for assessing lake ecological status using diatoms in the following two papers:

Bennion, H., Kelly, M.G., Juggins, S., Yallop, M.L., Burgess, A., Jamieson, J. & Krokowski, J. (2014).  Assessment of ecological status in UK lakes using benthic diatoms.  Freshwater Science 33: 639-654.

Kelly, M., Urbanic, G., Acs, E. Bennion, H., Bertrin, V., Burgess, A., Denys, L.,  Gottschalk, S., Kahlert, M., Karjalainen, S.-M., Kennedy, B., Kosi, G., Marchetto, A., Morin, S., Picinska-Fałtynowicz, J., Poikane, S., Rosebery, J. Schoenfelder, I., Schoenfelder, J., Varbiro, G.(2014). Comparing aspirations: intercalibration of ecological status concepts across European lakes for littoral diatoms.   Hydrobiologia 734: 125-141.