Saturday, January 7, 2012

Art and religion

Back about 5 years ago I acquired an unusual (at least to me) painting. It is colorful and about 8" x 10". I didn't know much about it other than it appeared to be an Orthodox religious scene, maybe Middle Eastern in origin. It was given to my father by his brother. That was all I knew, even though I had a number of art classes in college.Only one or two were art history, though. Here it is.

  I forgot about it for quite a while and when going through a box of junk things I need to go through. The Old Curiosity got the better of me and I had to find out more about this art. The first thing I figured out was that it was a reverse painting on glass. I asked some folks at the local art gallery if they knew anything about this and they didn't, but they knew a guy at a large Twin Cities gallery who might know something. He didn't know a lot, but said it was more of an antique/collectible thing with not a lot of monetary value. So much for early retirement. My quest continued and I finally figured out with some online assistance that it is a Romanian Icon probably from around the turn of the last century.

What seems to be in the picture is the Trinity sitting around the table, Jesus in a boat full of his "flock", two saintly bishops in front (I think St. Nicholas and maybe Saint Gregory), but I am not sure who the man and woman with halos and no wings standing behind the trinity are. I have guesses, but no sure thing answers.

How did my uncle come by this? It took me a minute to figure it out, but this is what I believe happened. He worked for UNESCO for many years in many countries around the world and in the early 90's the U.N. declared several churches and monasteries in Romania to be World Heritage Sites. He picked up the icon at that time. These icons are folk art and often are quite commonly found in peoples homes. Sometimes just a few or sometimes several dozen.

Another part of world culture I had no idea about is now a little familiar. I had to read a lot of stuff to figure out what I could about this diminutive painting so I had to learn more than I needed to know. And I'm not even religious.


  1. Reverse glass painting is an interesting medium. My husband took a class in it because he likes to repair clocks and many of them have reverse glass paintings on the cases.

  2. Valuable or not, it is beautiful and meaningful for you. And that's all that matters! Cool post, cookie dough crackhead. ;)

  3. I read this as a challenge - I feel I've got to figure out what is behind this picture! :) ... that's just the eager researcher in me. My husband is a medievalist and he works with someone who researches religious art and icons. I'll see if she has any ideas!

  4. Donna, I used to do things with clocks as a youngster. Loved the mechanisms.

    Dawn, thanks!

    Jena, let me know if you or your hubby can figure out anything.

  5. This picture is priceless!! It's the original First Supper!

  6. Mr.C, if you look up in the sky at suppertime you may see them eating again. Are those turnips?

  7. The picture is wonderful; I hope you hang it and love it. Meanwhile, isn't the internet wonderful? I was just sitting here appreciating it as I tweeted and Facebooked and found a streaming rental of Helen Mirren in "The Queen" and appreciated your acquisition, it's research, and the marvelous friends I now have all over the world.

    This isn't like me, this gratitude. That's some powerful icon you got there. Maybe it's the turnips.

  8. As an Atheist, I am still able to appreciate art, architecture, music, etc. even it it is divinely inspired. The church's have throughout history been patrons of art, commissioning works which actually created jobs at the time. One can appreciate art and inspiration without signing onto the underlying mythology.

  9. Nance, I am still not sure what to make of it.

    Robert, you express skepticism much better than I can, but the joy of it is that we can be open to new ideas, whether they mean anything or not. Its all about the exploration for me.

  10. I have an interpretation for you! Lidia Negoi, a Romanian who works with my husband at the Centre for Medieval Studies in Bergen, writes:

    "The scene depicted at the centre is an Old Testament story, from Genesis 18: 1-15 (Latin Vulgate). In brief, Abraham, the patriarch, and Sarah, his wife, were visited by three angels, whom they sat at a table under an oak. So, the two mysterious haloed figures are Abraham and Sarah. The three angels indeed represent the Trinity. There is a hierarchy between the three persons here; the Son is portrayed with a red (or scarlet, in other examples) garment, perhaps as a sign of his future martyrdom. I don’t know what the staffs of the other 2 represent, though.
    In the lower plan is represented, as you may guess, Christ and his disciples on a boat – the boat is always the symbol of Salvation (through penance), including in Western iconography. The biblical reference is Matthew 8, 23-28 (Jesus and his disciples are on a boat, a storm comes and he weathers it). The two bishops that flank the boat scene could be the 2 Eastern Church Fathers Gregory of Nazianz and Basil the Great, but I’m not completely sure. I’m thinking of these 2 because they defined the dogma of the Trinity for the Orthodox Church, so, they would make the link between the Old Testament and the New Testament, symbolically. But which is which, I couldn’t say. Apart from that, these 2 saints are very popular in Romania and they are both celebrated on January 1st. Basil is one of the favorite intercessors, primarily because of his powers against demons: his curses/maledictions are read for delivering the possessed. As for Gregory, parts of his relics are in a monastery in N-E Romania (the area where it probably originates or was bought), and Orthodox Christians love relics as much as curses and counter-curses…
    Now, if this is Romanian or not, I wouldn't be 100 % sure; it could be from anywhere in the area. I wouldn't be surpirised to see this sort of art in a Bulgarian home, for instance.
    In conclusion, the subject is the Trinity (the dogma): story 1. the 3 appear to the patriarch as a promise of the Salvation to come (a kind of revelation, if you wish), and story 2. the beginning of Salvation, with a story from the New Testament; in between, the 2 bishops saints that ‘connect’ the 2 stories together. I’m, of course, simplifying, but one who knows these biblical stories would recognize the topic."