SISTER MARIA AND THE MONASTERY OF JOHN THE BAPTIST
by Paul Bentley
To begin on a personal note, the whole reason why I got into mosaic in the first place was because some ten years ago I fell deeply
in love with Byzantium, previously terra almost completely incognita. And it swiftly became evident to me that the mosaic-and-marble decoration
of palaces and churches was the high point of Byzantine art. So I took up mosaicing... Unsurprisingly, my first piece was a copy
of the head of the great Emperor Justinian mosaic in the church of St. Vitale, Ravenna.
I was therefore bound to be interested on learning that there was
an Orthodox nun in England, making mosaics in the Byzantine tradition.
from St.Cyril Mosaic
A little history before we visit her monastery. Like most people in
our island, I'd been brought up to think that our civilisation started with the Greeks, continued with the Romans, enter Christianity,
then came The Fall Of The Roman Empire (476 A.D.), the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, and so on. What no-one told me was that the Roman
Empire did not fall in 476. The West fell to the barbarians, certainly. Goths, Vikings, all that. But the Eastern half of the Empire, centred
on Constantine's "New Rome" (alias Constantinople and Istanbul), carried on for another thousand years, till the capital finally
fell to the Turks in 1453 - all in all Byzantium lasted for much longer than the original Roman Empire did. And for half that time,
until the Middle Ages really got going, the Byzantine Empire was Christian civilisation. And it was superb. And to the end the citizens
called themselves Romans.
Byzantium fell, the Byzantine ("Orthodox") Church survived, and
so did Byzantine religious
art, mainly in the form of what we call icons, and that's the tradition
that Sister Maria and her colleagues work in. "Icon" is simply the
Greek word for image (Christ is the icon of the invisible God, says
St. Paul), though it's usually taken to mean a wood panel religious
painting used by Orthodox Christians.
Monastery of St. John the Baptist is in the village of Tolleshunt
Knights, near Maldon in Essex. It is a community for both monks
and nuns, founded in the 1950s by a remarkable man, Archimandrite
Sophrony. He was originally a painter, born in Tsarist Russia, who
lived through the First World War and the Revolution, and emerged
with a longing to devote his art to exploring the nature of Divine
reality. He emigrated to Paris via Italy, painted, then studied
theology for a while, until he decided that he had a vocation to
become a monk. So he went to Mount Athos; his spiritual director
there was Staretz Silouan. Years later, he came to England and -
naturally - the monastery he founded was to be decorated according
to Byzantine tradition.
Work started in the Refectory, which was decorated with murals,
using oil and turpentine on plaster, to look like Byzantine fresco.
Sister Maria, who had studied iconography in Paris with Leonid Ouspensky
and Fr. George Drobot, was one of those who helped carry on the
Came a day when a Danish artist, Elizabeth Møller, who had
trained in mosaic at Ravenna, visited the monastery and in a month
taught four of the nuns the double reverse technique. In fact the
nuns found that for them this method was not well suited for monumental
work: there was some loss of control and finesse. So they invented
their own technique, working direct onto aluminium mesh - the same
solution that Kenneth Budd had found years before (see MM4). They
use Bal CTF 3, and a mixture of smalti and vitreous, including some
new Dona smalti, and some thinner smalti from a French firm, Société
Albertini & Cie (1 & 7, Rue des Genêts, 95370 Montigny
lès Cormeilles). I noted the mirror angled above the studio
table, to give a long-distance view of work in progress (Anna Wyner
uses a lens to do the same).
The first sizeable task that Sister Maria and her fellow mosaicists
undertook was to decorate the exterior of the main house with panels
depicting the Virgin and Child and various saints, such as St. Cyril
of Alexandria (see photo above) and Staretz Silouan. They also started
making panels of saints, and not only for their own use. In 1995,
for instance, they did a St. Nicholas (see photo) and an Adam for
the Community, plus a six-winged seraph for a Greek monastery and
a Baptist for a Lebanese one.
Detail from St.Nicholas Mosaic
The whole aim of the icon - whether in paint or mosaic - was and
is to use physical means to involve the viewer with the spiritual,
the super- natural. The icon is the door to another world. It is
not "naturalistic art"; on the contrary, various techniques are
deliberately employed to remind the beholder that the icon is a
"silent teacher". For instance, in scenes, Western linear perspective,
with a vanishing point in the far distance, is not used. (Indeed,
the background is often plain gold.) Rather, multiple perspective
is used, or converging perspective, where the vanishing point (better,
"absorbing point") is the viewer... Body language is important -
a hand pointing to the heart, or the fingers of a hand forming ICXC,
the Greek letters for Jesus Christ. Passionate human emotions like
anger and anguish are normally excluded - the overall goal is a
serene, even solemn, concentrated stillness and inwardness, akin
to Gerard Manley Hopkins' "instress".
Much of the visual language of icons derives directly from Byzantine
practice - for example, the way the images of Christ and the saints
usually face and engage the viewer directly, with both eyes visible;
in fact, in the classic Middle Byzantine period the profile was
only used for the evil - Satan or Judas. Or the way certain physical
features are enlarged or reduced - perhaps the face and eyes disproportionately
large, the mouth small and closed, the idea being to convey watchful
Iconography is a crucial element, and extraordinarily long-lived.
From a 4th ct. Roman catacomb to a 13th ct. Yugoslav fresco and
beyond, St. Peter is always portrayed with curly, shortish hair
and a rounded white beard. John the Baptist is always unmistakable
with his gaunt features, rough shoulder-length hair and full scraggly
beard. The fascination is in seeing how different artists in different
ages work within the given parameters.
Take three mosaic Christs, seated, clad in blue and gold, right
hand raised in blessing, dating from the 6th (Apollinare Nuovo),
11th and 13th centuries (Zoe and Deeisis panels in St. Sophia, Constantinople).
The first is naturalistic, a stern judge; you sense a powerful body
beneath the robe. The second is ultra-linear, two-dimensional, flat,
almost abstract; there's little sense of a real body. The third
is much more naturalistic again, but this time Christ is a compassionate
redeemer. And it's that late Byzantine style, the Palaeologan, that
Sister Maria prefers as a model.
Recommended books include: The Technique of Icon Painting by Guillem
Ramos-Poqui; Doors of Perception by John Baggley, The Meaning of
Icons by Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, and the classic Byzantine
Mosaic Decoration by Otto Demus.