Sydney Morning Herald Column

Heavenly Beings

Published March 23, 2024
Mother of God of the Passion. Crete, late 15th century. Private collection, Melbourne

If you’ve been looking for an excuse to immediately fly down to Hobart, look no further. Of all the shows I regret seeing late in the day, and all those that most urgently need to travel to other venues, Heavenly Beings: Icons of the Orthodox Christian World at David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art, is top of both lists.

Royal Doors with the Annunciation. Albania or Northern Greece, 16th century, Onoufrios of Neokastro (active 16th century). Private collection, London.

From its inception, MoNA has been a museological maverick and a game-changer, exerting an influence on the way Australia’s public art museums hang their shows and permanent collections. Maybe they don’t want to admit it, but MoNA has been the model for all those jumbled displays that combine utterly disparate works in the same room, asking the viewer to find mystical, intuitive connections.

It works brilliantly at MoNA, but in some other venues the lack of a chronological hang doesn’t provoke a sense of wonder, but one of confusion. MoNA is a place in which anything goes, but with the public art museums there are expectations and responsibilities that can’t – or shouldn’t – be ignored.

Our public museums seem to believe nowadays that all good things come from contemporary art. The present is seen as progressive, dynamic and enlightened, while the past is stained with misogyny, racism and colonialism. Besides, it’s much easier to strike the right attitude as an apostle of the contemporary rather than a scholar of the past. To venture into art history, one needs to do a good deal of reading and research. Or to give it another name: work.

Saint Veronica holding the veil. Crete. 16th century. Private collection, Canberra.

There are plenty of curators who relish the opportunity to do such work, in a field of diminishing opportunities. I suspect there is also a huge audience for historical exhibitions. Look, for instance, at Ramses and the Gold of the Pharoahs, at the Australian Museum, which is blitzing every local exhibition. One may sneer at so-called ‘artefact’ shows, but no-one is sneering at the attendance figures.

And so we find MoNA swimming against the tide once more, holding its first ever show of exclusively “old” art. Heavenly Bodies is an expanded version of an Auckland survey of 2022, itself based on a show at the Art Gallery of Ballarat in 2014, which drew on the exceptional private collection of former diplomat, John McCarthy. The MoNA version, brought together by Jane Clark, is the most comprehensive to date, featuring more than 120 pieces, including loans from a range of Australian and New Zealand collections.

Previous curators, Sophie Matthiesson and Gordon Morrison are also involved, making the project a kind of reunion for alumni of the National Gallery of Victoria. What comes through strongly is the curators’ passion for their subject, which traces the history of the icon from 1350 to 1900. It might be thought an unfashionable fixation, but I defy anyone to spend an hour in this show and not be moved by the inventiveness of the work and the air of spiritual conviction that positively radiates from the walls.

Madonna of the Fiery Face. Russia, 18th century. Collection:, Ballarat Art Gallery

The first piece that caught my eye was a head of the Madonna in bright red, on a yellowed background. Referred to as Mother of God of the Fiery Face, it relates the Madonna to the burning bush of Exodus 3:2, comparing her piety to a fire that is never extinguished, yet burns without destroying the host. The work is relatively late, being an 18th century piece from Russia. It seems both old, and astonishingly modern.

Regardless of its vivid coloration, this Madonna carries the same expression as numerous other works in the show, although they may be separated by hundreds of years. The same holds true for the face of Christ, or other favourite motifs such as St. George. The most famous icons were continually copied for private use, with countless small variations.

The motifs may have remained inviolate for centuries, but this exhibition demonstrates how naive it is to believe the art of the Orthodox Church, often referred to as Byzantine, was hieratic, inflexible and unchanging. The earliest icons we have, date from the 5th-6th centuries, long after the Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 312, and the sack of Rome in 410. The images seem to have grown out of the naturalistic Fayum funerary portraits from Roman Egypt. As a fixed repertoire of orthodox motifs emerged, faces would become flat and stylised, but constant changes occurred, depending on time and place. It’s those temporal and regional variations, stretching across 500 years, taking us from Byzantium to Greece, Russia, Eastern Europe and Ethiopia, that makes this show so engrossing.

Saint John the Hermit. Crete. Post-17th century. Private collection, Canberra.

At base, the icon tradition is forever associated with the Eastern Roman Empire, whose capitol, Constantinople, spent a millenium as a centre of mercantile, religious and cultural activities. What became known as the Byzantine Empire would last from 324 to 1453, despite being sacked by the Crusaders in 1205. There would be three major phases of the empire before it was finally extinguished by the Ottomans on 29 May 1453. From that time onwards, the city we now call Istanbul has remained in Turkish hands.

Over those centuries, icon painting would grow more stylised or naturalistic by degrees. It also survived ferocious theological debates about whether it was blasphemous to worship the image of God incarnate or Mary or the saints, as opposed to the abstract concept. This resulted in two bouts of iconoclasm, in 726-87 and 815-43, which saw countless icons destroyed and their defenders persecuted. The monk, St. Stephen the younger, became the first martyr for an artform, when he was dragged through the streets of Constantinople and beaten to death in 764.

Martyrdom of Saint George. Ethiopia. 18th century. Private collection, Canberra.

Eventually, the combined weight of theological expertise would come down on the side of icons, which settled into the central role they have played ever since in the Orthodox religion. These pictures were simply too valuable when it came to communicating with a largely illiterate congregation. The icons, kept at home as well as in the churches, were a means of looking directly into the face of God, recognising his devotion to humanity in taking on mortal flesh. In turn, the acolyte hoped to be incorporated within the Godhead, becoming Divine. If the Catholic Church sees Jesus’s sacrifice as expiation for our sins, the Orthodox version views his incarnation as a gesture of cosmic solidarity.

I’m not going any further into the theology because the complexities of these arguments have made the term “Byzantine” synonymous with something so clever as to be virtually incomprehensible. There is also a huge technical vocabulary describing different types of icon, concerning which I shall be studiously silent.

Christ Pantocrator. Novgorod, Russia, early 17th century. Private collection, Canberra

A large part of the icon’s appeal was purely superstitious. Famous icons were held to be responsible for miracles and claimed to be “not the work of human hands”. They were taken from church and paraded around the streets on feast days and in times of crisis. They were dragged into battle as a charm against the enemy. If you were defeated, it was seen as God’s judgement on your accumulated sins.

Most icons are small, painted in tempera or encaustic on a wooden panel. Over the centuries they have suffered as much damage from their admirers as their detractors, through excessive kissing and touching, or the smoke from candles. Yet a great icon wears its scars with nobility as a sign of how deeply it has been venerated. These small, concentrated images have an imposing sense of presence, brought out in the MoNA show by a hang that clusters pieces in darkened chambers off a central hall. In each room, liturgical music plays softly in the background.

Saint Jerome. Crete. c.1490-1500. Private collection, Canberra.

I haven’t gone into depth with individual works, because almost every piece is a spiritual vortex, an invitation to relate directly to a supernatural world. These were not pictures to be admired for their aesthetic qualities, they were devices intended to bring us closer to the Divine. They are primal expressions of faith that take God’s incarnation as Jesus Christ as a justification for depicting him in human form. In Islam, Allah never revealed Himself in this manner, and images of God remain forbidden.

One of the most impressive shows of the year, Heavenly Beings really should be touring to other parts of Australia, but I suspect this is a forlorn hope. In these culturally complacent days, every museum visitor deserves to see at least one exhibition in which the paintings look at you with greater intensity than you can look at them.


Heavenly Beings:

Icons of the Orthodox Christian World

Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart

29 September 2023 – 1 April 2024


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 23 March, 2024