by OLIVIA HILLMER, MAR ’12
Leaving behind the suburbs of Athens, we filed slowly into a large open studio flooded with light, nestling into chairs, finding seats on the floor or standing in the back of the room, eventually filling every available space with our bodies. When I turned to look back across the expanse of students, a painted eye, a sketched hand emerged from between the living bodies. The space vibrated with a surreal energy as we waited for our host to arrive.
This was the iconography studio of George Kordis, a renowned writer of icons in living Athens. Kordis has also traveled to the United States to cover the walls of Greek Orthodox churches with many images, and follows in the long tradition of Greek iconography, which reaches back to the Byzantine Empire, whose subjects and style might appear simply to copy the figures from earlier church wall paintings, such as the fifteenth and sixteenth century icons we would see in just a few days at the breathtaking site of Meteora. However, after his quiet arrival at his studio on this day, Kordis explained to us that he takes particular joy in innovating the traditional art.
Words would not support this claim alone, though: we needed a demonstration. Reaching for a long stick of charcoal, Kordis stepped toward the empty sheet of paper nailed to the wall in front of us all. He turned his back to us and began to sketch, first laying out a matrix of diagonal lines that would guide the shapes to follow, then drawing a face, a thigh, a wing, a shoulder, a second face, a hand. Slowly, the annunciation scene appeared: the angel Gabriel approaching Mary to tell her she will give birth to Christ. The scene was of course familiar to us already—and we would continue to see it again and again in churches along our journey. Kordis explained that what differentiated his version of the Annunciation from previous ones was his use of dynamic rhythm, based on the diagonal lines he used as a foundation for the drawing. I turned to look at his other sketches and paintings on the walls. I could verify a certain reverberation about the paintings, even where they depicted a lone saint simply standing erect. Kordis went on to tell us how he loved inventing new subjects for his icons, veering away from traditional ones depicting the life of Christ, and instead favoring other biblical stories, for example, the naming of the animals from Genesis.
Kordis’s interest in innovation and renovation became a theme for us throughout the trip. In Athens, we saw the reintegration of striking new architecture with the classical Parthenon in the New Acropolis Museum, and heard a lecture and concert called “Old Wine into New Bottles,” which examined traditional aspects of Byzantine chant in modern singing and transcribing practices. We saw centuries-old monasteries that preserved their architecture but remade their lives to accommodate the (relatively) new influx of tourists into their sacred space. We met a female theologian who dared to reconsider the place of women in the Greek Orthodox Church.
Kordis echoed again and again, in response to our questions, that explaining how he paints is “not so easy.” Explaining or understanding the process of innovation of tradition in general is, likewise, not so easy: the New Acropolis Museum was delayed for many years and still is not a welcome addition for some; the monks and nuns of the monasteries we visited indicated a tension in their relationship with tourists, who help support their community but also interfere with the traditionally isolated monastic life. Though the culture, the architecture, and the church of Greece and Turkey wrestle with their ancient past, it remains clear that they are not a people of the past. They live in the present, carrying their tradition with them but innovating, improvising as they go, giving new life to the forms and figures of the past.