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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.

Detail 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.

Although 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.

The 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 work.

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 attention.

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.

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