N.Y. Journal: Two cultures coming together


To honor the coming of the Ecumenical Patriarch---the spiritual leader of the Orthodox Church---to the United States, the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA) in New York City is displaying sacred texts and icons from the Orthodox tradition.

The colors are brilliant---more vivid than they ever appear in books where writers talk about the rigidity of medieval iconography, and more bright than colors we usually see in real life: gilt, vermillion, salmon, a deep green behind the infant Mary's cradle on one icon and a deep blue in the stones that make Mary's mantle in a mosaic.

The Orthodox Church the display honors has its religious center in Istanbul, Turkey---a city where I visited one summer and saw one religion and culture layered on top of another, as one people conquered another through its history. In Istanbul's Hagia Sophia, for instance---once the world's largest cathedral, a basilica turned mosque turned museum---you see layers of religion on top of each other. The cathedral was an Orthodox cathedral until 1453, when Ottoman Turks sacked the city and turned it into a mosque. The Muslims plastered over the Christian mosaics and added their own art on top of it, along with a minaret. Even now that the Hagia Sophia is a museum the conflict continues, since revealing the Christian mosaics beneath will mean destroying the Islamic art on top.

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This is what the whole culture of Turkey is like now---wholly Muslim now but with glimpses of a lost Christianity beneath it. In Cappadocia, there are crude cliff dwellings carved into the face of the cliffs where Christians lived and worshipped. You can still see traces of the rough religious art on the cliff walls, but only tourists wander through.

In the art in the MOBIA, though, the two cultures come together in a way that surprised me. On an icon of the Virgin Hodigitria (Pointer of the Way), there are tiny gilt letters in Arabic beneath the image of Mary holding the Christ Child. Angels hold scrolls---another indication of Arabic culture---in the icon's top corners. Mary's rich, red robes and the Christ Child's orange brocade vesture shows the artist's knowledge of Persian miniatures. In another icon, St. Anne---the mother of Mary---is reclining on a bed as one of her attendants rocks Mary as a baby in a cradle. There are faded gold Arabic letters surrounding Mary.

I always saw the Arabic Muslim culture and the Greek Orthodox culture in tension when I went to the Ecumenical Patriarch's home city of Istanbul. But this art gave a new perspective. Instead of one culture obliterating another, this Christian art speaks Christian themes in the language and style of the culture surrounding it.


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