Icons in the Byzantine convergence between Sicily and Greece

by Ninni Radicini
June 30, 2019

The millennial historical, artistic, literary and scientific convergence between Sicily and Greece finds a multiplicity of evidences in works of art, anthropological characteristics, reference personalities. The presence of Sicily in the Hellenic and Hellenistic whole is demonstrated by the original names of many Sicilian cities as well as by artistic and architectural achievements coherent and comparable in historical importance to those of Greece, demonstrating a confluence that then found a continuation during the period Byzantine and also in later developments during the Late Middle Ages and the Modern Age. In the religious sphere, in Christianity, one of the symbols of this convergence is the icon, an artistic work through which sacred images are represented in pictorial form - Christ, the Madonna, the Angels, the Saints - and scenic compositions on a support - in general a wooden tablet or a metal plate - with decorations in gold, silver, precious stones. Through its components and specific artistic qualities, the icon (a word deriving from the Greek "eikÚn", image) has the function of a visual doctrine for the Christian. It is believed that the creation of the icons began around the third century.

At the origins of this expressive mode, decisive historical moments were the Edict of the Emperor Constantine in 313, which affirmed the right to profess the Christian religion in the Roman Empire, expanding what was already established in 311 by the emperor Galerius with the Edict of Tolerance, then in 380 to reach the Edict of Thessalonica promulgated by Theodosius I who declared Christianity the State religion (with the doctrine formulated by the Council of Nicea of 325). In 535 Belisario, strategos (General) of the Byzantine army, on the orders of Emperor Justinian, liberated Sicily from the Goths. In 663 Constans II transferred the imperial seat from Constantinople to Sicily, to the city of Syracuse, which was then capital of the Byzantine Empire until 668. Constans II was the son of Constantine III and grandson of Heraclius, emperor (610-641) who declared the Greek language, the official language of the Empire. The elaboration and realization of icons later found an opposition, both in a doctrinal and in a political-institutional sense, which culminated in two iconoclastic periods (726-787 and 814-842), the first of which with a series of edicts by the Emperor Leo III Isaurian (founder of the Isaurian dynasty). After 29 May 1453, the main Byzantine artists moved to Crete, forming a Cretan school, whose representatives were of great importance in Europe.

In the art exhibition "Icons. Tradition / Contemporaneity - The post-Byzantine icons of north-western Sicily and their contemporary interpretation" (Diocesan Museum - Monreale (Palermo), 04 April - 04 September 2019), organized by the Sicilian Hellenic Community "Trinacria", designed by Francesco Piazza and Vassilis Karampatsas, twelve artists - six Sicilians and six Greeks - highlight the common history and Greek-Byzantine tradition in iconography, in the artistic expression of icons, an example of correspondence between the Sicilian people and the Hellenic people. Representing Greece are exhibited the works created by Manolis Anastasakos, Nikos Moschos, Dimitris Ntokos, Kostantinos Papamichalopoulos, Zoi Pappa, Christos Tsimaris.

For Sicily, the works created by Giuseppe Bombaci, Sandro Bracchitta, Giorgio Distefano, Roberto Fontana, Antonino Gaeta e Ignazio Schifano. In evidence the works from the Eparchy of Piana degli Albanesi (Greek-Byzantine rite), unique in Sicily (the Municipality of Piana degli Albanesi until 1941 was called Piana dei Greci), as well as those from Mezzojuso and a Odigitria of Monreale (Odigitria is a term of Greek-Byzantine origin that refers to the most famous image of the Madonna with Jesus in her arms, from Constantinople spread in the Orthodox Christian world). Among the aims of the installation there is the comparison between the icons of different times, the ancient ones and those realized in more recent times, underlining also the specificities of the artists.

A previous exhibition dedicated to icons in reference to Sicily was prepared (March-May 2013) at the Regional Museum of Messina, organized by the Sicilian Region, Federico II Foundation, Sicilian Institute of Byzantine and Neoellenic Studies and Christian Museum of Athens. The exhibition "Icons and Manuscripts. The Greek presence in Messina from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age", then set up from June to August 2013 in Palermo, in Royal Palace (also called Palace of the Normans), featured icons from the Christian and Byzantine Museum of Athens. It has obtained relevant feedback both for the number of visitors and for the quality of the works presented.

Also on display are 41 icons that were transferred to the Hellenic capital after the earthquake that devastated Messina in 1908 and then were acquired in the collection of the Christian and Byzantine Museum and exhibited for the first time in the mid-Fifties. The exhibition had four thematic modules. The first related to Byzantine Art in Sicily, through icons and manuscripts from the mid-10th century to the 15th century. The second on the icons created in Messina by painters working in the following period commissioned by the Hellenic Community of the Sicilian city. In the third section the icons of the Greek churches of Messina. The fourth module with post-Byzantine icons from the Christian and Byzantine Museum and from the Regional Museum of Messina together with post-Byzantine manuscripts.

Other art exhibitions dedicated to icons have been prepared in recent years at the Benaki Museum in Athens. "Religious art from Russia to Greece" (December 2017 - February 2018) with an exhibition of a series of Russian icons created between the 16th and 19th centuries, preserved in churches, art collections and monasteries in Greece, mostly little known. These artistic works represent a demonstration of cultural and political ties between Russia, the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean area: interaction between Greek monasteries and Tsarist and Orthodox Russia, trade exchanges and diplomatic relations. From September 2014 to May 2015, the exhibition "Heaven and Earth. The Byzantine Art from the Greek Collections", with the display of icons, as well as manuscripts, sculptures, frescoes, textiles.

The art exhibition catalog "Icons. Tradition / Contemporaneity" was created with the collaboration of the Eparchy of Piana degli Albanesi, of the Archdiocese of Monreale, of the National Art Gallery of Greece, of the Diocesan Museum of Monreale, of the Superintendency of Cultural and Environmental Heritage of Palermo of the Sicilian Region, of the University of Palermo - Department of culture and society. The art exhibition will then be staged in Greece, in the capital Athens.

* Ninni Radicini (Sicily) has written and published various articles on Germany (political-electoral-historical area). Articles on other topics have been published on various periodicals. He also published reviews and book prefaces. Co-author of the book Contemporary Greece 1974-2006 (La Grecia contemporanea 1974-2006) (book only in Italian edition).

Trinacria - Sicily The Trinacria. History and Mythology
Symbol of convergence of Sicily with Hellenic and Norman History and Culture

The symbol of Trinacria is now known because in the flag of Sicily and that of the Island of Man. Its history is complex and in some ways still shrouded in mystery, or at least in indeterminacy, as it relates to mythology. The Trinacria, symbol of Sicily, is composed of the head of the Gorgon, whose hair is entwined serpents with ears of corn, from which radiate the three legs bent at the knee.
Article by Ninni Radicini

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