18 February 2011

Albanian Color

Nikolaos Onouphrious
ca. 1550

A correspondent sent me a link for for the eccentric site http://library.nu/ from which you can download a remarkable number of scholarly books (hint: on every page, scroll down for the button you need). Searching on this site for 'Byzantine,' I found on page 52  [Note:  this hasn't worked for a while.  Try this link from one of the authors.  a remarkable book of icons entitled Icons from the Orthodox Community of Albania.* It is a catalog from a 2006 exhibition of the Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessalonike, and represents a high-water mark of cultural cooperation.

In 1999 at a point when western civilization had gone beyond shame, the General Consul of Greece in Korçë, Nikolaos Garilidis, was asked by the Director of the National Museum of Medieval Art for assistance in saving the 6,500 icons in the collection from possible consequences of the Kossovo war. In an act that has held back the powers of darkness a little longer, Garilidis enabled a cooperative program between the Korçë museum, and the Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessalonike, in which 88 icons were transferred, studies, and restored. I have found these icons astounding -- I can't recall ever seeing anything identified as Albanian icons -- and am giving here several, with details, for you to rejoice over.  But these are only two -- three with the cover image at the end -- and this book has many wonders.

All the images here ( except the last) are by the painter Nikolaos Onouphrious -- surely one of the greatest colorists and artists of all time -- whose painting seems to have happened mostly between 1547 and 1554.  (All of these images should enlarge when clicked on.)  I have never seen colors of the saturation and intensity that Onouphrious used  -- look, for example, at the detail below of bathing the Christ Child.  After the icons are three frescos, frescos that give forth their own silvery radiance.  

To begin with, look at the electrifying God-the-Father in this detail from the Baptism icon, the beard that becomes light and sound, the rocks that vibrate with light, the interlocking circles of the halos and go back and look at the construction of the whole painting, the universe splitting apart to show who Christ is, and the waves about to burst into new forms of life -- these waves echoed in the baby's bathwater. 

The Nativity appears to have the customary iconography but in this one -- again something I have seen nowhere else -- the womb of the mountain embraces both the Magi and the birth, and the infant and mother are facing in the direction opposite to their usual. The right-hand curve of the cave and the curve over the grisaille angels reflect the circle of heaven, but the emphasis here is on the realities of human life, and these are given the glorious color -- the women bathing the baby, the shepherd playing his bagpipes, Joseph who is somewhat left out and who has to explain to a stranger what is going on.  And then there is the rhythmical interchange among the curves of the Magis' horses' necks and their gestures and their billowing cloaks.

There are apparently a number of Onouphrious frescos in the area between Berat and Kastoria, and several others in Kastoria.  This is a palette of colors unfamiliar to me in frescos, and utterly luminous.

Saints at Berat, Michael at Kastoria 

 Signature of Onouphrios, Kastoria

Icons from the Orthodox Community of Albania.  Ed., Anastasia Tourta; text, Eugenia Drakopoulou.  Thessaloniki, 2006. Catalog from the Museum of Byzantine Culture.

Roman soldiers leading Constantine's triumphal procession.


  1. These are exquisite! Your descriptions breathe light and life into the two-dimensional format.
    P.S. I studied with Annemarie Weyl Carr at SMU and have her and her approach in teaching the Art History Methodologies class to thank for my love of icons.

  2. What a privilege for you! A fine scholar, eloquent speaker and writer, and a good person.

  3. What the war of 1999 has to do with these icons?

  4. "In 1999 at a point when western civilization had gone beyond shame"

    I dont understand this! what shame? I presume this is about (western civilisation)NATO saving hundreds of thousands of people from annihilation and if that is beyond shame than so is the war against Nazis.


I will not publish Anonymous comments.