Lecture by Lebanese architect and writer Tony Chackar at the Urban Heat Open Academy, Munich, October 30, 2015.
A Hogiditria found in the Kaftoun monastery in north Lebanon holds many secrets. A hogiditria (“She who shows the way”) is a Theotokos icon (“Mother of God”), with Mary’s hand pointing towards the child Jesus in her lap. There’s too little space to go through all the details of this fascinating icon (my information is based mainly on a study by Lina Fakhoury Soued, 2011); I will briefly state some of these details though, and expand on one: Scholars who studied the icon are not sure of its origins; it could have been written in Constantinople or in the Levant; some date it to the 11th century, meaning right after the end of the second iconoclastic war; the decorative motifs on the wooden frame are very unusual; Mary’s eyes seem to be filled with tears, a detail that testifies to a nascent humanism at the time – Mary knows how the story will unfold and this brings tears to her eyes.
The detail that arrested me the most though are eight triangles surrounding Mary’s face, in the folds of her maphorion (garment). These are not random compositional elements, simply generated by the folds of the veil, they are rather a deliberate and symmetrical pattern surrounding the face. The triangles are painted in red, cinnabar, which is the result of the interaction of sulfur and mercury. These two elements were highly symbolic in Hellenistic alchemy, and the esoteric physics associated with it: sulfur was the male element, while mercury was the female one – reminiscent of the Gnostic God who was both male and female, and neither male nor female. The writer of the icon was definitely versed in heretic (unorthodox) knowledge. But that’s not all: the same red can be observed on the volumen (manuscript) held by the hand of the child Jesus, and on the spica (the star symbolizing Mary’s virginity on her forehead). That makes ten small patches of cinnabar. Ten, as in the ten pebbles forming the Tetraktys of the Pythagoreans, the triangle that was their holiest symbol. Ten, as in the ten strings on David’s sitar in the Coptic chant in praise of Mary, where every string was glorifying her in a different way; the 9th and 10th strings are of relevance: “the ever-virgin Mary begets God, and He is her Son” (the spica), “the All-Mighty God resides in Zion, where the Just are” (the volumen).
Why is this important, today? It definitely shows the richness and complexity of an East Mediterranean culture – from Greece to Constantinople to Egypt, passing through Lebanon; this culture is now only hanging by a thread, true, but I believe the above to be important for other reasons than lamenting a loss: When certain artistic matters (like “representation”) keep on reaching an impasse because they keep on starting from the same premises, it would be useful to take a step back, a step to just before things started moving in that direction – and in the case of representation, a step just before the invention of perspective space. In this space, this richness is not only lost, it is impossible to achieve. It has no place. The space of perspective tries to convince the viewer that it is rational (mathematical), homogeneous, infinite and crisis free – but the truth of the matter is, it is intimately bound to capitalism, and like in capitalism, where the only value is “how much?” and where everything is hollowed-out leaving nothing but a glittering surface, in perspective space every point is weighed down by a quantitative numerical value (the XY coordinates), leaving nothing but a surface regulated by a complex esthetic regime, which is now exhausted, true, but still extremely efficient. This is as natural as Nature itself, says capitalism, says the space of perspective – but then, where did the magical, the miraculous, the divine go? All these layers of meaning that I spoke of in the Kaftoun Hogiditria, and the ones I didn’t speak about, where would they find their place? In the space of perspective, all essence is transformed into appearance, and we are meant to believe that the miraculous happens inside the closed subjectivity of the person represented. The miracle is inside the soul of Mary and that’s the end of it – after all, isn’t that what all the modern (Catholic) representations of Mary seem to be saying? This is the start, in representation at least, of a division that is still operative today: the objective appearance and the subjective interior experience: appearance and depth, outside and inside, surface and meaning, style and concept, form and content, and their corollaries, public and private, political and domestic, masculine and feminine. In icons, all these divisions are meaningless, unimaginable; Icons testify to the absence of what is represented and not to its presence (that was one line of defense against the iconoclasts); an icon is written and not drawn, it is a text/image – and the hand the writes the text (content) is the same hand that draws the forms. No separation.
Should artists now abandon their practices and start making icons? Of course not. Not possible, not wanted, not needed. But artists – and architects – should stop convincing themselves that what they have on their hands is a
“crisis in form”. It isn’t.