It could be said that Fr. Stamatis Skliris ranks as one of the most important, albeit idiosyncratic and challenging, contemporary iconographers residing in Greece today: idiosyncratic, because his style stands out in a category of its own, in its personal, expressive potency and unique, at times odd, pictorial synthesis; challenging, because he often breaks all norms or expectations of what a traditional icon is “supposed” to look like. He doesn’t seem to fit any stereotypical standards. Thus at times he leaves the viewer feeling uneasy. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that to some his work and ideas rank as “controversial”, in their daring and unconventional approach, especially since his style consists of a fertile synthesis of the icon painting tradition with modern visual trends. Hence, though I’ve been hesitating for a while, I have finally decided to go ahead and discuss his work, since to do otherwise would be a major oversight on our part. He is simply a major contributor to the revival of icon painting, in both the realm of theory[i] and practice, and cannot be readily dismissed or ignored as insignificant.
Fr. Stamatis Skliris was born in Piraeus in 1946. Initially he graduated from Medical School (1971) and then studied Theology at the University of Athens (1976). He continued his studies in Belgrade at the Theological and Philosophical Faculty, attending lectures in Theology and Art History. He also attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris (Ecole des Beaux Arts). While residing in Serbia he spent time mostly in Ćelije Monastery, in the immediate vicinity of St. Justin (Popovic). He would go on to be ordained to the priesthood and since 1979 has been serving in Athens.
Through his extensive studies of Serbian monuments and frescoes Fr. Stamatis has developed a unique interpretation of Byzantine art, clearly evident in the many churches he’s painted. During his stay at Ćelije Monastery, he decorated the monastery chapel devoted to St. Stefan Dečanski. He has also painted the Church of St. Elias the Prophet in Piraeus, of St. George in Stamnica, and the chapel of the De Pahlen-Agnelli in Geneva. Furthermore, he completed the icons in the church dedicated to St. Nektarios in Voula, the church of Evangelistria in Halandri, Greece and the church of St. Maximos the Confessor in Kostolac, Serbia, among others.
Fr. Stamatis’ work embraces not only monumental and panel icon painting, but also book illustration and non-liturgical painting. The cross-fertilization between the idioms is evident. His non-liturgical work is of particular interest, for in it we see his incessant experimentation with the figure, imaginative portraiture, still life and landscape painting. These works at time verge on the surrealistic and include mythological themes. They’re generally executed in an expressive manner, rough at times, and tend to have existential connotations. Whether it be icons or non-liturgical painting, the unique – somewhat eccentric – personality of Fr. Stamatis always comes through.
Fr. Stamatis’ icons leaves you wondering, scratching your head, thinking, “Is this allowed? Is this appropriate in a liturgical context? Has he gone too far?” He shakes the viewer out of complacency, inviting him to engage with the image actively— whether you “like” it or not — confronting him with solutions which shatter conventional expectations. He seems to tell us: “Take it or leave it.”
At times you are willing to accept the results. Other times it indeed goes too far, verging on kitsch and an “outsider art” sensibility. Some moments can be said to be too emotionally charged, if not melodramatic. Then there are instances when the color gets garish and the formal extravagances too noisy. Nevertheless, the image is always forceful, pulsating with life, if not exhilarating: buoyant at times, resplendent at others. There is a child-like naïveté in the work of Fr. Stamatis that is hard to gainsay and completely reject. There is a valor is his willingness to open his inner world for all to see. These qualities imbue his work with a stamp of true authenticity.
Be that as it may, in spite of the various oddities and stylistic incongruences— he is by no means a graceful classicist — he nevertheless exhibits a masterful command of painting. His brush handling is loose, with a lot of texture and gestural range: it can be virtuosic, although a bit wild at times. He is undoubtedly a great colorist. His color is particularly powerful, rich, both festal and electric, indebted to Impressionism, Fauvism, Pointillism and the Expressionism of Vincent van Gogh. Then there is his creative imagination that can leave the viewer awed with his genius, even if he does not particularly care for most of the results of his daring experiments.
In short, Fr. Stamatis is a force to contend with. Whether or not one feels his approach is the best direction to take, nevertheless, his work unapologetically presents us with one possibility in tackling the pictorial challenges and questions facing contemporary iconography today in light of modernity. And that is the kernel of the matter, for Fr. Stamatis does not shun modern art, but rather incorporates whatever it offers as salvageable and compatible within the principles of the icon painting tradition. In fact, looking back to the development of the ecclesiastical painting in Byzantium, he considers the Christian transformation of the standards of Greco-Roman painting as a kind of “modernism” prior to the Modernism which emerged in the late 19th century. He argues:
We could even say that the first modernism in world history was founded not in the 19th century by Western art movements, but in Byzantium. If the essence of modernism lies in the liberation from classical conceptions of painting and the deliberate change of the canons and introduction of new ones, then that happened for the first time in Byzantium, when a change occurred in relation to the Classical, Hellenistic, and Greco-Roman artistic tradition… As for the possible influence of Modernism on Orthodox icon painting, I personally cannot conceive a living Christian painter of the 21st century who would live in such a way as to ignore and disregard the great achievements of Western art history, like Impressionism, for example, and who would be able to live isolated from the problems that surround modern man.[ii]
Thus Fr. Stamatis’ stance is in dialogue with, rather than antagonistic to, the formal developments of modern painting. But he engages in this stylistic conversation in a way that veers away from the cliché geometric reductionism usually associated with an exploration of modern idioms, preferring to deal with a more robust and pronounced handling of volumes. On the relation between the Byzantine icon tradition and contemporaneity he states:
From a particular moment onwards, our traditional art had touched upon my heart. I thought I had discovered a kind of a hidden, mystical beauty. I bathed in the light of the Byzantine icon regarding everything else as being secondary. However, I needed to find a way—after having lived out tradition internally—to express it in my own work in relation to the issues of our time. That is: I needed to act just as an ancient Hellene or a Byzantine would act if living in our times. I borrowed the bright colors and brilliant brush strokes from Impressionism and clothed them with the centripetal lighting of an icon. It is thus, in my opinion, that emerged an art of painting similar to the Hellenistic, Greco-Roman, but, simultaneously, both Byzantine and modern. In other words, the East has moved closer to the West, and the so-called secular art to that which is seen as sacred.[iii]
This approach to the pictorial problems of icon painting is therefore one which shuns formulaic repeatability and predictability, leading to monotony and an unengaging viewing experience. Fr. Stamatis’ clarion call is authenticity. He invites other iconographers to dare to discover their own unique voices within the tradition, in “reaction to the great achievements of Western art history,” and thereby go beyond the replication of older icons. Otherwise, he feels the result will be a kind of iconography that is “anachronistic and symptomatic of a ‘false Orthodoxy.’”[iv]
But the road toward authenticity, as he suggests, is not so simple: it should unfold “after having lived out tradition internally,” within the Eucharistic life of the Church. Hence, Fr. Stamatis states that “authenticity is foremost a spiritual problem, and only secondarily a painterly problem.”[v] He adds, “First, when authenticity in the way in which the Holy Eucharist, Christ, and love for fellow man are lived and experienced is lost, this is then reflected in ecclesiastical painting through the phenomenon of replication. We should accept and acknowledge the fact that there are, for example, many Christians who copy, in the spiritual life, the demeanor of their spiritual father outwardly, as if spiritual life is a matter of demeanor and not inner experience.”[vi] So let us take brief look at how this spiritual problem relates to the ecclesial sphere.
The inner spiritual experience and gifts of each member of the Church are unique and inimitable. Thus the saints actualized their deification in unique and inimitable ways that distinguish them one from the other, not only in their temporal but also eschatological existence. Therefore, as Fr. Stamatis notes:
Although much of the emphasis focuses upon the Last Times, a necessary feature of the person in the icon is their particular way of life and the relationships in their lives within historical time. This is why the icon reflects the eschatological relationship and the salvation resulting from this in the form of certain specific events which stamped the existence of the persons depicted while they lived in historical time and which lent their mortal existence certain characteristics which remain into eternity.[vii]
But the uniqueness of events which characterizes the life of the saints and sacred history continue to ripple in the life of the Church every time an icon is painted, with soteriological and eschatological implications:
By having the icon painted and by reverencing it, the Church creates another event. The wood or wall on which the icon is painted, were formerly neutral in Christological, soteriological and eschatological terms, but now assume the dimensions of a new and unique event, because through them, in a special manner, the Church is linked to the eschatological existence and personality of the saint. In this way we understand what the Fathers wrote in texts and in hymns and what was expressed as a Term [Definition] at the 7th Ecumenical Synod: that through the icon of Christ and those of the saints, creation is sanctified.[viii]
All of this rippling of unique events, according to Fr. Stamatis, has implications for the iconographer’s creative act. In other words, the icon should in turn – if it is to be a genuine expression of ecclesial life – reflect the same uniqueness and inimitability as an event of personal creativity. Hence, the act of icon painting must unfold from a living and unique inner experience of communion in Christ, specifically one between the painter and the saints. This authentic creative act, in turn, facilitates a living and genuine communion between the temporal ecclesial community and its eschatological members. The painter as an Evangelist[ix] keeps the memory of the saints alive, the unique and inimitable ways in which they’ve actualized their deification. But as Fr. Stamatis explains:
This ‘memory’ isn’t simply a sentimental reminder, but participation in the Eucharistic community, in the ‘eternal memory’, that is in the memory of our eternal God and Father, which maintains the saint – and, by extension, every believer – in eternal existence and communion. The Eucharistic community, with its feasts which require their relevant iconography, causes the painter to create an event, the new icon of the saint, through which the community returns once more into a relationship with the eschatological person, the saint.[x]
Thus, according to Fr. Stamatis, iconizing unique persons and events requires unique, inimitable, authentic creative acts which reflect, as a living and continuing reality, the communion which exists between the historical and eschatological dimensions of the Church. Otherwise our experience of communion within the ecclesial community suffers in its lack of authenticity. Therefore, he observes that “an iconographer didn’t simply refrain from copying an older icon, but didn’t even copy the ideas of one of his own, if he was painting the same subject for the second, third or umpteenth time. Because clearly he would have believed that every new icon was a new and unique event of communion between the Church and the saint depicted.”[xi]
We can then begin to see how the question of authenticity is “foremost a spiritual problem and only secondarily a painterly problem.” We might not ascribe to all aspects of Fr. Stamatis’ assessment, but it’s worth pondering how, with the loss of the aforementioned awareness of what’s at stake in icon painting, things are bound to deteriorate into a mere color by number approach. But there is also fear, fear of the infiltration of modernist influences that will lead to a corrosion of a “timeless” atmosphere in ecclesial art. On the other hand, we should also ask if this perceived “timelessness” is nothing other than an illusion – stagnation taken as the stamp of genuine sacred art. Is this “timelessness” the preservation of anachronistic specimens in the formaldehyde of legalistic formalism?
Regardless to our answers to such a question, the fact remains that the work of Fr. Stamatis stands as a challenge to the contemporary iconographer. Some deride, others applaud his approach. In either case not always, I’m sure, for the right reasons. We might not ascribe to his ideas or even “like” his work, but the point here has been exactly to go beyond our likes and dislikes, as an exploration meant to dispel the stupor and complacency of the rigid aesthetic categories taken for granted as “correct” in icon painting. One of the things we can get out of Fr. Stamatis’ work is that it’s worth resisting the fear of experimentation in icon painting, a fear that stems from simplistic notions of Tradition and that can lead only to a paralysis bearing false witness to ecclesial life. He’s to be respected for the valor and ascetic effort he’s demonstrated in his commitment to icon painting throughout the years. Not all results might work, but many, nevertheless, manifest the living reality of the Church enlivened by the grace of the Holy Spirit – full of authenticity.
For further information and examples of Fr. Stamatis’ work see his website.
[i] For a collection of Fr. Stamatis’ articles and many examples of his work see, In the Mirror: A Collection of Iconographic Essays and Illustrations, (Western American Diocese Press, 2007).
[ii] Sailors of the Sky: A conversation with Stamatis Skliris and Fr. Marko Rupnik on contemporary Christian Art, ed. Fr. Radovan Bigovic, trans. I. Jakovljevic, Fr. G. Edwards & A. Krstic, (Sebastian Press, 2010), pp. 21-25.
[iv] C. A. Tsakiridou, Icons in Time, Persons in Eternity: Orthodox Theology and the Aesthetics of the Christian Image, (Ashgate, 2013), p. 139.
[v] Sailors of the Sky, p. 25.
[vii] Fr. Stamatis Skliris, “The Icon as a Unique and Inimitable Fact in the Church”, Pemptusia (August, 24, 2014), accessed March 23, 2020. Our emphasis.
[viii] Ibid. Our emphasis.
[x] Ibid. Our emphasis
[xi] Ibid. Our emphasis.