Venerating new icons

Corneliu Ostahie, Intercity Magazine no. 32 / ART Section

When it comes to icons, to their artistic and, why not, their commercial value, most of us have had and still have a prejudice, namely the strong belief that the age of such works of art is an invincible selection criterion, to which we report it they worth our consideration or not. If you are not an expert, but only an amateur icon collector, urged in your approach either by your sincere love for art, or by the desire to make money out of the trade with such works of art, then you are expected to look exclusively towards the past, the same as palaentologists in search for dinosaurs’ fossils do, because they know very well that those creatures definitively disappeared some dozens of millions of years ago and, therefore, they have no reason to rake about for them through more recent times. In other words – in order to go back to our topic – according to the above reasoning, one might say that all genuine icons have already been painted and that all the great masters of iconography are dead for a long time!
At first sight, such an approach seems justified by the common view on religion and ecclesiastical tradition, view according to which all great events related to faith and the people involved in them happened or lived a very long time ago, and all we (can) do is to inherit, from one generation to another, pre-established images of them, which we are not allowed to alter unless we commit a profanation, since the only thing allowed is to thoroughly copy the icons. Therefore, it is not fortuitous that many people could not think it plausible the idea that nowadays there could still be iconographers, in the true sense of the word.
Nevertheless, such artists that, apart from carrying on an art that once reached perfection, are able to re-define, in contemporary meanings, the structure of religious painting’s language, by renewing it and enriching it with other meanings, continue to exist and to create works of art, and some of them even succeed in having disciples. Elena Murariu is, undoubtedly, one of these artists.

Under the vaults with angels
By the years 1987-1989, Elena Murariu had begun to express as a promising illustrator, whose works were exhibited in specific exhibitions and sometimes even awarded by professional and, obviously, rigorous juries. In her expressionist and almost literal graphics, she tried to express herself, but in a slightly complicated manner. Consequently, she felt she had somewhat become captive of a fashionable language that suited her like a borrowed clothing. She could, of course, persevere in that direction, especially since nobody seemed to notice her discomfort, so well veiled, but she decided to give up. At that time, she faced an authentic and overwhelming artistic identity crisis that lasted no less than 10 years. How did she manage to overcome it? ”I still wonder myself how that was possible. I tend to believe that I owe this to the idea of returning to one of my initial artistic gifts, that of making religious painting. I had taken into account and enjoyed such a perspective during my first years of faculty, but that idea was then abandoned, perhaps, among other reasons, because at that time religious painting was thought to be nothing but a refuge for unsuccessful artists, who are unable to express themselves in a personal artistic manner. Now I believe I was inspired when I let the idea rise for more than a decade. When I resumed it, I had already known it would give me the ”life buoy” I so desperately needed. And I also knew that I would not be tempted to become a simple copyist, obsessed with bringing my copying abilities to perfection, but I would be interested in completely different aspects, such as renewing the icon’s potential of real communication as a sacred message bearer, but as an artistic image too. I took this path many years ago. I started by restoring religious painting. I spent hundreds, maybe thousands of hours under the vaults with angels, I listened to countless religious songs and liturgies, and at a certain moment I realized I was at a crossroads, whence I could take another path – that of painting icons. I wondered, of course, which path I should take: give up restoration or ignore my new call? Eventually, I decided to do both, since they are two complementary interests that mustn’t be separated. More than that, I could say that the restoring activity has brought me inside the church, has brought me near icons, and all these have strengthened my faith. I have always kept a religious feeling deep inside, but the sense of true faith has revealed to me only when I became aware that icons were not simple objects to which I heal the wounds left by time, but living presences to whom one can talk to, portals through which one can enter the non-physical, the pure spirituality spaces.”
After such a ”confession”, almost everyone can realize that Elena Murariu has been ”touched” by what is called the ”divine grace”. But, one cannot simply venerate Elena Murariu’s icons like any other icon because, as we suggested at the beginning of these lines, since they are new icons, their ”holiness” must be proved.

The iconographers to be
The most famous icon painted by Elena Murariu’s hand is, undoubtedly, the ”Icon for the veneration of Saint Stephen the Great”, situated at Putna Monastery, where it was brought, the 2nd July 2004, by The Very Blessed Hierarch Teoctist, at that time the Patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church, on the occasion of celebrating 500 years from the passing to God of the great moldavian Voivode. It is a medium-sized work (94/88 cm), made of a central image which presents Saint Stephen the Great in front of Jesus Christ and the Theotokos, and of eight other scenes in which there are depicted important moments of Voivode’s life. Complex, animated by an ample epical breath that not only urges to piety and meditation, but is commemorative of relatively recent events, that were historically interpreted in every way, this icon perfectly observes the canons of ecclesiastical painting. But, since it is a new saint, in a way of speaking, Elena Murariu had to use all the elements specific to these canons in order to make up a structure adapted to a context that is strongly blended with secular and unconsacrated, profane, often contradictory judgements and information.
This was an approach doomed to failure from the very beginning. Nevertheless, the artist has succeeded in creating a more than convincing religious atmosphere, that radiates humbleness and infuses a genuine divine thrill. Behind this unquestionable success, there are years of study and search, of dogmatic crystallisations and handicraft abilities, and also of meditation on the real impact icons can have on contemporary man’s life, apart from the unconditional or circumstantial pietism which has become an equally superficial and wide-spread phenomenon. From this perspective, Elena Murariu has been and still is an ”iconographer” that disagrees the dogmatic ”Believe and do not question!”. She often interprets the content and message of icons, both the traditional, ”classical” ones, and those made by her hand. Out of this attitude of spiritual independence, whose result is to reinforce the inner edifice of faith, there issued the artist’s religious graphics, a part of her creation that is meant to be presented in art exhibitions and is characterized by a much more direct, simpler and, possibly, more efficient way of communication. ”Angel wings” and ”Between icon and psalms” are two of her most recent exhibitions with such works of art, exhibitions that enabled Elena Murariu to make some exciting and encouraging remarks: some of the people interested in her graphics considered them to be genuine icons; this means that the image bearing a sacred message is recognized as such even in the absence of the strict simbolism of ecclesiastical painting; there are people that are not content to pray before copies made after famous icons, copies that, as Teodor Baconsky somewhere stated, are characterized only by the ”pietist imposture”, but they prefer to pray before genuine old icons or before original interpretations of them made by today’s artists; the ”democratization” of icon’s inner meaning, its ”narration” in an artistic language understandable to the present perception, along with the observation of faith and of professional rigours, all these tend to become new vectors for communicating the religious message.
Since all these conclusions have been reached out of observing real behaviours and events – and I don’t see why we wouldn’t believe things are as told – then Elena Murariu can consider herself twice happy. As she tells us, inside the church, near the icons that she heals, she feels she continually belongs to the iconographers’ profession. Not to today’s iconographers though, but to the traditional iconographers; i.e. she disagrees with people that make hand-copies after icons, and she stands in solidarity with those people that were full of grace and dared overcome their limits.
This would be her first reason of happiness. The second reason is that, from now on, she can feel in solidarity with the iconographers to be, since, I dare say, the first disciples will soon appear to follow in Elena Murariu’s footsteps, carrying on her ideas and style set up by her.
(Artişti, ateliere, galerii. Ghid facultativ de încântat privirea, Editura Karta Graphic, 2009, p. 155-160)

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