Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 15
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
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“ICON WITH THE TOPOGRAPHY OF THE HOLY LAND”: According to the lavish 356 page monograph that accompanies “Architecture as Icon: Perception and Representation of Architecture in Byzantine Art,” this tempera on wood icon dates from the first half of the 17th century and belongs to the Byzantine Museum of Zakynthos, Greece. The structure depicted at the center is the Church of the Anastasis (Resurrection), also known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The detail has to be seen in person to be appreciated. The exhibit will run through June 6.

Princeton University Art Museum
Icons and Architecture — To Hold a Church in Your Hands

Stuart Mitchner

It’s Easter Sunday, I’m writing about icons, Jerusalem, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, but who can stay indoors? It’s just the sort of dreamy-mild day that brings back childhood Easters when heaven was as pretty as a picture in a storybook. As I walk along the shore of Lake Carnegie near the Harrison Street bridge, I’m thinking about my hour in the gallery at the Princeton University Art Museum that has been so effectively reimagined as a church interior, thanks to the thoughtful, creative work of guest curator and Princeton Professor of Art and Archaeology Slobodan Curcic and his staff.

Probably it’s the thought of childhood Easters that has me remembering a particular moment in “Church in Hands,” the brief video presentation complementing this richly atmospheric exhibition with its predictably cumbersome title, “Architecture as Icon: Perception and Representation of Architecture in Byzantine Art.” On the screen, true to the terms of the title, is something that represents both icon and architecture; it appears to be a small book shaped like a church with a pointed arch, but my perception of the scale is just tenuous enough that when the hands mentioned in the video’s title actually appear, moving in from either side, at once casually and ceremoniously opening and unfolding the object, the simple, everyday, taken-for-granted gesture becomes surprisingly suggestive — but of what?

Although I wasn’t fully aware of it at the time, what was being evoked by the image of those disembodied hands reaching out and unclasping a portable church was the childhood ritual where you clasp your hands together and make a steeple with your forefingers (“This is the church, and this is the steeple”) and then open your hands, fingers at attention (“and these are the people”). Unlikely as it may seem, this piece of child’s play suggests how deeply the iconography of the church and its architecture is embedded in the consciousness of kids who grow up with storybook heavens. Google this subject area and the first thing you find is the Atlantic Baptist Women site wherein a mission (“church planting in Labrador”) contains the following proviso for children under “Finger Play”: “Have children interlock three fingers of both hands, place their index fingers together pointing upwards and place their thumbs side by side. Say the rhyme, ‘This is the church and this is the steeple,’ open the doors (thumbs) and see all the people (wiggle fingers). Say it several times, until children can repeat it. Pretend that this is the Northern Cross Community Church where people have come to hear that Jesus loves them.”

Everything at Hand

Like any intelligently presented exhibit, “Architecture as Icon” sets you thinking about manifestations of its themes in the world outside the museum. I don’t even need to leave the gallery to see a 21st-century version of the portable icon pilgrims took home with them. As I’m admiring a 5th-century lampholder in the form of a miniature basilica, complete with Corinthian columns, triple windows, and lamp brackets shaped like dolphins, a man walks by staring intently at the palm of his hand. No, he’s not into palmistry; he’s checking the latest news on CNN, which has me thinking about the people all over campus (and the town and the world) religiously opening their power books, high-tech pilgrims with instant access to whatever images or doctrine they’re devoted to, be it the Bible, the Koran, the NCAA Final Four, or the Stock Market.

Spiritual Company

The exhibit begins by promising a “journey of the imagination” that will take you “through barriers of time and space into the spiritual world of Eastern Orthodox Christianity.” As I mentioned, the arrangement and ambience, the subdued lighting, and the chorale music accompanying the film contribute to the impression that the gallery you’re exploring is itself a church. At the same time, you have to keep reminding yourself that many of these church models, reliquaries, censers, and manuscripts were providers of spiritual company meant to be taken home and lived with, though surely only a rich merchant with an entourage of servants could walk away with something as magnificent as the partially gilded, hammered silver reliquary (kivotion) from a South Danubian workshop, or the even grander, later one from a Transylvanian workshop. While one of the five original domes is missing from the older, early-16th-century reliquary, it has a flock of doves cast in gilded silver and a single bird perched on top of the cross on the central dome. Once the property of a Serbian prince, the more resplendent Transylvanian kivotion from 1685 has flying buttresses and other signature Gothic architectural embellishments.


If you make your way from the entrance to the rearmost gallery wall, your journey ends, like a true pilgrimage, with the city of Jerusalem. Judged to be from the first half of the 17th century, the tempera on wood Icon with the Topography of the Holy Land was one of the exhibit’s highlights, as was its neighbor, the darker, more strictly segmented but pictorially fascinating Depiction of Jerusalem and Scenes from the Life Cycle of Christ and the Theotokos.

Thought to date from the 19th century, the Depiction of Jerusalem was bequeathed to the National Museum in Warsaw by the estate of the pianist and composer Ignace Jan Paderewski. Perhaps Padereswski contemplated this elaborate vision while gearing up to play one of those Chopin preludes that inspired André Gide to speak of “frightful depths,” “almost physical terror,” and “the floor of hell.” At the center of this labyrinthine icon a serpent-toothed demon is gobbling the damned, with the Last Judgment taking place virtually on the rooftop of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (also known as the Church of the Resurrection). While it’s hard to imagine pilgrims lining up to buy a handheld version of this icon, the multi-tiered maze of images is worth some seriously close looking; you don’t want to miss small wonders like the ship and the whale regurgitating Jonah.

No less compelling is the more fluid vision of Jerusalem in Topography of the Holy Land, where the mix of softer, lighter tones and colors — the grey and amber and ochre of Renaissance Italy and Botticelli — give it the charm of a pastoral next to the claustrophobic Depiction of Jerusalem. It also seems a freer work. The surrounding landscape with its delicate trees like banners lining the hills endows this vision of Jerusalem with the simplicity of those storybook cities that children dream about.

This international loan exhibition will be on view at the Princeton University Art Museum through June 6. The exhibition opened last fall in the European Center for Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Monuments in Thessaloniki. Princeton is its only venue in the United States. The museum is open Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday, 10a.m. to 10 p.m., and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. Admission is free.

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