A brief account on Modern Icon Painting

Modern hagiography

A brief account on Modern Icon Painting

When entering a church we usually observe, with perhaps a sense of awkwardness, the surrounding space, the icons, the frescoes, the interior architecture … Do we comprehend all that we see though?
Have we ever wondered what exactly are all these that we see around us? Why are those icons painted in this particular style? Why have been placed in this particular way and order? Why are so different from the familiar, secular, naturalistic painting?

As expected, the iconographic representations inside the churches serve first and foremost purposes of worshipping, yet they constitute visual creations, many of which of high artistic value.

In this current commentary, the two main phases of the evolution of modern Greek Byzantine art will be briefly described in a comprehensive way.

Among the consequences of the fall of Constantinople in 1453 was the loss of the most important artistic centre that for many centuries comprised the life-giving source of Byzantine art. On the other hand, the contacts of Greeks, primarily the Cretans and the Ionian islanders, with the West led to the inevitable influence by the Italian Renaissance art. The process of oil-painting was adopted whereas the Byzantine type of rendering the forms was abandoned and the western naturalistic style was introduced. The spirituality of the Nazarene movement of the West had finally infiltrated Greece. An imported painting that followed the types of the Western Christian art was a reality. The Nazarenes aimed not at a rupture with the Byzantine icon painting, rather at its improvement towards a more honest and natural effect.

Following the foundation of the Modern Greek state, famous churches were beginning to be built all over the Greek territory. The demes and parishes were mainly the founders of these structures that were decorated by distinguished painters who, however, had distanced themselves from the Byzantine and post-Byzantine tradition of icon painting.

A century later, in the 1930s, the circumstances were at last ripe for the great “turn”. Intellectuals and artists, having ultimately access to scientific knowledge and the ability to methodically study and interpret the sources, discovered the until then unknown and misunderstood Byzantine tradition. They realised the need to reconnect and comprehend the original sources of cultural tradition, thus perceiving “Greekness” as a continuation in the long-standing cultural tradition of the Greeks.

I would like to select two artists pioneers of this new phase in Modern Greek ecclesiastical painting.
Dimitris Pelekasis and Photis Kontoglou.
Two different personalities: more shy the former, more forceful and unconditional the latter.

Both Pelekasis and Kontoglou reintroduced the values of Byzantine and post-Byzantine painting in the Greek churches. The importance of simplicity, the economy of means approached the monumentality of Byzantine art via spirituality eliminating the element of dramatic effect. It was an acknowledgment of the dual value of Byzantine art, i.e. the liturgical-theological and the aesthetic.

The deep study and detailed knowledge of tradition may lead to its development and the creation of new aesthetic facts. Besides of being places of worship, our Churches constitute works of high artistic value having been erected and decorated with anxiety, comprehension and devotion. They are most significant of monuments and they ought to be perceived as such by all.

As an icon painter, I can only be fortunate that my works are permanently exhibited on the walls of the various Churches, which I wish to believe they actually beautify. At any rate, this is the greatest satisfaction for an artist-icon painter, the opportunity to be in an everlasting contact with the spectator-worshipper through the spiritual bonding between art and the utilitarian nature of ecclesiastical painting.

As a confirmation to the above-mentioned, I quote an excerpt from the preface in the book by Photis Kontoglou,
entitled “Expression”:
We are certain that this blessed return of the West to the basis of Byzantium and its art will help some of our own men of wisdom and art, who are dazzled by and expect everything from the West ignoring the inexhaustible source of our Greek tradition, the light and spiritual beauty that our good people desire so much in order to quench their hunger and thirst”.


  1. "Από τους Ναζαρηνούς στον Φ.Κόντογλου"
    Stoufi – Poulimenou, ed. Armos.
  2. "Εκφρασις" Ph. Kontoglou, ed.Papadimitriou.