Serenhedd James on the Anglican Centre’s recent commission
IMAGES COURTESY OF THE ANGLICAN CENTRE, ROME
The Anglican Centre in Rome is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and a series of commemorative events is ongoing. As part of the celebrations, Lefteris Olympios – a Cypriot artist now living in the Netherlands – was invited by the Centre to produce a series of paintings that, as the commission’s catalogue says, ‘would be especially appropriate as a visual representation of the basic mission of the Centre, reconciliation’. His work, Reconciliation: Seven Pieces for the Anglican Centre in Rome, was unveiled at the start of the week before the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. As I was in Rome at the time, I was fortunate enough to be shown over the installation by the Deputy Director of the Centre, Fr Marcus Walker, and to meet the artist and discuss his work.
Each of the paintings is deeply inspired by Christian narrative: either that of Holy Scripture, Church tradition, or devotional practice. But, as Ioanna Alexandri of the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens writes in the catalogue, Olympios has infused them with contemporary themes, and gives the recognisable images ‘pronounced political import’.
The first piece, ‘The Messenger’, has its inspiration in the thirteenth Station of the Cross. In the background of this sombre, green-grey composition a limp white figure is being removed from an upright structure by three others. We are not shown any crosspiece, so perhaps it is just a pole or a tree: perhaps there has been a lynching. Meanwhile, in the foreground three female figures hold their heads in anguish. Who are these three? Are they the women of Jerusalem, weeping for their Lord – a crossover from the eighth Station? In the background the white figure of an angel stands out almost on the horizon, where a lighter line of green suggests a rising dawn. Who is he? Perhaps the women are the three of whom we read in the Synoptic Gospels. If so, is he the angel who will meet and reassure them on Easter morning at the empty tomb?
The second work, ‘The Journey’, is instantly recognisable as the Flight into Egypt. St Joseph leads the donkey, and Our Lady clutches her Son and Saviour close to her breast. But instead of the customary rural backdrop, we see a sky-blue background – the sea – full of boats and people. Olympios depicts the Flight in the context of the contemporary refugee crisis. Many of the figures in the boats have their arms upraised in a ‘V’ formation. This calls to mind a number of interpretations: they may be waving for help; or in greeting; or assuming the ancient orans posture of prayer. But they may also be surrendering to their plight, or being crucified like Our Lord – not on the Tree of Calvary, but on the dangerous waters of the Mediterranean.
In the third painting, ‘Hospitality’, three angels sit at a table. They are being served by two white human silhouettes, and clearly it is Olympios’s take on the Hospitality of Abraham. Six figures, however, face the angels across the table, lined up like some of the Apostles in a Last Supper. In the background seven windows, outlined in vivid green, show that outside all is barren; but the table is covered with fish: red on black, and blue on red. The evocation of the ancient ichthys symbol is vivid: God is generous in the gift of his Son.
In the fourth work, ‘Veroniki’, we see the only clear human face in the whole installation. The title is the Cypriot for ‘Veronica’, but this is a very different sixth Station of the Cross. An abstact human figure holds a piece of cloth, on which is what seems to be a woodcut image of a smart, well-groomed young man. It evokes emotional news pictures of weeping mothers holding up photographs of their missing sons; or of framed smiling pictures at press conferences in which family members plead for their loved one to return home. The background is filled with the flags of many nations, large and small. ‘Missing persons are everywhere’, notes the catalogue.
The fifth piece, ‘Maria’, is perhaps the most challenging of all the pieces, and I was glad to have the artist on hand to explain its symbolism. I now understand that the Virgin Mary appears (in shades of grey-blue and rose) in a form of veil that is traditionally placed over her icons in Cyprus, which covers her eyes but leaves visible her nose, mouth, and chin. I was not aware of this tradition – apparently unique to the island – and intend to find out more. In the background other women are oppositely veiled: we only see their eyes. The paint around two women’s eyes has run, like tears; and other’s eyes seem bloodshot. It is an intriguing and confusing work, and that is no bad thing.
The sixth painting, A‘ Matter of Choice’ is the most vibrant of all, and at first glance has an almost medieval feel to it. The two crowned figures seem like survivors on a medieval rood screen, with one having been found too offensive to be spared the iconoclasts, and the other reprieved. In fact they are Constantine and Helena, and both cling to the grey-brown cross that dominates the canvas. Constantine fades into the background as the historical period dominated by his conversion passes; while Helena steps forward, as if into a new age. The eponymous choice is explicitly rendered in the background, as over and over are repeated in text the three Mediterranean options of the age: lingering in the old Jewish traditions; being baptised into salvation in Christ; or embracing Mohammedanism (the artist’s choice of noun). The choices are emphasised by being occasionally underlined by the colours from Helena’s royal robe. Meanwhile, her choice is clear. Is ours?
The final work in the series, ‘Martin’, harks back to a previous work that Olympios prepared for an exhibition at Utrecht Cathedral in 2014-15; and I did not know until I read the catalogue that St Martin of Tours is also the patron saint of Utrecht. The image is instantly recognisable as Martin giving half of his cloak to a beggar: Martin, his horse, and the beggar are all in a warm shade of brown against a two-tone blue background. But the cloak is a vivid red, as are the scarlet words from Matthew 25 that cover the background. In English and Greek, they are the sayings where Our Lord establishes the Works of Mercy. And yet there is something not quite complete about all this: because the Martin we see here is not the saintly Bishop of Tours – at least not yet. The story of the division of the cloak comes from before Martin’s baptism; and so, at the end of an installation with the theme of ‘reconciliation’ what we see is one of the most famous examples not of Christian compassion, but of the actions of a righteous pagan.
By the time this article is published, the installation will have left the salone of the Anglican Centre after its brief time on display there. Perhaps it will go on tour at a later date: there are venues in the United Kingdom that would surely welcome it; and many people would, no doubt, be glad of an opportunity to engage with these challenging works face-to-face. ND