Staiti’s Museum of Italo-Greek Saints
Mystical Aspromonte: landscapes of the spirit
Giuseppe Bombino, President of the National Park of Aspromonte
Building up the memory of a territory through recovery of the images and humanity that characterise it, means adding value to our own lives and defining that indispensable urge we feel to restore the priceless bond connecting us with history and with our identity. More than once, we have been bewildered by the omissions of official historiography and the distance we ourselves have deliberately created and communicated, as if the silence of men were not the fiercest of weapons against the dignity and identity of peoples and their territories. So, the oblivion, calumny and infamy of some who have betrayed the sanctity and beauty of places and things, still disturb history, faith and life.
Staiti’s Museum of Italo-Greek Saints is the remarkable outcome of a fruitful interactive collaboration between Institutions and Associations. It houses exhibits that express the intensity and extent of the presence of Saints who chose this area as their hermitage, a place from which to lift up their souls and prayers, an abode from which to spread faith and prayer.
The Museum aims at completing a journey which leaves its mark and signs of its passage, capable of leading to an understanding and discovery of written, therefore narrated, testimonies of an experience, at once mystical and carnal, of a human community deserving of attention thanks to its spirituality and devotion. The icons exhibited in this Museum provide fragmentary accounts of an epoch when the encounter with God was based on everything and celebrated in the essence of an uncontaminated, harsh natural environment which became meek and mild in the sacrifice and humility of his Saints.
We need, therefore, to retrieve these values, along with the spirit and spirituality of the place, write a new story of the territory and of Aspromonte. We need to work for beauty and justice, to delve into the deepest recesses of memory, to look, amid icons and portraits, for the route traced by those who went before, to safeguard and nurture our territory so that it may not remain unknown to its own offspring.
A rediscovery of identity
Pino Putortì, Vice-President of the Archigramma association
For some time now we have tried to retrace the footsteps of our past, not prompted by a sense of nostalgic re-evocation, but with a view to re-evoke its values. Far from the snares of facile rhetoric, we have sought to recover, where possible, some ancient “experiences” capable of restoring an identity, our own, left, more often than not, a prey to history and to the distracted indifference of the institutions. It has been our lot, too often, alas, to be brought into contact with men or places whose “names”, devoid of all anthropological and cultural essence, turned out to be merely formal attributes. We have endeavoured, therefore, to recuperate the authentic significance of those names and toponyms, bringing back to light Images of women and men, the Greek Saints of Calabria and Sicily, whose souls were once the source and root of history, now its mere “shades”, visible only in form, not in spirit.
While pursuing our goal, we have had the good fortune to meet people from our institutions sincerely attentive to these matters, like the Presidents of the National Park of Aspromonte, Leo Autelitano and Giuseppe Bombino, the Mayors of the Municipality of Staiti, Vincenzo Ielo and Antonio Domenico Principato, the latter, passionately interested, and, finally and in particular, Filippo Paino, President of the Graecanic Area GAL [non-profit Local Action Association], and Salvatore Orlando, an incurable expert. It has been possible, thanks to their efforts, set up Staiti’s Museum of Italo-Greek Saints, the only one of its kind in Calabria, which houses 22 icons of the great Saints venerated in Calabria, created by a skilled, scrupulously attentive iconographer. The catalogue of these works, thanks to the contribution of the Graecanic Area’s GAL, represents a spiritual “jewel case” in which to store our hearts and our recollections.
“Δοῦλοι ἀχρεῖοί ἐσμεν, ὃ ὠφείλομεν ποιῆσαι πεποιήκαμεν.
“We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do”.
(Luke, 17, 10)
I am convinced that nothing in our lives is due to chance, but that everything that happens to us is, in some way, part of God’s plan for each of his unprofitable servants. Five years ago when friends from Reggio Calabria’s Orthodox parish of St. Paul ‘s and the Cultural Association “Archigramma” asked me to create a series of icons for the Museum of Italo-Greek Saints to be set up in Staiti, I accepted immediately and with the utmost pleasure. This project, the only of its kind, was later to prove a great discovery for me, that of the wonderful world of native sanctity, deeply rooted , throughout the centuries in the magnificent civilisations of a vast area known as Μεγάλη Ἑλλάς [literally Great/Grand Greece], which included, in addition to the southern part of the Apennine peninsula, also the island of Sicily. I, as a Russian relocated here in a land which has known a long period of splendour, prefer to call it by its Greek name, and not refer to it as Magna Grecia, the name it was given by the later Latin tradition. Moreover, it is a known fact that, historically, Russian artists, whether devoted to sacred or secular art, have always felt a strong penchant for the Hellenic world.
It was with this particular sense of veneration that I undertook my task. Having agreed with the parties involved in the project on the 22 saints to be portrayed on wooden panels, I began investigating iconographic reference sources. The lives of half of the saints chosen are linked with Calabria, the other half with Sicily, with the exclusion of San Nicola il Kyrieleison [Saint Nicholas the Kyrieleison -lit. Lord have mercy in Greek], a Greek by birth, who carried out his work in the area between Lucania [known today also as Basilicata] and Apulia [present-day Puglia]. Starting from the preliminary drawings, an iconographer is guided not by his/her imagination or creativity, but refers back to the models created by the great masters of the past and consolidated by the Tradition of the Church.
Fortunately for me, devotion to several of the saints on my list had long since spread beyond Sicily, Calabria and the Eastern Roman Empire itself, to become the object of devotion among the Slavs of Russia and the Balkans.
This is true of Gregory of Agrigento, Leo of Catania, Pancrazio of Taormina, Lucia of Syracuse, Agatha of Catania, Nilo of Rossano, Fantino il Nuovo [the New] and Nicephorus the Hesychast [The Silent]. To depict these saints I availed of a number of illuminated manuscripts, iconography manuals, and ancient frescoes, mosaics and icons. For example, the preparatory sketches for the icons portraying St. Lucia and St. Agatha were based on Basil II’s magnificent tenth-century Menologion [Book of Services] housed by the Vatican Library, while, for those of St. Nilus and St. Pancrazio I referred, respectively, to fourteenth-century frescoes from the churches of the monasteries of Staro Nagorichane in northern Macedonia and the Byzantine church of St. Nicholas Orphanos [the Orphan] in Thessaloniki, in Greece.
In many cases I had to infer iconographic elements directly from the hagiographic sources, that is, from Lives of the Saints. By way of example, the biography of San Fantino il Cavallaro, [Saint Rider the Horseman] describes him as “a tall, very handsome, black-haired youth […] wearing a light wool cloak and sandals”. At times – as in the cases of San Filippo il Cacciaspiriti [St. Philip the Spirithunter], of Saint Elia lo Speleota [Cave-Dweller], San Giovanni il Mietitore [St. John the Reaper] , San Luca il Grammatico [Saint Luke the Grammarian] and others – I took into consideration more recent iconographies, especially when the faithful had been long accustomed to a certain way of portraying them. There were no descriptions of any kind available for a number of the saints. In these cases, I based my work on general data such as the age, status, (bishop, monk, lay person) or specific attributes of the saints in question.
In iconography, it often happens that the Saints are presented accompanied by certain attributes, portrayed in the icons depicting them as objects they hold in their hands, generally considered as the “instruments of their salvation”, the means by which they were glorified by God.
A cross may symbolise martyrdom, like that of Saint Agatha or of Saints Alfio, Filadelfo and Quirino of Lentini; it may also may mean having devoted one’s life to others, as did Saints Elia lo Speleota, the spiritual father of many monks and San Giovanni il Mietitore whose monastery still exists near Bivongi in the province of Reggio; it may also indicated the mission of evangelisation carried out by the saint, like that of San Nicola il Kyrieleison, the great preacher of the Puglia region who may also be included among the martyrs because he was persecuted by members of the Latin clergy.
A parchment scroll usually means knowledge, which is why it is often portrayed alongside prophets, apostles and evangelists. However, other saints may be painted holding scrolls because they were the recipients of visions, revelations or prophesies. The parchments held by San Nilo of Rossano and by San Luca the Grammarian are also represented to recall their work as writers. These saints were, in fact, the authors of a series of manuscripts, including a number of codices which have survived to the present day. When the scrolls are open they usually contain excerpts from the writings of the saints or famous sayings. In the case of Saint Agatha, the phrase written in Greek refers to an episode narrated in her Hagiography, according to which, a magnificent winged youth appeared during her funeral and laid a tablet on her tomb bearing a mysterious inscription in Greek, of which only the first part is included in our icon. The whole quotation reads “Blessed soul, free in the will of God and honoured by Him, liberation of the homeland”. The meaning of the last few words of the angelic message became clear when, on the first anniversary of her martyrdom, Mount Etna erupted but Catania was spared thanks to the intercession of Saint Agatha. The unfurled scroll held by Sant’Elia lo Speleota contains words from the Gospel pronounced by Jesus, “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross…” This phrase appears frequently in the scrolls in the hands of the monks portrayed in ancient icons. The scrolls of the saints should not, however, be confused with the chirograph held by Jesus in some icons and said to contain a list of all the sins of humanity, cancelled thanks to Christ’s work of redemption.
In the icons portraying them, the hierarchs of the Church wield their chief weapon of salvation, namely the Book of Gospels used during the liturgy to proclaim the good news to the faithful. In our icons the Gospel is held by the holy bishops Socrates of Reggio, Gregory of Agrigento, Catania and Leo of Catania and Luca the Grammarian. It should be noted that the book of Gospels was held in such high consideration, that the hand that holds it is often covered by a cloth or by vestments.
The simple pastoral staff held by Saint Nilo of Rossano shaped like the Greek letter tau, symbolises life, the cross and the resurrection of Christ as well as the authority of the igumen (the Greek equivalent of an Abbot). In fact, San Nilo founded numerous monasteries. The holy founders of churches and monasteries were often portrayed holding a little church or monastery in their hands: Sant’Elia il Nuovo [Saint Elia the New] has as his attribute the Katholikón [Main Church] of the monastery he founded near present-day Seminara in the province of Reggio Calabria. Santo Stefano di Nicea [St. Stephen of Nicaea], the first bishop of Reggio Calabria, ordained by the apostle Paul in person, holds up a small church, a symbol of that of the Church of Reggio, which has every right to claim being of ancient apostolic origin.
Several of the saints are depicted with the instruments of the professions. St. Cyprian of Reggio was a priest and monk, but he was also a medical doctor who treated people, free of change; the medical chest depicted aims at recalling this aspect of his life. The twig in the hand of San Filareto l’Ortolano [Saint Filareto the Gardner] indicates the fact that he tended the monastery’s garden. The instruments of the copier and illuminator shown in the icon representing San Luca – inkwell, pen and scraper – recall his preference for a kind of literary activity that was to earn him the nickname of Grammarian. With his sickle San Giovanni il Mietitore [Saint John the Reaper] managed, one day, to reap an entire field of corn threatened by bad weather in a few seconds. With his whip, the tool of his actual trade, san Fantino the Horseman – who was so very poor that he was obliged to work as a groom for a man in Taureana – performed numerous miracles to help others even poorer than he was. Finally, San Leo di Africo scored the trunks of the fragrant mountain pine trees, drew resin from them, which, once dried, he turned into fuel which he sold in order to distribute the proceeds to people in need money: the icon of the saint shows him leaning against a tree with a ball of pitch in one hand and an axe in the other.
From a technical point of view, the icons have been painted onto wooden panels, using natural pigments. Broadly speaking, the procedure is as follows. First of all the wooden panels are prepared: a sheet of fine linen is glued to the side to be painted. The glue used is a natural one derived either from fish or rabbit. To the glue various layers of gilding chalk is brushed directly onto the cloth. Once this has dried, the entire surface is sanded to obtain a perfect support for the gilding and paint. At this point, the preparatory drawing is transferred onto the surface that has been prepared in this way. Before painting, gold leaf is applied to the parts to be gilded. The gold leaf, once applied, is burnished using agate. Then various coats of paint are applied, layer upon layer. The pigments, mostly in the powdered form, are bound using egg yolk, diluted with distilled water and a dash of white, wine vinegar. The soft brushes used to paint are made from squirrel and marten hair. Having completed the painting the icon is allowed rest for twenty-thirty days, so that the various layers of paint will dry out properly. To finish the picture the painted areas are coated with a natural, protective and transparent varnish, usually de-waxed shellac. Clearly, this extremely concise description of the technical procedure aims merely to convey the complexity of the work involved.
The iconographer carries out his work in strict accordance with the requirements of the iconic tradition, developed over the centuries and approved by the Church. In iconographic art everything is symbolic, nothing is random. Even the choice of the colours – red, blue, yellow, white and so on – is not intended, as in the case of secular painting, to produce a realistic image but merely to suggest the transcendent.
Icons convey to those who contemplate them the holiness and glory of the intelligible world, but also portray a transfigured humanity, especially that of saints who, once ordinary beings like ourselves, were elevated by God to holiness, a condition which all Christian are called upon to attain. The Church teaches us that icons are customised paintings resulting from the work of a specific artist (for this they must never be signed), but a kind of other-worldly creation, where the Spirit practically moves the brush in the hand of iconographer. For this reason the role of the personal prayer the iconographer recites daily, as he prepares to work on the icon, is essential. The icon has been admirably defined by theologians as the “visible image of the invisible”. To the aesthetic and artistic value of the icon– a value it undoubtedly possesses, because every sacred image should be beautiful– another is added, that of the spiritual dimension.
This museum’s collection of Italo-Greek saints is here to stay, not only in years to come, but forever. The guarantee is provided by the age-old method applied to their creation; a technique that has been put to the test by a plethora of masters of iconography in the past. This way, future generations of Calabrian Greeks will be able to keep alive the memory of their saintly Fathers, the protagonists of the glorious past of this great land. This is what I hope, while praising and glorifying the Lord Jesus Christ, the only true architect and promoter of our humble works.
Sergej Tikhonov, Author of the icons.
For the constitution of the museum thanks go to: the Aspromonte National Park, in collaboration with the Municipal Administration of Staiti, which was adamant in its desire to create these wonderful works, entrusting the task to the “Archigramma” Cultural Association; to the iconographer M° Sergei Tikhonov author of the works; to the Grecanica Area GAL, which funded the preparation and edition of this publication; to Prof. Eligio Daniele Castrizio and those who assisted in carrying out the historical research required and in drawing up the biographies of the craftsmen responsible for the design and layout of the museum (display and lighting).