From Limassol’s harbor in Cyprus, we wound our way along narrow streets bearing names such as Sokratous, for the ancient Greek philosopher. In the heat of early afternoon, the city was largely empty; crossing through deserted neighborhoods, we trailed behind the form of a swaying skirt below a parasol, passing only a skinny, dark-skinned boy selling watermelons on a corner.
David stopped abruptly at a storefront and we followed him into a sun-filled studio and the company of saints. He exchanged greetings in Greek with Myrianthi Constantinidou, making the motions of introducing my husband Tom and me. The petite brunette welcomed us with a wide smile, pulling a chair over for me to sit next to her at her workspace.
She faced her easel, on which sat a large canvas depicting the image of a haloed and bearded man against a rich gold background. To Myrianthi’s left was a table spilling over with paints and brushes, and propped up around her on other easels and the floor were other works-in-progress, in various stages of completion.
With David translating, I asked the acclaimed icon painter about her process.
“Inside of me I feel something that pushes me,” she responded. “I might start an icon with one idea and something happens and that says ‘no, I will do a Virgin Mary instead.’
She said the way she feels on a particular day will influence her painting. Some days she comes into her studio and looks at what she had done the day before and says ‘What?!’ and starts over. She can’t predict how long a piece will take. In the morning she can think she will be done in an hour and she is still working at 7:30 p.m. If she has been commissioned to do a piece and is under a deadline, she gets nervous and anxious and it affects the flow of her work.
I nodded my head vigorously—I often had similar such experiences in approaching my writing. David conveyed my empathy to Myrianthi , who gave me a radiant smile; despite the language barrier, a connection had been made.
She explained there are two schools of icon-painting, the Cretan and Macedonian. She is trained in the style of the Macedonian school of northern Greece. She said the Cretan school is more stern and austere in the expressions depicted and uses dark colors that she said “almost makes you afraid to look at them.”
Myrianthi said that there are strict conventions and technical requirements—icon painters are part of a tradition and you can’t just do whatever you wish. There are manuscripts and books that dictate the approach. When asked for examples, she reeled off a litany: the Virgin Mary is never in white; St. Peter is to be shown with a key, symbolizing heaven; martyrs are depicted holding a cross; if the figure of a bishop is shown, his robes will always have a design of crosses embellished on it. Different clothing symbolizes different social stations—royalty or commoners.
Nonetheless, as an artist, Myrianthi puts her own stamp on her work—people who see her pieces can immediately tell they were created by her. She begins with the background color. Then she does a prototype sketch and paints the gold leaf, then she does the first layer of colors, then she does the details—eyes, nose, mouth, hair. Then she does two layers of varnish. She buys the gold leaf in increments of 20 books, each of which have 25 pages about the size of a playing card and cost 1,200 euro.
On the day I visited her sunny storefront studio, Myrianthi’s 10-year-old daughter, Thelma, helped her mother by filling in areas of a painting with color.
When asked if she too wants to become an icon painter, Thelma said “It is important work and it would be a great shame if the tradition died in Cyprus…but I want to be a doctor.”
There is a Constantinidis family tradition in iconography, which began in 1961 when Myrianthi’s father George began studying the art in Athens. He later was a pupil of Father Kallinikos of Stavrovouni Monastery, an icon in the realm of this religious art form who died in 2011.
Her father did wall painting on Chrysorroyiatissa Monastery for ten years. Myrianthi helped him from an early age and saw from close up the processes and secrets involved in hand-painting icons and frescos. Her brother does wall painting at churches—she believes they both inherited their passion from their father.
Through David’s continued translation, Myrianthi said that in 1999 her father got sick and had a liver transplant. There was an order at George’s workshop at that time from the abbot of Chrysorroyiatissa Monastery for an icon painting of the Virgin Mary. George was so sick he couldn’t do it and he encouraged Myrianthi to create the painting. When it was completed, George told her that because it was her work, she should deliver the painting. It was the first piece she had done and she was anxious and insecure when she brought it to show the abbot. He told her that it was so good he wanted her to make a workshop in the monastery. Two years later her father died and ever since she has felt his presence, motivating her.
I ventured to speak, and share that I too felt that my vocation had been influenced by a parent, now terminally ill. To my embarrassment, my voice broke and my eyes welled up. I tried to apologize but it came out as a small moan. I was mortified and felt my face flush; I could only stare at the floor. Then David, an American ex-pat who chose Cyprus as his home 30 years ago, said “In this country, people are comfortable with feelings.” I dared to look up at Myrianthi and saw the emotion in her face. Despite no words having been uttered, she too had been moved, and we smiled at each other through tears.
For many years, I had kept my feelings under closely-guarded lock and key, like museum pieces. Shut off from the light of day, my emotions had become stiff and brittle, contained within a shellacked veneer. Today, in my own studio, an original Myrianthi Constantinidis representation of the Virgin and child sits near me. Among the pieces I have collected in my travels, the icon is special, a reminder that there is something of the divine in the spectrum of human emotions, and the grace that calls them forth.
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