Art for the Sake of the Soul

The beloved and miraculous 13th C. Our lady of Vladimir.

HOUSTON, TX – I taught at a Baptist university for 16 years. Before we built our own venue, our graduation ceremonies were conducted in Houston megachurches so large that their fellowship areas included restaurants and bowling alleys. I remember my first ceremony. The stage had a podium and chairs for guests and speakers, jumbotrons suspended on either side flashed the words to hymns, and a pleated white curtain hung behind. One of my colleagues turned to me and asked when the movie was going to begin. I laughed guiltily, having been thinking the same thing. This was the worship space, but the only resemblance to a church was a painting hanging in a corridor that I had noticed during our procession – a man with a beard surrounded by children. I assume that was Jesus.

As Orthodox Christians, we come from a long and revered faith tradition that looks, tastes, smells, sounds and feels radically different from this. I know that our churches may appear extravagant to the uninitiated. I also know that my worship experience is more profound for me because of these differences. The incense, carrying my prayers to heaven, carries me back to my childhood as well, remembering my mother cense the house and me on those other holy days that weren’t red letter on the calendar. That Orthodox Christians all over the world are praying the same prayer, chanting the same hymn as I am connects me to centuries of believers. The icons, which reflect the strength and power of a faith that demands much but gives even more, hold me in their gaze.

In and of themselves, the icons are not conventionally beautiful. But they are mesmerizing. It’s the eyes. They look back to the past and forward through eternity, yet they are ever-present in our today. How does one capture that timelessness, that ubiquity? I asked Dan Cassis, an iconographer and parishioner at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Houston. Dan is one of America’s principal Byzantine iconographers and my friend. He is also one of the most gentle, spiritual people I know. So it was a chicken-egg question: did your spirituality lead you to iconography or did being an iconographer make you more spiritual? Dan’s answer: “I always had faith in God; being an iconographer helps me to think about who I am and what I am. It makes me aware, helps me as a person. It is easier to think about God because that’s what I do every day. Consciously or subconsciously, I’m always aware of God’s presence in all things at all times.”

Diamantis “Dan” Cassis was born in Galaxidi, a picturesque fishing village just beyond Delphi. He remembers drawing when he was three, though his mother said he did it earlier. “It felt like a natural inclination, not an ambition.” He majored in art at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, LA, and started his career painting contemporary secular subjects, but his best pieces were religious. Curious about iconography as an artist but with no formal training, Dan researched the work of Fotis Kontoglou, whom he praises as the best icon painter of the 20th century. Kontoglou translated Ekfrassis of the Orthodox Iconography, which explains the theory and practice of iconography, into modern Greek. Dan needed a Greek-English dictionary to translate the technical terms that explained how to mix paints and make varnish. For example, though acrylic paint is the modern medium for icons, the original medium is egg tempera: egg yolk mixed with water, vinegar and ground colors. But the theology was clear. Every event in the Bible should be depicted, and the artist must study scripture.

The general public may not make distinctions between secular painting and iconography, but Dan definitely does. The subject of secular painting is whatever the artist chooses; it expresses what he feels in the context of his environment at a particular time and place. It can be mimetic or rebellious, familiar or disruptive, da Vinci or Picasso. And often, it is art for art’s sake. Iconography, on the other hand, is not the expression of the individual. It is the expression of scripture and the Orthodox faith. Thus, it is timeless, recognizable, stable, universal. This is didactic art. Every impulse and technique that goes into the creation of an icon is an inspired expression of faith, not the artist’s ego. No need for experimentation or rebellion here. It’s been 2000 years.

All of the icons in my family, hand-tooled patina copper, have been created by Dan. Often, his work is commissioned by a church. He recently completed The Mystical Supper for the iconostasis of the Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church in Austin, TX, a project that took eight months. Dan works alone, his only companions the saints. Humbled and grateful that individuals and communities trust a critical part of their spiritual journeys to him, he hopes that his work does some good. And yet he always questions whether or not he is good enough, whether or not he is doing this well enough. There is no doubt in my heart or in my head that he is.