HISTORY AND SPIRITUAL TRADITION
Art Part 2: Icon Painting
The earliest portable icons in Albania come from the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries. The Virgin Hodegetria of Boria (Korytsa) and the Virgin of Blasti, in a cave at the Great Prespa Lake, are considered to be among the loveliest creations of Byzantine art. The works which have survived in this region are deeply influenced by the artistic idiom of the Macedonian, and still more the Palaiologian dynasty (midthirteenth to late fourteenth century), an idiom that flourished in Constantinople and Thessalonike. Of particularly striking beauty is the figure of the archangel Michael in the fourteenth-century Boria icon.
Impressive specimens of Byzantine wall-painting have survived in remote
locations such as the caves at Vlastojne, Letmi, and Kaljmet (twelfth
century). Important works were produced in the thirteenth and fourteenth
centuries, among which are the wall-paintings in the monasteries at
Apollonia and Rubik (southeast of Skodra), and in the churches of Vau i
Dejes and Berat Castle. The style of painting
shows local and Byzantine, and also Western, influence. A leaning towards
classical Greek models is more obvious in the late thirteenth or early
fourteenth-century frescoes in the refectory of the Apollonia monastery,
remarkable for their high level of artistic achievement (for example, the
Prayer in Gethsemane). Superb wall-paintings by an unknown artist of the fourteenth century
(1345-1369) are preserved on the exterior and in the interior of the
church on the lake island of
Maligrad at Great Prespa.
Exploiting all the previous traditions in the grand manner, Onouphrios Neokastrites, of Elbasan, showed himself the greatest Albanian painter of the sixteenth century. There survive of his work the iconostasis paintings in the churches of the Evangelistria and of Hagios Demetrios in Berat Castle, and the wall-paintings in Hagios Nicholaos church at Shelcan, and in the church of the Hagioi Theodoroi at Berat. This great artist was at home in the Byzantine tradition, but he also assimilated creative achievements in the Western art of his day. Onouphrios' artistic spirit was to give rise to a school of Albanian icon-painting which we will call the "School of Berat".
Artistic activity continued during the seventeenth century. Many churches were adorned with portable icons and wall-paintings: in the Berat region, the villages of the Mouzakia, Moschopolis, Vithykouki, Lubonia, Postaina, Radovo, and the Litzouria. In 1622 Onouphrios Kyprotes did paintings for the church of Panagia at Vlachogoranzi, in a calm, balanced style that reveals an artist of talent without touching us quite as strongly as his namesake. The names of a number of church painters are known to us through wall-paintings with inscriptions in Greek: they include Michael Linotopi and his comrade Nicholas, at the church of the Prophetes Helias in Stegopolis (1653); Michael and Constantine Gramozis; and Michael Zerma.
After the School of Berat of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, we can also speak of a "Korytsa School", a group of icon-painters working in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. In the work of the mid-eighteenth century Korytsa artists Constantine and Athanasios Zografos there is a marked tendency towards the baroque. The portraits have more plasticity, and national features abound. In the surviving churches of Moschopolis there is wealth of post-Byzantine wallpainting, striking in its expressiveness. In particular there are no less than two thousand figures, in a variety of compositions, on the walls of Hagios Nikolaos' church, "historiated" by David Selenitsa in 1726.
In the early nineteenth century John Cetiri and his nephew Nicholas
Çetiri were the painters of the
church of Hagios Georgios at Struma.
Nicholas painted the church of Hagios Nikolaos at Krutja in
1811; John and his son Naoum painted the church of
Hagios Nikolaos at Toshkëzi in
1813; and John and Nicholas painted the church of
Hagios Theodoros at Kadipashaj
in 1801. Methodical research would perhaps reveal a third current in
icon-painting, a "Mouzakia School".
The Orthodox church of Albania is showing a lively interest in the study, recording, and restoration of surviving Orthodox monuments. Very many churches and monasteries, often in lonely mountain regions, with a wealth of wall-paintings threatened by time and adverse weather conditions, are waiting for people to study them and restore them. Where it has not been looted by invaders at one time or another, this valuable legacy of Orthodox art in the western borderlands of Byzantium (and later of the Ottoman Empire), is still cultural riches for Albania, and in a more general sense the monuments are important works of Balkan and European creativity in art.
George A. Christopoulos, THE SPLENDOUR OF ORTHODOXY. 2000 Years – History • Monuments • Art , Vol. II - Patriarchates and Autocephalous Churches - , Ekdotike Athenon, Athens, 2000.