Interview with Iconographer Diamantis

Interview with iconographer Diamantis Cassis

(Aug 20,1934 – Dec 13, 2015)

CassisDiamantis Cassis is one of the foremost Byzantine iconographers currently active in the United States. After coming to this country from Galaxidion, Greece, he studied art at Northwestern State University in Louisiana, graduating with honors. In addition to pursuing a career as an exhibition artist in secular and religious art, Cassis was an art teacher in the public schools for twenty-eight years, and is currently artist-in-residence at Kinkaid College Preparatory School in Houston, Texas. Cassis’s work has been exhibited at numerous major museums; his icons adorn Orthodox schools, cathedrals, and churches nationwide, including our own Saints Constantine and Helen. In 2001, he was named an Archon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in recognition of his contributions to the Church. During a recent visit to Monroe, Mr. Cassis sat down for an interview with parish council secretary Chris Michaelides, and shared the following insights on Orthodox iconography.Q: You were trained in the Western artistic tradition, and then turned to Byzantine iconography. What motivated this change of direction?A: I was born in Greece and was educated there through the seventh grade. Then I came here. My parents were very close to the Church, so we always attended services. While I was being educated here as an artist, I looked on iconography as a form of art that the schools did not explain very well. Byzantine art was only kind of a footnote in the History of Art. And as I would attend church I would look at this strange form of art (or what seemed strange compared to Western art) and I was always wondering why it was so different. Over a period of time I started to investigate and study this art of iconography, and I was fascinated that it had a tremendous sophistication and a tremendous spirituality, and that it was not the expression of an individual or of a particular time, but was really the expression of the Church, which does not change. That’s why this form of art is strange to us, because it started out in early Christianity and has remained basically unchanged to the present day. There may be some very, very subtle changes from time to time, but these subtle differences and changes have nothing to do with a changing of the Faith–[Orthodox iconography is] really expressing the same message today as it did in the early Christian centuries. So that fascinated me a great deal. And then of course, being an artist, I decided to try.

Q: What kind of work did you do before turning to Orthodox iconography?

A: Most of the things I would do, whether it was abstract or semi-abstract, had something to do with a religious message, like the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Last Supper. I would do things like this, and they turned out the best of all the things that I did. So finally I attempted to do an icon, and it was kind of crude initially. Then I kept doing more and finally I started devouring everything I could read about iconography.

Q: What models did you follow? Who were your mentors or chief sources of inspiration?

A: About the mid-1960’s, Steve Rodakis [a longtime friend, currently a member of Sts Constantine and Helen Church] had collected a large number of icons from the Orthodox community in Shreveport, and he put together a wonderful icon exhibition in the church hall. And you know his style–everything he does is very elaborate, complete, and very well organized. He worked for six months to put this together. To make a long story short, when he did have the exhibit he wanted me to be a guest host together with a friend of his who taught at Tech [Louisiana Tech University]. I wasn’t as familiar with iconography then as I am now, and I felt kind of unqualified. So he hands me a book and says, “Read this and you’ll be an expert.” And sure enough, it was a small book called Byzantine Sacred Art, by a scholar whose name is Constantine Cavarnos. He is also a theologian and prolific writer. In this book he has a conversation with the greatest iconographer of the twentieth century, Photios Kontaglou, [who] was not only an iconographer but also a theologian and knew a great deal not only about art but also the hymnology of the Church. And he has also written a great many books. In this conversation, I was fascinated to learn the difference between the icon and Western art–and they discussed this quite well. So that was really the biggest step toward my desire to learn iconography. From that time on I was devouring every book that had to do with iconography.

Q: What other texts influenced you?

A: One of [Kontaglou’s] books, which is used by all iconographers, is called Ekfrasis(Expression) of Orthodox Iconography. There are two volumes, the theory and practice of iconography, which he did not actually write himself. He translated old icon manuals which were still existing throughout the Mediterranean area–one was located in Mount Athos–and he actually wrote a modern manual, if you want to call it that, on how to paint icons by using the teachings of the traditions of the Church. The old manuals were hand-written, and at the same time iconographers would actually add notes of their own to these manuals. Many of these notes that were found were really un-Orthodox, so he left these out because a lot of these things were actually influences from the West, [dating back to] the Renaissance, and were actually contrary to the Orthodox tradition of painting icons. This is what happened over a long period of time, during the Renaissance and during the Turkish Occupation from the middle of the fifteenth century through the beginning of the nineteenth century, when Greece became independent. So [Christians in] Greece and many other countries who were under Turkish rule were never allowed to study or to have any kind of education. As a result of that, ignorance set in, and the great sophistication and the great art of iconography was lost in many cases (although not all of it–there were scholars and there were great iconographers who maintained the true expression of the Orthodox Faith in art). As a result of this Western influence, which destroyed the pure icon, many churches even to this day have icons that are not really true icons in the Orthodox sense.

Q: In your synopsis of Byzantine iconography you observe that Western art has evolved “without a common denominator,” so that the individual artist is free to alter rules–meaning also that he claims the authority to do so. An artist with this background might find working within the Orthodox tradition somewhat constraining.

A: Well, being a painter initially, I can understand how a modern artist would feel: he would feel that he was restrained or that the icon lacks creativity, which is not true. The icon has adiscipline: it’s to express the Orthodox Faith, which means that we [iconographers] must be Orthodox. In order to express the Faith we have to know it, as best we can, and express it in the visual form, which has a discipline behind it. We can’t go about painting according to ourthinking, but we must adapt or we must become part of the Church mind. The Church has amind. We must become of that Church mind in order [to produce an] expression of the Faith, which is the Church. Now, having said that, within the discipline of the icon there is room for creativity. But it’s more difficult to be creative within the discipline than it would be for a contemporary painter [who has] the freedom to start with an idea and proceed, and in the middle of the process change his mind and do something different, and end up with something totally different from what he started out with. That will not be acceptable in the Orthodox expression. You must start with an Orthodox process and end with an Orthodox process, rather than starting out with whatever you wish to do, which may or may not be Orthodox. The icon has a purpose, and that is a didactic purpose. In my synopsis I wrote that the purpose of secular art is the expression of the individual and also a reflection of the environment where the individual lives in a particular time. So he expresses the narrow personal experience he has in that environment.Whereas in the icon it is a broader expression, it’s a universal expression that is not for a particular time and not for a particular individual or an individual’s idea. The art of the Church is a classical art that transcends time and space, just like classical music is for all time. And so this classical icon, the art of the icon, also transcends time and space, it’s for all time. It’s for the edification of mankind rather than for the personal feeling of the individual who creates it.

Q: As an Orthodox iconographer, then, how would you describe the creative process that you experience? What is your personal connection with the work that you do?

A: Well, every icon that we do is basically a prototype–like the icon of Christ, for example. There are certain prerequisites that we have to follow, but within those prerequisites I as an artist will try the best I can to make a better composition and perhaps make it more expressive, which requires some creativity. However, having said that, the purpose of the icon is not [primarily] aesthetic; the greater purpose is to help an individual pray to God. It’s just like a beautiful hymn that will inspire us to pray to God. The musical expression would be through the ear, the icon does it through the eye–that’s why we have music as well as incense, the taking of Communion and andideron, and venerating the icons. We use all of our senses in the Church.

Q: Would you say that creating an icon is in itself a form of prayer?

A: It’s like prayer, yes, absolutely so. I would compare a secular painting to entertainment, whereas painting an icon is actually like being in church and praying, or maybe being by yourself and praying, because it’s a prayerful type of work, and we must be aware of that as we do it. There’s a time and a place for everything, and the Church knows that. Whenever we’re in church it’s not time for entertainment, but it’s time for prayer–it’s not time for drinking and dancing. The icon is the inspiration to pray. That’s the purpose of it in the church, so that we can see that and be inspired to pray. So when you do [iconography] you can’t help having that same feeling, and we should as much as possible in order for us to have the proper expression. I would say this, that we all should be aware of prayer at all times, not just the iconographer. A priest who is at the altar doing the Liturgy has a responsibility guided by what he is. I think the icon painter has that same responsibility, but we should all have that responsibility, whether we’re lay people or clergy. People ask me if I go through extra prayers when I paint icons. I would say not really any more than all of us should do, because that’s our purpose as Christians, to be always praying.

Q: This prayerful approach certainly differs from the Western artistic tradition.

A: Well in a way, yes. But in a way, I would say that a person who has strong religious feelings and who paints something that’s religious might perhaps have the same concern about prayer. But the Orthodox icon is not only religious in content, it’s also religious inessence, because it’s the core of the expression of the Faith, and it’s stronger than a [secular] religious painting would be. Because a religious painting could be a novel thing by an individual [whose] Christian expression may be correct or incorrect, whereas the Orthodox Church demands correctness in everything we do. That’s why we’re Orthodox.

Q: Icons sometimes seem strange to non-Orthodox Christians.

A: Well, they do appear strange, you’re right. It is an abstract art. As you look at an icon the whole format–the facial expression, the body posture, the garments are all abstract, they negate reality. For a purpose. This is why, of course, we don’t have statues in the church, because they represent the here and now. You can touch [a statue] and you can walk around it, whereas the icon is two-dimensional and can create a spiritual expression better than a statue. For example, by negating reality we reverse perspective in the icon.

Q: How and why is this reversal achieved? What exactly does this mean?

A: By that I mean that in a normal way of looking at things the human eye sees things greater or larger up front, and they diminish and become smaller and smaller in the distance. We call that vanishing point perspective. The vanishing point is the finite point, the farthest point where the eye can see. Everything diminishes at this finite point. That’s our way of seeing reality as human beings with two eyes. [In the icon] we take that perspective with the vanishing point in the distance and we reverse it. The vanishing point of the icon is in the eye of the viewer, and as we gaze at the icon things become greater in the distance as they recede–the opposite of what we would normally see–symbolizing that God’s world is infinite and that we live in a finite point which is in this world. That’s why we call the icon a window onto eternity.

Q: So this is a very deliberate technique, developed for specific reasons. It does not indicate a lack of artistic skill or ignorance of the laws of perspective.

A: Exactly. By mistake, many historians look at the icon and say that [Byzantine iconographers] did not know perspective, that [artists] learned perspective during the Renaissance, when in Western European countries visual realism became the style. And so, out of ignorance, a lot of Orthodox people who wanted to paint icons painted them realistically, thinking that the Western Europeans had discovered this phenomenon. Whereas it was already known in the East and was used in a different way. In addition to this, when you look at the icon as a figure, it’s exaggerated. The face of the icon is a conceptualization rather than a portrait. The icon is really a portrait of the saint’s soul rather than his outer appearance. We do paint in an abstract way the outer appearance, but not in a visual form like you would find in a photograph or a well done portrait. It’s really an abstract idea. For example, the nose is long to indicate dignity, and it’s as though [the saint has] smelled the incense of the heavens. The eyes are large, showing faith in God, as though he were in the presence of God and were in awe. The mouth is small and the ears are large, showing humility–that he hears more the Word of God and speaks very little (which is actually a lesson that we should learn even in our present day: as we encounter people and we speak with people we should listen for what is good and speak very little). Then the garments have abstract folds that may not necessarily go along with the anatomy of the body.

Q: Is this discrepancy between the body and its garments meant to suggest a bodiless, spiritual nature, a kind of erasure of physical form?

A: We see some type of physical form, but it’s a non-sensual form. [Since] the icon concentrates on prayer, we will not be distracted by something physically beautiful. You’re not going to find a handsome man or a beautiful woman in an icon. It will be more of a spiritual person, whether it’s a man or a woman. The expression of the face is a mode of prayer or as though [the saint has] just seen God and is in awe. He doesn’t smile or laugh or cry, but it is as though he is in the presence of God. So there is nothing human or mundane about the expression of the saint in an icon. It’s a very serious expression, a prayerful expression.

Q: How has your own work evolved since you began your career as an iconographer?

A: Well, I hope that I’m improving! It has been a wonderful spiritual journey, and in a subtle way, without changing [tradition] or innovating, I try to improve my work in order to make it more expressive. It is much the same as a priest or a chanter who tries to live the Faith, and who studies the Scriptures and the Fathers in order to better understand and express that Faith to others in words or music. I try to imitate the same idea in iconography.

January 26, 2003