One example is the Gospel of Nikephoros Phokas, part of the collection of the Monastery of the Great Lavra at Mount Athos, the Holy Mountain, in Greece. It contains superb examples of Byzantine iconographic art, including the
What a rare art it was! It is difficult to imagine how it was possible for the iconographer's hand, however gifted and inspired, to define, in two-dimensional space — on a wall, a ceiling, a piece of wood, a canvas — the indefinable spiritual sphere intersecting that of earth.
But that is exactly what is accomplished in depictions of The Birth of Christ, icons that picture the words of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew describing the miracle that unfolded in the hills of Judaea.
Restoring the Byzantine icon
|The angel and shepherd of the Byzantine Nativity are a far cry of the original icon which, over the centuries, lost much of its pigment. Mouseover the image above, and give it a second, to see it before the restoration.|| |
One can only guess at the beauty of this Byzantine icon when it first adorned a gospel in a Holy Mountain monastery.
Before the scenes of the Byzantine Nativity were divided into different planes, a slow process of restoration began.
Most of the halo and hair of the angel are gone, while part of his right hand has flaked off. And the shepherd's black cloak has whole areas of paint missing.
You can judge the results for yourself by running your mouse over the images at left. I myself was pleased with the resulting colorful, rich image, and I hope you'll agree.
While there's no one right way to address restoring an image, I think the best guide is the image itself. While some features, like the angel's hair, were easily restored—there were plenty of other angels with intact manes—other details may escape us. Looking at other Nativity icons, you can see exactly how the red "The Birth of Christ" label should be written.
The same holds true for the ray of light and the circle at the top of the icon from which it emanates, and the heads of the Magi.
In some cases, you have to let your eyes be the judge: please tell me that you, too, prefer the Virgin Mary's cloak a royal purple.
Overall, there was enough intact information to guide the restoration process, as was the case with the enormous cauldron holding the Babe's bath.
The trellis design that encircles the icon gave me infinite possibilities as I bent its curlicues to form an arch.Assigning scenes to different layers
|Joseph contemplates the mystery unfolding in the cave of the Nativity.|| |
In almost all icons of the Nativity, Joseph dominates the foreground. Most often, he is shown seated, resting his head on his hand, contemplating the mystery that is unfolding before him.
I thought Joseph needed added presence in the composition, and, since Byzantine iconography ignores perspective—indeed, defies it — by depicting holy personages larger than surrounding figures. Joseph, the only figure on the first layer of our fold-out crèche, needed to be enlarged, because in his original size he disappeared among the hilly surroundings.Jesus' First Bath:
some of the iconographic conventions in Orthodox icons of the Nativity owe their origin to the New Testament Apocrypha ("hidden" writings).
In this delightful bath scene, a young handmaiden pours water from a pitcher into a font-shaped bathtub. Salome, Mary's midwife, sits on the ground behind the bathtub, holding the Newborn Child with one hand while testing the temperature of the water with the other.
Thakfully, the original image is well-preserved in this section, and the few chipped and faded spots in this bath scene could be restored in Photoshop.
The bath scene was shifted slightly to the left, from the spot it occupies in the original composition, to allow room for the lone piper in the layer behind.The lone piper:
Amist the great tidings of The Nativity this young shepherd boy seems to only have ears for his tune. The angel's song seems to be falling on deaf ears: perched on his rock, this piper seems unaware of the miracle taking place this Christmas night. Could he be a visual allegory for oblivious mankind, asleep in their beds?
|Magi approach with gifts, and the angel is giving the Good News to a shepherd.|| |
The Wise Men, approaching the Babe on bended knee needed extensive attention. For one thing, the leftmost Magi is only partially shown in the original icon. A left leg later, I think the Magi composition is balanced much better.
The Wise Men headresses — faintly seen in the original icon — were redrawn, using other icons as a guide. The same could be said for their gifts, which, in the original icon, were very faint.
The Magi, too, were enlarged since, in their original size, appeared too small.The Angel and the shepherd:
the angel points heavenward, as if to underscore the tidings of great joy. This angel needed extensive restoration, and his rather-oversize figure serves as a visual counterpoint to Joseph, and underscores the message of "Glory to God in the Highest."Mother and Child, the Star of Bethlehem:
the Star of the East lights up the dark cave and guides our eyes to the focus of the composition, the Child lying in the manger.
Some might see, in the tight bundling of the Christ Child and the shape of his tiny cradle, a vision of His future Passion — Jesus shrouded on his tomb. But such thoughts do not linger in the redemptive promise of the moment.
The Virgin, recumbent on a white cusion, and the star — and the white-and-black circle representing the heavens — is anchored on the arch above.
The ox, the ass stand behind the manger, a visual reminder of Scripture: Isaiah's prophecy: "An ox knows its owner, and an ass its master's manger."
The Angelic Host:
|Salome and a handmaiden give the Newborn Child his first bath.|| |
"And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."
The angels did not need much work, other then the repairing of minor imperfections here, the redrawing of a wing there.The Back:
the Back panel bears the Greek words "H ΓΕΝΝΗΣΙΣ ΤΟΥ ΧΡΥ," iconographic shorthand for "Η ΓΕΝΝΗΣΙΣ ΤΟΥ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΥ," (The Nativity of Christ).
The Back's arched shape and golden color (reminiscent of the gilding or gold leaf that often covers the background of icons) provide a splendid background for the panels of the crèche.The Front:
From the beginning, I wanted to arch the front of the crèche. Bending, clipping and cutting the trellis into an arch was more fun than I can tell you.