Images of devotion

Romanian peasant icons combine folk art with faith.

Jesus and John 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jesus and John 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A remarkable selection of 52 Romanian folk icons from Transylvania now at the Jerusalem Artists House is both a curiosity and a delight. Made by peasants for the homes of peasants in the 19th and early 20th centuries, most of them are painted on the back of small glass panels set in wooden frames that were once nailed to the wooden walls of village homes. Perhaps with an Israeli audience in mind, a number of these icons, all national treasures from the National Museum of Art and the Romanian Peasant Museum in Bucharest, illustrate themes and personalities from the Old Testament. Adam and Eve (and the serpent) and the ascension to heaven of the prophet Elijah in a fiery chariot are seen here in various interpretations. Elijah, it turns out, was the most popular figure among the peasants, partly because he managed to get to heaven without dying, and because he was regarded as the giver of rain. An unusual depiction, of the circumcision of Jesus, from Nicula in the province of Cluj, shows a bearded mohel wielding a knife nearly as large as the infant, as his parents (both with golden halos) look anxiously on. It's a rare visual acknowledgment of the Jewish origin of Jesus. Other icons here deal with the Adoration of the Magi; the Entombment of Christ; archangels; the infants Jesus and John; Mary at the baptism of Jesus; the Last Supper; and Peter and Paul. All are derived from Byzantine Orthodox images but are generally not copies. They are essentially naïve folk paintings that defy anatomy and lack sophisticated draftsmanship, and therein lies their great charm, one that reaches beyond both their religion and their original role as a focus for prayer and reverence. In the Slavic and Byzantine empires, stylized icons painted on wood by professional artists and trained monks were to be found only in churches and the homes of the nobility or the very rich. In the latter half of the 18th century a new, inexpensive yet effective technique, that of painting on glass, swept east from Central Europe. Hundreds of otherwise untrained folk artists found a living in turning out thousands of folk icons that were within the financial reach of villagers across many borders. These works were made with layers of opaque water-based tempera, the pigment sometimes mixed with an adhesive of egg yolk, and painted on the reverse side of standard-size glass in standard-size frames (most of the works in this show are all of similar size and framing). The outlines of the figures, sometimes in black, were painted first. The other colors were filled in afterward, in the reverse order of usual painting. For instance a blush on a face was painted first, before the cheek itself. The tempera dried quickly and the painter could fill in one area after another. The back of the frame was sealed and the painting remained quite safe even when the glass face of the icon was kissed. (Glass painters today sometimes use quick-drying oil paints or industrial enamels.) The compositions of these folk paintings are not very sophisticated either. Many feature dualties, pairs of primary images divided by, say, the serpent-coiled Tree of Knowledge. St. Ilie (Elijah) and his chariot ascend a line of clouds (or smoke) that leads ever upward, like a heavenly escalator. Nevertheless, all these images were readily readable to the faithful as they perfectly illustrated the biblical events. Transylvania is nearly as big as the rest of Romania and each area of it appears to have had its own master folk artist who set its style. I like best the ones from Nicula near Cluj and similar ones from Tara Barsei. Compare these folk solutions with the early ones from Sibiu, in which the saints are copied from classic icons and are much less interesting. An illustrated mini-catalog (in English) accompanies this show. It makes no mention of the fact that Transylvania was, off and on for more than 1,000 years, part of Hungary or Austro-Hungary and run by Hungarian speakers who were not just Roman Catholics, but also Lutherans, Calvinists and Jews. Although Orthodox Romanian speakers have always formed the strong majority in Transylvania, it is only since 1947, when the Treaty of Paris was signed, that Transylvania was finally returned to Romania. However Cluj-Napoca, its main city, is still mainly Hungarian speaking. Conquered by Rome, the Huns and Bulgarians and then by King Stephen of Hungary, the province first gained a form of independence under the Ottoman Sultanate, before being retaken by the Hapsburgs. In 1867 it became a province of Austro-Hungary. Cluj again became known as the Hungarian Koloszvar and also the German Klausenberg. Its Jews helped lead the cultural and intellectual life of the city, were famously loyal to Emperor Franz Josef and fought for him in World War I. The Treaty of Versailles gave the province to the Kingdom of Romania. However the northern section of Transylvania was again returned to Hungary. In 1940, the Hungarians marched back in to take over the lot, but they were forced, often willingly, to back the Nazis. The end of the war saw the end of Hungarian Transylvania. The Roman Catholic Hungarians had been the nobility of Transylvania and while they tolerated Orthodoxy and Judaism, only converts to Catholicism were eligible for social advancement. Few converts were forthcoming. The Romanians stuck to their religion as well as their language. There is no question that the icons in this fascinating and often charming show are anything but truly Romanian. The prime mover of this show was Moshe Kones of the Hebrew University's Center for Jewish Art. The curator is Georgeta Rosu of the Romanian Peasant Museum. It was mounted with the assistance of the Romanian Cultural Center in Tel Aviv. (Jerusalem Artists House, 12 Shmuel Hanagid). Till March 3. ALSO ON view at this venue are a series of skilled acrylics on canvas or paper by American-trained Matthew Doll who settled here six years ago. By his own account an infidel, he uses this term as the title of his show, in an attempt to express his idea that what with all the different warring elements of Jerusalem who believe the city is theirs, the city has become one of unbelievers. Whatever you think of this idea, Doll's work is what counts. All of it is professional and art canny, but there are so many approaches, one waits in vain for the real artist to stand up. Till March 8. DOWN IN the mezzanine gallery, Gavriel Kricheli (b. Israel 1979) a former member of the ZIK group and a teacher of sculpture at the Avni Institute, shows a melange of semi-abstract sculptures in mixed-media and paintings that are a grab-bag of various gestural techniques, mostly combined in the same work. Oy! (Jerusalem Artists House). Till March 8.