Saturday, August 27, 2011


In the secluded Byzantine monastery of Philanthropinon, which is perched mutely on a small hill on the island of Lake Pamvotis in Ioannina, counting both the vicissitudes of time and nature, there is a most singular iconographic depiction. For once one enters the exonarthex and casts their eyes to the left, seven great sages of Ancient Greece, rendered in exquisite Byzantine style, return that gaze. Unlike the usual Byzantine depiction of saints as serene mediators between earth and heaven, these sages appear quite animated, their hands lifted in disputation. Some, anachronistically, sport turbans and they lack the haloes that would otherwise have them be confused with those who have gained heavenly favour.
Those depicted are also an eclectic mix and the inscriptions to the side of each figure are instructive, referring to “the Greek Aristotle,” “the Greek Plutarch,” “the Greek Solon,” and also “the Greek Thucydides the philosopher,” as well as Plato, Apollonius and the obscure Cheilon. The purpose behind the unlikely depiction of these non-Christian historical personalities in a Christian church of 1342, is to symbolize the synthesis and continuity between ancient Greek and Christian thought. The iconographic depiction is thus endearing in its naivety, especially given that it displays misconceptions as to those who it depicts – Thucydides and Plutarch were historians, not philosophers, and their contribution to Christian doctrine can be considered negligible indeed. Nonetheless, the honoured position afforded arbitrarily to sundry Greeks of ancient times represents a powerful message, of unbroken lineage and the continuous permeation of Greek thought through the belief systems of the Greek-speaking people, as well as tangible evidence of the evolving respect and love within scholarship for the thinkers of the past. The use of a church in order to convey such an idea is thus unique and historically significant.
Or at least it was up until the present. For the Archbishop of Ochrid of the schismatic so-called “Macedonian Orthodox Church,” Stefan has recently permitted the depiction of no less a personage than Alexander the Great on the dome of the church of St Nikola in Štip, which also sports a lovely bronze statue of a muscular Alexander in its city square. The iconographic depiction on the dome of the church, is of a beardless youth, much resembling traditional depictions of the deacon and proto-martyr Stephanos, flanked by the star of Vergina, a pagan symbol of the Macedonian royal family, and along with an identifying title: “Alexander Makedonski.”
In contrast with the ancient Greek sages of Philanthropinon monastery, who inhabit the exonarthex or lobby, not canonically considered part of the church proper, Alexander Makedonski is festooned upon a dome. In the Orthodox tradition, the dome represents heaven and it is usual for a representation of the Pantokrator – Christ as ruler of all to be painted upon it, or at least of other saints significant to the faith. For an “Orthodox” archbishop to authorise the painting of a pre-Christian historical personage, replete with pagan symbols, in one of the most important areas of a church would therefore be most disquieting and concerning for Orthodox believers and require immediate justification.
As compared with the sages of Philanthropinon, and as far as can be discerned, Alexander the Great did not produce any original thoughts that permeated or influenced Christianity in any way. He was a king who indulged in savage massacres, purges of his friends and embarked upon a lengthy war of world domination that inflicted death and misery upon the nations he conquered. Though some may admire his precocity, vision and military prowess, it is difficult to see how his personality, attributes or deeds can justifiably afford him a place of honour in an ‘Orthodox’ church. So why is he there?
Perhaps the answer may lie in the attempts of sundry Greek historians over the years, to argue that in spreading the Greek culture and language throughout the Middle East, initiating a process whereby Greek became the lingua franca of the whole region, Alexander inadvertently facilitated the preaching of the Gospel and the spread of Christianity and that somehow, this was divinely predetermined. Accordingly, it could well be that the Archbishop of Ochrid, in authorising Alexander’s depiction upon the dome is merely sending a powerful message about the central role that the Greek language has played in the spread and development of Christianity, as well as showing who is responsible for making the Greek language so intrinsic to that religion. If this truly is the case, he should be thanked for his sensitivity and admiration for the Greek language but also instructed by his brethren that such depictions are canonically inappropriate to the church he purports to lead and are in fact, unacceptable.
One could be forgiven for thinking however, that linking Alexander to Christianity by whatever untenable means is not the Archbishop of Ochrid’s intention. Rather, it would appear that this is just one more in a series of populist, futile and ultimately sad endeavours to appropriate historical figures for nationalistic means. Such an effort can therefore be linked to the flurry of statue building within FYROM, the premise behind which could be a belief that if enough statues of Alexander or Philip can be built, then miraculously, the whole world will come to believe that these personages have nothing to do with Greece but are instead, ethnically and historically linked to the embattled little republic that is struggling to maintain ethnic and social cohesion.
While no Balkan state is immune to gross populist displays and attempts at appropriation, attempts to link these tendencies to religion are ultimately harmful and quite possibly, sacreligious. Christianity, the religion espoused by the Archbishop of Ochrid, is a conviction about the nature of Jesus. It is certainly not a conviction about the nationality of Alexander the Great. Sadly, in FYROM, all elements of society seem bent upon a herculean effort to establish the historically unestablishable. The Archbishop’s distasteful act which could understandably offend the sensitivities of the Orthodox faithful throughout the world, may further imperil the reputation of a church that is not recognised by any canonical Orthodox Church, as one whose priorities may lie in historic revisionism rather than the Gospel.
Such a concerning trend appears to lie deep within FYROMian society. A visit to any suburban cemetery in Melbourne will reveal a startling contrast – while the majority of the graves of the Orthodox deceased depict such Christian symbols as a cross, an icon or perhaps a statue of Panagia, there are a multitude of graves of deceased whose origins or cultural affiliation lie in FYROM, who, along with or to the exclusion of such Christian symbols, sport the star of Vergina, or occasionally, a map of ‘United Macedonia,’ showing the Bulgarian, Greek and FYROMIAN parts forming a constituent whole. While there is no accounting for taste, it appears disturbing that one would choose such a sombre and isolated place to make a final, futile political statement. Nonetheless, one could conclude from such displays, how overwhelmingly deep the desire to assert one’s conviction about their assumed identity lies, and how it takes precedence over almost everything else.
Who knows? Should such nationalistic edifices survive the ravages of time, perhaps archaeologists of the future will posit that in FYROM, circa 2011 a highly syncretic and synthesized religion was developed combining the worship of Jesus and Alexander the Great. In the meantime, a needless conflict over long gone historical personalities of dubious moral fibre continues incessantly. What speaks volumes, is that such a conflict is concerned with the affiliation of personages that caused loss of life and human suffering in the interests of power, rather than the claiming as one’s own, of those, like the sages of the exonarthex of Philanthropinon, who moved others with their thoughts alone, and inspired them to achieve excellence, for the benefit of the whole of humanity.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 27 August 2011