By Susannah Leighton and Marlene Saile for Atelier Omiros & La Galleria
Have you ever seen God?
That probably sounds like an odd question, but theophany (when God, or a god, appears to a person) looms large in our collective human experience. From the burning bush to the escapades of Zeus, from the visions of the holy mystics to the serene smile of the Buddha and the modern proliferation of comic book heroes, we humans want to see and know more of the Divine. We want to believe there is more to reality than what our five senses can offer, so we tell and re-tell the stories of when we saw God.
One of the most famous accounts of the otherworldly comes from the Synoptic Gospels: The Transfiguration of Jesus. Many of the world’s great artists focused on portraying this most electrifying of mountain-top experiences, yet among Fra Angelico, Bellini, Botticelli and others, the Vatican’s masterpiece by Raphael stands alone.
It is unusual for depicting tiered Biblical scenes in the same painting, the transfiguration of Christ in the upper section, and the Apostles helping a boy suffering from demonic possession in the lower section.
Critics over the years have struggled to reconcile the two halves of the painting, with some of them finding it too disjointed or assuming that Raphael’s choice of subject matter was somehow random. According to Scripture though Raphael is spot-on accurate in his portrayal.
Jesus goes up the mountain with Peter, James, John to
pray. As his three disciples are in a slumber, they awaken to a transformed Jesus, whom they barely recognize, along with Moses and Elijah, who appear alongside him. Those three glowing figures discuss the Plan; how the impending atonement on the cross will unfold and a “bright cloud” from heaven envelops the whole scene, as the three disciples hear a voice say, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
On that note, heaven recedes and all returns to normal. Jesus leads the shaken disciples back down the mountain, only to encounter the failure of the rest of the group. Emotions run high among those left behind at the bottom of the painting. The big group of disciples on the left, despite having some success a few days earlier when Jesus sent them out two by two to heal and preach, are now frustrated and confused, having tried unsuccessfully to cure a boy of demon-possession. The boy’s father turns to Jesus to heal him, “if He can.” Jesus replies, “all things are possible for him who believes!” And humbled, the man says, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”
Raphael reveals Jesus transfigured, with his face shining like the sun and his clothes dazzling white. The entire upper portion of
the painting glows with this glorious light from heaven, which spills over and splashes down onto the all-too-earthly scene unfolding at the base of Mount Tabor
The composition for this roiling conglomerate of more than a dozen figures surely arose in response to Michelangelo’s achievement with the Sistine ceiling frescoes, completed just a few years before. Indeed, the famous Sistine sibyls echo in the statuesque female who occupies the entire lower center, anchoring the whole composition with her pointed gestures and genuflecting form.
Raphael forges ahead with an entirely new emphasis on expressiveness, creating a striking complexity of form and light. The confounded disciples, the gesticulating crowd, the fatigued and apprehensive father who holds his afflicted boy—all coordinatinto a heightened drama that was new to Biblical narrative in the High Renaissance. The Transfiguration became the world’s most famous painting, capturing the imagination and scholarly devotion of artists and critics alike for centuries. Eventually it fell out of favor, and even the movements that replaced the Baroque gave way to modernism and the abstract tastes of the 20th century. No one, it would seem, painted the classical stories of theophany anymore.
Then along comes Omiros. Like Raphael (who apprenticed at 8 years of age) and other titans, the sheer force of Omiros’ creative intelligence surfaced early. Despite being permanently blinded in his right eye in an accident at three years old, the young boy would draw and paint unceasingly as he learned to process the world around him in a new and unique pictorial language.
His early abstracts done in Paris in the 1950’s, alongside other significant contributors to contemporary art such as Yves Klein, Lucio Fontana and Christo during his Minimalist years, were sought after by collectors and important dealers alike. Omiros eventually distanced himself from the Parisian art scene, preferring to relate directly with patrons and private collectors. Fiercely private, he declined to promote himself or his work, yet continued to create prolifically on a grand scale pursuing pure Abstraction of space into which, by mid 70s, he began to drop and fold figurative forms. This new passage became his refractory pictorial language in art. His own way to speak in color, form and abstraction, his own Figural Abstraction at the juncture and conjuncture of both.
In 1979, while simultaneously working on several themes, he began working on major murals for Greek Orthodox churches eager to communicate the life of Christ and the saints, as venerated in the long-standing tradition of Byzantine art and icon-making. Steeped in the images and altarpieces of the Renaissance and fluent in the pictorial symbolism of the Church, he hurled himself into making complex, richly expressive paintings. For the next twenty-seven years he painted “The Byzantine.” Alive with brilliant color and dynamic interaction, these compositions weave together a passion for the holy stories with a deep reverence for his medium. And now, twenty-four of these special works can be seen in an ongoing exhibition at the Atelier Omiros in Bedford, NY, less than an hour from New York City for viewing and purchase, with more exclusive exhibits on the way.
Several of these transcendent paintings currently on view compare strikingly with Raphael’s masterpiece. Omiros himself forges ahead with an entirely new emphasis on expressiveness, creating a striking complexity of abstraction and figuration in form, color, and light as can be seen here in Paradise, The Martyrs and The Last Judgement.
In this dramatic composition with tiered Biblical scenes in the same painting, Omiros masterfully depicts both the supernatural and the natural in one image as Raphael did in Transfiguration, separated by the River of Life. Throughout the lower half of the painting, he effectively storyboards the entire trajectory of the creation, temptation, fall, expulsion, and ultimately the restoration of Adam and Eve. Just as a Cubist would seek to compress every facet of a subject into two dimensions, so Omiros distills every stage of the human narrative into one canvas, proving himself not only a master storyteller but one with a vision outside time itself.
Centered within these vignettes of Adam and Eve, we see a transparent oval containing Jesus and his earthly ministry of healing, reconciliation and atonement. The oval symbolizes the perfection of the egg, sustaining all that is necessary for life, or spiritual life. Because of what the incarnate Jesus did to heal the rift between humanity and God, Adam and Eve along with all their descendants have been restored to the full presence of Christ, seated in glory among the saints and angels.
The striking white of Christ’s robe here sets him apart from all the rest. With just a few strokes of the brush Omiros distills what Mark says of the transfigured Christ: “His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them.”
Similarly, in The Martyrs, Omiros again shows us a composition with tiered Biblical scenes in the same painting with the glorified Christ on his throne, arrayed in a white so dazzling and pure that we recall the Transfiguration as well as the visions of the Son of Man recorded in both Testaments. Omiros, endlessly inventive, fashioned what he called a “roto-brush” by attaching a paint brush to an electric drill. This may be how he achieves the rays of paint that emanate outward and upward from the Throne itself. These directional flecks of paint enhance many of his
Byzantine works, adding to their centrifugal energy which radiates from Christ, the spiritual anchor of these intricate compositions.
Vibrant teal blue pools at the feet of the Lord and seeps downward, enveloping most of the “cloud of witnesses” and extending even to the utter edge of the canvas. This heavenly hue embraces, or glances off, each figure, even those who are committing violence. Nothing escapes the notice of this attentive Christ, whose gaze bends down in concern for those who love him, as well as for those who do not yet.
The arms of Jesus extend openly, embracing the mass of humanity below. Christ’s symmetrical, balanced figure conveys his Lordship. He seems to gesture to the archangels, having them refrain from intervening in the scene below, as they hold their powerful spears at ease. Their enormous figures take up much of the upper quadrants, with their vast wings framing the composition even as they flank the throne of the Most High.
The martyrs themselves form a coherent mass, connected by gesture and gaze. Here we see tremendous unity among those who suffer in solidarity for their beliefs. Upon closer examination of the crowd of souls, each reacts differently to the suffering experienced in the front row. Some are perturbed, especially the face in the bottom right corner, and many brows draw together in sorrow and apprehension. To the right we see an arched doorway, through which a figure with his back to us passes away from this temporal life and enters the presence of God.
As in Raphael’s masterpiece, gestures and upturned faces connect the two halves of the picture. Goethe wrote persuasively of the integrated nature of Raphael’s Transfiguration, and his words also apply to the compositional choices by Omiros. As Goethe asserted, “The two are one: below suffering, need, above, effective power, succor. Each bearing on the other, both interacting with one another.”
Comparably, in The Last Judgment, Omiros again masters a composition with tiered Biblical scenes in the same painting with its churning mass of figures and layers of action that immediately brings to mind The Last Judgment by Michelangelo. Omiros also alludes to Tintoretto, El Greco and others in his sweeping declaration of our ultimate fate.
Here Omiros depicts God the Father in the upper tier of highest heaven, with God the Son just below, united in their last judgment of all humanity. Next to the Father we see a trio of saints, their golden crowns aglow, echoing just a hint of the conflagration below. In line with tradition, Omiros shows Christ flanked by the Virgin Mary and St John holding open the Book of Life. Saints and angels surround them, as Jesus inclines his gaze to the right, toward the saved souls who worship him.
This dynamic scene with its churning mass of figures and layers of action immediately brings to mind The Last Judgment
by Michelangelo, who followed up Raphael’s Transfiguration with a further stride into Mannerism and the expressiveness of the Baroque. Omiros also alludes to Tintoretto, El Greco and others in his sweeping declaration of our ultimate fate.
Here Omiros depicts God the Father in the upper tier of highest heaven, with God the Son just below, united in their last judgment of all humanity.
Next to the Father we see a trio of saints, their golden crowns aglow, echoing just a hint of the conflagration below. In line with tradition, Omiros shows Christ flanked by the Virgin Mary and St John holding open the Book of Life. Saints and angels surround them, as Jesus inclines his gaze to the right, toward the saved souls who worship him.
Michael the archangel stands just at the feet of Christ, holding the scales of judgment and conversing with the horned figure of Satan.
Presumably they discuss the fate of the soul who droops there within the devil’s grasp. His deflated posture reminds me of the harrowing shape of the flayed skin in Michelangelo’s version. This poor soul may actually be a priest, considering that he wears a prominent cross as a necklace.
Battalions of angels in brilliant peacock blue, symbolizing the purity of the ranks of heaven, advance toward the bottom edge of the picture. They hold the line against the damned souls, reinforcing it with their imposing javelins. Flaming orange and red consume the lower edge of the canvas, flickering against the nude bodies of those who have been consigned to hell. The reddish raw silk of the canvas shows through not only at the edges but throughout the image, unifying the intricate composition with an intensity that highlights the luminous, serene figure of Christ at the center of all.
When viewing Raphael and Omiros side by side, the similarities are more striking than the differences. Raphael strove for perfection; he would never have revealed his hand at work by leaving a brushstroke visible. Omiros on the other hand, wants us to experience the action right along with him. He chose to set aside natural observation for an enhanced spiritual vision. So, while Raphael and Omiros seem so different and even diametrically opposed in sensibility, each artist was groundbreaking and breathtaking in his own right.
These important Byzantine paintings find an elegant, peaceful setting at the Atelier Omiros, nestled in a quaint 200-year-old farm house on a one-way side street, within the picturesque historical district of Bedford Village. Throughout the permanent exhibit of the Byzantine, in addition to the above, we also see powerful, sometimes even affectionate depictions of Mary Theotokos, the mother of Jesus, the Holy Family and other Byzantine iconography.
These masters inspire the rest of us with their versions of theophany, both as the stories have been told for millennia, and as they individually encounter the Divine on their own terms. The term sprezzatura, coined by Raphael’s famous friend Baldassare Castiglione, describes a kind of nonchalance that conceals effort or artistry, so that whatever one does or says seems uncontrived. Both Omiros and Raphael make it look easy! We want to believe there is more to reality than what our five senses can offer, so we look and see the Divine in Raphael and Omiros’ masterpieces.
Having just expanded to include two large exhibition spaces downstairs as well as an additional gallery upstairs with La Galleria, the Atelier will soon open a new selection titled “A Whole World,” consisting of Omiros other periods including works from his Fashion series, which opens this summer, emphasizes the beautiful “grace” of the female; just as Mary provides the gateway to Jesus, so she also becomes the gateway to humanity. Omiros, as in all his works, posits here the incredible juxtaposition of theme, thought, philosophy, spirituality and existence.
Omiros revels joyfully in the sheer tactile nature of his paint hitting the surface, all while imparting the deepest and most sacred spiritual truths. Here at Atelier Omiros, we get to experience Expressionism at its most emphatic and most significant.
The Atelier will also present some of Omiros’ extensive work in other media, including drawings and ceramic tiles. And just up the street at the newly renovated Bedford Playhouse/Clive Davis Performing Arts Center, an exciting selection of Abstracts by Omiros will be on view beginning in June. With the advent of the Playhouse and the Atelier, along with many wonderful restaurants and other places to explore, Bedford continues to grow as an artistic hub, one that has attracted such notable luminaries as Martha Stewart, Ralph Lauren, Glenn Close and many others. While the treasures in Rome might be beyond reach for a simple excursion to go and see God in Raphael’s Transfiguration, Atelier Omiros presents glimpses of God, the Divine and more, that are easily accessible and well worth the day trip.
Atelier Omiros and La Galleria
11-15 Court Road
Bedford, New York 10506