Monday 30 April 2012

Two Orthodox Monasteries

....and the symbolism of the Hand of God in paintings. This links in with previous posts - Signs, Symbols, and Meanings in Art No. (4)

Rezevici Monastery - the first small church here was consecrated in 1223 
This monastery is situated on a beautiful hillside along the Adriatic Coast near Pastrovic. Throughout its long history it has often been robbed and destroyed, especially by the Turkish army in 1705. The frescoes in Orthodox churches are very distinctive and tend to be painted in bold, strong colours.
The monastery ceiling has this enormous hand painted on it holding a handful of babies. However, on closer inspection they look like little old men, but that is probably just the way they have been painted. They are wrapped in swaddling clothes, which must represent the biggest clue. Swaddling clothes in art are viewed as an attribute of the incarnation, and as a symbol of the Christ Childs humanity. There seems to be a cord going down to the central baby wrapped in blue. Blue symbolises heavenly grace. The Virgin Mary is usually depicted wearing blue clothing. Blue also represents hope.
My own interpretation of it is as follows, but I would be very happy to receive further thoughts if you have any.
References to the hand of God are numerous in the Old Testament. A hand in painting often represents God the Father, because of an implicit prohibition on depicting his head: "Thou canst not see my face; for no man shall see me and live". God's hand can be seen in paintings releasing the dove at the Annunciation of the Virgin. A hand paying Judas the 30 pieces of silver or holding a bag of coins denotes the betrayal of Christ.  A hand also became an Instrument of Passion owing to the scene in which Christ's face was slapped during his mockery; this incident is shown in a fresco by Fra Angelico.

via wikipedia
Fra Angelico's Mocking of Christ in San Marco, Florence. Note all of the hands depicted in the fresco are right hands.
I have taken a close up detail, excuse the fact that it is not very sharp
The hand painted on the monastery ceiling is also the right hand. The right hand is considered powerful, the left hand weak. The cord going to the central baby, wrapped in blue swaddling clothes, I believe must be the Christ child. The cord seems to be anchored by a hook to one of the blue circles which I feel represents Heaven. One of my blog friends Mark has suggested that as more than one baby is included, he would guess that that signifies all of mankind. Following Mark's comment I took another look at the painting I noticed that the angels are, in fact, holding up blue circles, confirming to me that the circles do represent Heaven.
The east altar wall has a rood screen with arched entrances only accessible to men.
Looking through the archway, which is allowed, I got this image with the sun magically filtering through the side window.
The view from the other arched entrance to the altar. 
Ostrog Monastery - 1605
The visit to this second monastery took us on a long winding very steep climb up into the mountains. The monastery is built into the caves near the summit of the mountain and is dedicated to Saint Basil its founder. There are two churches an upper church dedicated to the story of the The True Cross in one small cave, and the lower church where the body of St. Basil lies. It is a popular place of pilgrimage and many travel there hoping for a miracle or cure by touching St. Basil's body. The body is enshrined in an open reliquary, which is kept in the smallest cave church. The monastery is of national significance to the people of Montenegro, and has a rich history and many legendary tales associated with it.
This is a refuge for the monastery. Apparently you can come here and stay for as long as you like.
Halfway down the mountain is a new church dating from the 19th century. This is where ceremonies are carried out, such as weddings and baptisms, as the monastery itself is too small.
Wall fresco of St. Basil shown curing people of all nationalities, all faiths - Orthodox, Catholic, Muslim, and with all kinds of sickness. 
Previous posts on Signs, Symbols and Meanings in Art 
No. 1No. 2No. 3


  1. What an interesting and beautifully illustrated set of posts, Rosemary. So much to ponder and revisit.

  2. Dear Perpetua - I am pleased that you found it interesting, and will revisit again. I found the colouring in the churches took my breath away, and the messages in the frescoes needed time to consider.

  3. Hello Rosemary:
    We find religious paintings of great interest and your post of today is so intriguing, especially as we have never heard of let alone visited the places you feature.

    We love the symbolism inherent in religious art and always try to decipher the attributes of saints and the meanings of religious paintings when we see them. We are sure that you are right about the meaning of the baby wrapped in blue on the church ceiling, and there is so much else to see and think about too.

    1. Hello Jane and Lance - I love to know the symbolism, signs and meanings in paintings, most of which do happen to be in religious art. The symbolisms and signs were very familiar to medieval man, even though he could not read or write, he knew how to read the paintings - a knowledge lost to many of us today.
      The two monasteries were unknown to me as well, but I found both of them intriguing and interesting places to visit. Ostrog took us on an amazing journey to get to it.

  4. Dear Rosemary - I enjoyed studying these paintings with so much color, and I'm sure your interpretation is correct. What I like about the central Hand of God is that more than one baby is included, and I would guess that that signifies all of mankind. I like that in that first painting, the details conform to Byzantine style but are a little more free-flowing, particularly with the angels in flight.

    1. Dear Mark - I am pleased that you enjoyed seeing and studying the paintings. I agree with you about more than one baby being included signifying all of mankind and will add that to the interpretation. You are right about the angels, and now that I have gone back and looked at it, I have noticed that the angels are actually holding up the blue circles, which I feel does confirm that it is Heaven.

  5. This post is very interesting. I started out in Art History in college and had forgotten how rich and intriguing religious art is. Your interpretations seem very accurate to me (not that I am in any way an authority). Thank you for the tour of these wonderful churches.

    1. Dear Lisa - I really wish that I had been able to study History of Art, but when I was younger I was unaware of the subject. I am happy that you think my interpretations seem accurate, all of the signs and symbols have much more meaning when you begin to understand them. Glad you enjoyed the tour and thanks for your comments.

  6. Dear Rosemary, I wish I had so much knowledge about history and art as you have. Your photo's are so great and it's always a plesure to reed your interpretation. The colors of the paintings are so much more warme then we used to see. Thanks a lot for sharing.
    gr. Marijke

    1. Dear Marijke - I have just found your comment which went missing. I do not understand Blogger sometimes. I clicked the comment to be published and I have just found it in awaiting moderation. At least I now know what happened to it.

  7. marijke

    Dear Rosemary, I wish I had so much knowledge about history and art as you have. Your photo's are so great and it's always a plesure to reed your interpretation. The colors of the paintings are so much more warme then we used to see. Thanks a lot for sharing.
    gr. Marijke

    1. Dear Marijke - for some strange reason Blogger would not let your comment come through so I have copied and pasted it here. That is why it is showing my avatar and not your lovely pink rose. Sorry about that.
      I am really delighted that you enjoyed the post and photos. The knowledge that I have picked up is from information I have gained by attending our local Fine Art Society, courses I have been on, and books that I have read. Mainly it is because I have a love of all art.
      I found the colours really dramatic in these Orthodox churches. Thank you very much for your kind comments.

  8. Very bright paintings. Special place.


    1. Thanks for your visit Filip - I agree they are special places.

  9. Dear Rosemary,
    thank you for passing by my... abandoned blog! It's nice of you : )
    I am doing pretty good I just don't feel like blogging, although I still blog on my tumblr blog
    ( abouterleichda) and having a lot of fun on pinterest, but that's hardly the same thing.

    Your blogpost is very interesting and, it brings me back to my childhood. My grandmother was a very religious woman, like most people of her generation and always took me with her to the church. What I like about the orthodox's is that one does not feel a presoure to believe. You are wellcome anyway. My grandma would never speak about religion. She would do her thing, quietly, not making too much fuss about it. She would light the little candle in front of the icon and she would show me God's hand, more like a piece of art that anything alse.
    So somehow I tend to look for art and not for God in a church. And as your wonerful choise of pictures shows, there is a lot of both in those Churches...

    I am wishing you a lovely month of May : )

    1. Dear Demie - I was so pleased to hear from you to know that you are well and doing pretty good. You do become attached to some blogger friends and miss them when they go.
      I can well understand that you do not feel like blogging. My husband has suggested that I may well run out of steam in time. I have noticed that it does happen.
      I am pleased that this post brought back memories of your childhood with your grandmother, that is nice.
      I love the art in churches too, and as you can probably tell I particularly enjoy reading the signs and symbolism that can so easily be missed.
      Do take care, dear Demie, and thank you for your visit and kind comments♥

  10. Dear Rosemary,
    When i started to read this most fascinating and wonderfully illustrated post. It took my breath away.
    I have always as a catholic, been very interested in the Orthodox church.
    My first experience, was going to the Ukranian orthodox church in England with a friend..many years ago.
    The monestry set within the mountain is a sight to be seen. its unbelievable.
    You have explained to me some things that always are mysteries within one's faith..the christian faith. The hand of God. They are powerful words.
    I am not familiar with the old testament.. nor too familiar with the bible. The bible was always read to us at church mass. The new christians of today, are very much into the bible.

    The first thought that came to my mind re "The hand of God" ..was the creed
    "He ascended into heaven and sitteth at the "right" hand of the father almighty"
    You have stirred up my feelings, of wanting to know more about this subject.
    In Mathew , and in John and luke 6'10 .. jesus says.. hold out your hand to me.
    Even in the language of jesus Aramaic its mentioned.
    Your photography is amazing.
    I so much enjoyed this post Rosemary. Thank you
    Have a wonderful Tuesday

    1. Dear Val - I am so pleased that you enjoyed this post.
      The monastery we visited with the enormous hand on the ceiling was my first experience of visiting an Orthodox church for many, many years. I visited one in Moscow and the most famous Orthodox church in Russia called Zagorsk, but that was about 25 years ago. The main thing that I recall in Russia was the painted icons, how the people kissed them, and the incredible Gregorian Chants, a sound I shall never forget.
      When I walked into the Orthodox monastery in Montenegro, I have to admit that my breath was taken away too, by the rich colours and the dramatic frescoes.
      I have never seen the hand of god delivered in such a dramatic way before, and wanted to try and work out the message that was being given. As I am sure you must have gathered I have a particular interest in this aspect of the history of art.
      I was very interested in your comment 'He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the father almighty'. That relates very much to what I said about the right hand being considered powerful and the left weak.
      Thanks Val, for your very thoughtful comments, which I appreciate.

    2. Dear Rosemary,
      Your description of the places that you visit, become vivid when i read them.
      I do so much enjoy your posts ..your blog is amazing.
      You are so fortunate, to have visited other orthodox churches.
      I visited a beautiiful one on the island of Corfu, a couple of years ago. It too was fascinating. And also visited a monestery on top of a hill. i was on a watercolour workshop.
      So dear Rosemary. i leave you with this:- more please. but my name is not Oliver.!
      Happy 2nd of May.

    3. Dear Val - I like your last sentence - I will certainly endeavour to give you more, and hopefully you will like it.
      You have really attended some painting workshops in lovely places, may be you could do a post on them, and show us what you painted?
      Enjoy the rest of the day.


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