Cyprus Icons: Iconographers Father Kallinkos & Myrianthi Constantinidou
This is the final installment in a four-part series on Cyprus, which explores the island through the lens of its Orthodox Christian heritage and iconography. This piece relates visits with Father Kallinkos, a 90-year old monk considered an icon in some quarters, and Myrianthi Constantinidou, a young mother also finding acclaim as an iconographer. —MP
As our car climbed a hill, my senses were hit by the acrid smell of fire and sound of hovering helicopters. Reaching the crest, we could see billowing clouds of smoke rising from the olive tree groves extending over the horizon.
Hitting the gas pedal, I laughed nervously that we were facing obstacles of biblical proportions in our quest to see Father Kallinkos.I was en route to meet a monk who is considered an icon in some quarters. From the highway we could see Stavrovouni Monastery ahead, atop a steep mountain that resembled a pyramid, overlooking Larnaka Bay. The syllables “stavro” at the beginning of a church’s name means that it possesses a piece of the “true cross,” on which Jesus was crucified. It is believed that this monastery was founded in 327 by St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine the Great, who stopped in Cyprus on her return from the Holy Land.
We turned off the highway, and motored into the hills, passing a quarry where gusts of strong wind stirred up thick clouds of dust and temporarily obscured our view. Reaching the monastery of St. Barbara, a “dependency” of Stavrovouni, I noted a hand-painted sign affirming “Entrance Allowed for Women.”
I was eager to meet Father Kallinkos, who had come to the monastery in 1940 when he was 20 and at 22 had started doing wall paintings at Stavrovouni. In 1946, he went to Mount Athos where he took courses in icon painting. He took part in Cyprus’ liberation struggle from 1955 – 1959 and was arrested by the English, tortured and imprisoned. After being released from prison he moved to Athens and took courses from another great icon painter, Fotis Kontoglou. He studied techniques at various places such as Mystras, Meteora, Berroia, Thessaloniki and Mount Sinai. Age 90 now, he has had two bypass surgeries, and the years of wall painting standing on scaffolding has affected his knees.
In a small outbuilding apart from the monastery, I found Father Kallinikos with company and a twinkle in his eye. In his small and cluttered studio, the monk was in animated conversation with Vassos Christophides of Nicosia, who had been the head of a handicraft organization and has known Father Kallinkos for 30 years. The monk’s niece, Stamatia Zannikon of Athens, had come for the summer to study icon painting with him, something she has done for the past eight years. Her mother, the priest’s sister, painted too.
Father Kallinikos held up an icon painting and spoke in Greek. Vassos acted as the monk’s translator.
“He is saying the icon is immortal.”
“He is 90 in body but in his mind he is a young man, still searching for lost techniques,” Vassos said. “He has visited many of the ancient sites where Byzantine icons have been preserved, including the Holy Monastery of Saint Katherine on Mount Sinai in Egypt. Classical writers observed that the Egyptians painted with molten wax, using special tools. The Greeks and Romans wanted to paint pictures of their dead rather than create mummies. These portraits, created in the first century on wood and cloth, were the early prototypes for icons, which Christians adopted.”
Father Kallinikos was impressed with the process employed at Saint Katherine’s and practices it today. Called the encaustic technique, it involves liquefying bee’s wax with ammonia, resulting in a soluble substance like watercolor but one that can last thousands of years without the hues losing their vividness. The icons can be polished and burnished and their light will continue to shine.
Vassos said that the monk strictly adheres to the traditions of the Byzantine Macedonian school of icon painting and yet each piece is unique. Father Kallinikos puts his innermost thoughts in each icon he paints in the hopes that when people look at it, they will get the message. He considers icon painting to be a prayer, a way that he worships.
“All icon painters are taught that if they are not spiritual, they will fail,” Vassos translated. “You have to feel the philosophy. Someone can copy like a photograph, but not put anything of himself in it.”
Turn the “page” to keep reading