the past decade Professor of Art History Annemarie Weyl Carr has sought clues to the history
of a Byzantine icon that seems as mysterious as the Holy Grail. Known today as the Kykkotissa,
the great miracle-working icon of the Mother of God is named after the 11th-century Monastery
of Kykkos, located on the highest mountain in Cyprus. Powerful on the island already when
Cyprus was a Crusader kingdom (1191-1489), the Kykkotissa attained international fame during
the height of the Ottoman reign (1570-1878).
Today the Kykkotissa remains deeply engaged in
the republics life. The icon has been veiled from view for centuries, but its persona
can be traced through the hundreds of replicas that survive in churches and icon collections
throughout the Christian world. Its history, Carr says, exposes the shifting nature of icons
over time, and the interplay of Orthodox tradition and Western European intervention in
shaping those shifts.
Carr, who has taught at SMU since 1972 and spent
her career illuminating the mysteries of the Byzantine world, was named University Distinguished
Professor last fall. Her distinguished service to SMU includes two terms as chair of Meadows
School of the Arts Division of Art History. Her classroom skills have earned her SMUs
Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching, the Methodist Church Award for Outstanding Teacher
and Scholar, and the Meadows Foundation Distinguished Teaching Fellowship. In addition,
Carrs scholarship has been recognized worldwide. She has traveled throughout the Mediterranean
and the Middle East to conduct research and attend international conferences to present
the results of her research on Byzantine art.
The empire called Byzantium a term created
in late 16th-century Germany was the medieval, Christian component of the Roman empire.
It lasted from the installation of the Roman government in Constantinople (now Istanbul)
in 330 C.E. until the citys fall to the Ottomans in 1453. Byzantiums own citizens
called themselves Romans. To Western Europeans, however, they seemed exotic, "dominated
by mysticism, women, and Christianity," Carr says. Among the Byzantines greatest
art forms was the icon, images of sacred figures or events venerated by believers as holy
that served as mediators between the viewer and the image depicted.
"The Byzantines produced ravishing images
engaged with the inward self," Carr says. "But because much of this art seemed
alien to Western sensibilities, the icons have been perceived as mysterious and Eastern.
But they are not Eastern; they are Byzantine."
For Carr, the Crusades served as an avenue into
the historical process that "orientalized" Byzantium and its icons. Cyprus emerged
as a place in which to observe that process as it occurred over centuries, because it stands
at the meeting point of what has become defined by European history as opposites: as "East"
and "West," she says. The island, desired by every power seeking naval domination
of the eastern Mediterranean since the days of ancient Egypt, has experienced an endless
succession of invaders from the Crusaders in the 12th century to the Ottomans in
the 16th century. It was reclaimed by Britain in 1878, and launched as a bicommunal Christian/Muslim
republic in 1960.
"Cyprus remains one of the most stimulating
places Ive been because it has very powerful contemporary issues that make history
an extremely visible part of life there," Carr says. Today Cyprus is a country divided
between Greek-speaking Christians and Turkish-speaking Muslims. "How the different
cultures live and resolve their conceptions of history and ethics makes life tremendously
vibrant in Cyprus, because history is a way of defining who one is." To Carr, Cyprus
seemed an ideal site to study the life of a great icon as it negotiated its place in the
interplay of Crusader and Byzantine, Catholic and Orthodox.
Carr has visited churches on Cyprus, hunting
icons that repeat or reflect the Kykkotissa. They show the Mother of God nestling her cheek
in the curls of a Christ child who twists in her arms, his little bare legs kicking from
a tunic thin enough to reveal his belly button. "Its the way real children behave,"
Carr says. "Theres none of this little king sitting on her arm like a puppet.
Thats one of the really striking aspects of it." Icon painters today continue
to paint images of the Kykkotissa; some of the icons that repeat the Kykkotissa have become
miracle-workers in their own right.
How the Kykkotissa came to Cyprus has become
a matter of legend it was sent by a Byzantine emperor in the 12th century. The earliest
icon known that displays the Mother of God in the posture associated with the Kykkotissa
was created in the 12th century, most likely in Constantinople, Carr says. But evidence
of an icon cult at Kykkos does not emerge until the late 14th century, and it is difficult
to know just how the cult formed, or why it crystallized around an icon of this particular
type. The icons greatest fame developed in the 17th through the 19th centuries, when
it was venerated throughout the Orthodox world.
"Kykkos was remarkably effective at disseminating
the fame of its icon. What requires more thought is why the reception was so eager,"
Carr says. "This goes deep into the condition of Orthodoxy under the Ottoman Empire,
when many icons achieved great fame. But the Kykkotissas case also specifically has
to do with its role as an icon of Cypriot identity and, eventually, national identity. This
gave the Kykkotissa a vitality long into the modern era that many other icons did not enjoy.
Over the centuries, the Kykkotissa has adapted to many different social, political, religious,
and ethnic contexts, on Cyprus and abroad."
Since at least the early 1700s, the Kykkotissa
has been concealed behind a silver cover and heavily embroidered veils, only adding to the
icons mysteriousness and allure. Skeptics and scholars have long challenged the monastery
to uncover it, but this seems unlikely to happen, Carr says. "Cypriots have a deep
feeling for the way their complex heritage has taken shape. And the veiled Kykkotissa is
as much a part of their heritage as George Washington and the cherry tree is of ours. What
good does it do to take it apart?"
As the audience that responded to it changed
over the years, the Kykkotissa icon has assumed different meanings. "Anything that
had the longevity of an image like that must have constantly renegotiated its place in peoples
lives," Carr says. What do you look for if the composition remains the same, but its
meaning is constantly changing?"
To that question, Carr responds by studying "styles
of use." There are periods in which the Kykkotissa icon was replicated in large panels
designed for public roles in congregations. At other times the icon was replicated in small
paintings for private use, registering a shift in the icons special appeal, she says.
Many of the early replicas made of the Kykkotissa appear to be of high quality and created
with expensive materials. There were periods of its life, however, particularly in the 18th
century, when the majority of replicas were cheaply made. The audience that bought the cheap
replicas was different from the audience responding to the costly replicas.
"Im piecing together how the icon
lived its life," Carr says, "and in the process, I suggest ways in which art historians
can learn to see the icons not as static, unchanging figures on a gold ground, but to see
the life in them."
Carr, who earned her M.A. degree and her Ph.D.
from the University of Michigan, has written numerous books and articles on Byzantine art,
including Byzantine Illumination, 11501250: The Study of a Provincial Tradition
and A Masterpiece of Byzantine Art Recovered: The Thirteenth-Century Murals of Lysi,
Cyprus. The books won Vasari Awards in 1987 and 1991 from the Dallas Museum of Art for
outstanding art history book. Her research has been supported by numerous grants and fellowships
from the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Meadows Foundation, and the Dumbarton
Oaks Center for Byzantine Studies, among others.
As she continues her research, Carr hopes to
learn more about icons relationship to the West since the fall of Byzantium. "The
Crusaders took to icons like ducks to water. But at some point, icons ceased to look like
our art in Western Europe and became somebody elses art."
But "somebody elses art" that seems too alien to Western sensibilities also
raises the same perennial issues that much of Western European art raises, Carr adds. "How
does one relate to the holy? How do societies build shared imaginations? What are the threads
that link us to one another?
"Icons are powerful threads that tie people
together. They were fundamental in creating a shared conception of the world. Through my
research and my classes, I hope the Byzantine works become moving, and less alien."
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