Our office field trip last fall to Columbia’s annual Greek Festival was filled with some interesting conversation. While our primary motivation may have been sampling the souvlaki and baklava, we also planned to check out the newly renovated Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church and the iconography adorning its walls and ceiling. This sparked the big question: “Art” or design?
As residents of a small southeastern city, it’s an unusual treat to peruse large-scale religious art on a lunch break. For me, this was an experience previously reserved for trips to Europe and larger stateside metropolitan areas. We took advantage of the opportunity and spent a good while studying the beautiful details.
Holy Trinity’s muralled icons communicate a range of ideas and narratives. Modeled after the classic Paleologian style, the dome displays a hierarchy of holy figures—Jesus in the center circled by angels, visions of the Biblical apocalypse, and an outer ring of apostles. Alcoves around the dome offer vignettes of the lives and works of Paul and other early evangelists. Mary, the god-birthing mother, resides over the altar with outstretched arms, the Christ child seated on her lap.
With these scenes towering over us at larger-than-life scale, it wasn’t difficult to imagine the persuasive impact these images must have had on their original audience centuries ago. Even though my generation has been spoiled by IMAX-sized entertainment and constant visual stimulation, I was captivated.
The depiction of familiar Biblical stories tapped deeply into the Judeo-Christian mythos I and many other Americans were raised in. We enjoyed identifying the narratives and figures revealed by the traditional symbols and attributes associated with them. On another symbolic level, like the imposing monuments to immortality of ancient Egypt, the scale of the images and their mere existence in 2013 conveyed the depth and perpetuity of our fixation on origin and purpose.
Finding Design Inspiration
For a designer in the 21st century, the power of these images and the depth of what they communicate can serve as unexpected inspiration. It is our job to condense big ideas and the often-lofty ideals of our clients into clear, visual presentations. Our designs need to be aesthetically engaging and communicate their messages clearly—even if the message is deconstructive or purposefully vague our design decisions must feel intentional or the message falls flat.
There is often thought to be a clear boundary between “Art” and design. However, while iconography and similar religious art forms are considered fine art today, their creators faced similar challenges, limitations and goals as contemporary designers. We often think of “Art” as the product of a lone artist channeling pure self-expression and internal examination into physical form. In turn, many relegate design to a skill or craft, dictated only by the needs of a client and their message. This view draws an unnecessary hard line between variations on the same visual tradition.
The work of some of the earliest commissioned artists—paid to communicate religious ideas or depict a monarch’s family, land and wealth—was also often restricted by a patron’s requirements and the artist’s need to pay the bills. These works now share the same museum spaces as art considered to be pure self-expression. Some of humanity’s earliest images, painted on prehistoric cave walls and now commonly considered art, are believed to have been purely functional: either invoking or recounting successful hunts crucial for their artists’ basic survival. Still, one can imagine the cave artists’ satisfaction in the execution of their work and the expression of the ideas it symbolized.
Balancing Form, Function, and Tradition
Within the confines of a patron or client’s needs is the space of interpretation where the best craftspeople, artists and designers have transcended their supposed roles as simple translators. George Kordis, the master painter from Athens, Greece who painted the new Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church offers this explanation of his contemporary, interpretive role in the tradition of iconography:
“[The spiritual qualities of iconography] demand the preservation of the tradition of the Church and the continuity of the art of the old masters. According to this tradition, the main artistic virtue is the functionality of the icon through its rhythm and chromaticity. The perseverance, of course, within this tradition should not, under any circumstances, be considered to be a reproduction of figurative solutions of the past, but as a creative relationship with them.”
Kordis’ work balances form, function, tradition and innovation. It must adhere to a template, and one that demands a reverence designers rarely contend with in interactive or print standards. Within these confines Kordis finds his unique voice. Interestingly, he sees the individual artist’s incremental evolution of the art form as fundamentally important to its functionality: “the art of the icon was never static nor repetitive. On the contrary, in every period, iconographers, without degrading the established painting system, were seeking the highest functionality of the icon”.
As interactive designers we are always struggling to breath new life into an established template: Not another jQuery slider on the home page! And our foundation, the established website structure, only goes back as far the early 1990s. Imagine the challenge for George Kordis, working within a Byzantine template of communication established over 1,500 years ago.
Without minimizing the rich nuances between the endless forms of visual art and their various labels, we can recognize our shared challenges, goals and joys. Though some wish to assign hierarchy to the disciplines many of us traverse freely, we are all fundamentally taking part in a form of communication that stretches our history as a species, that has carried many names, purposes and ideas, evolving within subclassifications and as a whole. Now the entirety of that tradition can be accessed and enjoyed on a device that fits in your pocket—accessed through visual interfaces some of us are fortunate enough to design for a living.
-Daniel Machado, truematter
Thanks to Father Michael Platanis of Holy Trinity for taking the time to be interviewed for this post.