Iconography and Chant Camp
by Mark Koyama, M.Div. ‘16
Constantine Kokenes, anesthesiologist-and-Byzantine-cantor-extraordinaire, considers the empty expanse of a sheet of flipchart paper. It is the opening day of the Congregations Project, and the participants have been asked to render, in the form of visual image, their particular church’s response to the theme of the conference.
Kokenes selects a brown marker. “We can do this,” he mumbles. And then more firmly: “From Generation to Generation – that’s what we do!” He sets to work and soon two muscular vertical lines appear on the paper. The lines taper off at the bottom, spreading outwards.
“This is the tree of our tradition,” Kokenes says, as he draws. “It is wide and strong, and its roots are deep.”
Maximos Salzman, who has been observing these developments, takes up a marker, and the two men fall into a comfortable banter. A considerably younger man, Maximos fills in the lower branches that represent his peers. The foliage is a bit on the sparse side, and as a nod, perhaps, to the tenacity of popular culture among Millennials, he inserts a University of Georgia pennant on an outer limb. Constantine, at work depicting his cohort, draws a gray cloud that obscures the middle of the tree.
“That’s the cloud of unknowing,” he says with a laugh. “A lot of folks lose their way in midlife.”
Above the cloud the tree widens out again. The canopy is at its most lush in the tree’s uppermost branches. At the top of the tree Constantine draws a stairway leading into the sky.
“Our elders are a strong presence,” he says. “They sense that God is near.”
A New Level of Diversity
The unique dynamism of the Congregations Project is a direct function of the diverse voices that gather. This, the Project’s fifth summer, was as dynamic as ever – with teams converging in New Haven from all directions: east from Colorado and the Catskills, west from Rhode Island, north from Georgia, and south from Minnesota and Alberta. But the range of geographic representation is, of course, just the beginning. Add the theology and music faculty and the student reporters and the room teems with denominational, theological, racial, gender and, yes, generational diversity. And this year, for the first time, a diversity in ecclesial communion has been introduced as the ISM welcomed an Orthodox Church, St. Philothea’s of Watkinsville, Georgia, into the mix.
You have already met Constantine and Maximos. Father Anthony Salzman, the third member of the St. Philothea team (and Maximos’ father), arrived in the evening. In addition to serving as St. Philothea’s priest since 1999, Father Anthony has become a nationally renowned iconographer and teacher of Byzantine iconography. These demanding but symbiotic roles take Father Anthony all over the country and the world – in fact, the reason he was late was because he’d been co-leading a pilgrimage tour of Greece and Italy. He came straight to New Haven from JFK – a crazy schedule! But in the morning, after a good night’s sleep, he was ready to go.
The three members of the St. Philothea team are, themselves, embodiments of their project. With the help of grant funding, Father Anthony and Constantine Kokenes will co-lead a week-long seminar teaching Byzantine iconography and chant at the Diakonia Retreat Center in South Carolina and, in addition, pursue opportunities to teach similar workshops on college campuses throughout the South. While they have led such workshops in the past, these seminars would be directed to young people – high school juniors through college seniors – thus nurturing a new generation of Orthodox iconographers and cantors. As for Maximos, he embodies the kind of willing spirit that his elders are seeking.
“I don’t expect the church to change to please me,” Maximos said during St. Philothea’s plenary session. “I depend on the church to remain solid. If anything is called to change, it’s me.”
Tradition and Change
This position regarding the nature of tradition and change was a kind dialectical force that the St. Philothea team exerted on the conference as a whole – a kind of foil or corrective to the tendency, on the part of many congregations, to react to declining attendance by changing the image or the role of the church in the community. The notion that Millennials (like Maximos) might be drawn to the spiritual arts and liturgical practices of their forbears without adding a hip-hop backbeat or sending out a Facebook evite, was warmly received in a room that had, until that point, seemed to see the imperative of “relevance” as a mandate for “change.” But to be precise, the Orthodox theology and art that Father Anthony espoused does not entirely remove the element of change from tradition – it just moves at a much slower rate. To demonstrate this, Father Anthony stood up, indicating that we should look at his hand:
“Icons that depicted Mary used to show her hand in a horizontal position—like so,” he placed his hand at his waist. “Later, her hand moved forty-five degrees in order to point to the Christ child.” He moved his hand slightly. “So we changed,” he said, “but it took 500 years.”
Preservation and Incarnation
On the final day of the conference the teams were invited to revisit their visual depictions of From Generation to Generation. Did six days of creative exchange, ecumenical partnership, and theological reflection prompt them to change it at all?
Father Anthony considered the tree. After a minute, he said: “There’s something missing here.” He picked up a marker and drew some fruit among the branches.
“They will know us by our fruit,” he said.
I have used the word “embodied” to relate Father Anthony and his colleagues to their project – but I suspect Father Anthony might prefer the word “incarnate.”
“Preservation” he told me later, “is incarnation. Art and faith grow together, because our faith is not only in the spirit. Through art Christ is incarnate in our bodies.”