HoustonChronicle.com - Byzantine iconographer celebrates the sacred throu...
- In a message dated 05/02/2006 7:25:43 PM Central Daylight Time,
Cassis' icon Resurrection, depicting Christ just before his ascension, is on
display at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral.
: Diamantis Cassis
April 28, 2006, 8:45PM
Artist says the purpose of iconography is to edify, not entertain, mankind
By BARBARA KARKABI
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle
EVERY Sunday, Diamantis Cassis listens intently to the weekly sermon. He
takes his faith seriously. But sometimes during the two-hour service his eyes
will turn to the icons that fill Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral.
It might be the Pantocrator, a large image of Christ painted on the ceiling,
or the icons of saints and their deeds that fill the lavish altar screen.
Even though he is a humble man, Cassis might also glance at a few of his own
subtly crafted works with their bright gold backgrounds done in the
Byzantine tradition. They are among hundreds displayed around the lovely cathedral on
Yoakum Boulevard in the Montrose area.
"There are a lot of symbols, but the purpose of the icon is like a pictorial
sermon," the iconographer said. "If I'm sitting here and listening to a long
sermon, my mind might start wandering around, and rather than go off on a
tangent, you look at the icon and it brings you back."
The Orthodox faith, Cassis explained, is a holistic one that "attracts the
human being with all its senses" — from the entry where church goers prepare
themselves by lighting a candle or kissing a glass-covered icon to the smell
of the incense, the words in the service, the glowing chandeliers and the
beauty of the icons.
"It's a very personal thing," he said.
Cassis' 18-by-24-inch Resurrection icon, — Christ standing on the cross and
ascending to heaven — has been in the glass display since Orthodox Easter,
which was celebrated last Sunday.
"We try to make sure the icon at the church's entry relates to a saint's day
or the time of year," he said.
Byzantine iconography dates back to the early days of Christianity, Cassis
said, and is a sacred form of art.
"In the West, art is the expression of the individual and the influence of
his environment at a particular time," he said. When there are rules, the
artist is free to change or alter them, he added.
Iconography, however, is not "art for art's sake," but rather "art for the
edification of man."
"It's not the expression of only one person, but the expression of the
historical Christian church, its traditions and Holy Scripture," Cassis said.
Iconographers must be Orthodox Christians, he said, and though their work is
a creative form, it must follow the traditional theology of the church.
Cassis came to the United States after World War II at age 12. Now 71, he
still speaks with a slight Greek accent.
His family settled in Louisiana. Cassis, commonly known as Dan, majored in
art at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches and became an abstract
As a young man Cassis loved the icons he saw in church. But it wasn't until
1965, when his best friend invited him to co-host an exhibition of icons,
that he began studying the art.
"I remember telling my friend, 'I don't know anything about icons,' " Cassis
recalled. "My friend said, 'Read this book, and you will know everything.'
It was a conversation between an icon painter and the author, and it was
At 30, he began painting icons in his home. It was a difficult time; his
62-year-old father was dying of cancer.
"It was about the same time that I was actually understanding my faith," he
said. "I guess I understood it better by understanding the icon."
There is a big difference between doing an ordinary painting and an icon,
said Cassis who, after 43 years as an art teacher, retired in 1996 to focus on
iconography. Cassis is paid for his work through the church or through donors
in the community, and "sometimes I donate them myself," he said.
"As an abstract painter, doing my own ideas it was more like having fun," he
said. "But doing an icon is like praying. There's a lot more to think about,
and it's a lot more serious."
Icon painters like Cassis follow a guide that discusses every event in the
Bible and how each should be painted. For example, figures are always slim —
as if they have been fasting — and appear spiritual and ethereal.
"Icons' styles don't change," he said, "and what I like about this is that I
can look at an old icon and see the format and smile because that is what
I'm trying to do."
As one of Annunciation's tour guides, Cassis knows every inch of the
cathedral, its icons and traditions. His wife Irene, the cathedral's director of
religious education and a member since the late 1940s, wrote a history of the
cathedral some years ago.
At the back of the cathedral, Cassis points out two 6-foot by 6-foot icons,
the largest he has painted for the Houston church. One represents the
Nativity, the other the resurrection. The latter shows a victorious Christ stepping
into hell and lifting mankind — represented by Adam and Eve — from bondage.
A small man chained inside a black hole beneath the cross symbolizes death,
which has been overcome by Christ's resurrection, he said.
Each icon has the usual bright gold background, which represents the
heavens. Gold was chosen because "it's the most precious thing we have."
To the untrained eye, Byzantine art may seem flat, but there is a reason, he
explained. The icons are not meant to be visually realistic, and use "a
negative perspective." The vanishing point is not in the distance.
"You are the vanishing point of the icon," Cassis said. "It says that you
are in a finite world and are looking at a window to eternity."
At any given time, 12 to 15 icons of various sizes by Cassis are in the
Houston cathedral. His icons also can be found in Greek Orthodox churches and
collections around the country.
"The icons Dan has made for us are beautiful and reflect the church's
theology," said the Rev. Jordan Brown of Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church in
Austin. "We are spoiled because he is well known and respected in our
metropolis and nationally. So far, Dan has made 22 icons and is working on several
more for the altar screen." Cassis has worked on an altar screen for the
Austin church for the past four years.
Still, he admits, there is nothing like seeing his icons in his own church,
where he has been a member since the 1960s.
"It's nice," he said, "to feel that I have done something for my church."
_HoustonChronicle.com -- http://www.HoustonChronicle.com_
(http://www.chron.com/) | _Section: Religion_
St. George-the-Great-Martyr Orthodox Church
P.O. Box 667
Pharr, TX 78577-0667
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]