Nineteen-seventies communist Albania – that’s where Anna Prifti’s deep-seated appreciation for Byzantine iconography stems from.
With religion and all religious representations, including iconography, outlawed, it was an oppressive and turbulent period for the pious.
However, on her many trips to the museum as an art student, she would sit before the Greek and Roman statues, iconography plastered on the walls in the background, “only for cultural purposes”, she says with a smile that suggests otherwise.
“That’s how I started – I would see them at home and I would see them at the museum, and I would make the connection. Children are curious – they ask questions,” she tells Neos Kosmos.
Enrolled in the Academy of Arts in Tirana to pursue studies in monumental painting, her growing interest in Byzantine iconography led her to Greece – a decision that would change her future direction in ways the artist could never imagine.
“I was travelling back and forth to Greece and came across this iconography studio run by monks from Mount Athos – they had come to paint the local church. I applied to work with them and they said, ‘yes, we do need assistance, but we need a man’. They thought: ‘We will train her, but she will only work in the studio, she will not help us with the scaffolding.’ But I didn’t have a problem with heights. I don’t know why life gets in the way of women,” she says.
“I told them I was good at drawing and making coffee, so they said ‘draw for us and we’ll see how good you are first.’ Then they said, ‘Okay you’re hired, now make a coffee’. In iconography few people have a very good drawing foundation, so that’s why they hired me.”
With churches in Greece varying in size and reaching epic proportions, in a word Anna describes her profession as “tough”, often being required to work under harsh conditions, climbing scaffoldings 40 metres high.
“The job is really demanding, but for me being single, it was really convenient. I studied hard to get to where I am,” she says.
Born in Albania to an Albanian father and Greek mother, following the completion of her studies, the then 20-year-old relocated to Greece permanently, where she trained tirelessly as an apprentice, working 14 hour days.
With significant meaning attached to each detail of the icon, every aspect requires a certain level of skill and knowledge, commencing from the very beginning with the priming of the board.
“You need to prime it with traditional gesso, rabbit skin glue and marble dust, and lots of warm layers. You apply up to 16 to 18 layers, and with various degrees of sandpaper you sand through them until it becomes fine and smooth like a mirror,” Anna explains.
The techniques, employed to this day, date back to antiquity, when the iconographer would collect stones and minerals, which they would then grind together, sieve to extract the impurities and make a pigment to work with.
Today however, new developments have made it far more practical and accessible for people to recreate the Byzantine style no matter where in the world they reside.
Once a budding iconographer has mastered the base, they then move on to drawing the landscape and architecture.
“Sometimes you see crooked buildings that don’t make sense and you think ‘Oh, this iconographer doesn’t know how to draw’. Well, there’s a reason for that. In iconography the buildings start large at the back and then come toward you because it’s an inverted perspective. Everything is supposed to come towards you, toward the viewer,” she explains.
The next step is learning to master the geometric style used to draw garments worn by the saints. This technique, Anna explains, helps to draw the viewer to look up at the most significant feature of the icon: the face, and the luminous light surrounding it.
After two years of labour-intensive training, she was finally granted permission to draw the faces, and therefore complete a commissioned piece from start to finish.
But why the need for such lengthy training and precision?
“The faces take much longer. The feathering, the cross-hatching, the fine layers that are involved to create the luminous skin tone, the highlights on the face – you take much longer to perfect that.
“The master iconographer doesn’t like to present an icon to his client or the church where you can tell the difference between the master’s work and that of the apprentice,” she says.
When most people think of the creation of art, they associate it with freedom and a chance to explore a variety of subject matters.
That’s where Byzantine iconography differs in the sense that there are strict theological and aesthetic rules that must be followed, with colours that must be avoided at all costs, and those that hold a deeper meaning and reoccur in just about every icon.
The main colour palette used is red, blue and gold – red representing passion and humanity, blue divinity and gold all that is heavenly.
“When they look at an icon, straight away they need to know who they’re looking at. For example, Saint John the Baptist. Once they look at that figure and see that he’s wearing a green robe over his sheep’s skin, they say ‘Ah, that’s John the Baptist’. So you can’t go and dress him with red or pink,” she explains.
But as mentioned earlier, behind every rule and technique is a deeper meaning which, whether you consider yourself religious or not, has a life teaching to communicate.
“Everything has got a meaning; it’s symbolic.
“Sometimes you see the saint is not looking at the viewer. You talk to him, you’re praying, but he’s not looking at you – he’s looking slightly away – to remind you that your problem is big, but there are other bigger problems. It’s not that the Theotokos is ignoring you.”
Although the artist was trained in the style of renowned iconographer Theofanis from the Cretan school, she admits to drawing from Panselinos from time to time.
After 12 years of working at the studio, Anna received an invitation to travel to Australia to work on St Catherine’s Church in Malvern East.
Uncertain about what to expect, a venture far away from her loved ones, she left herself open to possibility.
She recalls being amazed at how enthusiastic Australians were about iconography, seeing it as her responsibility to pass on her knowledge of the craft as to keep it alive.
“We thought it was a dying art and when people are eager to learn, I’m more than happy to share. I was blown away with enquiries, phone calls and people asking to ‘please teach me’. I loved it so much here; the Greek community was amazing and supportive. I didn’t feel lonely.”
Now married and with a child – nine-year-old Christopher – what was to be a short stint down under has developed far beyond what she could have imagined.
With most iconography commissions requiring years of commitment to complete, her own personal artwork was put on the back burner.
But at 35, becoming a mother helped her discover herself not only as a person, but as an artist as well.
Now she juggles a schedule that most people couldn’t fathom.
Aside from her iconography projects, she runs regular iconography classes and works on her own contemporary artwork; though she counts herself lucky to be able to do something that is more a lifestyle than a job to her.
“The good thing about being an artist is you take your work with you wherever you are and I have a studio at home. So having a child wasn’t a hindrance at all – quite the contrary, this new world opened up to me. I discovered so many other things about myself. Motherhood was a blessing,” she shares.
Although she continues to enjoy and respect the rules associated with iconography, her personal art work has granted her the opportunity for complete creative control, opening herself up to a world of possibility and expression.
“When I think of my abstract work, it’s about wonderment. I try to explore myself to the point of pushing the thoughts and dreams onto the canvas.
“Iconography is sort of a controlled path to a point – my contemporary work is about letting energy go and expressing myself without holding anything back.
I find it quite beneficial to myself to express myself without boundaries,” she explains.
Whilst sitting across from Anna, there’s no denying the glimmer in her eye and the recurring smile on her lips as we discuss her unwavering passion for what she does.
Like any artist, she has an immense personal connection to her art; though with iconography she has an even greater bond – almost otherworldly.
“To appreciate iconography you have to appreciate beauty and history. Artists are quite lucky really to be able to express themselves and have this outlet.
There’s a lot of spirituality that stems from art, no matter what – but iconography’s even deeper.
“You cannot help it. You have to surrender.”