Iconography in Greece as an Interpretive Lens for Broader Social Issues

Alexis Smith


In addition to Greece’s tense economic relationship with the European Union, significant challenges exist for Greece today as it tries to balance its historical ties to the Orthodox Christian Church with the principles of religious freedom and church-state separation expected of European Union member states. Daniel Payne, one scholar of church-state issues, traces the roots of these challenges to the fact that “In the [Orthodox Christian] East…national identity was not separated from religious identity” (Payne 264). Rather than attempting to address the full scope of these tensions within Greece, my research focuses on the role of religious art—specifically, Orthodox icons—within the Greek public sphere and the lives of Greece’s residents. Specifically, my research works on three levels. First, I compare Greek Orthodox views on icons to critiques of such art from other Christian (mainly, Protestant) and other religious (mainly, Muslim) perspectives by drawing from existing scholarship as well as semi-structured interviews of Orthodox iconographers and other experts on Orthodox religious art working in Greece. This provides a historical and theoretical basis for better understanding the current perspectives of non-Orthodox EU countries and citizens. Second, by analyzing data from short surveys distributed to university students in Athens, I draw insights on how Orthodox Christian citizens of Greece and non-Orthodox people living in Greece regard the public prominence of Orthodox icons differently. Finally, pulling these two data sources together, I outline several ways in which historical and current attitudes of Greek Orthodox and non-Greek Orthodox individuals toward icons both mirror and illuminate present-day attitudes toward Greece’s broader EU status. Among other conclusions, I argue that a study of Greek Orthodox religious art, both its theological grounding and its function within the lives of people living in Greece, can serve as a lens for understanding broader social issues Greeks face today.


Iconography; Greece; Religious Art

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