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A day of Orthodox magic

TODAY is Greek Easter and to any Greek, it's a feast far more important than Christmas, in which icons, ancient and modern, will take pride of place. For those in the Eastern Church, icons - holy pictures of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the Saints or the early Fathers - have always occupied a special position. In the eighth century they were openly worshipped in their own right and even served as godparents at baptisms; no wonder the Byzantine Emperor Leo III ordered their wholesale destruction - an edict which lasted, with one brief intermission, for well over a century. But the moment the iconoclast decree was finally repealed in 843, the icon-painters and mosaicists went back to work; and today, in the entire Orthodox world, there is scarcely a church or chapel so humble that it does not possess at least one icon, with a few candles guttering before it and perhaps a small offering attached.

As Byzantine artists were constantly reminded, their task was not to portray human beings, but to capture the Spirit of God itself. Over the centuries they evolved the most purely spiritual art that Europe has ever seen, and the tradition is not yet wholly extinct. Though artistic standards have declined in the past couple of centuries - how many great painters of today anywhere in the Christian world concern themselves with religion? - in the heart of the average Greek or Russian, even the most revoltingly kitsch-ridden modern icon will always arouse profound emotion.

If most of the icons shown here fall into that category, this is only to be expected: they belong to peasant shrines from small island villages. Few seem to date from before the 19th century, by which time the formalised, hieratic, full-face portrait that had earlier been de rigueur was coming under increasing attack from the syrupy sentimentality that was sweeping Italy and the West. That marzipan Madonna from Karpathos (top left), insufficiently shrouded by her rose-covered blue scarf, is a peculiarly distressing example; it is perhaps no coincidence that Karpathos, under the name of Scarpanto, was - with all the Dodecanese - Italian until the Second World War.

How infinitely more satisfying are those icons whose parentage is still plain: St Basil the Great (bottom, second from left), for example, also from Karpathos, painted with his lovely blue and white Bible as recently as 1941 - no demureness there. Or the tiny Christ Pantocrator - Ruler of All - from Simi, attached rather touchingly with sticky paper within his heavy wooden frame (top, second from right); he may be only a postcard, but he speaks with the true voice of Byzantium. So too does the beautiful Virgin Hodegetria - She Who Points the Way - from Lesbos (Mitilini), holding her Son in the crook of her left arm, while with her right hand she gestures in his direction (bottom left). Most mysterious of all is the portrait of what seems to be an early Father (top, second from left), just visible below that gold-encrusted Liberace of a Christ and partially veiled by what looks suspiciously like a pair of matador's breeches. He, I feel, could well be a masterpiece.

But mystery has always been the strength of the Orthodox church: the mystery of the iconostasis and of what arcane rites are performed behind it; the mystery of pervading darkness, of glimmering candle-light reflected on the unsmiling, unchanging faces on the walls above. The modern western churches have deliberately demystified themselves, with mass in the vernacular and celebrants facing their congregations; and look where it has got them. Orthodoxy remains, as it has always been, instinct with magic, in which its icons play an essential part. They may not invariably be beautiful but, as these photographs show, they are loved. !