Edward Lear’s Representation of the Meteora Monasteries

Della Dora, Veronica. “Ways of Seeing: The Making of a Holy Landscape of Rocks.” In Avril Maddrell, Veronica della Dora, Alessandro Scafi, Heather Walton. Christian Pilgrimage, Landscape and Heritage: Journeying to the Sacred. New York: Routledge, 2014. 45-66. [Google Books] pp. 57-60:

parthenios

Unlike Byzantine accounts, whereby landscape is essentially a collage of symbolic topoi, or Parthenios’ post-Byzantine engravings, likewise organised according to topological principles, in these descriptions landscape is articulated through a tension between proximity and distance, unexpected irregular forms and normalizing frames, wonder and spatial control. Landscape surprises and at the same time acquires geometrical depth as the eye moves from the immediate detail to the horizon, Objects are arranged through a receding view: human figures, shadowy trees and rocks stand in the foreground; further away are the strange pinnacles and pyramids of rock; and finally, mountain landmarks fade in the distance. ‘As the day wore on, and the river opened out into a wider valley, the eastern horizon suddenly exhibited a strange form in the distance, which at once I felt to be one of the rocks of the Meteora’, writes Edward Lear, one of the most celebrated nineteenth-century painters of Greek landscapes.

This object combines with a thousand beautiful pictures, united with the white-trunked plane-trees and the rolling Peneius, ere, escaping from the woods, the route reaches the wider plain; and the inconceivably extraordinary rocks of kalambaka, and the Meteora convents, are fully unfolded to the eye… I do not think I ever saw any scene so startling and incredible; such vast and perpendicular pyramids, standing out of the earth, with the tiny houses of the village clustering at the roots (Lear 1851, 395).

As with Leake, Wordsworth and Curzon, Lear’s views of the Meteora are ‘fully unfolded to the eye’ — and framed. In the village of Kastraki, the majestic pinnacles are sighted through the windows of his room, conveniently located on the upper floor of a tower-like dwelling (ibid., 296). As the British painter ventures up towards the monasteries, the rocks appear to him as

a most wonderful spectacle; and are infinitely more picturesque than I had expected them to be. The magnificent foreground of fine oak and detached fragments of rock, struck me as one of the peculiar features of the scene. The detached and massive pillars of stone crowned with the retreat of monks, rise perpendicularly from the sea of foliage, which at this early hour, six a.m. is wrapped in the deepest shade, while the bright eastern light strikes the upper part of the magic heights with brilliant force and breadth (ibid., 396-7).

Further up,

on a level with the summit of the great rocks of Meteora and Varlaam, the solitary and quiet tone of these most wonderful haunts appeared to me inexpressibly delightful. Silvery white goats were peeping from the edge of the rocks into the deep, black abyss below; the simple forms of the rocks rise high in the air, crowned with church and convent, while the eye reaches the plains of Thessaly to the far-away hills of Agrafa (ibid., 397).

 

c-Wordsworth,-Meteora

Figure 3.5. Edward Lear

Figure 3.5. Edward Lear

The engravings illustrating Wordsworth’s book (see Figure 3.4) and the paintings produced by Lear (see Figure 3.5) feature vistas of monastery-topped pinnacles respectively framed by other pinnacles and the thick foliage of trees underneath. Unlike Orthodox representations, they do not provide a simultaneous God’s-eye view from multiple angles; they rather offer tiny windows on a reality captured from a single vantage point. Unlike in Orthodox engravings (see Figure 3.3) and proskynētaria centred on the monasteries and their relics, in these representations the presence of the monasteries and their inhabitants almost vanishes in the landscape. Why is this the case?

Scenic appreciation and ‘objective’ representation require visual distancing. Yet, distancing can in turn produce alienation. Unlike Orthodox proskynētes, nineteenth-century Western travellers were essentially oursiders. For some of them, the monasteries were nothing but picturesque curiosities; for others, they were metonymies of a system of beliefs they utterly despised. In 1814 Charles Robert Cockerell, one of the most famous early antiquarians that visited the region, ascended Megalo Meteoron to produce landscape drawings. He praised the view from the Monastery of the Transfiguration as ‘magnificent’, but scorned its inhabitants as ‘wretched’ and ‘as ignorant as possible’ (Cockerell 1903, 249). During his vist, Lear, a notorious anti-Orthodox, did not even bother to pay a visit to ‘these monkish habitations… regretting that I did so the less, as every moment of the short time Iingered among these scenes, was too little to carry away even imperfect representations of their marvels’ (1851, 398). Meteora was less of a (sacred) place than a collection of landscapes to be enframed by the artist and ‘taken away’ in pictorial form.

Unlike Lear, Curzon ventured to the monasteries and requested to see icons and relics, but certainly not to venerate them. While relics constituted, we have seen, the main focus for Orthodox pilgrims to Meteora, Curzon did not find them ‘of very great antiquity or interest: the shrines are only sufficient in size to contain two skulls and a few bones; the style and execution of the ornaments are also much inferior to many works of the same kind which are met in ecclesiastical houses’ (1851, 253). …

References to:

Leake, Martin William. Travels in Northern Greece. 4 vols. London: J. Rodwell, 1835.

Wordsworth, Christopher. Greece: Pictorial, Descriptive, and Historical. London: William S. Orr and Co., 1840.

Curzon, Robert. Visits to Monasteries in the Levant. London: John Murray, 1851.

Lear, Edward. Journals of a Landscape Painter in Albania &c. London: Richard Bentley, 1851.

All available on Google Books.

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