Byzantine Elements to Petrescu's Art

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Byzantine Elements to Petrescu's Art


Tyler, Geoffrey




There are a number of recurring elements in Petrescu’s painting, as there are, of course, with any artist. But the influence of byzantine art is without question fundamental to virtually all of his painting. But before examining the byzantine side of his work, it is useful to look at the background of Romanian art.

All Romanian artists are exposed to byzantine art from their childhood. Although much of modern Romania was subject for a long time to Ottoman rule, the religion of Romania remained Eastern Orthodox Christianity before, during, and after the Ottoman period. With icons and church frescoes, and much architecture long dominated by the byzantine influence, Byzantium saturates the history of Romanian art. Orthodox art penetrated the worlds of the peasants as well as the intelligentsia. The naïve icons on glass painted by simple peasants from the late 18th century onwards survive as a living tradition until today as do the wooden carvings and icons of areas such as Maramures in the northwest of the country. The quality of old icons, church frescoes, and liturgical silver may not be on the grandest scale of Constantinople and Russia, but it is very high. Indeed, in their fashion the frescoes of the Moldavian churches and monasteries, both interior and exterior, are recognised internationally as being uniquely valuable. Moreover, the churches and monasteries, and the art in them, are accessible to most Romanians, and the museums are storehouses of Orthodox art.

Artists’ studios and homes reflect the influence of Orthodox religious art, even if the artists themselves may not be particularly religious. The incidence of icons on the walls is high. Generally, they are not important in the museum sense - although sometimes they are - often being damaged and not especially refined examples, but they are testimony to the widespread attachment that Romanian artists have to traditional byzantine painting. Indeed, it is often the case that in artists’ homes the walls contain icons rather than the works of the artists themselves.

Romania has a large number of museums containing the individual collections of collectors. It was the tradition of important collectors to establish a museum in their houses and donate it to the state in their wills. A number of the collections have unfortunately been transferred to a central museum in Bucharest - the Museum of the Collections - and the original houses sold. In almost all of these collections, icons are an important element. Together with the French impressionists, who were much admired by Romanian collectors, they provide a mix of secular and religious art that has few real parallels in western collecting.

For all the interest in religious byzantine art, the visible impact on most 20th century Romanian artists is not very evident. In the first half of the century, the influence of Paris was paramount, not only because of its status as the leading art centre but also because French was the dominant foreign language of Romanian intellectual circles. France became the Mecca of Romanian artists of all kinds, for example of Brancusi and Enescu. After World War Two, the policies of the Communist regimes forced religious based art into the background. In theory, the artists could paint what they wanted and under the written, but largely meaningless Constitution, there was freedom of religion. However, religiously based painting was scarcely likely to benefit the relations of the artist as an individual with the State, personified in the Union of Artists. Restorers of old icons and frescoes were acceptable and necessary. Original art even remotely based on religious themes was quite a different matter. Art dealing with industrial landscape, the glorification of workers, urban themes and portraits of political leaders were the things that could most easily lead to economic success.

For all that, Communist art policies contained a traditional bias. The authorities had no wish to be the puppets of the Soviet Union, whose domineering influence and economic exploitation continued in the post war period into the late 1950s. The Romanian communists therefore took a strongly nationalistic stance. In the art field this led to official support for old Romanian art as ‘popular’ art. Icons, frescoes, and churches could be viewed as Romanian folk art, divorced from religion. The communists could suffer religious art if it could be viewed as ‘peoples’ art’ and specifically ‘Romanian’. Thus one had the spectacle of the State commercial galleries selling modern icons side by side with crafts of folk art pottery and contemporary painters. This ambivalence was important to a number of artists, including Petrescu. He was able to incorporate religious themes and byzantine techniques into his works, without overt problems with the state, although, as discussed elsewhere, he could not by any means ignore official views completely.

There are five elements of byzantine art that can be readily identified in Petrescu’s output. First, a significant number of paintings contain identifiable icon elements and religious themes. Second, there is a pervasive use of gold leaf. Third, a flatness of perspective that is the rule of icons and, for example, of early Italian paintings that evolved from the byzantine school in northern Italy. Fourth, spatial arrangements that mirror those in icons; both the ubiquitous borders and the separation of two or more parts of a painting from one another by boundaries of paint or background. Finally, almost all of his paintings since around 1980 incorporate what looks like old church Slavonic letters.

Religious Themes

A relatively small number of the painter’s works are in effect close to traditional icons in the sense that they have the same layout as icons and have explicit icon themes. The paintings themselves, of course, have nothing to do with the detailed and realistic patterns of the icon painters. The paintings are ‘Petrescus’, not modern replicas of icons. A Petrescu theme may, for example, be the entombment of Christ, a particularly popular icon in Romania, with the body of Christ laid out preparatory to be placed in the tomb, surrounded by the Virgin Mary and Christ’s followers. In the Petrescu versions, of which there are quite a number of variants, the persons may be depicted by no more than halos of gold leaf, without any details of faces; in others, the scene is more explicit.

The entombment theme is an interesting one in that it has preoccupied Petrescu for much of his painting life and recurs in different forms in many paintings. The earliest variations tend to be the most abstract, often forming part of a diptych or triptych, with the entombment filling one part of the composition and other icon themes the rest. A unique example of the mid-1970s is illustrative. It is icon-like in that it is painted on a small wooden panel, hollowed out slightly and surrounded by the small raised border. The latter is emphasised by being painted dark brown at the outer edge, followed by a wider section of bronze leaf, which has oxidised into a rich brown-gold. At the inner edge of the raised border are three narrow sections painted dark brown, white, and red, emphasising even more the framing of the main recessed inner body of the work. The entombment takes up the bottom two thirds of this recessed area, with the top consisting of two highly-stylised icon themes that are pure abstractions rather than recognisable as particular designs, as in the entombment. Rather they seem to be memories from Petrescu’s mind of the concept of icon themes, dreams rather than waking recollections. This entombment is unique in that it carries the byzantine concept of the icon into the use of a wooden panel rather than canvas or paper, it makes very extensive use of gold and silver leaf, and it has much of the appearance and feelings of an icon. Petrescu has at other times used wood panels for his paintings, but this example marries wood to a byzantine theme in a way that others do not.

A substantially different entombment was done in 1987. It is also a small work but is a collage on canvas. [NB this is on artist’s board, not canvas: UTT 2013/136] Unusually, it does not include a painted border. Instead, the central collage of paper with a narrow white edge is mounted on an off-white canvas. These two white ‘frames’ replace the usual painted border in a solid colour. The collage consists of part of an old letter and part of a church notice printed in old Slavonic. Christ and the mourners are painted on these papers, in more detail than usual, including simplified representations of faces. The more realistic sketching of these is contrasted with the abstraction of the collage. This combination of collage and his more traditional use of icon themes has been an increasing trend since the late 1970s.

Even more than themes adapted more or less directly from traditional icon subjects, Petrescu has painted a long series of paintings based on church doors. In the Orthodox church, there are normally three doors that separate the public section of the church where the congregation stands, from the sanctuary, which only the priest can enter. At each side are two single doors and in the middle a double door. It is the latter that forms the basis of Petrescu’s ‘doors’, although he more frequently calls these works ‘byzantine compositions’.

In churches, the doors are most commonly of wood with icons painted on them. Frequently the tops of the doors form an arch. The icons are sometimes a single theme spread out over the two doors, for example the annunciation with the angel on one door and the Virgin Mary on the other. In other cases, each door has a separate icon or icons on it. In Petrescu’s imagery, the form of the door is a rectangle taller than it is wide, generally with an arch or arches on the top. As for the depiction of the icon subjects on the doors, Petrescu’s practice varies widely. At one extreme, for example in a ‘door’ of 1979, there are six separate icons on the two doors, relatively abstract but partly recognizable, including an ‘entombment’. [UTT 2013/145] Other ‘doors’, particularly with collage, are completely abstract, with the designs showing nothing more than the feeling of icons. At the extreme, the overall door design remains, but the collage and painting are secular rather than religious. For example, a ‘door’ of 1980 has as its base a found object, the cover of an old schoolbook, glued to the canvas. The child’s scribblings on the inside of the cover of the book – it is the inside that is seen – upside down to add to the abstraction, are untouched by Petrescu. [UTT 2013/143]

By 1980, his ‘doors’ had in fact almost all become highly abstract. They are still clearly doors, but the icon themes have turned into highly stylised compositions, frequently with much gold leaf and collage, that to an untutored eye would have nothing to do with religion. Still, their genesis in the church doors is clear.

In the early 1970s Petrescu painted a series of works based on frescoes in old Romanian churches. His adaptation of the themes from typical church frescoes is relatively direct. The most distinctive, in terms of being immediately recognisable, are based on the frescoes normally near the front entrance of the church, depicting the donor who provided the funds to build the church, together with his wife and children, with the donor himself holding a small model of the building in his outstretched hand. [UTT 2011/005] The other themes are based on the frescoes in the main body of the church, with angels, saints, and bishops, as well as panels representing Flowers. Both in the ‘donor’ and ‘fresco’ examples, the paintings are partly realistic and partly abstract. The faces of the figures are never more than an outline; the fresco representations are basically realistic, although much less detailed than in the originals. The whole series gives an impression of richness and the relatively realistic character of the paintings emphasizes their Romanian background. In most of the paintings the dominant colours are browns and muted reds. There is some use of bronze leaf, although not of gold, which was at the time not available to Petrescu; it is arguable, however, that the more muted colour of bronze leaf was in any case preferable for these particular works than the much brighter colour of gold, given the muted colours of the churches he represents, which after centuries of use are affected by a varnish of candle smoke. The fresco series has a depth of colour and feeling, and a sombreness that vividly replicates the dim interiors of the churches themselves.

The series is interesting also because works from it comprised a large part of Petrescu’s first exhibition in the United States - first in New York, then in Washington DC, the latter in an abbreviated form since some works bought in New York were not available for Washington. That the Communist state would happily allow the exhibition – the one in New York took place at the official Romanian Sate Library – is interesting, since the themes were after all religious in character. It was an example of the way in which the State could turn religious art into ‘folk’ or ‘peoples’ art, and ignore the facts that the original churches and their frescoes are the antithesis of communism and that the churches themselves were donated by the Christian rulers and nobility of their time.

Notice should be given also to another, smaller series of religious still lifes that Petrescu painted in the 1970s. These were representations of liturgical silver – chalices and the like, including a specifically Romanian object, the chivot. The latter is a silver and silver gilt model of the church to which it belonged, and was used as a sanctuary for precious objects of the church, for example relics of saints and martyrs. These ‘chivot’ paintings mostly contain a chivot, a chalice, and a censor, displayed on a table top, the whole composition against a brown background. These works were painted when metallic leaf became attractive to Petrescu, first the bronze leaf available in Romania and then gold and silver leaf that he obtained from abroad. In addition to their religious significance they are studies in the use of metallic leaf of different textures and colours. From this period onwards, the use of metallic leaf, mainly gold, became a consistent characteristic the of artist’s work.

Finally, Petrescu painted a few works in which the religious character is completely clear and the dominant feature. These are not an artist’s mere reactions to religious paintings of others – icons or frescoes – but works in which the painter is creating deeply religious paintings in just the same way as did the artists of earlier times. One of the examples of the entombment series has been mentioned above; the collage. Another collage, of the crucifixion, is even more expressive. Christ himself is painted with an expressiveness that reflects the agony of the event. It is a sparse painting by Petrescu standards, the figure of Christ himself dominating and the two Marias at the foot of the cross small and abstract. The collage consists of old papers, the grey colour of which dominates, rather than what is written or printed on them. It is a haunting painting from 1986. [UTT 2013/137]

Gold Leaf Techniques

The application of gold leaf onto the surface of a painting, especially on icons, was a Byzantine tradition that continued into Western art. For icons the practice served several purposes. No doubt the expense of the process added a perception of spiritual value to objects designed to be held in esteem. Probably more important, however, was the brilliant colour of the gold and its permanence resulting from the non-corrosive character of the metal. In contrast both silver and bronze leaf change their colour over time no matter how carefully they are protected with varnish. The use of gold leaf in paintings is mirrored in the gilding of silver liturgical plate and the inclusion of gold in enamelled metal works; the Byzantines were masters of these techniques.

Petrescu is undoubtedly a modern master of the use of gold and silver leaf in his paintings. In his early career he either did not have the desire or the leafs were not available, and it was not until late in the 1960s or early 1970s that he began to incorporate them in his works. By the mid 1970s, when metallic leaf became readily available to him, the technique became a standard part of his repertoire, included in a large majority of his output.

Yellow and golden browns had always been important colours in Petrescu’s paintings. Gold leaf, however, added a richness and brilliance that cannot be duplicated by oils, enamels, or acrylics. These characteristics, so prized by Byzantine artists, were equally attractive to Petrescu. In addition, gold leaf permitted the accenting of important features of a work because of the different texture that gold leaf brought to a painting. From 1975 onwards, Petrescu was able to use gold leaf virtually as he wished because friends from abroad could supply it, and silver leaf also, in the quantities that he needed. 

It should be emphasised that Petrescu never limited the use of gold leaf to his religious and byzantine-style paintings. It is true that in many of these, the extent to which gold leaf is used is much greater than in his other works, but most of them also use this material. In fact some of them, especially in the earlier stages of his use of the technique, are as much studies in the use of leaf as they are of the subject itself. In the ‘chivot’ paintings, for example, the patterns and textures of the applied leaf are almost as interesting as the liturgical objects themselves. There is a 1977 example of a butterfly, a frequent subject for Petrescu, where the spread of the wings of the butterfly cover virtually all the canvas and in which it is the application of the leaf itself and the contrasts between the gold leaf and the painted areas that is the main interest in the work.

Access to gold leaf from different sources, American and European, meant access to different colours and surface textures of gold. Although all consists of 23 carat metal, gold leaf varies surprisingly greatly in colour and it is available in textures varying from smooth and shiny to duller and rougher. It comes in loose leaf form or attached to transfer paper, which permits it to be cut and applied in precise shapes that can be transferred onto the canvas or board of the painting. With these variants, Petrescu was able to experiment and develop a flexibility of astonishing proportions. Clear or translucent overglazes added to the variety of textures and shades that he could use.

Subsequent to the early 1980s, Petrescu’s use of gold leaf lessened to some extent. Not so much that it is completely absent from any but a small number of works, but the amount of leaf used in an ‘average’ painting became less. The incidence of paintings such as those mentioned above, where the use of gold is pervasive, became uncommon. Almost certainly this lessened use was partly a reaction to the enthusiastic utilization of a new medium when gold leaf first became readily available to him. Perhaps more important was that Petrescu was finding increasing pleasure and satisfaction in the old paper, letters, and documents which he began to use for collage. Thus gold leaf and paper collage became equal elements in his technique, and few works, other than those painted for a clientele that preferred his earlier style, omit the new materials.

Flatness and Perspective 

Byzantine painting has in common with all painting of its time and earlier, an essential flatness. However realistic, there is little perspective. In icon painting, this continued in the post-byzantine period until today. It is an essential character of Petrescu’s works, deliberately maintained. The latter point warrants emphasis. He is as capable of drawing with excellent perspective as any academy-trained artist. His pen and ink drawings – portraits and landscapes – are evidence of this. It is Petrescu’s choice to paint with a basically flat perspective.

The flatness is, of course, inherent in Petrescu’s byzantine and religious works. However, it is almost as prevalent in his landscapes and still lifes. In neither, however, does flatness seem an impediment, since there is no intention to create a reality in which depth is required. In both the landscapes and still lifes the desire is to provide the essence of the objects or the scene rather than a realistic representation. It is the colours and the patterns that are important, not the direct likeness.

Spatial Arrangements

In his religiously based works, the spatial presentation of the subjects is basically determined by the themes themselves. For example, an icon based subject will separate the different parts of a diptych or triptych.

In some purely secular paintings, not frequently but not especially uncommonly, Petrescu has carried over the spatial arrangements of his icon-based paintings. Thus one finds some diptychs and triptychs consisting not of religious themes but instead scenes of Romanian peasants dancing. There is also a series of paintings of the early 1970s which are based on early Italian paintings, consisting of two or three scenes separated into their own ‘frames’; he calls them ‘Memories of a Museum’. One interesting collage of 1980 is a four-panelled painting, with two of the panels filled with gold leaf icon themes, and the other two with collages formed from parts of an old map of central Paris.

Petrescu also carried this idea of paintings within a painting into the number of works he entitled ‘Pages from an Album’, consisting of an abstract representation of a photograph album with four ‘photos’ forming the design. In some cases, the panels are a collage based on an actual old photograph, in others, the panels are so abstract as to give only a very general suggestion of what the ‘photos’ may be. Although not religiously based, the spatial pattern resembles that of a four-panelled icon.

There is another rather different spatial element of icon painting that Petrescu uses. In icon painting there is always a border around the central image or images placed within it. In some instances the border exists as a raised margin, with the central part of the icon recessed by removing a shallow section of the wooden panel on which the icon is painted. In others the surface of the panel is flat but there is a painted border around the central image. Petrescu has adapted the border technique as an almost universal practice in his paintings. Around the edge of his compositions there is a painted border that serves as a frame for the central image, different in colour from it, and forming no part of the image itself.

Slavonic Script

In virtually all of his paintings since around 1980, Petrescu has incorporated signs that appear to be Cyrillic letters of the old church Slavonic alphabet. In fact they are not actual letters but hieroglyphics having a similarity to them. They are normally scratched into the paint or lightly painted over the main body of the work. The signs have no particular meaning and in any case Petrescu neither reads nor speaks church Slavonic or its modern descendent. His use of these symbols no doubt reflects his love of religious art and there is certainly a similarity to the inscriptions on icons. However, too much should not be read into his practice. The signs have no literal meaning and one should regard them as decorative additions to his works, pleasing the artist and providing another unique element to his output.



Tyler, Geoffrey, “Byzantine Elements to Petrescu's Art,” Tyler Collection of Romanian and Modern Art: University of Tasmania, accessed May 29, 2024,