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Dionysius of Fourna: Artistic Identity Through Visual Rhetoric


In much of the recent scholarship on post-Byzantine art, a key role is played by the Hermeneia – a painter’s manual written by Dionysius of Fourna around 1730. This manuscript outlines artistic practices of Greek Orthodox artists working on Mount Athos in the eighteenth century; it records their traditions and techniques, but it also relates certain ideological positions maintained by its author. Scholars in the past have emphasized traditionalistic qualities in the manuscript. This allowed them to describe Dionysius as a traditionalist – one who staunchly resisted modernization and one who defended Byzantine traditions against the growing cultural Europeanization of the Balkans in the eighteenth century. In the study at hand, I point out a number of elements that problematize this commonly maintained opinion of past scholars. By focusing on qualities in Dionysius’s work that contradict his supposed traditionalistic inclinations, I demonstrate that the ideological position that Dionysius posited is more complex. I use the contents of the Hermeneia and Dionysius’s paintings as evidence for determining his ideological and conceptual position on art – his artistic identity. I question the presumptions put forward in the past, and I reassess the possible motives that might have compelled Dionysius to write the Hermeneia. According to my findings, the preservation and the promotion of Byzantine artistic traditions of the past were not his primary objectives. In order to address the cultural crisis around him, Dionysius strategically incorporated select aspects of tradition, past and new practices, and contemporary ideas into his work. I attempt to show that Dionysius’s artistic identity is characterized by conscious synthesis of modern practices with past traditions and by the fusion of contemporary currents with eighteenth-century Orthodox monastic culture in order to enrich and to contribute to the vibrancy of his artistic culture and to bring it up to date with contemporary artistic practices.

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