Transfigured in Macedonia
It is an unprepossessing building on a hillside, outside the village (that has a new church), overlooking Lake Prespa, whose still waters are shared between Albania, Greece and Macedonia. St George's Kurbinovo is in Macedonia.
You have to wander the village in search of the key as the building is usually locked: the number of visitors small.
It was how I first came to it one September afternoon with the artist, Patrick Pye, and his wife, Noirin. They had come to visit me following Patrick's retrospective in the Royal Hibernian Academy when the Irish art world, entrenched in its secularism (for understandable reasons), decided, after all, that Patrick was a very fine painter, even if he persisted in the pursuit of sacred, Christian themes for his art. But in arriving, that late recognition had its consequences. Noirin took me aside when they arrived and shared her concern that Patrick was feeling 'painted out'.
We spent each day touring in leisurely fashion and the principal focus of our journey was the art of churches - the extraordinary concentration of fresco art that Macedonia contains from the 10th through to 16th century.
Unbeknown to us, Kurbinovo was the jewel. We approached the humble building with minimal expectation but it was a beautiful afternoon, with the September sun in slow, slipping decline towards the lake. We stepped over the opened threshold into the gloom but before our eyes had time to adjust, the bustling woman with the key had opened the side door, facing out towards the lake and the light.
The church was flooded and we were stilled into silence. You stood among saints (literally around the walls were the figures, virtually life size, of assorted luminaries) and you looked towards the eastern arch and there was Mary and her Son, framed by the Annunciation. Her acceptance framing the born result of that offering. It is hauntingly beautiful. The more formal, rigid Byzantine style has given way in this thirteenth century art to a new humanism (parallel with Italian experiments, Giotto coming foremost to mind). We do not know the artist except through his works nor in a sense need we: it is all here.
You could not help thinking were this Italy, you would be sharing this moment with a parade of others and the church would be 'adorned' with all the trappings of modern tourism. Here, now, there was simply us, enjoying the feast and the stillness.
The art was restorative - I think all three of us not only recall this trip with deep gratitude, we look at it, even today, from a perspective several feet off the ground, as Noirin put it! For Patrick it gave him new imaginative material, a whole tradition of making, and of wrestling with the sacred made visible, that was inspirational. My only claim to the history of art may be as the instigator of that visit -and what a subsequent gift has flown out from Patrick's art.
This Transfiguration of Patrick's is an example. It is a theme he has returned to repeatedly both in practice and in thought. That moment when the disciples discover who the man truly is with whom they have laboured and traveled and, mostly failed, to learn from. For an artist it is perhaps one of the most tantalizing of challenges: how do you make the intangibility of mystical experience real, when the disciples are gathered in that light that casts no shadow, that is promise and seal of His and their true nature.
Kurbinovo as a whole is a witnessing to that nature: stand here, it suggests, within the enfolding panorama of THE story of humanity's re-birth in Christ and be re-born, as we are amongst you the figures seem to say, so you are amongst us, wake to it in our light.
As the light flooded the church that afternoon, you did feel as if you had glimpsed a restored world, a paradise, if only for a moment, but then, as the poet asks, how long does a moment last?