Iconography


This six-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some. (Continued from here).

Central to the transformation involved in Christian life is learning to see, for our vision has become distorted by the fall, and salvation involves learning to see aright. Saint Maximus the Confessor speaks of “The dazzling brilliance of God’s beauty inside everything” and St John of Damascus writes that “The whole earth is a living icon of the face of God.” “The glory of God is a human being fully alive,” writes St Irenaeus and he is often quoted as saying that. But he continues immediately: “and the life of a human being is the vision of God.” This is a vision that we need to learn.

It is common to speak about the importance of beauty for Orthodoxy. Sometimes the example is given of the conversion of Russia when the emissaries of Prince Vladimir were sent out looking for a religion. After visiting the Church of Holy Wisdom in Constantinople, they wrote: “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among men, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty.”

We see here that the Liturgy is profoundly revelatory, enabling us to catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of God here on earth. Within the Church we are able to see a new way of being – even if in a fleeting and fragmentary way – that we recognise as fundamentally true, and as that around which we wish to shape our lives. But this is not given to us in any final way, for our vision remains blurred, our hearts remain divided and Liturgy requires hard work and commitment.

It is also common to speak about the importance of icons for Orthodox Christians, and they are indeed important. However, there is also a danger in this, and I have found that many people do not actually find them attractive at the first encounter. They jar with our expectations of what art should be, they are not necessarily comforting and can feel somewhat strange. Like the beauty of the Liturgy, theirs is a demanding beauty, one that asks us to be open to another way of seeing. They are not ours to “use” but they ask us to be receptive and open to change our own perceptions.

Thus, learning to see and the purification of our vision is of fundamental importance. The Fathers of the Church used two mountain top encounters to speak of this experience. The first was that of Moses on Mount Sinai in which he had to let go of his own ideas and encounter God in darkness, realising that God is far beyond all the ideas that we have of Him. The second was that of Christ’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, in which the Apostles Peter, James and John were enabled to see His true glory. In the liturgical texts for the feast of the Transfiguration we are told that that they were able to see it “insofar as they could bear it.” The vision is open to all, but our task is to learn to see with the eyes of faith and to seek the purity of heart which the Gospel tell us will allow us to see God so that His glory may shine through in our lives.

To be continued…

 

anastasis

In the teaching of the Church, the Descent into Hell is indissolubly connected with the Redemption. Since Adam was dead, the abasement of the Saviour, who had assumed his nature, had to reach the same depths to which Adam had descended. In other words, the descent into hell represents the very limits of Christ’s degradation and, at the same time, the beginning of His glory. Although the Evangelists say nothing of this mysterious event, Apostle Peter speaks of it, both in his Divinely-inspired words on the day of Pentecost (Acts ii, 14-39), and in the third chapter of his first Epistle (1 Peter iii, 19). “He went and preached unto the spirits in prison”. Christ’s victory over hell, the deliverance of Adam and of the righteous men of the Old Testament is the main theme of the Divine Service of Great Saturday; it runs through all the Easter service and is inseparable from the glorification of Christ’s Resurrection in the flesh. This theme is, as it were, interwoven with the theme of the Resurrection. “Thou hast descended into the abyss of the earth, O Christ, and hast broken down the eternal doors which imprison those who are bound, and, like Jonah after three days inside the whale, Thou has risen from the tomb.”

Following the texts of the divine services, the icon of the Descent into Hell expresses the spiritual, transcendental reality of the Resurrection – the descent of our Lord’s soul into hell – and reveals the purpose and results of this descent. In harmony with the meaning of the event, the action in the icon takes place in the very depths of the earth, in hell, shown as a gaping black abyss. In the centre of the icon, standing out sharply by his posture and colours, is the Saviour. The author of the Easter canon, St. John of Damascus, says “Although Christ died as a man and His holy soul departed from His pure body, His Divinity remained inseparable from both – I mean body and soul.” Therefore He appears in hell not as its captive, but as its Conqueror, the Deliverer of those imprisoned therein; not as a slave but as the Master of life. He is depicted in the icon with a radiant halo, symbol of glory, usually of various shades of blue, and often spangled with stars round the outer edge and pierced with rays issuing from Him. His garments are no longer those in which He is portrayed during His service on earth. They are of a golden-yellow hue, made luminous throughout by thin golden rays (“assiste”) painted upon them. The darkness of hell is filled by the light of these Divine rays – the light of glory of Him Who being God-Man, descended therein. It is already the light of the coming Resurrection, the rays and dawn of the coming Easter. The Saviour tramples underfoot the two crossed leaves of hell’s doors, that He has pulled down. On many icons, below the doors, in the black abyss, is seen the repellent, cast down figure of the prince of darkness, Satan. In later icons are seen here also a number of varied details:- the power of hell destroyed – broken chains with which angels are now binding Satan, keys, nails and so forth. In His left hand Christ holds a scroll – symbol of the preaching of the Resurrection in hell, in accordance with the words of Apostle Peter. Sometimes, instead of the scroll He holds a cross, no longer the shameful instrument of punishment, by the symbol of victory over death. Having torn asunder the bonds of hell by His omnipotence, with His right hand Christ raises Adam from the grave (following Adam, our ancestress Eve rises with hands joined in prayer); that is, He frees Adam’s soul and with it the souls of all those who wait for His coming with faith. This is why, to the right and left of this scene, are shown two groups of Old Testament saints, with prophets at their head. On the left are king David and king Solomon in royal robes and crowns, and behind them John the Forerunner; on the right – Moses with the tablets of the Law in his hand. Seeing the Saviour descended into hell, they at once recognise Him and are pointing out to others Him of Whom they had prophesied and Whose coming they had foretold.

The descent into hell was the last step made by Christ on the way of His abasement. By the very fact of “descending into the abyss of the earth” He opened to us the access to heaven. By freeing the old Adam, and with him the whole of mankind from slavery to him who is the incarnation of sin, darkness and death, He laid the foundation of a new life for those who have united with Christ into a new reborn mankind. Thus the spiritual raising of Adam is represented in the icon of the Descent into Hell as a symbol of the coming resurrection of the body, the first-fruit of which was the Resurrection of Christ. Therefore, although this icon expresses the meaning of the event commemorated on Great Saturday and is brought out for worship on that day, it is, and is called, an Easter icon, as a prefiguration of the coming celebration of the Resurrection of Christ and therefore of the future resurrection of the dead.

Leonid Ouspensky, “The Resurrection,” in Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons(Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983) 187-188.

God became man so that man might become God by grace. Or as St John of Damascus put it:

I do not worship the creation rather than the Creator, but I worship the one who became a creature, who was formed as I was, who clothed Himself in creation without debasement or departing from His divinity, that He might raise my nature in glory and make it a partaker of His divine nature.

This explains why we have icons of holy people as well as of Christ. In the saint we see Christ shining forth. We worship God alone, but we venerate and honour all those people and things through which God comes to us.

Deification, or transfiguration as it may be termed, also explains the characteristic style of icons. The way an icon is painted suggests a world shining with the glory of God. It is not just what is depicted that is significant about the icon tradition, but how this is depicted. It is possible to depict a holy person in a profane way, omitting to suggest their transfigured state. Conversely, one can depict a mundane object in a sacred way, showing it in its paradisiacal state.

Deification is the norm that God intended for man, and so a naturalistic portrait, as wonderful and sympathetic as it might be in a painting, is not actually depicting man in his full and ‘natural’ supra-natural state.

Aidan Hart, Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting, 3.

The unspeakable and prodigious fire hidden in the essence of things, as in the bush, is the fire of divine love and the dazzling brilliance of God’s beauty inside everything.

St Maximus the Confessor

‘The dazzling brilliance of God’s beauty inside everything.’ This is the world that the icon depicts, a world seen not only with the eyes of the body but also with the eye of the heart. This is the meaning of Paradise, a world known not as mere object but as gift, a revelation of our Maker’s ‘fire of divine love’ for us.

To know the world and our Creator in this way is our natural state, a homecoming. Every one of us therefore has a profound longing to return to this home, which is not a place but a way of living and loving. We are blessed with nostalgia for the Land of the Living which is Christ, in whom all things are united, things in heaven and things on earth.

I believe it is precisely because it depicts our spiritual homeland that the icon has been steadily capturing the imagination of the West over the past few decades. It resonates with something somehow known but forgotten. On first encounter we are perhaps perplexed, or even scandalized by the way icons are painted. The perspective is all strange and the proportions are unfamiliar.

Or so we think, for steadily we begin to recognize something in these holy images. Deep calls to deep, like a fragrance evoking a forgotten person or place. And those who have followed this fragrance will know that what first appears to be a picture ends up being a gate that opens to a garden as real as this world.

Aidan Hart, Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting, xix.