Tag: iconography

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As the birthday of the impudent Heron was being kept, the object of the termagant dancer’s oath was achieved; for the head of the Forerunner was cut off and offered on a charger, as food for those reclining.  What a loathsome banquet, replete with wickedness and horrible murder.  As for us, we bless the Baptizer, […]

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Icon, Part 15: The Dormition of the Theotokos

 

When Christ our God wanted to take to Himself his own Mother [to be] with him, then three days before, through an angel, He informer [her] of her departure from Earth. “[It is] time,” he said, “to bring my Mother to me. So do not be disturbed about this but accept the word with joy for you will receive eternal life.” And through [her] desire about departing to Sion, she went up to the Mountain of Olives to pray with sincerity in [her] usual way…⁠1 (St. Andrew of Crete, 8th Century)

On August 15 in the Orthodox Church, we commemorate the final Great Feast of the liturgical year, which began on September 1, and whose first Great Feast was the Nativity of the Theotokos,⁠2 with Falling Asleep of the Most Holy Theotokos. This is more commonly called The Dormition of Mary, since “dormition” is a Latin-derived word that means “the falling asleep.” In Greek this is called “Koimesis.”⁠3 In the Roman Catholic Church this same day is observed as “The Assumption of Mary,” and frankly quite a lot of Orthodox may refer to the feast by the same name. There are subtle differences in the meanings and theology between Assumption and Dormition, but these are fairly minor.

The Dormition, as the last of the Great Feasts, is also the last of the Marian feasts, during which we commemorated not only her Nativity (her birth) but her Presentation at the Temple,⁠4 and the greatest of all her feasts, the Annunciation.⁠5 We have also been with her at Jesus’s Nativity⁠6 (Christmas), Jesus’s own Presentation at the Temple (Candlemass),⁠7 His Crucifixion,⁠8 and his Ascension,⁠9 as well as at Pentecost.⁠10 Mary is the mother of the Church. Jesus, on the cross, put her in the care of the apostle John, and tradition tells us that John cared for her to the end of her days. And while Luke may not have written an account of her death, many believe that the personal touches and remarks of Mary in Luke’s gospel may have been directly due to Luke know her. It is fitting that we honor her death.

Icon, Part 14: The Transfiguration

 

by Theophanes the Greek

Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them.  His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light.  And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him.  Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Lord it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  While he was still speaking, behold a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.  Hear Him!” And when the disciples hear it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid.  But Jesus came and touched them and said, “Arise, and do not be afraid.”  When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.  Matthew 17: 1-8, Orthodox Study Bible (OSB), 2008.

Icon, Part 13: Pentecost

 

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance. Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together, and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language. They were amazed and astonished, saying, “Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? “And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born? “Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God.” And they all continued in amazement and great perplexity, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others were mocking and saying, “They are full of sweet wine.” (Acts 2: 1-13, NASB)

Ten days after Christ’s Ascension into Heaven, the Holy Spirit descended on the Disciples, and they began to “speak in tongues”. From this point forward they are no longer the Disciples, but the Apostles. This is the beginning of the Christian Church.

Each of the Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church is important, and each marks something else for us to learn about Christ, but there is something qualitatively different about Pentecost. Christ’s death and resurrection were world-changing, but it was from the event of Pentecost that the Apostles, one might say, “found their voice” through the Holy Spirit, and took the message of the Resurrection out into the world. For the three or so years of Jesus’s earthly ministry, His message and His Disciples stayed largely within Judea and Samaria (though holy tradition does speak of journeys and correspondence further afield), but after Pentecost the faith and message of Jesus spread rapidly throughout the entire Roman Empire (which it would fundamentally change over the next 300 years), the Persian Empire, beyond there into India, southwards into Ethiopia, and to points further beyond.

Icon, Part 12: Ascension

 

The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up to heaven, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen. To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God.

Gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, “Which,” He said, “you heard of from Me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.

And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them. They also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.1 — Acts 1: 11, ESV

Icon, Part 11a: The Theotokos

 

During this long break of the Paschal season, which ends with the Ascension, I thought I would turn to another iconographic theme post, similar to my essay on why we have icons in the first place, and specifically of Christ, and discuss what may be the most popular icon type (in terms of numbers of icons): The Theotokos, Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Next to Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity, no other person is so highly venerated within Orthodox or Catholic churches.  Due to the length of this subject, this essay will be in two parts.  In the first part, I discuss why she is so highly esteemed, from both historical / traditional reasons, and from experiential reasons.  In the second part I will present a sampling of the major forms her icons take, and by what names they are called.

At the outset it bears noting that, outside of Orthodoxy and Catholicism, Mary is rather a controversial figure.  Within the Protestant churches, aside from the more liturgical Lutherans and Anglican / Episcopalians, Mary is rarely mentioned aside from Christmas, and traditional understandings of Mary (that she had herself no further children, that she was far younger than Joseph, and that she was taken up bodily like Enoch) are disputed.  This is somewhat surprising as both Martin Luther and John Calvin esteemed her greatly, and for all else over which they broke with Rome, on these they remained in agreement.  For inquirers into either Orthodoxy or Catholicism, the veneration of Mary remains stumbling block – not just for the imagery all over the churches, but for the liturgical prayers and entire feast days dedicated to Mary.  For anyone coming from a church where In Christ Alone is a popular praise song, encountering Mary face to face is jarring, and may feel heretical or bordering on pagan.  This need not be the case.

Icon, Part 10: The Harrowing of Hades

 

What is the full meaning of Christ’s crucifixion on the cross, and His resurrection? Was it an atonement for our sins? A payment for our sins? Or was it something else far deeper? What was it that Jesus actually did, and why does it matter? For Orthodox Christians, the focus of Great and Holy Pascha (their word for Easter), the Feast of Feasts, is about far more than the empty tomb or some sense of payment, but about Life itself. “Christ is Risen!” we will greet each other, “Truly He is Risen” we reply. Christos Anesti! Alethos Anesti! And again and again we sing the Troparion:

Christ is Risen from the grave,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

“Trampling down death by death.” We hear that phrase again and again, and it is an old one. The emperor Justinian used it in his hymn, which we sing every Sunday.

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At that time, when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two Disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to Me. If anyone says anything […]

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Icon, Part 8: The Annunciation

 

“Rejoice, O Theotokos, O deliverance of Adam from the curse! Rejoice, O chaste Theotokos! Rejoice, O living bush! Rejoice, O lamp! Rejoice, O throne! Rejoice, O ladder and door! Rejoice, O divine chariot! Rejoice, O bright cloud! Rejoice, O temple, O most-gilded jar! Rejoice, O mountain! Rejoice, O tabernacle and table! Rejoice, O deliverer of Eve!” – Orthros of the Feast, Tone 2​“

On March 25, in both the Orthodox and Catholic churches, The Annunciation of the Archangel Gabriel to Mary, and of her assent to bear the Son of God is commemorated.  This is exactly 9 months before the Nativity of Christ (Christmas).  It is, on the Eastern calendar, the 7th Great Feast of the liturgical year.  The primary Gospel account of this miraculous event is in the Gospel of Luke, but as with much else in the liturgical cycle, Church tradition, theology, and hymnody has so much more to say.  In the centuries after the brief ministry of Jesus, succeeding generations of Christians had to come to terms with what, and moreover whom they had witnessed, and then work out and come to an understanding of the significance.  Part of that reckoning was understanding who Mary was, and how profound her own role had been.

The Feast

Icon, Part 7: The Presentation of the Lord

 

Behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon.  This man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.  It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s annointed.  He came in the Spirit into the temple.  The parents brought in the child Jesus in order to do according to the custom of the law concerning him.  (Luke 2: 25-27, EOB)

On February 2, the Orthodox Church commemorates the presentation of the infant Jesus at the Temple, in Jerusalem.  We are at the halfway point of the 12 Great Feasts of the Orthodox church, and already nearly halfway through the liturgical year that began on September 1.  We have passed from the nativity of Mary, through her own presentation at the Temple, the Nativity of Christ, and now have reached the time when as an infant he was brought to the Temple (the Exaltation of the Cross and Theophany being of different arcs).  The account for this is found solely in the book of Luke, and occupies the entire last half of chapter 2. 

The Feast

Icon, Part 6: Theophany

 

Rejoice, O River Jordan, be glad; for within thee the Maker of all things now is here, moved by mercy to seek at a servant’s hand saving Baptism for our sakes. Dance, be glad, O Adam, and, O Eve, our foremother; God supremely good, Who is redemption for all men, is come down to dwell with us.

The Torrent of Delight, Who is Master of all things, doth come unto the river’s swift streams to be baptized; for He willed to give me drink of waters that purify. And when John beheld Him, he cried out to Him, saying: How shall I stretch out my hand upon Thy divine head, whereat all things quake with fear?  Orthros Kathisma of the Fore-feast of Theophany

Coming out of the Advent season, and the 12 days of the Nativity (Christmas), we have reached the Great Feast that marks the end of the Christmas season: Theophany. In the non-Chalcedonian Orthodox churches (the so-called Oriental Orthodox), Theophany is of far greater significance than the Nativity, and indeed, it is often remarked that in the early days of the Church Theophany was universally the greater occasion than the Nativity, with the Nativity having been originally intended to amplify Theophany. Outside of the liturgical Christian churches, however, this observance has largely been forgotten, which is, I would argue, a significant loss to the understanding and practice of the Christian faith.

Icon, Part 5: The Nativity of Christ

 

Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, hath given rise to the light of knowledge in the world; for they that worshipped the stars did learn therefrom to worship Thee, O Sun of Justice, and to know that from the east of the Highest Thou didst come. O Lord, glory to Thee. Apolytikion of the Nativity of Christ 

The Orthodox icon of the Nativity is jarring to our western eyes. We are accustomed to seeing Joseph and Mary in a warm-looking and very clean wooden barn, each about the same age, kneeling before a wooden manger that has a glowing Christ-child within, while angels shout triumphant above, shepherds approach, and the Magi, newly arrived, kneel with their gifts while the star that guided them shines brightly above the entire scene. Look closely at this scene, though, and things seem off. There is no warm and clean wooden barn, but a jagged mountain with a dark yawning cave. The Christ-Child is within, but He’s wrapped up in bandages? And is the manger really a stone box that looks more like a coffin? Mary is laying out on a blanket, dominating the scene, while Joseph (an older Joseph) is down the mountain looking forlorn while a very strange and sinister figure talks at him. What is happening here? This is not the quiet and happy Nativity we know and cherish in our candle-light caroling, nor is it the Stille Nacht we envisage while the snow quietly falls.

For us, Christmas comes not only just past the darkest night of the year, as winter bears down ever more upon us, but also at the end of the year, at a time when we are busy making resolutions, travel plans, loading up on presents, and gathering with family. It is a time where many of us are granted rests from work, a vacation in the midst of everything. We can kick up our feet in front of the fire, pour some egg nog, watch Christmas TV specials, and relax through the New Year, which we’re going to cap off with another party. But look closely at this icon instead. Mary looks exhausted, Joseph is worried, and the layered scenes have an underlying urgency to them.  Clearly, the Nativity of Christ is here depicted not as an end goal, but (to borrow from Winston Churchill) the end of the beginning, a portentous marking of things yet to come.

Icon, Part 4: Veneration and the Incarnation

 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with G-d, and the Word was G-d. He was in the beginning with G-d. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, [1] and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it….  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-5, 14)

Thus far we have examined the first three festal icons of the Orthodox liturgical year, and in them see some of the conventions necessary to understand and interpret them (conventions such as the avoidance of over-realism, use of symbolism, a flattening of time and overlapping of events). The next Great Feast is, of course, the Nativity of Christ (Christmas), but in the interlude, I thought it time to address the icons themselves, their reason for being, why they are venerated, and what veneration even means in their context. And to do that, we should start with the prototype and, in its way, the most important icon of all, that of Jesus Christ Himself, and of one particular form — The Icon Not Made By Hands. All of Orthodox iconography is in vain if it does not point to Christ, and it is from Christ that all iconography stems.

As the Gospel of John says in its opening, “And the Word become flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory…” This is that fundamental claim of Christians, that G-d Himself took on actual and real human form — The Incarnation (which we observe as Christmas). Throughout all of prior history, G-d forbade any attempt to depict Him because you cannot depict the ineffable. Yet He came and took on human form (real flesh and blood), which we depict all the time, so this form we can depict. (I’m greatly oversimplifying this argument, however. It took 800 years, a lot of misuse of Christian imagery, two iconoclasms, and finally the 7th Ecumenical Council to sort this out.)

Icon, Part 3: The Presentation of the Theotokos

 

“And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”  Luke 1: 30, ESV

November 21 (New Calendar) marks the Great Feast of The Presentation of the Theotokos, the third in the annual liturgical calendar of the Orthodox Church.  The Feast occurs one week into the Advent season, which starts on November 15, and runs until Christmas Eve Vespers, and commemorates the presentation of Mary, still a young child, to the Temple in Jerusalem, where she will live a life consecrated to God.  Like the first feast of the liturgical year, The Nativity of the Theotokos, this Feast both parallels and foreshadows other narratives, and like the earlier Nativity, it is an expression both of how special Mary had to have been to have borne the Incarnation, and of how venerated she has been since the very early days of Christianity.

As with first Feast, we are still primarily drawing on the Protoevangelion of James, a non-canonical work of the 2nd century which was both in circulation in the early days of Christianity, and much beloved by Christians for centuries afterward.  We will return to this work at least two more times in the series.

Book Review: Hidden and Triumphant

 

Hidden and Triumphant: The Underground Struggle to Save Russian Iconography, by Irina Yazykova (translated by Paul Grenier), is a short work on how Russian Orthodox iconography, and indeed Christianity itself, survived the Soviets, found renewal in the Russian diaspora, survived the Nazis, spread into the greater Orthodox diaspora abroad, and returned home to its roots. As destructive as the Soviets were in their closure, desecration, and demolition of churches, not only were they unable to ever entirely squelch Christianity, but the very people they exiled were able to maintain the faith and provide outside inspiration and support to their people trapped within their homeland.

That traditional iconography survived the Soviets is remarkable in itself, yet that it survived at all as more than a novelty or as primitive folk art is just as significant.  Iconography, introduced during the conversion of Kievan Rus by Byzantium, developed its own Russian voice and style in the centuries after Byzantium’s conquest by the Ottomans, entering into a sort of golden age under such masters as Rublev during the 16th and 17th centuries.  Yet first, due to the schism with the Old Believers, and especially under the modernizing reforms of Peter the Great, much of that history was deliberately destroyed or hidden away.  From the time of Peter up until the eve of the disaster of World War I, Russian liturgical art was very often little distinguished from that of western European styles, save that its topics remained Orthodox and Russian in character.  Older, traditional icons, blackened with age and soot, were removed and relegated to barns or backwater churches far from the artistic centers of the major cities, and nearly the only practitioners of traditional iconography were rural artists or peasants.  Yet in that final generation before the Great War, these old masters were being rediscovered as these older panels were unearthed, cleaned, and restored, often for the first time in centuries, and Russian artists set about re-appraising their older traditions.

World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution ended that renewal at home.  And yet, as many Orthodox Russians fled the newly-created Soviet Union, they took with them these rediscovered forms, and in their communities of the diaspora, particularly in France, they laid the foundation for new schools of Russian liturgical art.  Yazykova profiles a number of such artists as they created new works for their churches in exile, and how they influenced new generations of iconographers, or changed what had been traditional roles.  In pre-Revolutionary Russia, for instance, only men could be iconographers in paint, while women were restricted to embroidered forms, yet with such a small community abroad, and the need to construct new churches in the expatriate communities, women stepped forward for the first time as skilled iconographers in their own right.  Sister Joanna Reitlinger, for instance, was a prolific artist, as was the highly skilled Mother Juliana (nee Maria Nikolaevna Sokolova), both of whom returned to Russia after the death of Stalin in order to continue their work and teach Russians (often in secret) in their own lands again.

Icon, Part 2: The Elevation of the Holy Cross

 

The second Great Feast of the Orthodox liturgical year is on September 14, and marks two related events: first, the finding of The True Cross by Saint Helen, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, and secondly, the recovery and restoration, by the emperor Heraclius, of the cross to Jerusalem after its theft by the Persian Empire in its last major war against the Romans.  This feast day is notable for being the only Great Feast day that is not commemorating any Biblical or Biblically-implied event.  It is also the last such Great Feast day until mid-November.

It is also a profound story of imperial conquests, defeats, and cycles of losing and re-finding, played out over 1700 years.  It involves the Christianization of the Roman Empire, a brutal war for the very survival of that empire, coups, assassinations, the elevation of the Cross itself as the single prevailing symbol of the faith, and many figures who loom large in our histories even today.  Its story begins even before the finding of the Cross, with a commoner named Helen, who son Constantine would fundamentally reorder the Roman world.  The story echoes even today in rural Ohio, in small but ornate wooden box, where a tiny fragment of wood, almost too small to be worth noticing, carries with it the arc of Christian history.

The History

Icon, Part 1: The Nativity of the Theotokos

 

September 1 marks the start of the liturgical year of the Orthodox Church. This goes back both to the Romans, who assessed a tax called the Indiction on this date, and to the Jewish calendar, with Rosh Hashanna marking the new year at about this same time. As this is the start of the liturgical cycle of great feasts and great fasts, I’ve decided to put out a series of posts on one of the most recognizable features of Orthodoxy: The Icon.

There are 12 Great Feasts in the Orthodox liturgical year, plus Pascha (Easter), which is the Feast of Feasts (there are also 12 in Catholicism, but with differences). In this series, each part to be posted close to the feast, I’ll be looking both at the event commemorated, and at its iconographic depiction. Through this series I will also try to lay out the functions of icons, their liturgical use, and their accepted proper forms both historically, and as they have developed throughout time (and have both departed from, and returned to their older roots in the process). Here and there I’ll fill in with some additional posts on related topics, certain saints, and the major other icons. Our first selection, corresponding with the first of the Great Feasts, is the Nativity of the Theotokos, which occurs on the eighth of September, just a few days hence.  (Nota Bene: any errors in this series are my own fault.)

The liturgical year in part follows the lives and ministries of two people, Jesus and his mother Mary, as well as significant events in the lives of the Apostles, and of the Church itself. Two of the Marian feasts mirror or foreshadow similar feasts of Christ. Thus we have the Nativity of the Theotokos, and later the Nativity of Christ; and we have the Presentation of Mary at the temple, followed later by the Presentation of Christ at the temple. These two foreshadowing events of the Marian feasts, however, do not celebrate events depicted in the Gospels of the Bible we know today, but events that nonetheless entered the Christian cannon at a very early date. These events are told in the apocryphal gospel of James (The Protoevangelium of James), which, while not accepted into the formal cannon of scripture, is nonetheless considered to illustrate something that was spiritually true or necessary, even if not completely verifiable.

After the Cultural Winter

 

Hagia Irene, a church of the Iconoclasm period.

Winter is a time when the earth seems dying and barren. The trees are shorn of their leaves by the howling winds, the ground is shorn of its color by frost or sucking mud. Nothing is growing, nothing seemingly is even changing. From the time the Christmas decorations are dunned away, the world takes on a dreary day to day sameness of cold and damp, relieved on in the forced fits of the crimson blushing of Valentine’s Day, or the unnatural kelly-green of St. Patrick’s Day. When Spring arrives, really arrives despite the occasional frost or last burst of snow, suddenly it is everywhere at once in a thousand flower beds both tended by human hands and otherwise. And then Summer works its way in, when the days are long, golden, and warm with activity.  We can appreciate the Summer all the more by remembering how dreary the Winter before it was.