Through the deceptive medium of social networking, it was apparent that I spent hours on end sharing pictures while sitting in a cafe in Greece. I had not shared that I was also using a laptop 97% of the time to work on a project. You had to be there to know what really happened. Those little ‘insta-snaps’ just don’t tell the whole story.
I’m reading an orthodox text, “The Resurrection and the Icon” by Michel Quenot. Conversely to my cafe example, the icons and this book about them are providing the snapshots that might fill in a missing 3%.
Or maybe more. That depends on how the expression, “Early Church” feels to you. Is it your intuitive opinion that the closer people lived to the physical time of Christ, the closer they would be to the authentic impact, timeless truth, and eternal message of His real presence? Or do you think that 2,000 years of theological argument has properly and of necessity, refined an indigestible, incoherent and inappropriate message for us contemporary Christians?
If Christianity is about knowing Christ, living memory of the incarnate person must have some advantage? But if our truth is found solely in the bible, the early church would be disadvantaged as their church bookstall would have had to put them on a waiting list for a few hundred years.
When I say ‘contemporary’, I think that roughly, the Orthodox Church was the only church for 1,000 years, and then the Catholic (and 500 years later the Reformed churches) began an ongoing fragmentation. (John 17:22?)
The theology OF the icon itself is of interest and the Orthodox Church imbues its peculiar visual art form with even greater sanctity than the Western church gives to its music. Both assume power to bring the congregation ‘face to face’ with God and both are required to be prepared and delivered with life absorbing devotion, but the icon has sacramental power that modern churches might only attribute to the Bread and Wine. To western eyes, kissing the icon is a no-no; it looks too much like worshipping an object.
That apart, the theology IN the icon has some messages to us based on the theology and traditions of the early church. Anglicans may be especially receptive to the notion of ‘tradition’ as we derive doctrine from three sources, likened to the three legs of a steady stool; namely, the modern bible, revelation, and tradition.
Theologically educational pictures should be more popular! Today as then, most Christians in the world cannot read. Today as then, all Christians in the world can understand pictures more easily than words. Though to be fair, you need a couple of art history lessons to know what these icons are on about! (Maybe a little NT Greek would come in handy too!)
If they are strange looking at first, as if from a foreign religion, remember their objective was never to be decorative, nor to move the emotions, but to precisely present theological truths in picture form. In a special ‘language’. For one does not ‘paint’ an icon. One ‘writes’ an icon. And so we must learn to ‘read’ them.
In addition to significance in the colours, the halos, and initials, many recurring biblical symbols are written in the language of icons. The tree of life: knowledge of good and evil. The mountain: centre of the world and proximity of God. Temple: where man meets God. The door: a self-reference of the Christ.
Now, after 2,000 years of evolution, education, and erudition, what could we be missing that these tiny crude two dimensional pictures might illustrate for our superior thinking? May I suggest that in our insistence that all men (and women, and children) should be able to ‘grasp’ the gospel formula, and know exactly what to do to move from being ‘out’ to being ‘in’, we have removed some mystery, and got into some unattractive exclusivity that is taking some effort to get out of. Broadly, Atonement is central to reformed Christianity and though we know of incarnation, it is more prominent in Catholic doctrine, and Resurrection in the Orthodox.
So if the icons are theology pictures for illiterate Christians, we might expect a lot of orthodox icons showing the resurrection. But surprisingly that event is deliberately never depicted. Resurrection occurs chronologically between two events which are traditionally depicted in adjacent icons. The curators’ approach is itself a visual lesson in the theological mystery. The truth is deemed unknowable, or at least beyond words or wisdom, and hangs in space between the spiritual and historical stories presented in these two Icons: The ‘harrowing of hell’, and ‘The three myrrh-bearing women’.
The first depicts an unwitnessed spiritual event that locates Pauline theology into the epic battle of Easter Saturday. Christ storms the gates of hell, littering these icons with broken keys and locks. The gates are locked from within, but not as in C.S.Lewis’ account by the lost who deny themselves knowledge of God, but rather by a personified Death who declares he will keep his prisoners and ensnare his attacker. But Christ the attacker is an irresistible force who destroys the gates, destroys death ‘himself’ and rescues enslaved men from mortality and darkness, starting with his friend Adam, the first-man to Christ’s new-man. They both have died, but now Adam has been rescued and Christ become victor through a raid on the enemy. An allegory that would ring true for those who read the OT with its battles and losers, and was prophesied in praise by children who played out His anticipated victorious return to the holy city.
In contrast, ‘the three myrrh-bearing women’ is not a picturing nor is it a personification of a spiritual event, but it’s a physical, witnessed historical event. Three women discover a tomb but no body.
Erroneous icons exist. These include icons that show Christ leaving the tomb, for the angels did not ‘release Him’ but rather revealed His absence. The stone was moved for the women, not for the Saviour! And the purpose of the encounter is to reveal that they have missed the action. It’s all over. And completely done. (Refer to previous icon!)
So these two proper icons frame the pivotal event on which Christian faith hangs. But the resurrection,.. how did it happen? When? No! It’s not depicted. It’s a mystery. Deal with it!
There are other mysteries that point to a reflexive transaction where God identifies with man so that man may become ‘recreated’ into his place in the fully redeemed and fully perfected creation.
Consider the initials of the words “I Am” in the halo of the Christ point back to the words from the burning bush, where, in a pictorial parallel, the presence of God did not consume the occupied material. So through pictures, we see a mystery: Jesus the man, ‘burning’ but not consumed with the presence of the cosmic Christ.
Christ and the mother Mary are shown wearing a red layer over blue, and a blue layer over red. The immortal has ‘put on’ mortality. The mortal has ‘put on’ immortality. Theology in pictures. Incarnation at Christmas can significantly change our interpretation of the Easter passion, especially our identification with Christ in death and resurrection.
In the orthodox Easter ceremonies this is experienced theatrically in the liturgy. Yesterday, Good Friday, we visited the epitaphio (tomb) being constructed of flowers in the churches. Children and some adults would not only queue to kiss the icons on its table, but crawl under the table to symbolise going into the tomb and into death with Christ. Their very word for Easter, Pascha, is literally ‘passage’ or ‘Passover’. But here, we pass-under to identify with Christ’s ‘going down’.
Later we (everybody) followed in mourning with scented candles, through silent streets. Bells were tolling and drums beating slowly from every direction. Tonight, Holy Saturday, the streets will fill again and at midnight the light of life will flood out of the church, passed from person to person as we light our candles, passing the flame from the church outward.
Back to the icons, the iconodules and the iconoclasts disagreed over this but let’s say that Icons are deliberately ‘artistically unrealistic’. The objective is not to contribute to the mass of sensuous and emotional images by which we are constantly assaulted, nor to distract the writer or reader with skills of realism. The objective is to focus the heart on truth. Therefore not only do Byzantine landscapes and bodies appear two-dimensional, but also the same person may appear more than once in the same icon. Different events that happened at different times can appear in the same icon.
Incarnation and transfiguration can be co-present in an icon, with the aim of showing Christ move from spirit to flesh, and then be changed into a glorious state. They see the major points of theology strung between these ‘poles’.
With understanding derived from these views, we start to project meaning into the obscure parables. For example, the traveller in the parable is on a journey from Jerusalem (the holy place) to Jericho (which means ‘moon’ symbolising mortality. Perhaps symbolically. The rescuer and redeemer does not only rescue and redeem the victim, but takes his place on the journey, and promises to return for him.
Come soon, Lord Jesus!