Iconography

In his book Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, Stephen Jay Gould discusses the impact of iconography on the way we interpret data. By iconography he means visual representations of our ways of thinking. His argument is that the visual depictions of evolution as the March of Progress or the Tree of Life not only are a misrepresentation of evolution, but also impact the way scientists themselves interpret data.

The March of Progress has become a visual trope used in a variety of mediums. The idea is to show the gradual evolution from primitive organisms to more complex, “evolved” organisms, culminating in modern man.

The March of Progress

The March of Progress

This trope is used in popular culture a lot, as in this amusing example I included for the Dr. Who fans.

The Dalek March of Progress

The March of Progress, along with its analogue, the Tree of Life, is wrong. It promotes the idea of evolution as a progression from disorder to order, from simple to complex. It hides the actual complexities involved, and causes scientists to try and shoehorn fossils into a place on the tree of life as ancestors of modern creatures.

 

Modern paleontology had to undo and reinterpret much of the work done by earlier scientists who were wedded to the idea of evolution as the March of Progress, and who therefore tried to fit morphologically distinct organisms into the Tree of Life. In fact, as Stephen Jay Gould likes to point out, evolution looks more like a bush (although I think it looks more fern-like). After the Cambrian explosion, there were more than twenty kinds of arthropods that have no living descendants. These different body plans died out in the Late Devonian extinction, leaving only the current four families of arthropods. (Arthropods are a phylum of invertebrates which currently is made up of spiders, insects, crustaceans, and myriapods like centipedes.)

The Bush of Life

The Bush of Life

I find this argument fascination, as it provides an interesting way to think about the functioning of religious iconography. Take, for example, this representation of Jesus that is popular with Protestants. This Jesus has distinctly European features with classic movie star good looks.

Protestant Jesus

Protestant Jesus

If you think about this theologically, you’ll notice that the Protestant Jesus looks like us. He is clearly human; this representation provides no clue to His divinity. This is a Jesus you could have a crush on, a Jesus who would not be out of place in People magazine. In addition, the Protestant Jesus is not looking at us. While we are gazing at Him, He is gazing elsewhere. This Jesus is seemingly not engaged with us; he does not look at us with either compassion or judgment.

By contrast, Roman Catholic versions of Jesus are often more sentimental. One stylized depiction is called The Sacred Heart of Jesus, and is often used by various Roman Catholic Churches. In this depiction, Jesus has classic European features but is somewhat effeminate looking. He is gazing out at us with love. Catholic devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has to do with the human and Divine Heart of Christ, particularly as it represents and recalls His love for us. This painting is designed to use as an aid in stirring up our imaginations and increasing our devotion to Christ.

The Sacred Heart of Jesus

The Sacred Heart of Jesus

Note, as well, the aureola (halo, or glory cloud), representing the holiness of Christ. While this Christ is clearly human, the aureola serves to indicate His divinity as well. Like the Protestant Jesus, Catholic representations of Jesus pay great attention to representing the humanity of Christ. Christ and his surroundings are painted so as to simulate reality. This is true even in their stylized depictions of the crucifixion.

The Crucifixion of Christ

Catholic Iconography of the Crucifixion

The crucifixion is often depicted with a certain sentimentality. This Christ is the object of desire. As such, this is not the Christ of scripture, the one who has no beauty that we should desire Him. This is not the Christ who had been beaten and scourged to the point that he was unable to carry his own cross. And this Christ is, once again, not looking at us with love, but looking up to heaven. The intent of this painting is for us to use our imaginations to stir up our devotion to Christ.

Contrast this with one of the oldest extant representations of Christ the Pantocrator from St. Catherine’s Monastery, Egypt. This is a representation of Christ as God Almighty, the Lord of Hosts. This icon famously shows the two sides of Jesus. On the left side, He is looking at us with compassion; on the right side, with judgment. Instead of a standard halo, we see Jesus depicted with a halo containing a cross, although only three arms are visible. These three arms represent the trinity. On each arm is written one of three Greek letters (omega, omicron, nu) representing the phrase “He Who Is”. This phrase reminds us of The Name of God as revealed to Moses: “I am that I am.” Jesus Christ is God, and His existence is not contingent on anyone. We, on the other hand, do not exist of ourselves; our existence is contingent.

Icon of Christ the Pantocrator

Icon of Christ the Pantocrator

Note the position of the hands. Jesus right hand is held up in blessing, with two fingers extended (representing the divine and human natures of Christ), and with the ring finger and the little finger touching the thumb (representing the Holy Trinity).

There is much to love about this depiction of Christ, but there is no sentimentality. This Christ is gazing upon us, just as we are gazing upon Him. This is the Christ who is the Captain of the Host, the one who could have called upon 12 legions of angels, but who at the same time is involved with us.

This Natural, Right, and Pious Veneration of the Holy Icons

St. John of Krondstadt

St. John of Krondstadt

“Do we not ourselves prove in our daily life the requirement of our nature, its longing to have representations of the persons whom we love, when we express the desire to have their portraits and have our own portraits done, hang them up on the walls, or place them in albums, in order to look at them often, and to enjoy contemplating the respected and beloved faces? And this natural, right, and pious veneration of the holy icons many Lutherans and Anglicans regard as something unnatural, repugnant to God, as idolatry and heresy; they have not icons either in their houses or even in their temples, and consider it a sin to have and worship them. Through this they lose much in faith and piety, for by breaking the visible connection with the saints they likewise destroy the invisible one, whilst in reality, as the Church is heavenly and earthly, it forms one body. They have broken in the same way their connection with the departed, because they do not pray for them and do not offer sacrifices for their souls, sacrifices which are well-pleasing to the merciful God; and thus prove their unbelief in the power of the prayers of the Church for the departed. What kind of a Church is this that has unwisely and audaciously broken her ties with the heavenly, triumphant Church? has interrupted communion by means of prayers with the departed, and broken off communion with the Church that professes the faith in Christ in its primitive purity? Is it a living and holy body of the Church? Can a single trunk of the body, without head, without hands and feet, without eyes and ears, be called a living, organised body? And yet such a community proclaims its faith as the purified, true faith, and eschews the rites of our holy, spotless religion. Is that religion purified that has rejected the Sacrament of Orders and the other sacraments, excepting Baptism and Holy Communion, which last, however, is not valid; has rejected the veneration of the saints, of their relics, icons, fasting, monasticism, and prayers for the departed? Is this the faith of the Gospel? Is it the Church of Christ and the Apostolic Church? No; it is a self-made Church, constituted by the will of men, under the influence of human passions and pleasing human passions; it is ” the truth in unrighteousness “; it is the perverted Gospel of Christ; it is the perversion or turning away of Christ’s people ” unto another Gospel,” of which the Apostle said: “But though we or an angel from heaven preach any other Gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” It is not a Church, but a soul-destroying dissection of the body of Christ.”

Sergieff, Archpriest John Iliytch; St John of Kronstadt (2010-05-26). My Life in Christ, or Moments of Spiritual Serenity and Contemplation, of Reverent Feeling, of Earnest Self-Amendment, and of Peace in God (Kindle Locations 6863-6881). Kindle Edition.


“On what grounds of principle do the denominations around us vindicate their right to exist? To some of the sects this question would come like a thunderbolt. They have never raised it. They never knew that such a question could be raised. In the Sectarian Declaration of Independence, among the certain inalienable rights are sectarian life, sectarian liberty, and sectarian pursuit of happiness. They may deny a man’s right to wear a coat or a hat not fashioned after the sacred pattern shown them in the mount of their private hallucination, but as to a man’s right to join himself to any sect he thinks good, or to make another sect if the existing sects do not suit him, of that they never doubted. In the Popery of Sect, “Stat pro ratione voluntas” — their best reason is, they wish it so.

Yet this question is a great question. It is the question. The denomination which has not raised it is a self-convicted sect. The denomination which cannot return such an answer to it as at least shows sincere conviction that it has such reasons, should be shunned by all Christians who would not have the guilt of other men’s sins.”

Krauth, Charles Porterfield. “The Relations of the Lutheran Church to the Denominations around us.” In First Free Lutheran Diet in America, Philadelphia, December 27-28, 1877: The Essays, Debates and Proceedings, by Henry Eyster Jacobs, 27-69. Philadelphia: J. Frederick Smith, Publisher, 1877.

 

The Anathemas against the Iconoclasts (the Image Breakers)

Looting of the Churches of Lyon by the Calvinists in 1562 by Antoine Caron.

Looting of the Churches of Lyon by the Calvinists in 1562 by Antoine Caron.

In reading the Acts of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the claim is made that the veneration of images protects the doctrine of the incarnation of Christ. The reason is that the person of Christ was both fully God and fully man; that the Christ had both a divine nature and a human nature, a divine will and a human will, that He was consubstantial with the Father according to His divinity, and consubstantial with us according to His humanity. Thus the depiction of Christ according to His humanity is a confession of orthodoxy over and against the heretics.

It is truly startling to read the anathemas of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, and to realize how, for many years, I would have fallen under these anathemas. Lord have mercy.

Seventh Ecumenical Council

Extracts from the Acts.
Session I.

Anathema to the calumniators of the Christians, that is to the image breakers.

Anathema to those who apply the words of Holy Scripture which were spoken against idols, to the venerable images.

Anathema to those who do not salute the holy and venerable images.

Anathema to those who say that Christians have recourse to the images as to gods. Anathema to those who call the sacred images idols.

Anathema to those who knowingly communicate with those who revile and dishonour the venerable images.

Anathema to those who say that another than Christ our Lord hath delivered us from idols.

Anathema to those who spurn the teachings of the holy Fathers and the tradition of the Catholic Church, taking as a pretext and making their own the arguments of Arius, Nestorius, Eutyches, and Dioscorus, that unless we were evidently taught by the Old and New Testaments, we should not follow the teachings of the holy Fathers and of the holy Ecumenical Synods, and the tradition of the Catholic Church.

Anathema to those who dare to say that the Catholic Church hath at any time sanctioned idols.

Anathema to those who say that the making of images is a diabolical invention and not a tradition of our holy Fathers.

Percival, Henry R (2013-06-23). The Seven Ecumenical Councils (pp. 670-671). Veritatis Splendor Publications. Kindle Edition.

The Salvation Story in Icons

These icons are highly instructive for us and for our salvation. They describe in pictorial form not only why our salvation was necessary, but the means by which it was accomplished.

Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise

Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise

We see here our Lord gently going with Adam and Eve as they are expelled from Paradise. This is before he clothed them in animal skins to replace the glory with which they had been clothed in the Garden.

The Holy Theophany, also known as the Baptism of Our Lord

The Holy Theophany

We could have begun with the icon of the Nativity of our Lord, but instead we have here the icon of the Holy Theophany, otherwise known as the baptism of Our Lord. This is important for two reasons. First, because it was the first direct revelation of the Triune God, where the Holy Spirit descends upon the God-man, and the Father speaks from heaven. And second, because when John baptised Our Lord, Our Lord baptised all of creation. the two tiny figures mounted on the bottom represent the Jordan river and the Sea, both fleeing from one greater than themselves. The angels look on in amazement; meanwhile, we see the axe “laid unto the root of the trees”, spoken of by Jesus in Matt 3:10 and Luk 3:9.

Metropolitan Nahum of Strumica writes:

He Himself did not have the need either of Baptism, or Transfiguration, or of the Mystical Supper, or of Crucifixion, or of death and Burial, or of Resurrection on the third day, or Ascension! Thus, naturally, the question logically imposes itself: Why then does this whole Divine Economy (Dispensation) take place, this divine intervention among people in the world and time? The answer is the same as we read in the Creed: “For us and for our salvation”…! Out of love we are created, and out of love, after the fall, we are saved. (Metropolitan Nahum of Strumica (2013-02-22). NEITHER WILL I TELL YOU… (Kindle Locations 3022-3026). Monastery of the Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos Eleusa. Kindle Edition.)

The Crucifixion of Christ

The Crucifixion of Christ

The icon of the Crucifixion of Christ is interesting for a number of reasons. First, Christ still has his halo; he is still God, even while dead on the cross. The heretics sometimes say that only the humanity of Christ suffered death, but for death to be defeated, it had to be by the God-man who could not be held by death. We see here the angels collecting in a chalice the blood and water that pours from his pierced side, by which we are to led to an understanding of the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist — the washing of regeneration, and the medicine of immortality. We also see a skull beneath the earth; this is Adam, the first man, upon whom Jesus own blood is flowing. By the death of Christ, we are all baptised into his death and raised to newness of life; death has no more dominion upon us.

Metropolitan Nahum of Strumica writes:

 

The consequences of the fall, in human nature, could not have been healed if it had not become the nature of the Son of God, too, and if in this manner it had not passed the entire human road of life— from birth, through suffering, up to death itself, and resurrection. Christ the Godman adopted even death itself in order to destroy it with His Resurrection. Nonetheless, Christ assumed only the incorruptible passions of human nature, consequences of Adam’s sin and fall: hunger, thirst, fatigue, effort, suffering, tears, fear prior to death and death itself, and all the others that by nature appertain to every human being. The Godman took on Him all except for sin, that is, susceptibility to sin.(Metropolitan Nahum of Strumica (2013-02-22). NEITHER WILL I TELL YOU… (Kindle Locations 3026-3031). Monastery of the Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos Eleusa. Kindle Edition.)

We see this clearly in our last icon.

The Harrowing of Hades, fresco in the parecclesion of the Chora Church, Istanbul

The Harrowing of Hell. This representation of Christ’s descent into Hell shows Him breaking down the gates of hell and restoring Adam and Eve to Paradise.

In this icon we see Christ breaking down the gates of hell, and restoring the Old Testament saints to paradise. This is represented by Christ drawing Adam and Eve from their coffins, all the while trampling on death and the devil. In this icon we see not Christ as the suffering servant, but Christ the victor over sin, death, and the devil, for us and for our salvation.

The Harrowing of Hell is problematic for some Protestant Christians — not because it cannot be supported by the Sacred Scriptures, but because it doesn’t fit with their theology of salvation. That Christ descended to Hell is supported, but the meaning of leading captivity captive, and of preaching to the spirits in prison is unclear. Some believe that Christ descended to Hell to preach to the fallen angels, telling them they had been beaten. Some believe that Christ actually suffered in Hell until He was resurrected on the third day. They have difficulty seeing this for the victory it is.

The Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ on the clouds with the saints and  angels

The Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ on the clouds with the saints and angels

In this icon we see the risen and glorified Christ returning in glory with his saints and angels, and we see the praises of the saints on earth. What we don’t see is the so-called ‘secret rapture’ of the church, a doctrine which not only of recent origin, but of highly doubtful provenance. All those who died in the faith, as well as those who are prepared for and awaiting His coming, are all together rejoicing with the cherubim and seraphim. The already and the not yet of the kingdom are now one and the same. He who sits upon the throne will rule, and His kingdom shall have no end.

Maranatha. Even so come, Lord Jesus.

The Smolensk “Hodigitria” Icon of the Theotokos

Detail of the Smolensk "Hodigitria" Icon of the Theotokos

Detail of the Smolensk “Hodigitria” Icon of the Theotokos

“The Smolensk “Hodigitria” Icon of the Theotokos, or “She who leads the way,” was, according to Church Tradition, painted by the holy Evangelist Luke during the earthly life of the Most Holy Theotokos. Holy Hierarch Demetrius of Rostov suggests that this icon was written at the request of Theophilus, the prefect of Antioch. From Antioch, the holy image was transferred to Jerusalem. From there, Empress Eudokia, the wife of Emperor Arcadius, gave it to Pulcheria, the sister of the emperor, at Constantinople. Pulcheria put the holy icon in the Blachernae Church.”

http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/63364.htm

 

The Panagia Portaitissa

Panagia Portaitissa, Iveron Monastery

Panagia Portaitissa, Iveron Monastery

Recently I noticed an icon of the Virgin Mary where she had a wound on her face. This was intriguiging, especially as no one could explain it. A quick Google search later and I found the answer. The Panagia Portaitissa icon is a very special icon, dating back to the time of the iconoclastic controversy, when the forces of the Byzantine emperor were ordered to destroy all icons. The story goes that the icon belonged to a widow in Nicea who tried to protect it from destruction. A soldier stabbed the icon and, as the story goes, blood flowed from the wound. The widow spent the night in prayer, after which she cast the icon into the sea. This occurred early in the 9th century.

Monk Gabriel rescuing the icon of the Panagia on the water

Monk Gabriel rescuing the icon of the Panagia on the water

In the latter half of the 10th the icon was recovered off the coast of Mount Athos by a monk named Gabriel of the Iveron Monastery. The icon was taken to the main church of the monastery. When the monks entered the church on the following day, the icon was missing, and was later found hanging on the gates of the monastery. The monks took it down and put in back in the church, but the next morning it was found hanging on the monastery gates. This happened for several days until the monk Gabriel reported he had received a vision of the Theotokos, in which it was revealed that she did not want her icon to be protected by the monks, but she wanted to be their Protectress. Since then the icon has been installed above the monastery gates. The icon is called Portaitissa, or the Gate-Keeper, a title that comes from the Akathist to the Mother of God: “Rejoice, O Blessed Gate-Keeper who opens the gates of Paradise to the righteous.”

Iveron Theotokos of Montreal

Iveron Theotokos of Montreal

In 1648, Patriarch Nikon of Moscow, while he was still Archimandrite of the Novopassky Monastery, commissioned a copy of the Panagia Portaitissa. This famous icon, and the chapel in which it resided, was destroyed by the Bolsheviks in 1917. Other famous copies have been made, including the famous Iveron Theotokos of Montreal, which is a myrrh-streaming icon. A copy of the Montreal Myrrh-Streaming Iveron Icon began streaming Myrrh at the Russian Orthodox Church in Hawaii in 2007; I have personally witnessed the myrrh on the face of the icon, and was anointed with the oil during the icon’s visit to Washington DC.