Manuscript image from the Theological Works of John VI Kantakouzenos. Byzantine, Constantinople, 1370-1375
Earlier today I submitted an article to a journal using hagiography to dispute the idea that in the Byzantine world Christ was distant from worshippers, the unapproachable God, the Pantokrator on high. Because I’m a lumper, I could not help bringing in, alongside many references to Late Antique ascetic literature East and West, a couple of references to sixth-century art.
When people think of Christ Pantokrator, the image from many Eastern Christian domes springs to mind, such as this eleventh-century one from the Church of the Holy Apostles, Athens (my photo):
Or, better, this famous thirteenth-century mosaic in Hagia Sophia, Constantinople:
I didn’t mention these in the article, but for many people they convey distance and inaccessibility of the divine Person.
A Justinianic mosaic that I did mention and which can be seen to communicate a similar idea of unapproachable glory and Light is the icon of the Transfiguration from St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai:
The thing is, when I read monastic literature of the fifth and sixth centuries, I do not find an inaccessible Christ. Although there is evidence of the growing cult of the saints (see Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints — and I’ve read a good review of Robert Bartlett, Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?), the piety of the vast majority of early Byzantine ascetic/mystic/monastic texts is Christocentric, and Christ is not far or unapproachable to His followers.
Thus, the preferred Christ Pantokrator is sixth-century, not eleventh or thirteenth. Like the Transfiguration, it comes from St Catherine’s, Sinai:
This is one of the most famous icons in the world; it is the first of the Pantokrator type, from what I recall, and one of the oldest Eastern Mediterranean images of Christ to survive. Christ Pantokrator appears here with one half of his face gentle, one half stern. He is the perfect Desert abba, if you think of it.
The oldest Coptic icon may also be sixth-century and currently resides in the Louvre (I’ve seen it!). It is a different vision of Christ from any of the above — Christ and Apa Mena (my photo):
Christ is Pantokrator. All-powerful. For He is the Second Person of the Trinity.
Christ can also be our Friend. For such is how He described Himself to His Disciples.
Come, let us follow Him.
Last night, at the recommendation of Fr. Raphael, I watched the second episode of Andrew Graham-Dixon’s 2007 documentary Art of Eternity, ‘The Glory of Byzantium’. In this episode, he visits some of the great sites of Byzantine art from c. 500 with St. David’s in Thessaloniki to 1315 with the Chora monastery in Constantinople.* In between, Graham-Dixon brought us to Ravenna — San Apollinare Nuovo and San Vitale — as well as Hosios Loukas Monastery in southern Greece and the 13th-c mosaics in Hagia Sophia. Before we go any further, the apsidal mosaic from St David’s, Thessaloniki:
Along the way, he interviewed an iconographer and a priest. The iconographer explained to Graham-Dixon the idea that a Byzantine icon has ‘rhythm’; this use of the word didn’t make a lot of sense to an Anglophone, so he had the iconographer explain. Basically, Byzantine icons are drawn in such a way that the perspective is not at all like looking through a window (which would be the goal of Renaissance art). Instead, the idea is that the image is coming at you out of the wood on which it is painted.
This rhythm of the image, this movement towards you, explained the iconographer, brings you into the world of the image. It is no longer a strictly two-dimensional object, no longer merely geometric. You are participating in the image yourself. This, he said, is central to the Orthodox theology that lies behind Byzantine icons. In Orthodox theology, you know something by participating in it. We know God, to use the greatest example, by participating in God (an idea not without biblical precedent, if you get your ideas of ‘participation’ correct). Thus, when you behold an icon, you are participating in the image itself.
Later, Graham-Dixon interviewed an Orthodox priest. The priest explained many things about icons and their importance. He, too, brought out the significance of participation. When the Orthodox venerate an icon, they are not actually venerating the tesserae of the mosaic or the paint and plaster on wood, but the person of whom the image is made. This is an important distinction lost on many Protestants and, I fear, some Orthodox as well.
What this priest left out, or had cut from the interview, is the main reason icons are important. Icons are the full affirmation of the reality of the incarnation of God the Word. God became flesh and pitched his tent among us. He had two eyes, two ears, a mouth, and a nose. He walked on two (dirty) feet around the Judaean and Galilaean countryside. He touched real lepers with real hands. He preached with a literal voice from an actual larynx. He shed real tears at the death of Lazarus. He died a real death for us on the Cross. He rose again in just as real (if not more real) a body as before.
With the Incarnation, we behold God. Face-to-face. For 33 years He was literally present to the human race in an actual human form. This means that the prohibition on images doesn’t apply to Jesus. We may not know exactly what he looked like, but we do know this — he looked like a man. Because he was a man. Fully human, yet fully divine. As in this mosaic over the doorway into the church in Hosios Loukas Monastery:
By allowing images of Christ, we produce a tangible way of celebrating a full affirmation of the incarnation of the Creator God Who irrupted into human history and changed things forever.
When you take this theology of the incarnation that lies behind the theology of the icon, and then reflect on the idea of participation in Orthodox theology, you come across something beautiful. It is not truly the icon itself, the physical object, that is worthy of veneration, but the One Whom it represents. And when we behold an icon of Christ face-to-face, we are invited to participate in that image, to participate in the action of the image, to participate in the life of the Person Who looks upon us.
Graham-Dixon’s documentary is not available on DVD for normal people, unfortunately — I got it from the Edinburgh College of Art library, recorded from TV onto a DVD. I think it may be illicitly available on YouTube, though…
*If you have a date in Constantinople, she’ll be waiting for you in Istanbul.
Yesterday I took advantage of free museum day in Paris to make my third trip to the Musée nationale du Moyen-Age (aka Musée de Cluny). Some items not previously viewed were on display, sometimes because they’ve redone some displays, sometimes because I may not have paid enough attention in previous visits. Anyway, besides some really amazing ivory carvings that really deserve their own posts, I spent a little time with some fragmentary Gothic sculpture.
But I took no photos of that sculpture. Nonetheless, here’s something like what I saw, only more complete, from the central portal of Chartres Cathedral:
These three figures, you will note, are extraordinarily tall and slender. Kind of cubey around the edges, too. This is in part because they are, in fact, pillars. Since they serve an architectural function and are not stand-alone statues, they have been adapted to the space.
Nonetheless, I have seen other mediaeval figures like this; this slender, elongated form is not reserved for Gothic column-statues. Byzantine icons also tend to be sort of … low on flesh, if you will.
This lack of fleshiness was first pointed out to me on a trip to the Troodos Mountains in Cyprus, where our guide, Fr Ioannis, a painter and iconographer, asked some of the better-informed what struck them about some of the frescoes at Panayia Podithou. The answer: They look fleshier than a lot of classic Byzantine icons.
Fr Ioannis explained that this was due to ‘Western’ (add, ‘Renaissance and later’) influences upon Cypriot iconography. A classic Byzantine icon will be long and slender with nary a muscle and certainly no bulk to the figures. I present to you, as an example, the fresco of the Transfiguration on the exterior of St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus (15th-c, my photo):
You can see here that the figure of Christ in particular is a fairly unfleshy sort. This Byzantine style is also visible in an ivory plaque in the Musée de Cluny depicting the coronation of Holy Roman Emperor Otto II* and his wife, the Byzantine princess Theophano in 982/3:
The above is not my photo; mine was taken on my phone and is blurry. Nonetheless, this Byzantinising image is also very religious. In the centre is Christ who legitimates Otto II’s rule as Holy Roman Emperor; He is the largest, central figure, crowning the two monarchs who are dressed in Byzantine style. Compare it to my photo of this ivory carving of Christ crowning Romanos and Eudoxia in Constantinople a few decades earlier.
What this waifiness signifies, I believe (and as the post title suggests), is the spiritualisation of the human form. It is not necessarily a retreat from the goodness of the human body; the East and West are both accused of this in the Middle Ages, but if you take this visual evidence with the written evidence of the best theologians, you will see that there was a very strong belief in the inherent goodness of the human body as part of God’s creation.
In the Renaissance, the spiritual aspect of God’s good act of creating was found in expressing naturalism, from Fra Angelico to Michelangelo. In the Middle Ages, it was found in expressing spiritual truth.
The human person is not only a pscychosomatic unity but also inspired, inspirited, spiritual. We are tripartite — spirit-soul/mind/nous-flesh. Naturalism grounds the image in the present reality too much for the mediaeval mind. The goal is to set the mind on things above (Col. 3:2). Therefore, not only in subject matter (Christ, his Mother, the saints, Bible stories) but in style, that which is above is transmitted to our minds through the art.
The human form is elongated. Its muscle is toned down. It is still explicitly and specifically human in these mediaeval images. But now it is also otherworldly. It is spirit-and-body all at once. In a human face visible to you on the street today, you cannot see the soul. In contrast, in a mediaeval statue, ivory, or painting, you see the inner as well as the outer.
This spiritualising impacts the art in more ways than this, but I’ll leave it there for now. The next time you see such a form, I hope its intrinsic beauty will strike you to spend some time in your own nous looking for the spiritual and then moving upward to the God of the uncreated light.
I recently returned from a couple of weeks of research in Italy — a week and a bit at the Biblioteca Marciana, Venice, and two days at the Biblioteca Capitolare, Verona. The Marciana is located quite near the magnificent Basilica of San Marco, pictured at left. I, therefore, had many opportunities to visit San Marco and its mosaics.
The style of art that predominates in San Marco is called Veneto-Byzantine (my other blog on that); it is very similar to Byzantine iconography but also shares traits with Romanesque (no surprise, since both directly descend from Late Antique Roman art).
Today’s title takes a quotation from Rowan Williams’ book The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ — icons are theology in line and colour.
This is evident throughout San Marco.
Visually, I was impacted powerfully simply by setting foot inside San Marco — the brilliant gold of the place penetrates the soul. I could not help but utter praise to Almighty God under my breath the first two times I entered. The first time I entered I stumbled to a standstill as I beheld the glory of the place. (NB: In what follows, all images can be viewed full-screen if you click on them.)
It is a truly beautiful space. The golden field represents heaven. The iconographical plan of the main domes is Christological. As a visitor coming from the West, you encounter the mosaics in anti-chronological order, but they begin in the East with the rising sun, with the golden apsidal half-dome of Christ Pantokrator, the all-powerful. Above the chancel is the Dome of the Prophets, foretelling Christ with the Lord Himself in the centre. The next dome is the Dome of the Ascension, then the Dome of Pentecost, then the Dome of the Last Judgement. As the sun traces its trajectory, so does the story of Christ.
In between the domes of Pentecost and Ascension is the Christological vault. On one side stands the Crucifixion, on the other the Resurrection (portrayed in the Byzantine manner as what we would call the Harrowing of Hell), and in the centre the Empty Tomb. Below, the mosaics tell the story of Christ’s final days.
What is the theological significance of the main decorative scheme? The apsidal mosaic reminds us — Christ Pantokrator, Christ Almighty, Christ our God who was crucified for us. Christ who lives and saves us.
There has often been a temptation to deny the fullness of Christ’s divinity, from certain Gnostic groups to Jehovah’s Witnesses. San Marco calls us to worship Christ as fully God. In the atrium, we see this in the depiction of the creation. For whom do we see making the animals? The cross in the halo gives away who this young, beardless man is — it is God the Son, the living Word, Christ, who creates.
Yet He is not merely depicted in glory, but also on earth; we see not only his last moments, as I mentioned above, but also the Garden of Gethsemane, the temptation by the devil, and some of his teaching ministry. The other temptation has been to deny his full humanity, from certain Gnostic groups to those who claim he was an alien — or those whose vision of him as God would swallow up the man he was as well.
San Marco’s mosaics are a testament to the full humanity and full divinity of Christ. They are a reminder of what the great theologians of history — Athanasius, Augustine, Cyril, Leo, Aquinas, Palamas — have sought to balance in our minds as we think on our Lord and Saviour. And they do it through a medium accessible to all — the domes of a basilica.
This past Christmas, one of the gifts I asked for was the Byzantine crucifix pictured above, which was available at a local Christian book shop. I wanted it because of my interest in Eastern Orthodoxy as well as the aesthetic beauty of it; it now hangs above my desk at home where I can look upon a reminder of the glorious, cosmic event that transformed the world and my own life.
Upon looking at this crucifix, however, it became clear to me that this was not actually a Byzantine crucifix. It looks Byzantine, especially given that Christ is standing in victory, not hanging in agony, but it is not. A big give away, besides the western Mediaeval style of the figures, is the Latin inscription above our Lord’s head:
Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Not only is it in Latin, but it is not what Byzantine crucifixes tend to say. They tend to call him the King of Glory, not of the Jews.
Today I was wasting time on the interwebs, and, feeling like a bit of a fool, I now know where the crucifix is from:
I know I’ve seen images of this crucifix before I asked for the one at Christmas, but somehow it escaped me that they were one and the. The significance of this crucifix is as follows.
Francis of Assisi, when he had recently rejected his father’s wealth and all the rest, was in the old church of San Damiano praying one day. Hanging in the church was the crucifix in question.
Praying before this crucifix, Francis was told by Christ to rebuild His church. Thinking the Lord meant San Damiano, Francis did just that.
Later he learned that the church to be rebuilt was the one made of living stones, and Francis began his mission of evangelisation in earnest.
This crucifix, then, is very famous and holds a special place in the world of Franciscans.
As a work of art, it is interesting, as was pointed out at The National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi. In this article, we are drawn to three elements in this painting of the crucified God. First, we see the crowd of people beside/surrounding Christ, Mary the Virgin and John the Evangelist on one side, Mary the wife of Cleopas, Mary of Magdala, and Longinus the centurion on the other.
At the second level, where Christ’s arms are outstretched embracing the world we see four angels and two men surrounding a black chamber — the empty tomb. The men are Sts. Peter and John, the apostolic witnesses of the empty tomb.
Third, above our Saviour’s head we see Him ascending into Heaven and greeted by angels.
The salvation event is before us here, with the crucified God standing central as a King in control, crucified, resurrected, ascending before our very eyes. Depicted in line and colour is the salvation of the world, the theology of our own lives. Here we see the centrepiece of our faith on the San Damiano crucifix, the crucifix that the Lord used to draw Francis to transform the world.