Christ, Pantokrator and Friend in Egypt and Sinai

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):

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Or, better, this famous thirteenth-century mosaic in Hagia Sophia, Constantinople:

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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:

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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:

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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):

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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.

The “Triumph of Orthodoxy”

Late 14th century icon illustrating the "Triumph of Orthodoxy" under the Byzantine Empress Theodora and her son Michael III over iconoclasm in 843. (National Icon Collection 18, British Museum)
Late 14th century icon illustrating the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” under the Byzantine Empress Theodora and her son Michael III over iconoclasm in 843. (National Icon Collection 18, British Museum)

Eastern and Western Easter are very far apart this year — we just observed Palm Sunday by the Western calendar, while our brothers and sisters in the Eastern churches* just celebrated the First Sunday of Great Lent, the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. When I did my series of presentations on Ancient Christianity for the Greek Evangelical Chuch in Nicosia, Cyprus, one of the gentlemen present was very concerned with the Triumph of Orthodoxy and the Orthodox use of icons. The Triumph of Orthodoxy, you see, is a feast celebrating the reaffirmation in 843 of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the Second of Nicaea, that took place in 787, and approved the use of icons in Christian worship. My focus today is on 787 as the triumph, even if we had to wait until 843 for its full acceptance in the East.

His concern was that the Orthodox are so obsessed with icons that they see the settling of the icon question as central to their identity, and call it the ‘triumph’ of Orthodoxy. The Greek Evangelical Church of Cyprus, like its relative (but structurally distinct) in Greece, is a Presbyterian denomination. The Reformed are always cautious of images. And for Protestants in Orthodox countries, the ubiquity of icons becomes a stumbling block between the different Christian communities. This fellow felt that Orthodox iconodulism (veneration of icons) obscures the Gospel. I don’t recall everything he expressed to me, so I cannot say how close he feels it comes to idolatry.

John Calvin certainly felt that images were by nature impious.

Now, I am not Eastern Orthodox, so I may accidentally misrepresent something here. My apologies.

Nevertheless, the question arises: Why celebrate Second Nicaea, in 787, and its affirmation in 843, every year as the Triumph of Orthodoxy?

The answer is not simply that Orthodox Christians loves them some icons. I mean, they do — this Saturday, Father Raphael was explaining some of the icons in the chapel in Edinburgh to my wife and me. But when Father Raphael discusses the theology of icons and iconology, it becomes apparent that the images are to be venerated as signs and signifiers of greater wonders, theological truths, mysteries of faith, historical encounters with God.

But that is not why the Seventh Ecumenical Council is the Triumph of Orthodoxy.

The great controversies of the Seven Ecumenical Councils are all Christological:

  1. At Nicaea in 325, the question was debated as to whether ‘there was when Christ was not’ and if Christ is to be called homoousios (no to the former, yes to the latter). The resulting Creed was much debated until
  2. the First Council of Constantinople in 381 that reaffirmed the teaching of Nicaea and added some further clauses on the Holy Spirit. Having settled the question of Christ’s divinity to their satisfaction, the bishops of the imperial church began to debate about what it means for Him to be both human and divine.
  3. At Ephesus in 431, the apparent teaching of Nestorius was rejected that divided Christ to such a degree that He was two persons; the epithet Theotokos, God-bearer, was approved for the BVM because it affirms that the Person born of her was, indeed, fully God from the moment of conception.
  4. The Fourth Ecumenical Council, at Chalcedon in 451, affirmed that the single Person of Christ has two natures, one human and one divine, drafting a definition of faith to that effect.
  5. The Fifth Ecumenical Council, the Second of Constantinople, in 553, tried to reconcile Chalcedon to the conservative Cyrillians (Mono-/Miaphysites) by giving it a more Cyrillian interpretation and anathematising certain persons and teachings.
  6. The Sixth Ecumenical Council, the Third of Constantinople, of 681, rejected the teachings of Monothelitism and upheld the teachings of St Maximus the Confessor that maintain that if Christ has two natures, he must have two wills.
  7. The Seventh Ecumenical Council, the Second of Nicaea, in 787, upheld the production and use of icons in Christian worship.
Seventh ecumenical council, Icon, 17th century, Novodevichy Convent, Moscow
Seventh ecumenical council, Icon, 17th century, Novodevichy Convent, Moscow

Put this way, it is obvious how the first six are Christological, but less so regarding the Seventh, unless you look at what the Council Fathers affirm. After affirming their rootedness in tradition, the Council Fathers declare that representational art:

is quite in harmony with the history of the spread of the gospel, as it provides confirmation that the becoming man of the Word of God was real and not just imaginary, and as it brings us a similar benefit. For, things that mutually illustrate one another undoubtedly possess one another’s message.

They say a bit later:

The more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration. Certainly this is not the full adoration {latria} in accordance with our faith, which is properly paid only to the divine nature, but it resembles that given to the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, and also to the holy books of the gospels and to other sacred cult objects. Further, people are drawn to honour these images with the offering of incense and lights, as was piously established by ancient custom. Indeed, the honour paid to an image traverses it, reaching the model, and he who venerates the image, venerates the person represented in that image.

The logic of icons of Our Lord is simple. God the Word became Incarnate as a real, flesh and blood human being, possessing a true human nature and existing as a real, single person. This He did for our salvation. The Apostles saw him and touched him. If they had wanted to, they could have painted him. If there had been cameras, they could have photographed him. Jesus was real, not fake. There is no space for docetism in orthodox Christianity. Therefore, the teaching of Deuteronomy 4, that the Israelites could not make images of God because they had not seen him, no longer holds for God the Word Incarnate, although it still counts for God the Father and the Trinity as a whole, as I have discussed.

The Reformed are free to dispute and argue with this, so long as they stand within the bounds of logic and Scripture. However, what they cannot dispute is that images of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, are approved by the ancient churches on the grounds of the Incarnation, on the grounds of the Gospel truth that God became man in order to save us.

The Seventh Ecumenical Council is the final council of the united church. None of the General Councils of the western church from the Middle Ages to Vatican II can truly be ecumenical without Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. This council affirms the teaching of the ‘last’ of the Eastern Fathers, that iconodule St John of Damascus, the most famous supporter of icons, who was my introduction to the Iconoclast Controversy through the Internet Medieval Sourcebook.

East and West both affirm the full divinity and humanity of Christ the Word Incarnate. Centuries of debate went into our orthodox understanding of Christ to produce teachings that are the most biblically faithful and philosophical coherent ones out there. Their culmination was in the Seventh Ecumenical Council. The foundations for subsequent Christian theology were thus laid, and in just under three centuries, East and West would part ways. This was also a great moment of unity for us.

How could this not be the triumph of orthodoxy?

*I make this plural not because I am confused about whether or not Greek, Russian, Serbian, Romanian, Antiochian, etc, Churches are all the same thing but because Eastern Orthodox and Eastern/Greek/Byzantine Rite Catholic (“Uniate” in some circles) follow the same calendar; Oriental Orthodox Churches, I believe, have the same Easter, but I am not certain of their other feasts, since they do not recognise all Seven Ecumenical Councils.

Orthodox Easter

Re-post from elsewhere in (I think) 2009. This year, Western and Orthodox Easter were only one week apart. Today, 12 April, is Orthodox Easter. Enjoy!

AnastasiThis year, Eastern and Western Easter were about a month apart (the farthest apart they can be, as well as ours being the earliest it will be for another 220 years). And so, as my Russian, Greek, Cypriot, Antiochene, Syrian, Alexandrian, Ukrainian brothers and sisters celebrate the Feast of Feasts, the Resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, I’d just like to say:

Crist aras! (Crist sodhlice aras!) (Old English)

Crist is arisen! (Arisen he sothe!) (Middle English)

Which is to say: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! (For how to say this traditional Easter greeting in more languages, go here.)

I like Orthodox Easter… [and] it was while abiding on the island of Cyprus I first encountered the Eastern celebration of Easter. Here in Toronto, I went to a Russian church which happens to be in my neighbourhood.

I showed up early, around 10:30 PM. I asked about the candles and whatnot from a young cantor and his wife. I bought two slender beeswax tapers for $2 each, then went into the sanctuary. There were people moving about at the different icons, as well as in what looked like a line for confession (?). I walked up and stood in the centre aisle for a bit, focussing on the focal point of the room and praying.

This church is very open; it’s an old Anglican building with pews relegated to the walls only, and a few rows of chairs at the back. The rest of the space is essentially empty, with icons along the walls and on the pillars. In the centre of the nave (what I would call the chancel is hidden behind the iconostasis, the icon screen) was a table covered in white flowers, daisies and lilies. And on the table, in the midst of the white flowers, was a red cloth, representing the shroud of Christ. Atop it were a book of the Gospel (I surmise) and a cross. The shroud itself, I believe, had Christ in the tomb on it.

After I had watched some others praying before this shroud, symbolising the fact that Christ died and went down to Hades, I approached it myself. Some had kneeled; all had crossed themselves; most had kissed at least the book of the Gospel, if not the shroud itself and the cross. I mounted the step in front of the shroud, crossed myself, and prayed to the Eternal Risen Christ, holding the candles in my hand. I crossed myself again, kissed the book of the Gospel, and crossed myself a third time.

Then I dismounted and and went to the candlestand on the right of the shroud. I lit one of my two candles and prayed to Christ, proclaiming Him the Light of World and smiled within since a city on a hill cannot be hidden. Then I stepped back, beside the lectern where a lector was reading the scriptures in Slavonic.

I occupied the next hour of my life in various ways. I stood before an icon of St. Nicholas for a while, noting that Russian icons are more three-dimensional than Byzantine ones. I sat for a while. I wandered past all the icons, praying to Christ for His glory. Before the icon of the Blessed Virgin, I sang the Magnificat quietly to myself. Throughout it all, I was often singing quietly to myself, especially this Taize chant:

Laudate Dominum! Laudate Dominum, omnes gentes! Alleluia! (repeat)

Eventually, it was 11:30, and the clergy came out in their fine robes. There was singing in Old Church Slavonic before the shroud, with the choir answering (also in Slavonic) from the balcony at the back. The singing was beautiful. A deacon appeared beside the priest and his deacon with a candle. Then they processed around the table with the shroud, the priest censing everything. Following was more singing, and the shroud was removed.

Next, they did things behind the Holy Doors of the iconostasis. I don’t know what. There was, undoubtedly, incense and Slavonic involved. The choir would occasionally sing. Then they got ready for the procession.

The procession was led by some servers carrying an icon of Christ surrounded by a great wreath. Following them were others with candles and the priests and deacons. Then regular laymen in street clothes carried six standards with icons on them, topped by crosses. Behind them went the choir. We lit our candles from the stands around us (they were equipped with Dixie cups to catch the wax).

We processed around the block. I wended my way through the procession so that I could spent the last bit close enough to hear the choir over the hubbub around me. Then, singing a hymn, we stopped at the church steps. The priest had a microphone and sang some antiphons, the choir responding with something to do with Christ every time. And then he declared:

Christos Voskrese!

To which everyone but me responded:

Voistino Voskrese!

Fortunately, I could respond to, “Christ is Risen!” (Indeed, He is risen!) and “Christos Anesti!” (Alithos Anesti!) Next was French, and I didn’t know the response. None knew the German response. Then a smattering of other languages, to each of which a few knew the answer. He concluded with the Slavonic version seven times.

They sang a hymn and went in for the Divine Liturgy. I slipped away, since the Divine Liturgy takes three hours.

From the moment I stepped into that church, it felt right. You should all go next year!

Icons: The Participatory Full Affirmation of the Incarnation

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.

Apsidal mosaic, San Vitale, Ravenna

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.

Mosaics at San Marco: Theology in line and colour

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.

The Ascension Dome and the Christological vault. Click on the image to see it fullscreen.

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.

The Temptations of Christ

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.

Easter, Day 7: An Icon

Tomorrow is Orthodox Easter. Orthodox icons of the Resurrection are actually of what we would think of as ‘the harrowing of hell’ — they show Christ having beaten the gates of Hades and saving the souls of the saints such as John the Baptist, King David, Adam, and Eve. And this salvation is precisely what Easter is about.