Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Posts Tagged ‘Great Feasts’

“Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

January 13th, 2013, Promulgated by Bernie

To celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord and the end of the Christmas Season let’s take a look at two 5th century mosaics from Ravenna, Italy, which present the Baptism in a slightly different way.

(Please be sure to click on the pictures to see clearer images)

Left: Orthodox Baptistery; Right: Arian Baptistery

Left: Orthodox Baptistery; Right: Arian Baptistery
Holly Hayes/Art History Images

I find these mosaics intriguing for a couple of reasons but mostly because one of the differences they have between them may be the result of the fact that one served the Arian Christian community of Ravenna and the other served the orthodox1 Christian community.

Arianism had been declared a heresy at the Council of Nicaea in 325 and again by the First Council of Constantinople in 381 but it proved stubborn and survived long after its condemnation, especially among barbarian Christians such as the Ostrogoths. (Arianism is a belief that Christ had a divine nature but had been created by the Father and was, therefore, “inferior” to the Father, not co-eternal with the Father and not of the same substance as the Father. The orthodox view holds that Christ is divine as the Father is divine and “con-substantial” or “of the same substance” as the Father. He is co-eternal with the Father.)

Left: Arian Baptistery; Right: Orthodox BaptisteryL: Georges Jansoone; R: Mattiah

Left: Arian Baptistery; Right: Orthodox Baptistery
Pictures: (L) Georges Jansoone; (R) Mattiap

Both mosaics are situated in the domes/cupolas of baptisteries constructed as octagonal buildings. Baptisteries in the early centuries of Christianity were usually octagonal structures and attached to or built next to the cathedral church of a city or town.2 Seven of the eight sides of a baptistery symbolized the seven days of creation and the eighth side symbolized the eighth day, the day of resurrection to eternal life.

The Arian structure was constructed ca. 500-25 at the behest of Ostrogothic King Theodoric who ruled the area at the time. There was already an orthodox baptistery in Ravenna that had been erected ca. 458 . King Theodoric was an Arian (heretical) Christian and decided to let the Goths (Arians) and the Romans (“orthodox”) of Ravenna live together, but separately, and so there were separate neighborhoods and separate religious buildings in Ravenna. Thus, there were two cathedrals and two baptisteries in Ravenna in the 5th century –these two.

The mosaics of the Baptism of the Lord in the two baptisteries appear nearly the same. (The Arian mosaic is a little simpler and the decorations on the walls of Arian building have been destroyed or lost.) The scene depicted at the apex of both domes depicts Christ baptized by John in the river Jordan.3 This center scene in each mosaic is surrounded by a procession of the twelve apostles led by Saints Peter and Paul.

But in comparing the two center scenes of the Baptism we notice a  difference. In the Arian mosaic Jesus appears as a clean shaven youth, but in the orthodox depiction he is older and sporting a beard. Is there a significant reason for the difference?

Left: Orthodox Baptistery; Right: Arian BaptisteryHolly Hayes/Art History Images

Left: Orthodox Baptistery; Right: Arian Baptistery
Holly Hayes/Art History Images

Perhaps not, for many years the two ‘types’ of Jesus existed in Christian art side by side. The youthful, clean shaven Christ was actually the first to appear in Christian art. The older, bearded Jesus began to appear only in the last part of the 4th century when, in an attempt to win over pagans, Christian artists began to depict Christ as divine as the pagan gods were divine, using pagan iconography that pagan citizens would recognize. The divinity of Jupiter (Zeus) and other supreme ‘father’ gods was usually indicated in pagan art by mature gods, appearing wise with full heads of hair and full beards.

Some art historians, however, argue that the difference between the two images of Christ in the Ravenna mosaics was actually the result of the Christological challenge posed by Arianism. As the Arians believed Christ to be created by the Father and not co-eternal with the Father, he was depicted as young –or “inferior”—in the Arian baptistery mosaic. The Arian structure, remember, was built after the orthodox one and so, perhaps, the Christ in its dome was meant as a challenge to the Christology evident in the orthodox baptistery across town.

Whether that was the case or not the possible difference in meaning might prompt us, on this Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, to consider the words from heaven, “This is my beloved Son…”,4 spoken as Jesus came up out of the water after being baptized by John. As we have seen, the meaning of those words was not universally agreed upon in the early centuries5 and it took considerable debate and thought -and time- to iron out the truth of the matter.

It’s more of an academic exercise than a spiritual one to research the crisis and the positions of the various factions involved in the controversy but if you’re up to it –and as one way of celebrating the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord— why not look into the Arian heresy and the debate that swirled around it.

If quizzed closely, I wonder if we might be surprised to discover that many Christians today are actually Arian Christians.

Related post: HERE


1 Relative to heresy,  the term ‘orthodox’ is/was commonly employed to designate the official and correct teaching or Church. The period of time referred to in this post is hundreds of years before the Great Schism which split Christianity into separate Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

2 Baptisms were usually only conducted at cathedral churches.

3 In both scenes of the Baptism, in addition to Jesus and John the Baptist, there is a personification of the Jordan River as an old man rising from the water, holding a reed in one hand and offering a garment to Christ in the other.

4 Matthew 3:17, Douay-Rheims Bible

5 Indeed, the question originated with Jesus: “Who do men say the Son of Man is?”

El Greco’s “Vision”

December 31st, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

“Vision Of the Immaculate Conception”, by El Greco

This is El Greco’s1 Vision of the Immaculate Conception, 1608-13, Museo de Santa Cruz, Toledo, Spain). It is a truly amazing interpretation; very different from Guido Reni’s (see below) soft, peaceful, and harmonious rendition that we looked at a few weeks ago!

El Greco presents the doctrine of “Immaculate Conception” as a mystical, spiritual event that has cosmic consequences. It is literally “out-of-this-world”. Everything natural –space, proportion, gravity, anatomical accuracy, light, day and night, logic— have been abandoned so as to transport us into a spiritual state of ecstasy. We experience this doctrine.

The sun and the moon.

All of existence is here electrified by the event of the Immaculate Conception of Mary in the womb of Saint Anne.  The cosmos is set on fire as it begins recharging –as its redemption gets underway eventually culminating in the Incarnation (and Passion and Resurrection). The Immaculate Conception of Mary and the Incarnation/Nativity are linked. The Immaculate Conception of Mary is the glowing dawn announcing the approach of the brilliant sun. In the lower center we can see the sun breaking through the morning sky while the moon, to the right, still rules the darkness. The stage is set, the curtain is rising and the anticipation palpable. The world, darkened by sin, suddenly finds itself aflame in anticipation. The flashing whites and intense colors suggest the burst of fire from a match suddenly lit. The painting exudes promise and hope for full illumination. Heaven itself, symbolized by the angels playing string instruments accompanied by excited cupids, breaks out in joyful sound.

The excitement is communicated by El Greco’s decision to use an ambiguously balanced arrangement as his overall principle of design. Balance is ‘sensed’ and achieved intuitively rather than formally or overtly. An imaginary center axis line in this painting reveals significant differences between the two halves of the design. Diagonal movement to the left is opposed by a movement in the opposite direction. Large simple areas are balanced by more complicated ones. Also, intense colored shapes and white shapes balance darkness. The off-centered reds and yellows are balanced by the large blue shape in the center.

Opposing diagonals create excitement.

The contrasting or opposing diagonal directions convey movement and excitement. Diagonal lines (directions) are unstable and convey a sense of tension. (Horizontals and verticals –of which there are none except one in this work– convey stability and rest.)

El Greco also knows, however, that too much excitement -physical or otherwise- makes us feel sick (and can symbolize the triumph of sin) and so he subtly introduces some visual stability and rest. The use of equidistant tricolor harmony (red, yellow and blue) as in the Reni painting offers us balance. In addition, he arranges for some ‘centering’ to act as visual anchoring within the design. In fact we could almost call this an approximately ‘symmetrical’ design as his composition masterfully keeps us visually in suspense.

Visual anchors unconsciously keep us from losing our balance.

The attributes of the Virgin (roses, lilies, a mirror, and a fountain of clean water) indicative of the event of the Immaculate Conception appear at the bottom right of the painting. A view of Toledo, Spain appears on the left.

Toledo on the left, roses and lilies in the center right, and fountain on the right.

I’m tempted to ask the question: Which is the more appropriate painting from a liturgical/sacred art point of view? Which is more appropriate for use in the liturgy – for prominent display in a chancel: Reni’s “Immaculate Conception” or El Greco’s “Vision”? Do they both qualify? How do we decide?

Happy New Year!


1 Born Doménikos Theotokópoulos, Greek (1541 – 7 April 1614); a painter of the Spanish Renaissance.

Guido Reni’s “The Immaculate Conception”

December 11th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie


I thought maybe we could extend the celebration of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception by reflecting on a painting by Guido Reni (Italian, Bologna 1575–1642) I ran across today. Specifically, let’s look at how the artist has organized the elements of art according to the principles of design to convey the meaning of the subject.1

Reni interprets purity (preservation from original sin) by creating an analogous visual experience of stability (balance), wellness, wholeness, peace, harmony, and calm. The interpretation being that sin can be thought of as illness, imperfection, instability –the condition of fallen man.

First, however: We naturally think of white color when we think of something or someone as ‘immaculate’ –free of stain, and certainly Reni plays to that natural tendency by using a palette of soft pastel colors. He has adjusted every pure color of paint (from the naturally occurring spectrum of colors) through the addition of white in order to raise the value of each color to a lighter version. Every color in this painting is a ‘tint’ of its hue (the color pink, for example, is a lighter value [some would say shade] of the hue red). Soft, pastel colors suggest innocence to us and are often used on young children’s clothes and such.

So, Reni does the traditional in his interpretation of ‘immaculate’ as purity but then shifts to an analogous interpretation through his choice of colors to use in the painting. By restricting his use of colors to a palette of mostly reds (pinks), yellows (yellow-orange, really), and blues Reni plays on our sense of balance.


Looking at an artist’s diagrammatic color wheel we note that red, yellow and blue are situated equal distant from each other around the wheel. Red, yellow and blue, you will remember, are the so-called primary colors –all other colors are derived from them.2 Reni creates a sense of completeness, perfection and balance by using, in almost equal importance, all three of the primary colors.

This interpretation of ‘immaculate’ as perfection, wellness, and stability (that sin would stain or upset) is further stressed when we notice that the artist has arranged his composition according to the principle of symmetrical balance: the right and left sides of the design mirror each other (or nearly so). Artists deploy symmetrical balance when they wish to communicate a sense of stability and balance, permanency and the ‘ideal’. Asymmetrical balance is often used when an artist wants to convey a sense of movement, instability, tension.

There is movement in this painting which tends to communicate a heavenly or spiritual magnetism. Notice the alignment of contours, edges and poses in the Virgin and angels that sweeps us upward into a golden (read “idea/divine”) space. The soft contrapposto pose of the Virgin reminds us of a flame.

Notice the entire composition is contained in an egg shaped oval. Notice, also, that the womb of the Virgin is at the center of that oval. Is this a reference to full of life, full of grace?

A master artist is aware of certain visual needs that people have that have to be accommodated in order to make a work ‘satisfying’ from a purely human, sensual perspective. In our fallen state we crave excitement and distraction for we are attracted by sinful habits. That’s an imperfection in us, but there it is. From an artistic point of view that means that we get bored by too much visual harmony. This painting has elements deployed in counterpoint, contrast. For example, notice that blue would seem to be the color we notice first in this painting and that would seem to contradict our sense of balance; blue is upsetting the apple cart by trying to take over the design. But, it’s held in check by the ocean of yellow-orange in the background. If we consult our color wheel we can see that blue and orange are opposite each other; there is no color more different from blue than orange; blue and orange totally contrast (clash). Reni knows this little fact of color theory and arranges color so that he not only creates harmony and balance through the use of a tri-color harmony but does so by actually incorporating the visual dissonance of complementary color theory to head off visual boredom.

He does the same thing by using just a little green and purple in this painting. Look for those two colors on the color wheel and you’ll see they are opposite red and yellow. (Maintaining visual interest is also the reason the composition is approximately symmetrical and not perfectly so.)

Reni’s painting is a very beautiful presentation of the “Immaculate Conception”. But, in order to fully appreciate beauty in the service of truth in a painting or sculpture a person has to reflect on how the artist is deploying the elements of art according to the principles of design3. That requires that we take time to really look at the work. In Eastern icons, that is less true for the use of the elements is carefully regimented so that each icon results in a careful and faithful copy of its prototype.  In the East, because of its tradition, you are far less likely to encounter controversy over an icon. That advantage is somewhat offset, from a Western perspective, by a sense of boredom. In Western sacred art, variety –interesting compositions in the use of the elements– are more the rule but that comes at the risk of controversy, ambiguity, and even heresy. Reni seems to have avoided the pitfalls in this painting. It’s orthodox and beautiful.


1 The Elements of art are: line, shape, form, value (lights and darks), color, texture, and space. The Principles of design are: balance, emphasis, harmony, variety, gradation, movement/rhythm, and proportion.

2 Technically, a shade is a darker value or version of a hue; a tint is a lighter version. A hue is a term that applies to any color as it naturally appears in the color spectrum. The color brown is not a hue but rather a shade of the hue, yellow. Notice that brown is not in the spectrum of colors. Neither is pink.

3 Green, as an example, is derived by mixing equal quantities of the primary colors yellow and blue together. Green is positioned between yellow and blue on the color wheel. Such derived colors are called secondary.

Icons of the Great Feasts: Raising Aloft of the Precious Cross

September 14th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

Constantine and his mother stand on the left in the icon. The architecture in the background represents the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

(click on the icon for a sharper image)

(This post was originally published September 2011.)

Today, September 14, is the Great Feast of the  Exultation of the Cross.

We in the Western Church call the feast the Exaltation (or Triumph) of the Cross but in the Eastern Rite Catholic and Orthodox Churches it is usually called the Raising (Aloft) of the (Precious) Cross. Anglicans call the feast Holy Cross Day while Lutherans refer to it as the Feast of the Glorious Cross.

Tradition holds that St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great discovered the Cross of the crucifixion in Jerusalem while on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 326. Constantine was interested in uncovering as many of the important holy places associated with the life of Christ as he could. The site of the discovery was included in the construction of the building complex of the Church of the Resurrection (The Church of the Holy Sepulcher). The feast of the Raising of the Cross and the dedication of the church, which happened in 335, became associated with each other.

In a pilgrim’s account of her journey to Jerusalem in 400, reference is made to the solemn celebration of the feast of the dedication of the church “because the Cross of the Lord was discovered on that day.” Before long, however, the annual celebration of the dedication was entirely eclipsed by that of the Feast of the Cross.

But let’s go back to the day after the dedication in 335 when the people were first admitted to venerate the sacred wood of the Cross. Bishop Macarius of Jerusalem, while standing on an ambo at the rock of Golgotha and, with the help of some of his clergy, raised high the actual Cross and announced “Behold the Holy Cross!” and the people responded with “Kyrie eleison” (Lord have mercy) at least three times, and probably more. On September 14, 614 the ceremony was performed for the first time in Constantinople. It was repeated there again in 633 when a portion of the Cross that had been carried off by the Persians was recaptured and brought to the capital. The patriarch of Constantinople carried it in procession through the streets of the city. The rite was celebrated for the first time in Rome under Pope Sergius (687-701).

The theological and political meaning of the ceremony could not possibly have been lost on the crowd and the clergy that first time in Jerusalem. The Cross was the instrument by which Christ accomplished the redemption of man: “the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor.1:25). The Cross was the glorious weapon whereby the evil one was defeated and the curse incurred by Adam, abolished. Eternal life with God was possible again. The new Adam accomplished redemption through the agency of the new Tree of Life –the Cross. All creation was again incorruptible and blossoming with new flowers. That’s the theological meaning.

But, there was a political sense, as well. It was by the Cross that Constantine had conquered and been victorious. His conversion and patronage of the Christian Church ended 300 years of intermittent and sometimes horrendous persecution.

The Cross is the ultimate symbol of “invincible victory.”



The Meaning of Icons, Leonid Ouspensky & Vladimir, (Crestwood, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1989) pp.148-50

Picture Source

Unfortunately, I don’t have any information regarding the artist, studio or company that produced this icon.

Icons of the Great Feasts: The Dormition (Assumption)

August 14th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

 (Click on picture to see a larger image)

In the Western and Eastern Churches, the feast of the Assumption of the Mother of God is August 15. In the Eastern Church the solemnity is known as the Dormition (the falling asleep) of the All Holy Mother of God. The Assumption of Mary into heaven is a matter of proclaimed dogma in the Catholic Church. It is not a dogma in the Eastern Church and yet it is solidly part of the traditional faith of the Orthodox that the grave and death could not possibly hold the “Mother of Life.” To the Orthodox, the Dormition is a mystery that is held in the “inner consciousness” of the Church and is not “for the ears of those without” for fear that exposure might result in profanation. It can be contemplated only by the “inner light of Tradition.” Unlike the Resurrection and Ascension of the Lord, the Dormition and Assumption of Mary was not part of the apostolic preaching.

The feast of the Dormition actually commemorates two distinct and yet inseparable moments in the faith of the Eastern Church: the death [1] and burial of the Holy Virgin, and her resurrection and assumption. Some refer to this as a second Easter, “the secret first fruit of eschatological consummation” as the Church celebrates –before the end of time– the glory of the age to come; the end of man is realized in the present in the assumption and deification of the All Holy Mother of God.

The classical image of the Dormition has the Holy Mother lying on her deathbed surrounded by the apostles who have come, miraculously from all the ends of the earth. Peter and Paul stand at the ends of the bed with Peter swinging incense on the left. Bishops stand behind the apostles, among them St. James (“the brother of the Lord”) and the first bishop of Jerusalem. They stand out with their flatten bodies sporting patterns of black crosses on white robes. Sometimes groups of women, representing the faithful of Jerusalem, join the apostles forming a kind of select group gathered to witness the sacred mystery of the Dormition.

Christ, in a mandorla, looks upon his mother and has gathered up her glorious soul in his arms. In this icon we can also see the moment of her bodily assumption: she appears above the mandorla of Christ in her own mandorla. Angels lift her up to heaven. The mandorla, a symbol of divinity, is used here to indicate the deification of the Most Holy Mother of God and calls to mind our hope for our own deification at the end of time. In Christ’s mandorla we see heavenly seraphim, cherubim and angels.

In some icons (as we see in this one) a fanatical Jew has dared to profane the holy bed and has his hands sliced off by a sword wielding angel. The inclusion of the story in the foreground indicates the Church’s view that the Dormition can only be contemplated in light of sacred Tradition.

The feast of the Dormition is thought to have originated in Jerusalem. The Assumption of the Virgin was depicted on a sarcophagus in Saragossa at the beginning of the 4th century. But, as a feast, it was already widely celebrated beginning in the 6th century and so no doubt had its beginning well before that. St. Gregory of Tours is the first witness in the West to a formal celebration, then commemorated in January. Under the Emperor Maurice (582 – 602) the date of the feast was fixed as August 15.

Interesting facts here



[1] “The Orthodox Church teaches that Mary died a natural death, like any human being; that her soul was received by Christ upon death; and that her body was resurrected on the third day after her repose, at which time she was taken up, bodily only, into heaven. Her tomb was found empty on the third day. Roman Catholic teaching holds that Mary was “assumed” into heaven in bodily form. Some Catholics agree with the Orthodox that this happened after Mary’s death, while some hold that she did not experience death. Pope Pius XII, in his Apostolic constitution, Munificentissimus Deus (1950), which dogmatically defined the Assumption, left open the question of whether or not Mary actually underwent death in connection with her departure, but alludes to the fact of her death at least five times. Both churches agree that she was taken up into heaven bodily.” Source


The Meaning of Icons (revised edition), Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, (Crestwood, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1989)




Icons of the Great Feasts of the Church Year: The Transfiguration

August 6th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

Russian (Novgorodian) work of the late 15th century. The elongated figures suggest a Muscovite influence. Unusual are the bright colors.

 (click on the icons to see clearer images)

Another Great Feast of the (Eastern and Eastern Rite Catholic) Church is today, August 6: the Feast of the Transfiguration. (In the West, as well.) It is a very ancient feast.  St. Helen (Constantine’s mother) had a church built on Mt. Tabor in 326 to commemorate the event. Many homilies on the Transfiguration indicate that the feast was celebrated in the East well before the 8th century when it is was celebrated as a great solemnity with a canon authored by St. John Damascene. In the West, the Transfiguration was celebrated from antiquity on the second Sunday of Lent. In the 9th century, in Spain, it appears as a feast on August 6 but otherwise remained relatively unknown until it was recognized as a festival in the Church in 1475 by Pope Clement III. Whereas the feast of the Transfiguration is recognized as a Great Feast in the East it is of secondary rank in the West.

The event is recorded in Mathew (17:1-8), Mark (9:2-8) and Luke (9:28-36). Jesus took three of his apostles up a high mountain and was transfigured before their eyes, showing them His Divinity. Appearing with Jesus were Moses and Elijah talking with Him.  A bight cloud overshadowed the apostles and from it a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved (Chosen); listen to Him!” The apostles fell over in utter terror.

Theophanes the Greek, late 14th century. Christ's raiment is a bright whitish color that radiates in several directions almost like a star.

There have been several variations in the depiction of the Transfiguration but the one we will look at in this post is probably the most common.  The composition is approximately symmetrical with variations in color and the poses and gestures of the figures. Jesus, dressed in pure white toward the center top of the icon, usually seems to float in front of a mandorla of blue concentric circles, with Moses (often depicted with a book or tablets that symbolize the Ten Commandments) on the right and, on the left, the Old Testament prophet Elijah. Christ appears at the top of a mountain peak. Often, as in our example, Moses and Elijah stand at the tops of two flanking mountains.

The apostles, Peter, James and John are shown in the bottom half of the icon reacting to the voice; they have fallen to the ground in fear, turning away or shielding their eyes from the bright light. Peter, while having turned his back to the scene, is usually shown in a gesture of speaking to Christ symbolizing his awkward suggestion to the Lord that they (the apostles) should build three dwellings for Jesus and the two Old Testament prophets. On the far left is James, on his back and covering his eyes. In the center is John (with his traditional red robe) who tumbled over backwards and now supports himself with his left arm while covering his eyes.

Another interpretation. Russian, 15th Century.

The main theme of the icon is the revelation of the Divinity of Jesus Christ. He shows the apostles His Divinity which is nothing less than the Godhead, the Most Holy Trinity: “For in Him the whole fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily” (Col 2, 9). The apostles heard the Father (the voice), saw the Son and were enveloped by the Holy Spirit (the “bright cloud”). In the transfiguration Jesus is seen by the apostles as being transformed from one state of being into another.

The light that Peter, James and John reported to have seen was not natural light but the supernatural energy that is the Holy Trinity. But, no one can “see God and live.” How could they have seen God and lived to tell about it?

What the three saw could only be described (as the Gospel writers did) as a “face shone like the sun”, and clothes that “became dazzling white”, “such as no one on earth could bleach them.”  They were allowed to catch a glimpse of the Trinity but only to the extent to which they were capable. The awesome experience so threatened their very lives that they fell down in terror. They actually ‘saw’ what had been only indirectly experienced in such Old Testament things as the burning bush, pillar of fire, and the fire on Mount Carmel.

Because of the Incarnation, the God Moses and Elijah had served so faithfully without actually seeing, could now be seen and spoken to by them, face to face. That experience will be the same for us who remain faithful to the Lord.



The Mystical Language of Icons, by Solrunn Nes, (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005) p. 68

The Meaning of Icons, Leonid Ouspensky & Vladimir Lossky, (Crestwood, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1989), pp. 209-212

Picture Sources

First 2 images:

Bottom image:

Icons of the Great Feasts: Pentecost

May 27th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

(Click on pictures for a clearer image and larger) 

"Descent of the Holy Spirit", Russian, Novgorod School, 17th c.


"Descent of the Holy Spirit", Giorgio Vasari, Santa Croce Church, Florence, Italy, 16th century

The Eastern icon representing the Great Feast of Pentecost is probably unfamiliar to most Westerners. In the Western painting tradition, the tongues of fire and the presence of the Holy Mother of God are emphasized along with, of course, the twelve apostles.  At times, depending on the artist and style of the period in which the work was created, the scene can be quite animated with gesticulating figures and a composition suggesting confusion or wonderment. Excitement may seem to permeate the atmosphere.

In the Eastern tradition, icons of the Pentecost don’t always depict tongues of fire. Instead, at the top of the icon a circle or semicircle represents heaven and from its center, twelve rays point downward toward the twelve apostles, symbolizing the descent of the Holy Spirit.

Also, absent from the scene (in many Eastern icons) is the All Holy Mother of God which is strange because the Acts of the Apostles makes a point of telling she was present. Such a glaring omission begs for an explanation. Here it is: The Pentecost icons of the Eastern Church, unlike the images of the event in the Western Church, stress the underlying ecclesiological meaning of Pentecost and less so the narrative details of the descent of the Spirit or observable physical facts, as reported in Acts.

Along the same lines, in the icon at the bottom of (many) Eastern icons, is an image of something not reported in Acts. It appears to be a tomb with a king standing in the blackness of the interior. He holds a white cloth supporting twelve written scrolls. The king actually personifies the great multitude of people gathered in Jerusalem for the holy day. The image is called “Cosmos” and the dark place in which the king stands represents the whole world which had formally been without faith and had suffered under the weight of Adam’s sin. The red garment the king wears symbolizes pagan or the devil’s blood sacrifices, and the crown he wears signifies sin which ruled the world. The white cloth and twelve scrolls symbolize the twelve apostles who brought Christ’s light to the world through their teaching.

That is the core message of the Eastern depiction of Pentecost. The message is not so much about the physical manifestations of the descent of Holy Spirit as it is the substantial presence of the Spirit in the Church, acting through the Church, to sanctify the world. The Ascension of the Lord represented the end of Christ’s earthly mission and Pentecost represented the beginning of the residency of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

Rather than a general disturbance -often portrayed in Western images of Pentecost- caused by the descent of the Spirit, Eastern icons of the event express an overall sense of order, calm and solemnity. Here we see the unity and singleness of purpose of the hierarchic Church in converting the world. A formal arrangement of the apostles in a semi-circle surrounding the tomb and king is broken only by an empty space in the seating arrangement at the top of the bend. It is the seat reserved for Christ, the head of the Church. On close inspection, you will notice that the apostles are depicted in inverse perspective: the size of the figures grow bigger the closer they are to the seat reserved for Christ. St. Peter sits to the right (our left) and St. Paul, to the left (our right). St. Paul, of course, was not present at Pentecost, but that fact is not relevant here where the meaning of the icon is the substantial presence of the Spirit in the institutional Church. Actually, there are a few others also represented here who were not of the original twelve apostles: Luke the Evangelist (third from the top on the left) and Mark the Evangelist (third from the top on the right).  They hold their gospel books. Paul also holds a book, symbolizing his letters. Others hold scrolls, symbols of having received the gift of teaching.

Contrasting with the uniformity of the semi-circle, and in harmony with the hierarchic detail, are the variety of poses in the figures of the apostles. No two figures strike the same pose. This goes to the inner meaning of the icon: although there is the one Spirit -one Body- each member is given special gifts.

As liturgical art, icons open a door for the worshiper into a transfigured world and into an experience of sacred time. An icon compresses events into one image and folds time into a holy present in order to communicate an inner meaning. It all comes together in this icon to show us the divine guidance given to the hierarchic Church in the conversion of the world.


Source Reference

Leonid Ouspensky & Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, (Crestwood, Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1994) pp207-208


Picture Sources

  1. Icon of the “Descent” from Ouspensky, p 206; photo by A LaVieille Russie, New York
  2. Giorgio painting of the “Descent” from

Icons of the Great Feasts: The Ascension

May 17th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously here

We continue our series of looking at the icons of the Great Feasts of the Eastern Rite Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

The angel Gabriel was at the beginning, at the Incarnation, when God took flesh of the Virgin Mary and became man. Angels filled the sky to announce His birth to shepherds. God humbled Himself and descended to earth and became flesh.

When the Lord ascended back to His Father at the end of His earthly mission, He took with Him His human body, now glorified.  Redemption was complete and, just like at the beginning, angels were present.

At the Incarnation the Lord -Divinity- descended into human flesh; in the Ascension He takes His flesh back to the Father. Like Jesus, we too will ascend to the Father, our flesh glorified.

“The Ascension of Christ is our elevation, and whither the glory of the Head has preceded by anticipation, the hope of the body too is called.”1

In the icon of the Ascension, Christ ascends to heaven in a round shape of glory, a mandorla or full body halo reserved for manifestations of divinity. The mandorla is by definition almond shaped but circular and star ones are not uncommon.  Flanking the mandorla are angels. They might be interpreted by some people as powering the mandorla  upward but, in fact, they extend their arms in praise, for Christ ascends of His own power and not by the aid of anyone or anything else. Other angels trumpet the return of the Son to Heaven.

“Today the hosts on high, beholding our nature in the heavens, marvel at the strange manner of its ascent, and, being perplexed, they said one to another: Who is this that comes? And when they saw that it was they Master, they commanded to lift up the heavenly gates. With them we ceaselessly praise you, who again shall come from thence in the flesh, as the Judge of all and Almighty God”2

In traditional iconography of the Ascension, the mandorla consists of concentric circles of blue tones that gradate from a dark center to a lighter perimeter. Often, golden streaks of light radiate out from the figure of Christ who is shown either in white or orange robes, the colors of Christ’s divinity in icons that manifest His glory. He blesses with His right hand and holds a scroll in His left, a symbol of the gospel that the apostles are charged with taking to the ends of the earth.

In the center of the icon at the bottom among the grouping of the apostles is Mary, the Mother of God. According to Tradition Mary was present at the Ascension although sacred scripture is silent about her being there. Likewise, St. Paul (on the right) is depicted as being present  but he, of course, could not have been there as he was not as yet converted to Christ. Whenever something appears in an icon that is not mentioned in scripture we look for a doctrinal explanation. Here, it is the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ.

Mary’s figure is placed in the composition directly beneath the enthroned figure of Christ who is head of the Church. Mary and the original apostles and St. Paul, a later convert, form the core from which the Church will develop. Mary is the embodiment of the Church; personifying the body of the Church. She stands in the orans position of prayer, the symbol of the whole Church praying and seeking intercession with Christ, the Head.  In some icons she is depicted in the traditional martyr’s pose with hands in front of her breasts and palms facing forward. In still others, she has one hand raised with the palm facing forward and the other extended as if presenting the apostles, Church. Mary’s calm and confident stillness expresses the immutability of the revealed truth entrusted to the Church.3 The –often- more animated apostles suggest a variety of languages and means for expressing the truth.

"Last Judgment", (detail) tympanum, Church of St. Foy, Conques, France, 1107


Two angels stand among the apostles and caution them that as Christ ascended so He will return at the end of time. This eschatological aspect of the icon and the Gospel message leaves us with the hopeful expectation of the Second Coming. In fact, in icons of the Last Judgment Christ is depicted as arriving in the same mandorla type shape, accompanied by angels.



1 Saint Leo the Great, Discourse 73. First text on the Ascension. P.L. 54, col. 396

2 The Ascension, Matins of the Eastern Rite

3 Solrunn Nes, The Mystical Language of Icons, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans Publishing, 2004), p. 87

Picture Sources

Featured Icon (top):

Book Recommendations and Research Sources

Solrunn Nes, The Mystical Language of Icons, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans Publishing, 2004)

Leonid Ouspensky & Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, (Crestwood, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1994)

Icon of the Sunday of the Holy Myrrhbearers

April 15th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously in our series of the icons of the Great Feasts of the Eastern Church

(Click on the picture to see a larger image)

The Holy Myrrhbearers
by the hand of Matthew D. Garrett


Unto the myrrh-bearing women did the Angel cry out as he stood by the grave: Myrrh-oils are meet for the dead, but Christ has proved to be a stranger to corruption. But cry out: The Lord is risen, granting great mercy to the world.


When You did cry, Rejoice, unto the Myrrhbearers, You did make the lamentation of Eve the first mother to cease by Your Resurrection, O Christ God. And You did bid Your Apsotles to preach: The Savior is risen from the grave.

The second Sunday after the Feast of Holy Pascha (Easter Sunday) is observed by the Byzantine Catholic, and Orthodox Churches, as the Sunday of the Holy Myrrhbearers. The day commemorates when the women disciples of our Lord came to the tomb to anoint his body with myrrh-oils but found the tomb empty. As the woman wondered what this meant, angels appeared proclaiming that Christ had risen from the dead.

“When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go and anoint him. Very early when the sun had risen, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb. They were saying to one another, “Who will roll back the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?

“When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back; it was very large.

“On entering the tomb they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a white robe, and they were utterly amazed. He said to them, “Do not be amazed! You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Behold the place where they laid him. But go and tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.'”

The icon of this feast is the ‘other’ traditional icon that celebrates the greatest of all feasts, Pascha/Easter. The other is the Descent into Hell. The icon of the Sunday of the Holy Myrrhbearers depicts the biblical story of the women arriving at the tomb to anoint the body of Christ. The angel is seated upon the stone that covered the tomb, and he is pointing to the empty garments showing that Christ has risen from the dead.

The following is a reading selection from Holy Transfiguration Monastery of Brookline, MA:

“About the beginning of His thirty-second year, when the Lord Jesus was going throughout Galilee, preaching and working miracles, many women who had received of His beneficence left their own homeland and from then on followed after Him. They ministered unto Him out of their own possessions, even until His crucifixion and entombment; and afterwards, neither losing faith in Him after His death, nor fearing the wrath of the Jewish rulers, they came to His sepulcher, bearing the myrrh-oils they had prepared to anoint His body. It is because of the myrrh-oils that these God-loving women brought to the tomb of Jesus that they are called Myrrh-bearers.

“Of those whose names are known are the following: first of all, the most holy Virgin Mary, who in Matthew 27:56 and Mark 15:40 is called “the mother of James and Joses” (these are the sons of Joseph by a previous marriage, and she was therefore their step-mother); Mary Magdalene (celebrated July 22); Mary, the wife of Clopas; Joanna, wife of Chouza, a steward of Herod Antipas; Salome, the mother of the sons of Zebedee; Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus; and Susanna. As for the names of the rest of them, the evangelists have kept silence (Matthew 217:55-56; 28:1-10. Mark 15:40-41.

“Luke 8:1-3; 23:55-24:11, 22-24. John 19:25; 20:11-18. Acts 1:14.) Together with them we celebrate also the secret disciples of the Savior, Joseph and Nicodemus. Of these, Nicodemus was probably a Jerusalemite, a prominent leader among the Jews and of the order of the Pharisees, learned in the Law and instructed in the Holy Scriptures. He had believed in Christ when, at the beginning of our Savior’s preaching of salvation, he came to Him by night. Furthermore, he brought some one hundred pounds of myrrh-oils and an aromatic mixture of aloes and spices out of reverence for the divine Teacher (John 19:39). Joseph, who was from the city of Arimathea, was a wealthy and noble man, and one of the counselors who were in Jerusalem. He went bodly unto Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus, and together with Nicodemus he gave Him burial. Since time did not permit the preparation of another tomb, he placed the Lord’s body in his own tomb which was hewn out of rock, as the Evangelist says (Matthew 27:60).”

Picture source:

From the hand of Matthew D. Garrett @

Research sources:

Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America @

The Descent into Hell

April 8th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously in the Icons of the Great Feasts series

(Click on pictures to see a larger image)

“The Descent into Hell”

by Rolland Luke Dingman

The Resurrection

The actual Resurrection of Jesus Christ was never represented in the ancient tradition of the Church. Previously to its depiction, the Church used the Old Testament scene of the Prophet Jonah coming out of the belly of the whale. In fact, the story of Jonah –usually summarized in one scene: Jonah being either swallowed by the whale or expelled from the mouth of the whale- was one of the most often depicted in the catacombs. The scene remained popular right up to the 6th century.

"Jonah Expelled from the Mouth of the Whale", 3rd century, Rome, Catacomb of Sts. Marcellinus and Peter

"Women At the Tomb with Spices", ca. 230, Dura Europos house church

In the 3rd century, the historical Resurrection, based on the Gospel story, is obliquely represented in the scene of the appearance of the angel to the women bringing spices to the tomb. A few centuries later, the Descent into Hell, from which comes our icon, represented the Resurrection for the first time on one of the ciborium columns of the Basilica de San Marco in Venice, Italy. These last two scenes or images –the women bringing the spices and the descent into hell- comprise the Easter icons of the Eastern Rite Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The Western Church enthusiastically produced images of the actual historical Resurrection beginning in the Renaissance period.

Nowhere in the ancient tradition of the Church do we find an image of the actual historical Resurrection. It is also of interest that the Resurrection of Christ –Easter– is not included among the twelve Great Feasts of the Eastern Rite or Orthodox Churches. Keep in mind that the actual Resurrection is not described by the Gospel writers, either.

“With us, it is the feast of feasts and the celebration of celebrations; it exceeds all other festivals, as the sun excels the stars…” (St. Gregory the Theologian)

Unlike the Raising of Lazarus, a miracle, the Resurrection of Christ is impossible for human perception for it was a demonstration of the absolute omnipotence of the Savior and initiates our own future resurrection, both of which are impossible to comprehend by the human senses.

Also, in the Eastern Liturgy, a parallel is drawn between the Resurrection and Christ’s Nativity.

“Having preserved the seals intact, O Christ, Thou hast arisen from the tomb, and having left unbroken the seals of the immaculate Virgin in Thy Nativity, Thou hast opened to us the gates of Paradise.” (6th Canticle of the Eastern Canon)

Both events are deeply mysterious and inaccessible to our senses. There are no natural outer signs that we could observe. It is unfathomable and so the tradition of representing only the moment before the actual Resurrection, the descent into hell, and the moment after, the angel appearing to the spice-bearing women, developed.

The Descent into Hell

The Gospel writers do not say anything of the descent into hell. Only St. Peter speaks of it in his words on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-39) and, in the 3rd chapter of his first Epistle (1 Peter 3:19) –“He went and preached unto the spirits in prison.” The iconography comes to us mostly from the apocryphal gospel of Nicodemus in which Christ’s triumph over Satan and the Kingdom of Death is thrillingly described.

In the icon we see depicted the moment of Christ’s complete degradation to the very depths of fallen humanity. To redeem humanity by experiencing everything possible to experience as a human, Jesus descended to Hades. It is there that Adam and Eve were confined after their deaths and with them all who followed in the sleep of death. We see that Christ has pulled down the gates of hell which he now steps on. His stunning white garments contrast with the gaping black hole at the center of the earth. Death, or Satan, lies shackled in the darkness. Just when Satan thought he had won, he finds himself triumphed over. Christ appears not as a captive but as a Conqueror to deliver the imprisoned. Adam and Eve are literally pulled out of their tombs by the Lord, the Master of Life. The first Adam rescued by the new Adam.

Also rescued with Adam and Eve are all the Old Testament saints. Representing them, on the left, wearing crowns and royal robes are King David and King Solomon. Between them and Christ is John the Baptist. As he did while alive John points out the arrival of the Savior. On the right in the icon is Abel, holding a shepherd’s staff. It was the shepherd Abel, a son of Adam, who sacrificed one his best lambs to God. He himself was killed by his brother Cain and thus became the first to taste death. Here he meets Jesus, the victor over death. With Abel is Moses who, like John the Baptist, is one of the first to recognize the Lord and so gestures toward Him.

But, while the icon depicts the lowest point to which Christ could descend –his total debasement– it also shows us the first light of the coming Resurrection. The brilliant white robed figure of Christ radiates golden beams of light within a powerful blue colored mandorla which pierces and breaks through the arching rock cliffs.

In some versions of this icon nails, and broken chains and locks from the fallen gates are scattered about. Often angels are shown binding Satan with the chains. Christ sometimes holds a scroll symbolizing His preaching to the dead; sometimes He holds a cross in the form of a staff, a symbol of victory.


1. Leonid Ouspensky & Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, (Crestwood, St. Vadimir’s Seminary Press, 1989)

2. The Mystical Language of Icons, Solrunn Nes, (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005)

Picture Sources

Descent into Hell icon:

Jonah and the Whale (edited):

Great Thursday Icon

April 5th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously here



“Mystical Supper” by Rolland Luke Dingman


Of thy Mystical Supper,

O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant

for I will not speak of thy Mystery to thine enemies,

neither will I give thee a kiss as did Judas

but like the thief will I confess thee;

Remember me, O Lord, in thy Kingdom.

Westerners recognize this scene as the Last Supper while in the East it is known as the Mystical Supper. Holy Thursday is known in the Eastern Church (both Catholic and Orthodox) as Great Thursday.

The word mystic in the Eastern title of this icon comes from the Greek word mystikos and signifies sacrament, communicating through the title that Christ instituted the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist at the last supper with His apostles.1

The group is shown all seated on the same side of a semi-circular table, the common arrangement, at the time, utilized for large dinner groups. Servers brought the dishes to the table from the empty side of the table. Sometimes tables were rectangle or “U” shaped with the diners seated to the outside. It was usual for the host or the guest of honor to sit on the left end of the table as seen from the entrance door. Some icons show that arrangement. More commonly, Christ is depicted seated in the center of the group with the twelve apostles evenly flanking Him. St. Peter sits, appropriately, at the right hand of the Lord. St. John, the “beloved apostle” appears to be gesturing toward the bread and wine –the Body and Blood; the Sacrament- and Christ lovingly places His left hand on John’s far shoulder, gently pulling him toward Him. In some icons, St. John is shown reclining his head on the Lord’s breast.

All of the figures, except one, are shown full face; we can see both eyes. Only Judas, the betrayer, is shown in profile with only one eye visible to symbolize his dishonesty.2 In some icons Judas is seated at the table on the side opposite the apostles and Jesus. In others, his face may be darkened by shadow. In still others he is the one reaching for a bag of money.

The long wall and towers in the background are suggestive of the Jerusalem Temple –the show bread of Jerusalem Temple was a type of the Bread of Everlasting Life instituted on Great Thursday3 and the sacrifices of the Temple were a type of Christ’s sacrifice. The curtain is meant to indicate that the supper scene is taking place indoors.

Finally, Christ appears in the traditional pose of Christ Pantokrator (Omnipotent, All Powerful) Ruler of the universe.

The Mystical Supper icon is usually over the royal doors of the iconostasis screen in most Orthodox or Eastern Catholic churches. In front of this icon is where the faithful come to receive the Eucharist at the Divine Liturgy (Mass). Beyond the icon, at the altar, is where the mystery of the Holy Eucharist is celebrated.


1 The Mystical Language of Icons, Solrunn Nes, (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005) p74

2 <>3 Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper, Brant Pitre, (New York, Doubleday Religion, 2011)
Picture Sources Mystical Supper Icon:

Icons of the Great Feasts: Palm Sunday

April 1st, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

Continuing our series on icons of the Great Feasts of the Church Year

Previously here

(Click on picture for a larger image.)

Icon of “The Entry Into Jerusalem” by Rolland Luke Dingman

The depiction of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem entered the Christian repertoire of images toward the end of the 3rd century but blossomed in popularity following the Emperor Constantine’s legalization of Christianity in 313. It is always interesting to try and determine why a story or symbol began to appear in Christian art when it did. All through the 20th century historians assumed that the scene had imperial overtones as the depiction seemed to be copied from scenes of imperial adventus representations, scenes in which an emperor triumphantly entered a city to remind the inhabitants that the city belonged to him. Christ’s Entry image was thought to bestow religious legitimacy on imperial power by associating the Entry scene with the adventus images. It supposedly worked in reverse as well: Christ took on an imperial aura. We now know that just the opposite was true. The scene was an anti-imperial image.1

Roman Emperor’s Adventus

The message is in the details. There is the donkey, a humble beast of burden, which is in contrast to the proud imperial chariot of the emperor2. Christ wears the garb of a philosopher and holds a scroll which indicate a person who deals in higher, spiritual truths; the emperor wears the boots and short tunic of a warrior emperor who deals in earthly blood and guts. Christ is accompanied by his apostles who also wear philosophers’ clothing; the emperor is escorted by contingents of armed infantry and cavalry. Crowds of people wildly greet Christ, spreading cloaks on the ground before him and waving palms. There are no crowds greeting the emperor. Christ greets the people with a blessing; the emperor stares straight ahead, not condescending to acknowledge anyone or anything. The message is clear: Christ’s power is so far above earthly power that no impressive display is necessary. Even after earthly power has its way with Christ on Good Friday he will triumphantly rise from the grave on Easter Sunday. The crucified and risen Lord is the hope of persecuted Christians.

The Entry scene was a hopeful image and became popular at the height of the worst persecution Christians had suffered –just before Christianity was legalized. Following legalization the scene celebrated the victory that had been hoped for. The interpretation remains the same even today.

This is the iconic image for Palm Sunday (now called Passion Sunday) or, The Feast of the Entry Into Jerusalem as it is known in the Eastern Church. The icon exudes a festive quality expressive of the character of the day itself which contrasts with the stern and reflective mood of Lent.3 The icon and feast look forward to the joy of Easter. Actually the cause of this jubilant public celebration was the raising of Lazarus recounted in the Gospel read out the Sunday before Palm Sunday.4 Word had spread among the citizens of Jerusalem concerning the miracle and…

“…much people that were come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him.” (John 11:12, 13)

The palm branch was a symbol of joyful celebrating and Jews used them in welcoming very important persons. The branches, in Middle Eastern cultures, were also a symbol of courage and valor and so were presented as a reward to conquerors. Christ is the Conqueror of Death.

Usually, children play a large role in the Entry icons.5 There is often one sitting in a palm tree which stands in, or bends over, the center of the composition. More often than not, it is children and not adults who spread cloaks on the ground before the donkey. Still other children wave palms with the adults. The Gospel writers do not mention children although we can assume children would have been part of the crowd. The Evangelist Matthew, however, mentions children welcoming the Lord after His entry, when He drove the traders out of the Temple and cured the sick. Their role 6 may be indicated by Christ’s words, “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou perfected praise” (Ps. 8:3). (Also, [Mark 10:15] whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.) The young children saw Jesus simply as a King and celebrated him as such with no thought of gain or earthly power. The adults on the other hand were expecting an earthly power –a conqueror over their enemy, Rome. The children were celebrating the Conqueror of Death –that had been His accomplishment. In the Bible (4 Kings 9:13), spreading garments is done for an anointed king and since Christ is the Anointed One whose kingdom is not of this world the garments are spread before Him by children instead of by adults.

So, the Entry depicts the installation of the King of Glory in His Kingdom, the blessed Kingdom of God -the heavenly Jerusalem. His installation will take place as a result of His voluntary passion and death in the earthly Jerusalem.7

John Cassian (ca. 365-435) interpreted the scene or story on four levels.8 First, as a literal historic account of Christ’s entry into the Jewish capital, acclaimed as king, a few days before his execution. Second, allegorically or typologically, Jerusalem stands for the Church which Christ established and with which he reunites during every liturgy. Third, in a moral or topological interpretation the city stands for the individual soul who receives Christ in a spiritual way. Fourth, analogically, Jerusalem symbolizes the ‘New Jerusalem’ the heavenly Jerusalem that will come down from heaven and where the kingdom of God will blossom in fullness.



1 “The Clash of Gods”, Thomas F. Mathews, (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2003) Chapter 2, “The Chariot and the Donkey”

2 Christ rides straddling the horse in images created in the Western Roman Empire; Eastern images normally depict Him side-saddled.

3 “The Meaning of Icons”, Leonid Ouspensky & Vladimir Lossky, (Crestwood, St. Vladimir’s Press, 1989) 176

4 Ouspensky 176

5 Ouspensky 178

6 Ouspensky 178

7 Ouspensky 178

8 “The Mystical language of Icons, Solrunn Nes, (Grand Rapids, William B, Eerdmans Publishing Company) 73


Picture Source:


Book Suggestions

The Mystical Language of Icons, Solrunn Nes

The Meaning of Icons, Vladimir Lossky & Leonid Ouspensky

The Great Feasts: The Annunciation

March 26th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously here and here.

(Click on pictures to see larger images)

The Annunciation


Today is the Fontainhead of our salvation

and the revelation of the mystery that was planed from all eternity: the

Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin and Gabriel announces this grace.

Let us join him in crying out to the Mother of God:  “Hail, O Woman full of grace!

The Lord is with you.”


We are your own, O Mother of God!

To you, protectress and leader, our songs of victory!

To you who saved us from danger, our hymn of thanksgiving!

In your invincible might, deliver us from all danger that we may sing to you:

“Hail, O Bride and Maiden ever-pure!”


This icon depicts the Archangel Gabriel, carrying a herald’s staff, greeting the Theotokos as the Angel of God appeared to the Virgin Mary to announce the birth of Christ. (Luke 1:26-37). The staff held in the Archangel’s hand is the staff of a messenger.  The Greek word “Kontakion” literally means “from a pole”.  A scroll was rolled up and placed inside a pole and sent by a messenger.  The word “angel” means “messenger” and in this icon the Archangel carries the pole, which carries the message from God. In Western art Gabriel usually holds a white lily, symbol of purity and perpetual virginity.

Mary sits wearing a ‘maphorion’, a veil or large head-shawl, and slippers, her head turned towards the Archangel. Stars placed on both of her shoulders and on top of her head symbolize her ever-virgin life:  “And the Lord said to me:  This gate shall be shut. It shall not be opened and no man shall pass through it:  because the Lord God of Israel hath entered in by it.  And it shall be shut…and behold the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.’ (Ezekiel 44: 3-4)  She remained God’s undefiled, deified temple.

The Theotokos is shown in the icon either standing or with a pedestal under her feet.  A pedestal is a symbol of honor and is used in icons of Christ, the Theotokos, John the Baptist, and Simeon in the Presentation of Mary in the Temple icon.

The All Holy Virgin is often depicted dropping a spool of royal purple yarn in surprise at the angel’s appearance. She has been spinning for the high priest in the Temple. We read in the Protoevangelium of James that one of her duties in the Temple was to make priestly vestments. In some interpretations she has been spinning the great curtain that hung across the entrance to the Holy of Holies. In most Western versions Mary is seen surprised while at prayer, holding a book of Psalms.

The circle with rays directed at the Virgin is meant to convey the action of the Father through the Holy Spirit in the Incarnation of the Son of God within the Holy Virgin Mary who is “full of grace.”

Urgency is expressed in the figure of the Archangel Gabrielle, his legs apart as if running swiftly to deliver the message. The Virgin exhibits a gesture of perplexity and prudence in the outward palm of her hand and who, after questioning the angel, bows her head in acceptance and submission to the will of God.

Mary’s ‘Yes’ is chanted in the Akathist Hymn, referred to by some as the most beautiful song of praise in honor of the Theotokos of all times. Here is the first of 24 strophes.

An Archangel was sent from heaven to greet the Mother of God, and as he saw you assuming a body at the sound of his bodiless voice, O Lord, he stood rapt in amazement and cried out to her in these words:
Hail, O you, through whom Joy will shine forth! Hail, O you, through whom the curse will disappear!
Hail, O Restoration of the Fallen Adam! Hail, O Redemption of the Tears of Eve!
Hail, O Peak above the reach of human thought! Hail, O Depth even beyond the sight of angels!
Hail, O you who have become a Kingly Throne! Hail, O you who carry Him Who Carries All!
Hail, O Star who manifest the Sun! Hail, O Womb of the Divine Incarnation!
Hail, O you through whom creation is renewed! Hail, O you through whom the Creator becomes a Babe!
Hail, O Bride and Maiden ever-pure!

(L) Rogier van der Weyden, 1435; (R) Philippe de Champaigne, 1644

(L) Simone Martini, 1313-1342; (R) Dante Gabriel Rossetti, England, 1850

(L) Pietro Perugino, 1489; (R) John William Waterhouse, 1914


Source of images.

Icons of the Great Feasts: The Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple

February 2nd, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

“Now Lord, allow your servant to go in peace, just as you promised: because my eyes have the salvation which you have prepared before all the nations a light for the gentiles and the glory of your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32)

This feast in the Orthodox world is called The Presentation or The Meeting, and refers to the meeting of Mary and her Child with Simeon the Just (“The Host of God”) and the prophetess Anna. Both were elderly and symbolize the patient waiting of Israel for the long promised messiah, and both represent the prophetic strain within faithful Israel. As such, they are the representatives of the Old Testament in this meeting with the New Testament. Simeon’s canticle, the Nunc Dimittis (see above), identifies the Messiah and prophesizes His role as a light not only for Israel but also for the Gentiles. The event, then, is also a meeting between the promised Messiah and the entire world.

In the above icon, Mary has handed over the Child to Simeon, the ancient holy man, who has received the babe with hands covered as a sign of reference. In some icons, Mary holds the babe. Her hands are covered with the maphorion in a gesture of offering. St. Joseph, on the left, is carrying the offering of poor parents of two turtle doves which represent the Old and New Testaments or, in some interpretations, the Church of Israel and that of the Gentiles. Anna in the icon shown here stands between Mary and Joseph and holds a scroll of prophetic text. In some icons she stands behind Simeon and looks up as a sign of prophetic inspiration.

The scene takes place in the Jerusalem Temple which is represented by an altar covered with a ciborium. The altar sometimes has a cross and a book or scroll. It looks exactly like the earliest altars in the Christian Churches. Mary stands on one side of the altar and Simeon on the other. The Child is often in Simeon’s arms and held over the altar. The symbolism, of course, is of sacrifice both in the Old and New Testaments: Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac, and Christ’s sacrifice on the altar of the cross. The Christ Child seems to know instinctively what lies ahead for Him as He reaches back towards his mother for protection and comfort. In some icons He extends his hand in blessing. [1]

The Feast was better known, in the past, in the Latin or Western Church as the Purification of the Holy Virgin and refers to the rite of purification a woman was to perform forty days after the birth of a male child (Leviticus 12:6-8). When the time -forty days- was over the mother was to “bring to the temple a lamb for a holocaust and a young pigeon or turtle dove for sin”; if she was not able to offer a lamb, she was to take two turtle doves or two pigeons; the priest prayed for her and so she was cleansed (Leviticus 12:2-8). Forty days after the birth of Christ Mary complied with this precept of the law, she redeemed her first-born from the temple (Numbers 18:15), and was purified by the prayer of Simeon.

The Feast of the Presentation dates back at least to the fourth century when it was celebrated in Jerusalem with a solemn procession. Finding its way to Constantinople in the sixth century it eventually passed to Rome during the seventh century. In Jerusalem, around 450, lighted candles were held during the office of the Hypapante (“the meeting of the Lord”). The practice was maintained in the Western Church and became known as Candlemas. [2]

According to the Roman Missal the celebrant after Terce, in stole and cope of purple colour, standing at the epistle side of the altar, blesses the candles (which must be of beeswax). Having sung or recited the five orations prescribed, he sprinkles and incenses the candles. Then he distributes them to the clergy and laity, whilst the choir sings the canticle of Simeon, “Nunc dimittis”… During the procession which now follows, and at which all the partakers carry lighted candles in their hands, the choir sings the antiphon… The solemn procession represents the entry of Christ, who is the Light of the World, into the Temple of Jerusalem. …during the Middle Ages the clergy left the church and visited the cemetery surrounding it. Upon the return of the procession a priest, carrying an image of the Holy Child, met it at the door and entered the church with the clergy, who sang the canticle of Zachary, “Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel”. [3]

The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord is celebrated on February 2


[1] Russell Hart, The Icon Through Western Eyes, (Springfield, Templegate Publishers, 1991) p53

[2] Leonid Ouspensky & Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, (Crestwood, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1989) p168

[3] Frederick Holweck, Candlemas, The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3,(New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908). 25 Jan. 2011 <>.

Icons of the Great Feasts: The Baptism of the Lord

January 9th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously in this series: here, here, here, and here.

The Baptism of the Lord

(Theophany or, even, Epiphany)

(Click on picture for a larger image)

“And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him: and there came a voice from heaven, saying, ‘Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased'” -Mark 1: 10, 11 (from the Gospel read at the Matins of the day)

“The River Jordan once turned back before the mantle of Elisha, after Elijah had been taken up into heaven and the waters were divided on this side and on that: The stream became a dry path before him, forming a true figure of the baptism whereby we pass over the changeful course of life. Christ has appeared in the Jordan to sanctify the waters.” -from the Eastern Liturgy for the Baptism of the Lord

Originally, The Baptism of the Lord was celebrated on Epiphany along with the Feast of the Three Kings/Magi and the Wedding in Cana. Over time, the feast of the Baptism was assigned a separate date. The Eastern Orthodox celebrate the feast -which they call The Theophany (showing or appearance of diety)- on January 6. For the Roman Catholic Church and the churches in the Anglican Communion, the Baptism of the Lord is observed on the first Sunday after Epiphany. Most Protestant Christian groups do not specifically celebrate the Baptism as a feast day on the church calendar.

There are three aspects to this feast and its icon: 1) the revelation of the full dogmatic truth of the Trinity and the Divinity of Jesus; 2) the establishment of the New Testament sacrament of Baptism; and, 3) analogies of the Baptism of the Lord with Old Testament prefigurations.

On this day it was revealed that Jesus is the Divine Son of God, and that God is One God, but, a Trinity of Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When Jesus came up out of the water, John heard the voice of the Father (“Thou art my beloved Son…”) and saw the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, confirm this voice. In accordance with the Gospel text, appearing in the icon at the top edge, there is a segment of a circle symbolizing the opening of the heavens and the presence of the Father, which is sometimes also indicated by a hand blessing Jesus. Falling upon the Savior are rays of divine light issuing from the Father and containing the Holy Spirit, appearing in the same kind of circle that we saw enclose the star of the magi in the Nativity of the Lord icon.

On the other hand, as Jesus established the sacrament of the Most Holy Eucharist while celebrating the Old Testament Passover, so He establishes the sacrament of Baptism while performing an act of ablution originating with the Old Testament prophets. But, instead of the water of the Jordan purifying and sanctifying Him, He descends into the water to sanctify the water and to make the water an efficacious sacramental for our own purification and regeneration in our Baptism. He who became sin for us is covered by the waters of the Jordan. He is represented in the icon as standing against a background of water. In this icon the water delicately and rhythmically washes over the legs and feet. In most older style icons the water appears as a flat background without any overlap of the figure of Jesus. The shape of the body of water is often reminiscent of a cave and leaves us with the impression that Christ is immersed in a kind of token burial and that Baptism is meant to signify the death and burial of the Lord. Like Jesus, in Baptism we too go down into the water, and, again like Jesus, we rise up out of the water -but as a new person- filled with the Holy Spirit and new life. In a great many of the images of Baptism from the catacombs the person represented as being baptized -including the Savior himself- is depicted as a child, as new and innocent life.

With Christ’s Baptism -from his going down into the water and rising from it again- water becomes an image not of death  but of birth into new life. Christ’s body has sanctified the water. Each time we dip our fingers into holy water and bless ourselves we should be reminded of the fact that we have been reborn in Christ through the water of Baptism, in the name of the Blessed Trinity.

In addition to Theophany and the institution of the sacrament of Baptism, the icon of the Baptism of the Lord also calls to mind Old Testament prefigurations. The Fathers of the Church explain the appearance of the Holy Spirit at Christ’s Baptism by analogy with Noah’s Flood. As the world was purified by the water of the Flood and a dove brought an olive branch to Noah announcing the end of the flood and the restoration of peace, so also a dove (the Holy Spirit) signifies the remission of sins through God’s merciful sending of his only begotten Son.

Two small figures are sometimes depicted in the water at the feet of the Savior, among the fish in the Jordan. One is usually a naked man with his back turned to the Lord and the other is often a half-naked women running away or riding a fish (not in this icon). The figures correspond to the Old Testament text “The sea saw and fled; Jordan was turned back” (Ps. 113: 3). The male figure is an allegorical figure representing the Jordan in the following text:

“Elisha turned back the river Jordan with the mantle, when Elijah had been taken up, and the waters were divided hither and thither; and the bed of the river was to Elisha a dry pathway, as a true type of Baptism, by which we pass through the changing course of life.” –Troparion for the Sunday before Epiphany

The female figure is an allegory of the sea and refers to the other prefiguration of Baptism -the crossing of the Red Sea by the Hebrews.

John the Baptist extends one hand out over the head of Christ, a sacramental gesture that has always been a part of the liturgy of Baptism. His left hand is outstretched with the palm facing up while he looks up indicating that he is receiving or hearing the word of the Father, “This is my beloved Son…”

The angels are not mentioned in the biblical text but they are mentioned in texts of the Eastern Divine Services. Their function in the scene is uncertain. Some think they are placed there to minister to the Lord when he comes out of the water. It seems this iconographer has made that his interpretation by painting the angels holding towels. In other icons each angel has his hands covered with a pallium (or cloak) as an indication of reverence for Him Whom he serves. Their covered hands imply the Divinity of Jesus which, of course, is the message of the icon. It is the sacred message of the ritual they convey to us that causes them to cover their hands, as we do whenever we handle something precious or scared.

The Baptism of the Lord is celebrated by Roman Catholics today, January 9. It also signals the end of the Christmas season.


Book suggestion:

The Meaning of Icons by Leonid Ouspensky & Vladimir Lossky

The Great Feasts: Icon Of The Nativity of Our Lord

December 24th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously in this series: here, here, and here

(Click on picture to view a larger, sharper image.)

Novgorod school, attributed to the 15th c., 17 x 21 inches

The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ


Your Nativity, O Christ our God, Has shone to the world the Light of wisdom! For by it, those who worshipped the stars, Were taught by a Star to adore You, The Sun of Righteousness, And to know You, the Orient from on High. O Lord, glory to You!


Today the Virgin brings forth the Transubstantial, And the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One! Angels with shepherds glorify Him! The wise men journey with a star! Since for our sake the Eternal God was born as a Little Child!

The figure of the Blessed Mother is usually the first thing people notice in this icon. The figure is normally near the center of the design and is often the largest. In most traditional nativity icons the All Holy Virgin reclines on a portable bed of the kind Jews used while traveling. But, in some icons she sits upright on the bed. The second thing noticed by most people is the black –always black– cave also located somewhere near the center of the design. Thirdly, people notice that Mary and the dark cave are surrounded by ‘scenes’ or episodes from the story and placed in a somewhat barren, rocky or uncomfortable landscape. Finally –and almost overlooked—people see the tiny wrapped figure of the Christ child lying in the manger inside the cave. That wrapped child lying on top of the manger in a dark cave always reminds me of Christ wrapped in a death shroud and laid out on a stone tomb in a sepulcher.

Of course, the Christ child is the intended center of the icon. The small white shape of his swaddling clothes contrasts with the dark shape of the cave as “a spiritual light shinning forth in the shadow of death that encompasses mankind… The black mouth of the cave in the icon is, in its symbolic meaning, precisely this world, stricken with sin through man’s fault, in which ‘the Sun of truth’ shone forth.”1 The uncomfortable landscape might remind us of the wilderness of the Exodus story. There, the Israelites were fed with manna bread from heaven. Here, God Himself has come down from heaven to be the bread of eternal life, the Eucharist.  He is also the sacrificial Lamb laid upon the altar of the wood manger, symbolic of the altar of the wooden cross.

Mary’s posture always suggests underlying dogmatic beliefs. In the Nativity of Our Lord icons her pose can vary in two ways and they address either the Divine or human nature of Jesus.  In some icons of the Nativity of Jesus, Mary is half-sitting, alert and attentive to the child which suggests a lack of the usual suffering associated with child birth. In that case the virginity of Mary and the Divine nature of the child are emphasized. However, in the highlighted icon for this post the humanity of Christ is emphasized through the listlessness and languor of Mary’s reclining pose. Her fatigue suggests that the Incarnation indeed took place in Mary’s womb and she has now brought him forth into the wider world. It was not just all an illusion as the heretical Nestorians taught. God did take on human flesh and become human.

Mary gazes down toward Joseph who sits in the bottom left corner confused and troubled, pondering the improbability of it all. His figure is not part of the mother and child grouping for he is not the father. The devil in the guise of an old shepherd stands before him sowing doubt that the virgin birth is possible. He suggests that if the infant were truly divine He would not have been born in a human way. In the person of Joseph, the icon discloses not only his personal drama, but the drama of all mankind, the difficulty of accepting that which is ‘beyond words or reason’, the Incarnation of God.2 The scene reminds us of our own personal struggles with faith. But Holy Mary looks on in compassion and loving concern –not just at Joseph but even at us in our times of temptation and doubt.

In the bottom right corner two midwives Joseph rounded-up and brought back to the Mother of God are depicted about ready to bathe the baby. Like any other human new-born the Son of God has become subject to the necessities of human life. Often the basin appears like a baptismal font3 or a large chalice which reminds us of the ‘cup’ of the passion from which the Lord will drink.

The angels of the Gloria are at the top of the icon. Messengers as well as worshippers they usually appear with some of them looking up toward heaven glorifying God and some looking down toward man to whom they bring good tidings.4Among the shepherds is usually one playing a flute or reed-pipe, joining the shepherds’ own human music with that of the heavenly strains of the angels. Like the shepherds some of us enjoy communion with heaven while engaged in our daily work while others of us, more sophisticated and learned, are like the Magi in the left side of the icon who “have to accomplish a long journey from the knowledge of what is relative to the knowledge that is absolute, through the object (like the star) that they study.”5

The ox and the ass stand next to the manger and contemplate the Christ Child demonstrating that even the dumb animals can recognize the Creator when He chooses to reveal himself:6 “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.”7

Finally, from the top of the icon Divinity pierces into the natural world in the form of light beams emanating from the star of the Magi (or from the orb of heaven) illuminating the Child Jesus in the crib. As the story in the Apocryphal gospel of James goes, Joseph and the midwives, when they returned to the cave, were blinded by a bright light shining forth from the grotto, a light so bright that “they could not bear it”;8 as the bright light of the Transfiguration would blind the apostles on Mt. Tabor.9


1 Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, Crestwood, (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1989) p 157. The thought, however, comes from a homily attributed to St. Gregory of Nyssa.

2 Ouspensky 160

3 Solrunn Nes, The Mystical Language of Icons, (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004) 43

4 Ouspensky 159

5 Ouspensky 159

6 Nes 43

7 Isaiah: 1, 3

8 James 14, 11

9 Nes 43

Book suggestions:

The Meaning of Icons, Vladimir Lossky and Leonid Ouspensky,  (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1999)

The Mystical Language of Icons, Solrunn Nes,  (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004)

The Great Feasts: The Presentation of Mary in the Temple

November 20th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

(Click on picture for a larger image)

The Presentation of Mary in the Temple



Today is the preview of the good will of God, Of the preaching of the salvation of mankind.  The Virgin appears in the temple of God, In anticipation proclaiming Christ to all.  Let us rejoice and sing to her: Rejoice, 0 Divine Fulfillment of the Creator’s dispensation.


The most pure Temple of the Savior; The precious Chamber and Virgin; The sacred Treasure of the glory of God, Is presented today to the house of the Lord.  She brings with her the grace of the Spirit, Therefore, the angels of God praise her: “Truly this woman is the abode of heaven.”


The three year old Mary is presented by her parents Joachim and Anna in the temple where she is received by Zachariah the high priest, who, filled with the spirit is moved to exclaim “Mary, the Lord God has magnified your name to all generations and, by you, to the very end of time, the Lord will show His Redemption to the children of Israel.” Several other virgins can be seen in the icon. They accompanied Mary into the Temple as they have been her attendants.  They all each hold a candle and wool of different colors with which to spin and weave. Mary carries wool of a royal purple that will become the veil of the temple. Mary subsequently ascends a seven-stepped stairway on top of which she is fed by angels.

That which is known about the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Temple is found in the Apocrypha, principally in chapter seven of the Protoevangelium of James, which has been dated by historians prior to the year 200 AD.1 By the ninth century, it is celebrated in the monasteries of southern Italy which had been influenced by the traditions of the Byzantine churches, and by the fourteenth century, it had spread to England. However it was not until 1472 that Pope Sixtus IV extended its celebration to the Western church. 2

Growing up in the Temple:3

Her physical appearance was described as beautiful and cheerful. No one ever saw her angry nor heard her speak evil and all her conversations were full of grace. She was anxious also about her companions (the other young virgins) that they might not sin even in one word or raise their voice in senselessness or act proud before their parents. Mary guarded herself carefully that she might not even inadvertently offend or appear proud before her peers. Thus, even as a young teenager, she gave the impression of one many times her age and was steadfast, immovable and unchangeable in her desire for the things of God.

Mary’s early years in the Temple were spent primarily in prayer and wool-work (weaving, etc.). From daylight to 9:00 a.m. she spent in prayer; from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. she spent doing her weaving; and from 3:00 p.m. until bedtime she returned to prayer. Even in her early years, she became well known as an excellent weaver surpassing old experienced women. Later as a young teenager, she and some other similarly skilled virgins were commissioned to spin the special thread for the new veil for the Holy of Holies that would separate the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place.

Early sources state that Mary spent a lot of her time in the Holy of Holies in prayers. (The Holy of Holies of the Second Temple may have been incomplete and its veil may not have been installed yet). She lived very much like her nephew John the Baptist who was to be born a few years later and she ate just one meal per day. The additional food given her by the priests, she gave to the poor. Angels were recorded as visiting her regularly and sometimes bringing her food, just as an angel brought Elijah food on several occasions (1 Kings 19:5-8).





The Great Feasts: The Nativity of the Theotokos

September 7th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

Back in June (2010) we began a series on the categories of Marian icons. That seemed to be well received so I’m thinking we might enjoy taking a look at the icons of the Orthodox or Eastern Catholic Churches that represent the Great Feasts of the Eastern Church: the Nativity of the Theotokos, the Exaltation of the Cross, the Presentation of the Theotokos in the Temple, the Nativity of Christ (Christmas), the Theophany (Baptism of Christ -Epiphany), Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, the Annunciation, Pascha (Easter), the Ascension of Christ, Pentecost, the Transfiguration, and the Dormition (Falling Asleep) of the Theotokos (celebrated as the Assumption in the Western Church. The Orthodox Church generally believes in the Assumption of Mary -body and soul- into heaven but it is not a defined doctrine of the Eastern Orthodox Churches).

The Great Feasts are twelve in number. Three of them –Pascha, Ascension, and Pentecost– are called the Movable Feasts because the dates of their celebration vary from year to year depending upon the date of Pascha. The other Feasts are referred to as the Fixed Feasts because they are celebrated on the same dates every year.

(Click on the pictures to see clearer images.)

Icon of The Nativity of the Theotokos

Troparion “Your nativity, O Mother of God, heralded joy to the whole universe, for from you rose the Sun of Justice, Christ our God, taking away the curse, He imparted the blessings, and by abolishing death, He gave us everlasting life.”

Kontakion “Through your holy birth, O Immaculate One, Joachim and Anne were delivered from shame of childlessness, and Adam and Eve from the corruption of death. Your people, redeemed from the debt of their sins, cry out to you to honor your birth: ‘The barren one gives birth to the Mother of God the Sustainer of our life!'”

The first Great Feast of the Eastern Liturgical year is the Nativity of the Theotokos and so the year begins with a story about Mary. The year will end with another story about Mary, her Dormition or ‘falling asleep’ (as in “Mary fell asleep at the end of her earthly life.” The Orthodox Church generally believes in the Assumption of Mary -body and soul- into heaven but it is not a defined doctrine of the Eastern Orthodox Churches.)

The Nativity of Mary icon always reminds me of the Nativity of Jesus icon for they have similar details. When we examine the Nativity of Jesus icon I think you will see what I mean.

The story behind the Nativity of Mary icon comes to us not from the canon of the New Testament but from the apocryphal book called the Protevangelium of St. James. It goes like this: The parents of Mary, St. Anne and St. Joachim, reached old age without producing any children. Anne was now barren. One day, Joachim went to the Temple to make an offering but he overheard someone ridiculing him for not being able to father a child. Ashamed, Joachim headed to the hill country to hide among the shepherds and their flocks and there he cried to God over his disappointment. At the same time, Anne was praying back home in Jerusalem. An angel appeared to the both of them at the same time and announced that Anne would give birth to a girl child whose name would be revered around the world.

There are more interesting details to the story but that’s the basic lead-up to the birth of Mary.

The icon of the Nativity of the Theotokos (God-bearer) shows St. Anne reclining on a couch having just been delivered of the baby, Mary. She is attended by servants. The environment suggests an upscale house which indicates that Anne and Joachim were fairly wealthy. In fact they were, but they divided their wealth in a most admirable way: one third went to the Temple and its staff while another third went to strangers and the poor. The remaining third was used by the family. In the foreground of the icon a midwife prepares to give the baby Mary a bath.  Joachim, the husband of Anne is usually depicted in another part of the house or at some distance from Anne. Later icons show the two together caressing the baby or pointing to her as she lies in the crib. The largest figure in the icon is Anne although sometimes Joachim is just as large.

As Adam and Eve were the parents of a fallen humanity, Joachim and Anne are the grandparents of the Redeemer of that humanity –the ‘new’ man:

The name “Mary” or “Miriam” was given by the angel when he announced to Joachim and Anne that they would have the child they had prayed for.  Only one other Old Testament person bore the name Mary or Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron.  Mary means “hope” and so Miriam was the “hope” of the liberation of the Israelites because she saved Moses who would become liberator and savior of her people Israel  (Exodus 2:4-8).  Like the nativity of John the Baptist and the birth of Isaac from the sterile Sarah, the nativity of the Mother of God was considered to be a prefiguring of the Resurrection.*

“But the Nativity of the Mother of God is more than a figure, for in the person of St. Anna-a woman freed from her sterility to bring into the world a Virgin who would give birth to God incarnate-it is our nature which ceases to be sterile in order to start bearing the fruits of grace.” **


*from a Meditation by Mary Grace Ritchey

**The Meaning of Icons by Vladimir Lossky and Leonid Ouspensky

Icons of the Great Feasts: Holy Trinity

June 17th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie

Continuing our series on the icons of the Great Feasts of the Eastern Rite Catholic, and Orthodox Churches.


(click on the picture for a larger image)

This Sunday, June 19 is Trinity Sunday in the Western Church. In the Eastern or Orthodox Church there is technically no separate feast of the Trinity; what we call the day of Pentecost is called Trinity Sunday in the Eastern Church. The Holy Trinity is central to “Pentecost” which celebrates the substantial presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church. The icon of the Holy Trinity is brought out for veneration on Sunday and the icon of the Descent of the Holy Spirit is brought out on the next day, Monday (Monday of the Holy Spirit).

The descent of the Holy Spirit is considered the culminating action of the Holy Trinity -Father, Son, and Spirit- in the redemption of the world. The descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is the final fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham. All three Persons of the Trinity take part in every providential action relative to the world. The Father is Creator of the world and does all things through the Son –the Redeemer- with the participation of the Holy Spirit –the Sanctifier. It is through the Son that we know the Father and through Him that the Spirit was sent to us. The descent of the Spirit at Pentecost is the revelation to the world of the mystery of the Trinity, consubstantial, undivided and yet distinct. (In Eastern Orthodox theology the Father sends forth the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is sent into the world through the Son, not by the Son.)

The icon of the Holy Trinity, therefore, is closely associated with Pentecost in the Eastern Church. The oldest visual expression of the Trinity is seen in the Old Testament story of the Hospitality of Abraham in which three men appear as angels to Abraham near the oak of Mambre (Genesis 18). This is the first appearance of God to man and begins the promise of redemption which will be finally fulfilled with the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The Holy Trinity icon binds together the beginning of the Old Testament Church and the establishment of the New Testament Church.

From ancient times an image associated with the actual location where three men appeared to Abraham depicts the three as angels seated at a table under the oak tree. Abraham and Sarah serve them; their house is in the background. A servant killing a calf was often included in the scene. The scene varies from icon to icon depending on the interpretation stressed. Some theologians see the story as the appearance of the Godhead, all three Persons of the Trinity. Others saw it as an appearance of the Second Person accompanied by two angels. Since each Person of the Trinity possesses the fullness of the Godhead, the image of the Son with two angels could be interpreted as the Trinity. The point is that Abraham sees God, as much as anyone could possibly see God. The three men are often seated at table next to each other as equals; unified and yet distinct. They often are rendered in the same colors to emphasize their shared nature. In other compositions the figures are arranged in a triangular composition with the central angel placed higher in the design.

The most revered icon in the Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity is something like the second type and was painted by (written by) St. Andrew Rublev most likely between 1408 and 1425. Abraham and Sarah are not shown in this icon and a mountain joins the house and oak in the background. The historical details have been pared down to a minimum to stress the dogmatic meaning.

The composition of Reblev’s icon is organized according to a circle (see diagram). The angels appear in a circle which unites them into one flowing movement. As a result the central angel ends up higher than the other two but does not dominant over them.

… Circular movement signifies that God remains identical with Himself, that He envelops in synthesis the intermediate parts and the extremities, which are at the same time containers and contained, and that He recalls to Himself all that has gone forth from Him. The two flanking angels incline their heads toward the central figure but all three indicate with their hands the chalice on the table (an altar) holding the head of a sacrificial animal symbolizing the voluntary sacrifice of the Son. In this way the covenant with Abraham is bound, in this icon, to the covenant in Christ’s blood (1)

The angels are very similar and yet differences are easily noticed. The Father (on the left) is more reserved and reticent and rendered in sober and difficult to identify colors. The historical detail of the central angel with the traditional purple color of the chiton and blue cloak identify this figure as the Son while the green color of new growth and renewal of the angel on the right indicate the Holy Spirit. For Pentecost, churches and houses in the East are traditionally decorated with green branches, plants and flowers expressing symbolically the power of the Holy Spirit to renew the face of the earth. Notice that the blue color of the Son’s cloak is echoed in the flanking figures indicating a shared nature.

This is the classic iconic image of the Holy Trinity.



Leonid Ouspensky & Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, (Crestwood, Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1994) pp 200-205


1 On Divine Names, St. Dionysius the Areopagite, P.G. 3, col. 916 D as cited in The Meaning of Icons, Leonid Ouspensky & Vladimir Lossky, (Crestwood, Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1994) p202

“The Annunciation” by Leonardo

March 24th, 2011, Promulgated by Bernie


The Church celebrates the great feast of The Annunciation Friday, March 25.

Click on the pictures for sharper images.

"The Annunciation" by Leonardo da Vinci, ca. 1473-78

Luke records in his Gospel (1:26-38) that the angel Gabriel appeared to a virgin whose name was Mary and announced to her that she was to be the mother of the Son of the Most High who would sit upon the throne of his ancestor King David, and reign forever.

Mary quizzed Gabriel as to how that was going to happen as she had not had relations with a man. The angel explained that the Holy Spirit would come upon her and the Most High would overshadow her and she would conceive. He then offers Mary a sign. A relative, Elizabeth, in her old age, had conceived a son and was already in her sixth month.

Finally, then, Mary humbly submits to the will of God.

The story of The Annunciation is one of the most frequently depicted scenes in the Bible and Leonardo da Vinci, the great high-Renaissance artist, made a contribution with his painting of the subject completed sometime between 1473 and 1478. The painting may actually have been worked on by several people as it was probably created in the ‘workshop’ studio of the artist Verrocchio. The Annunciation was owned by the monks of St. Bartolomeo at Monte Oliveto, outside Florence, but there are no records as to who actually commissioned the painting. It has hung in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence since 1867.

We will not concern ourselves in this post with Leonard’s style but rather will dwell on the iconography of the image and Leonard’s adherence and deviation from the traditional representation of the story.

“Altarpiece of the Annunciation” by Fra Angelico, ca. 1430-1432

Traditionally, icon artists assigned discrete spaces to Gabriel and Mary in the picture spaces that made use of what look like stage props for a play. The angel and Virgin were sometimes separated by a wall or column or some other architectural device. The early Renaissance painter Giotto depicted the story in a more natural setting, an open portico, with each figure occupying its own bay.  A column stands between them.

Giotto’s innovation influenced subsequent artists (Like Fra Angelico) who chose to place Gabriel and Mary in more natural interior or exterior spaces. But, an architectural device placed between them often continued the tradition of a noticable visual separation.

detail from "The Annunciation" by Leonardo

Leonardo placed his figures in a natural outdoor setting like Giotto but eliminated a portico altogether. Mary and Gabriel still occupy equal spaces in an approximately symmetrical arrangement. Gabriel is framed by the three vertical –and equally spaced- cypress trees; Mary by the single dark cypress and the quoins of the building. The two parts are separated not by a material architectural device but by an open vista to a far distant harbor -and beyond.  In contrast, however, the two parts are pulled together by the horizontal parallel lines of the parapet and ground behind the figures.  The composition adds to the mystery of the scene by introducing  a design arrangement that would have appeared different from what 15th century viewers would have been used to and yet, strangely familiar.

The most common pose artists assigned to depicting the figure of Gabriel in Annunciation scenes was kneeling. Some artists used a flying or floating Gabriel but Leonardo stayed with the more popular kneeling pose. The kneeling pose usually suggests that the encounter has already begun. Gabriel holds a long-stemmed lily which replaces the tall messenger staff of earlier icons. Here, the long stem mimics the messenger staff and symbolizes the delivery of a message but, now, in addition, a lily symbolizes the purity of the Virgin.

detail from "The Annunciation" by Leonardo

In the painting Mary has been sitting at a lectern, reading from the book of Isaiah, “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son” (cf. Is 7:14, KJV, and Matt 1:25). Mary’s right hand marks the page but the other pages have flipped over apparently due to a gust of wind caused by the alighting of the angel.

Lecterns had not always been part of Annunciation icons. Some place Mary by a well, a detail mentioned in Pseudo-Matthew 9 from the 8th or 9th century. Others have Mary holding a spindle and spinning tread for the Temple veil. But, by the 14th century, the book and lectern became the prop of choice. This lectern in Leonardo’s painting has been likened to a sepulchral urn, a sarcophagus, or a Roman altar. Those in favor of the ordination of women see an altar. The idea of Mary as priestess was first expressed by the Archbishop of Florence, Antonino Pierozzi (1389-459). Some see the lectern as too small for a tomb, yet tomb imagery is so central to the Christian story that it would be hard to by-pass that interpretation, in this painting, in favor of an altar inference. It’s especially difficult to interpret the lectern as anything other than a sarcophagus in light of a painting by Domenico Ghirlandaio, The Nativity and Adoration of the Shepherds (1483-85). Although painted perhaps ten years after Leonardo’s The Annunciation, the food trough for the animals in Ghirlandaio’s painting looks very much like a sarcophagus and has the same garland of pears found on Leonardo’s lectern.  The tomb symbolism is, of course, obvious in a nativity scene (birth and death theme). Ghirlandaio was a younger contemporary of Leonardo and was probably in Verrocchio’s studio workshop during the same period, 1473-75, when Leonardo’s The Annunciation was created.

The feet of the lectern are depicted as lion hocks and were frequently found in images of the Annunciation and were, interestingly, used as supports in small altars. The lion, of course, has long been a symbol of royalty and majesty and here may refer to the Incarnation. Icanthus leaves, sprouting from the lion hocks, are also attributes of Mary. The garland of pears symbolizes Mary’s sweetness in the eyes of God. The scallop shell symbolizes heaven in an architectural setting and so probably does here as well.

Well, there is much more we could discuss here along more reflective, scriptural, and spiritual lines but perhaps this provides you with some, I hope, interesting tidbits about a famous painting by a famous painter that celebrates a great Mystery of our Faith, the Annunciation.


Reference and Book suggestion:

Illuminating Luke: The Infancy Narrative in Italian Renaissance Painting, by Heidi J. Hornik and Mikeal C. Parsons