Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Posts Tagged ‘Icons’

Good Friday 2016

March 25th, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie

Grave crucifixes from a French cemetery.

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Josep Obiols, An “Other Modern” Artist

January 24th, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie

From the New Liturgical Movement website and Matthew Alderman

pintures-josep-obiols-redim-w500-h500From time to time, the New Liturgical Movement covers the work of artists and architects from recent history, whose work, while “modern,” nonetheless took a different and more traditional path than that of the “modernism” of Le Corbusier or Picasso, a path which we call “the Other Modern.”

Read more about one such artist HERE

Basic Christian Iconography: The Cross (Part 3)

January 23rd, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously: Part 1, Part 2

The Undisguised, Unambiguous or Plain Cross

Two events that took place toward the middle of the 4th century may have created an atmosphere in which the unambiguous cross and even the crucifixion could become the preeminent symbol(s) of Christianity. The first event was the discovery, in Jerusalem, of the actual cross upon which Jesus was crucified and, second, the banning of crucifixion as a form of capital punishment.

Church of the Holy Sepulcher (and location of Golgotha.

Church of the Holy Sepulcher (and location of Golgotha).

In 326 the bishop of Jerusalem had the site of Calvary (Golgotha) excavated in preparation for the construction of a large church over the place of Christ’s crucifixion. Helena, the mother of Constantine, traveled to Jerusalem in 327 and devoted her efforts and prayers to finding –at the excavation site– the actual cross of Christ’s sacrifice. The sign that Pilate had placed on the cross “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” was found but unattached to any post or beam. How the rest of the cross came to be identified is the subject of speculation. At any rate, the “true” cross had been found. Soon that cross became the foremost object of veneration in Jerusalem. Small fragments (relics) of the cross spread across the Christian world.

Some scholars are of the opinion that by the 4th century execution by crucifixion was already falling out of favor across the known world.  Some argue that Constantine banned crucifixion –he probably did– out of respect for the way Christ died. Others claim that crucifixion was eventually banned as a simple trend towards more humane behavior and that piety had nothing to do with it. Whatever the cause, crucifixion gradually fell from public consciousness after a generation or so.

The eclipse of crucifixion as a form of capital punishment and the development of Golgotha as a site of pilgrimage –as well as the subsequent dispersal of fragments of the true cross across the Christian world– led to a change of attitude regarding the avoidance of the image of the plain cross in Christian art.

Apse Mosaic in Santa Pudenziana, Rome, ca. 400

Apse Mosaic in Santa Pudenziana, Rome, ca. 400

In 420 a large gold, gem encrusted cross (crux gemmata) was erected on the rock of Golgotha. That cross may have been one of the very first appearances of the unambiguous Christian cross. The Golgotha cross no longer exits but an image of it appears in the apse mosaic at the church of Santa Pudenziana, in Rome. In the mosaic, the rock of Golgotha has steps cut into it and the cross is depicted as made of gold and precious gemstones, an image that corresponds to the written accounts of early Christian pilgrims who visited the site.


Bobbio flask (ampullae) 6th c. By an unknown handicraft worker [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Picture Source.

Solidus (Coin) of Tiberius II, A.D. 57882. Byzantine, minted in Constantinople. Gold; 4.44 g. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Mrs. Emily Crane Chadbourne, 1940.15.

Solidus (Coin) of Tiberius II, A.D. 572-582. Byzantine, minted in Constantinople. Gold. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Mrs. Emily Crane Chadbourne, 1940.15. Picture Source.

Many of the earliest depictions of the cross are on small flasks (ampullae) for holy oil that were pilgrim’s souvenirs from the Holy Land. These ampullae crosses may be depictions of the gem cross.

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Apse Mosaic. Basilica di Sant’Apollinare in Classe. Ravenna (Province of Ravenna. Emilia-Romagna Region) ITALY. Picture Source.



Enthroned Gem Cross.


Santi Cosma e Damiano chancel mosaic, 6th c. Picture Source.

Depictions in the art of the period sometimes indicate the use of the cross as a stand-in for Christ himself. This can best be seen in the 6th century apse mosaic in the church of Sant’ Appollinare of Classe, Italy. The mosaic depicts the transfiguration of the Jesus: Moses and Elijah flank a disk containing an image of a gold, jeweled cross with a small medallion of the bust of Christ at the crossing. It’s the same type of cross as the one shown in the Santa Pudenziana mosaic. A star-filled sky surrounds the cross. Peter, James and John are represented by lambs in a paradise-like garden. Finally, the Hand of God hovers over the scene. The cross in this program represents Jesus and not the crucifixion. The cross in the Santa Pudenziana, however, is meant to identify the cityscape as that of Jerusalem and so it represents the site of the crucifixion.

The Crucifix or Crucifixion Crosses
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Drawing of an intaglio in the British Museum. Picture Source .

A very small intaglio found in Romania may be one of the earliest representations of the crucifixion of Jesus. It is dated to the 3rd or 4th century. If it is from the 200s then we really have a very early representation of not just the cross but of a crucifix (or a possible narrative of the crucifixion). However, the inscription is J(esus) Ch(rist)] S(on) [of G(od)] S(aviour) and the 12 apostles are shown, 6 to each side of the cross. Saint John was the only apostle at the crucifixion; the others had fled in fear just after Jesus was taken prisoner. They were not standing at the foot of the cross. The presence of all the apostles suggest that perhaps the image has a dogmatic or symbolic meaning that is in addition to the Gospel narrative. In addition Christ’s body is not actually attached to the wooden cross and his arms are posed in the orans position of prayer.

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Crucifixion Panel from the wooden doors of Santa Sabina church in Rome. Picture Source.

Another one of the early appearances of the crucifixion in Christian art is from a set of wooden church doors from the early 5th century (422-433). The doors consist of panels showing scenes from both Testaments. The panel thought to represent the crucifixion occupies the very upper left corner of the left door. The scene is somewhat ambiguous. Three standing nude male figures in loin cloths are arranged next to each other horizontally, as we imagine the crucifixion might have looked like. The center figure is larger suggesting the figure of Jesus. The other two are thought to be the “good” and “bad” thieves. But, all three figures are in the orans position of prayer. They do not seem to be suffering crucifixion –the arms are not pulled straight from the tug of body weight as they would be from crucifixion. Adding to the ambiguity is the absence of any vertical posts or horizontal beams that would form crosses. Rather, three pitched roofs or pediments are supported by vertical posts, located between the figures, suggesting architecture. A window can be seen in the left pediment. If we compare this image with the much smaller intaglio we just looked at we can see that the figures are in the same orans pose but the intaglio is much more descriptive; we can see the cross. Why did the door carver leave out the crosses? On the other hand, why did the intaglio artist include the 12 apostles? It would seem that these first appearances of the crucifix or crucifixion scenes suggest a period of searching for the proper reason for depicting the crucifixion. Should it be depicted in order to identify/symbolize Jesus or to relate the Gospel narrative.

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Carved Ivory Casket (box). ca. 420-30

A carving on an ivory casket (small box) may be even earlier (420-430). This is obviously a narrative crucifixion and not just a more descriptive symbol. True to the Gospel narrative Mary and Saint John as well as Longinus, the Roman soldier, are included in the scene. Adjacent to the scene on the left is a depiction of Judas hanging himself. Other scenes from the passion occupy other sides of the casket. This casket obviously narrates a story.

What is interesting in the casket carving, however, is something that can be seen in many of the early depictions of the crucifixion; Jesus does not appear to be dead or even suffering. The common explanation is that the savior’s divinity was being suggested by a figure that does not appear to be suffering. It’s a difficult problem for an artist to show: humanity and divinity united –but still separate– in one person. Artists solved the problem by depicting a crucified human figure with an emotion suggestive of divine peace.

The crucified Christ with the presence of Mary, John, and Longinus became the basic icon of narrative crucifixion scenes.

We have gone a bit beyond the evolution of the cross as the symbol of Christianity; we have gone from the Gospel narrative to a visual symbol (the plain cross) and then to pictorial narrative (crucifix/crucifixion scene).

Basic Christian Iconography: The Cross (Part 2)

January 1st, 2016, Promulgated by Bernie

Previously: Part 1

Disguised or Ambiguous Crosses

The reluctance to graphically represent the crucifixion (see Part 1) and yet still refer to the sacrificial nature of Christ’s passion and death may have been ameliorated by the use of what some historians refer to as disguised crosses. Some of these “cross markings” include the anchor, the T-shaped tau cross, the Egyptian looped cross (the ankh, a symbol of life), and also the mast of Jonah’s ship. Most historians would agree, however, that it is very difficult to determine if any of these refer specifically to the crucifixion. Identifying the intended meaning of any of these symbols is now understood as a fruitless quest.


Christian Roman epitaph of Atimetus from the catacombs of St. Sebastian on the Via Appia, Rome. Inscription flanked by Christian symbols, an anchor and a fish. When closing the loculi, the relatives of the deceased often inscribed messages on the slabs. The anchor could stand for faith or hope, or the role of Christ in one’s life.

The anchor symbol is one of the earliest and most popular of markings. There is general agreement that the anchor itself is a symbol of hope as it refers to an anchored ship at rest in a secure harbor which is what every sailor hopes for at the end of the day. That it is a symbol for Christ is also generally accepted as Christ is the secure hope of all Christians. Some see in the vertical shaft and crossing arm of the anchor a reference to the cross which, of course, strengthens the identification of the anchor with Christ. Some writers at the time did make clear parallel associations between such things as anchors and masts with the cross. Given the funerary context of the use of the anchor image in the catacombs, however, the more appropriate interpretation is probably that of simple hope or faith in God.

The Hebrew letter “taw”.

The Hebrew letter “taw”.

The tau cross was derived from the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the taw, and eventually became identified with the cross of crucifixion through a trans formative process. The “sign of the cross” as well as the graphic symbol of the cross probably grew out of the mark of the taw written on the foreheads of the righteous, referred to in Ezekial 9:4—6 (the tau spared them God’s wrath that was about to befall Jerusalem.)

Chi Rho, Catacomb of San Callisto

Chi Rho, Catacomb of San Callisto

The chi rho is one of the earliest cruciform symbols used by Christians. Formed by superimposing the first two letters of the word “Christ” in Greek, it is not technically a cross but did invoke the status of Jesus as the Christ. Reminiscent of the taw it did have associations with the cross. There is early evidence of the chi rho symbol on Christian rings of the third century (200’s).

Constantine had a vision of the chi rho and was inspired to attach the symbol to the top of the vexillium, a military cross frame standard from which hung a flag, so that his troops could rally under the patronage of the “One God” rather than many different gods. In place of a flag was suspended a banner bearing portraits of Constantine flanked by his two sons. The Romans referred to the new design as the labarum.



Derived from the labarum was the an image consisting of the cross form of the vexillium surmounted by a wreathed chi rho.

Victory Cross, Rome, Vatican. Sarcophagus of Domatilla (from Catacomb of Domatilla), mid-4th century On top of the cross form is the wreathed chi rho or Christogram.

Victory Cross, Rome, Vatican. Sarcophagus of Domatilla (from Catacomb of Domatilla), mid-4th century
On top of the cross form is the wreathed chi rho or Christogram.

The wreathed chi rho is called a Christogram and together with the cross form suggested triumph over enemies and death through faith in Christ. As the Christian church began to enjoy the patronage of Constantine the victory crosses -as they are called- and the Christogram eventually appeared on every conceivable object from mosaics in basilicas to glass goblets.

Feliz Navidad

December 23rd, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie
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By artist Alfredo M. Arreguin. (With the permission of the artist.)

I have featured the work of Alfred M. Arreguin on this site a couple of times (Here and Here and Here) He is a contemporary artist who lives in Seattle, Washington and is originally from Morelia, Mexico. You can check out my other posts on Mr. Arreguin.

I think this nativity Madonna exhibits (besides Mexican or “Latin” characteristics) an interpretation appropriate to Christmas. It presents us with a visual sermon on the Incarnation. Nature appears totally transfigured: rich and full of life as it was meant to be. It’s typical of Mr. Arreguin’s work. Contemporary liturgical artists could learn from looking at his work.

Some emphasize the cross, of course, when discussing our salvation but our redemption actually begins with the Incarnation, when God became man. That happened at the Annunciation but Christmas is when Mary gives him to us.

Mr. Arreguin is represented by The Linda Hodges Gallery ( His own website is .

Basic Christian Iconography: The Cross (Part 1)

December 12th, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie


The Early Absence of the Cross

It is a curious fact that there is an absence of the cross in the pictorial repertoire of the Christian faith between the first century and the early years of the fifth century. Even when it finally did appear it did not represent the cross of Christ’s passion and death but was a symbol of his transfiguration, his victory over death, and his pledge of the second coming. The crucifix —the cross with the image of the body (corpus) of Christ affixed appeared even later.

The absence of images of the plain cross from the earliest period of Christian art has been a difficult puzzle for art historians and theologians to solve because the redemptive power of Christ’s passion and death on the cross was a theme explored by early Christian writers. In addition, the sign-of-the-cross was a common part of the liturgical life of the earliest Christians. In fact, it was in the liturgy where the first association of the passion and death of Christ with salvation was made (Hippolytus ca. 200)(1).  Early in the third century Clement of Alexandria speaks of the Cross as tou Kyriakou semeiou typon, i.e. signum Christi, “the symbol of the Lord”(2) and in the first half of the third century Tertullian referred to the body of Christians as “crucis religiosi” –“devotees of the cross” (3).  St. Augustine said that by the sign of the cross and the invocation of the name of Jesus all things are sanctified and consecrated to God. In addition to the tracing of the sign on the forehead of candidates for Baptism, individuals daily made the gesture when beginning various activities (although more likely to ward off evil than to recall the passion) (4). But, while the cross was a primary subject of interest to the writers and theologians of the early church, the earliest artists and those responsible for commissioning images, ignored it. They chose, instead, to present the itinerant, miracle-working ministry of the rabbi, Jesus. It was the very human Jesus of the gospels that captured the imagination of those responsible for early Christian art. The saving power of a crucified transcendent deity popular in the early texts does not get any play in the earliest visual arts of the faith (5).

Some assign the discrepancy in emphasis to a lack of popular interest on the part of the ordinary faithful in Christ’s passion and death (6). Atonement theology, they believe, was a construct of the professional theologians and not really the gospel message received by the common, ordinary person Jesus was interested in. This interpretation does not ring true, however, as the visual exegesis of the Christian faith used in the catacombs and on sarcophagi would have at least been approved by the leaders of the church in Rome and in other metropolitan centers. It seems the cross should have appeared.

Additional evidence of the unity of belief between the professionals and the faithful is the consistency of visual expression found among the thirty-two Roman catacombs dug under the donated private property of different families. The symbols and stories as well as their artistic presentation are consistent from catacomb to catacomb. In fact, artisans probably had a hand in decorating several different sites utilizing catalogs of images and scenes available to all the professional workshops. Also, the fossores (excavators), the professional diggers of the catacombs, were also charged with the preparation and internment of the dead. In the third century they were considered among the clergy in the lowest rank (6). This is evidence of the active involvement of the local church leaders in the administration of the catacombs and so it is difficult to see how a difference in faith between the clerical leaders and the common ordinary Christian could have crept in.

We have to search out other reasons for the discrepancy between the emphasis laid on the passion and death of Christ in early Christian texts and worship, and its absence in the art of the catacombs.

ass crossChristians may have feared that their pagan neighbors would not have understood. Crucifixion was a particularly horrible and humiliating form of execution reserved for the worst criminals, law breakers who occupied the lowest strata of society, peasants and slaves. As a result of misunderstanding, scorn and mockery would have been heaped upon Christians had they brandished the cross as a symbol of their faith. This would be a particularly difficult problem for Christians during periods of persecution. In fact, there seems to have been real reason for Christian fear as graffito was discovered in 1857 in a building on the Palatine Hill of Rome used as a paedagogium or boarding-school for the imperial page boys (7). It depicts a figure with a human body but the head of an ass hanging on a cross. To the left stands a male figure —probably meant to be the Alexamenos referred to in the inscription— pointing or worshiping. The complete inscription translates something like, “Alexamenous, worship(s) (his) God!” There is no certainty as to the date this was made but sometime before the end of the third century is likely. No doubt Alexamenos was a Christian and he was being mocked for his worship of a crucified man/animal god. It was a common accusation that Christians practiced onolatry (worship of donkey) (8).

Fear of mockery, persecution, class hatred, or sarcasm may seem initially to be a good reason for the absence of passion images in the catacombs but it fails to satisfy for the simple reason that the catacombs were, for the most part, not open to the general public. They were extensive, true, but they were private, Christian for the most part, and visited only by relatives and friends of the faithful buried there. In addition, the fossares were Christian and so there is no reason to suppose the painters were not as well. The opportunity for pagans in any numbers to visit the catacombs was probably quite limited and so the cross could have been displayed without much fear of misunderstanding.

There may be a reason, however, that is somewhat related to a fear of sarcasm. Passing by a crucified criminal must certainly have been within the experience of many citizens. The gruesome nature of the torturous death of a man was no doubt overwhelming to nearly all who witnessed it, even given the taste for blood sport favored by the ancient Romans. As a deterrent to crime, it was the intention of the Roman authorities that the execution be gruesome and very public. Might the graphic display of the crucifixion —even of a simple cross— be too much for the earliest Christians themselves to handle? How do you depict this humiliating and horrible event truthfully and yet respectfully communicate a sacred mystery (9)? It seems likely that the cross, and even more, the crucifix, could not be used as symbols of the redemptive suffering of Christ until people began to forget just exactly what that torturous death entailed. That would not happen until Constantine outlawed crucifixion out of respect for the way Christ died (10).

While the passion and death of Christ redeemed mankind and offered eternal life with God, the overwhelmingly traumatic lived experience of crucifixion to Christians may have mentally blocked any thought of its graphic use as a symbol of hope appropriate in the funerary context of the catacombs. Most scholars see in the Christian catacomb imagery scenes and themes of deliverance from danger. Given that line of interpretation you would think that scenes of the resurrection of Christ would be numbered among the more popular scenes on display. Surprisingly, the resurrection of Christ is not depicted in the catacombs. On the other hand, there is no description of the actual event in the gospels, either.

In the next post we will look at the tentative introduction of the cross as an icon of Christianity.
1 Robin Margaret Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art, (New York, Routledge
2006) p.136
2 Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, VI, in P. G., IX (Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913) Jan. 7 2009 10:57
3 Tertullian, Apology, c. xvi, P. G., I, (Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913) Jan. 7 2009 10:57<>
4 Jensen 136
5 Jensen 135
6 Walter Lowrie, Art in the Early Church, (Lowrie Press, 2007), p.44
7 Augustus John Cuthbert Hare, Walks in Rome, Volume 1, (Adamant Media Corporation, 2005)
p. 201 <>
8 Tertullian, mentioned ca. 200 that Christians along with Jews, were accused of worshiping a deity with the head of an ass. In the Histories, Tacitus tells how the Jews, exhausted and dying of thirst in the desert followed a herd of wild asses that led them to water. In appreciation they consecrated an image of the animal.(V.3) in the Jerusalem temple. This story, Tertullian claimed, probably is the source of the rumor that Christians worshiped an ass. (Apology, XVI).
9 Jensen 134
10 Elizabeth A. Dreyer, The Cross in Christian Tradition: From Paul to Bonaventure, (Paulist Press, 2001) p. 21-22

Basic Christian Iconography: the Last Supper or Eucharist

December 2nd, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie


The icon of the apostles at table with Jesus is recognized as symbolic of the Last Supper and the Eucharistic Liturgy. In this post we will consider the origins of this imagery.

The meal scene originated from pagan forerunners during the earliest centuries of Christianity. However, the banquet scenes we find in the Christian catacombs from the early centuries are problematic as to what they actually represent. More than likely early Christian “meal” scenes conveyed the same primary meaning as the pagan ones: a wish that the deceased might have enjoyment in the afterlife. As with many pagan images they were not incompatible with Christian sentiments. Later, however, they took on a more specifically Christian interpretation.

People are quick to see in the catacomb meal scenes a representation of the Last Supper or the Mass. That the scenes have some Eucharistic layer of meaning is probably true but that they literally represent the Last Supper or the Eucharistic liturgy is questionable. The meal scene is more likely a metaphor for an eschatological –heavenly– banquet. The pagans utilized similar compositions to illustrate the domestic comfort enjoyed by the deceased in his or her earthy life. It may have been suggestive of a hope for similar enjoyment in the afterlife (murky as their understanding of the afterlife was). The Mass, of course, is understood, among other things, as a foretaste of the sacred banquet in heaven so it’s easy to see the broad implications of the shared image of the meal scene.


The most common composition deployed in representations of the meal scene shows seven persons seated at a semi-circular table, all on the far side. The number seven is usually symbolic of completeness in biblical numerology and so to some people, in fact, may be suggestive of the complete roster of twelve apostles at the Last Supper. However, it may also be symbolic of all who are called to the mystical supper including, of course, the deceased person whose tomb it is. The table usually holds loaves of bread (five or seven loaves or baskets, sometimes more) and containers of wine –and plates of fish. The presence of the fish –and seven baskets of bread– invites various interpretations, especially among those who find problems in identifying the meal image with the Eucharist or with the narrative of the Last Supper.

The presence of images of fish on the tables has led to various interpretations of the meal scenes. Some see them as references to the miraculous feeding of the 5,000, others, perhaps the post-resurrection meal of grilled fish shared by Christ with seven of his apostles (John 21:9 – 13). Other scholars see a depiction of an agape meal, due to the often animated poses of some figures.

We saw in the inscription by Bishop Abercius we looked at in a previous post in this series a metaphorical interpretation of the fish as Christ. A late appearing Jewish feast included the eating of a rather large fish at a special meal in anticipation of a future messianic banquet. (Robin Margaret Jensen, “Understanding Early Christian Art”, New York, Routledge 2006, p 57). Possibly, then, the images of plates of fish in the meal scenes of the catacombs provide a messianic layer of meaning but point more to a future sacred banquet than to the Last Supper narrative or a Eucharistic liturgy as conducted in the first few centuries.

Some hold that the meal scenes may be nothing more than a representation of the traditional funerary meal (the “refrigerium”) held at the grave site by family and friends at the time of burial and on the traditional ninth day after of a person’s death. This was a common practice in antiquity and there was certainly nothing about it Christians would have found offensive. (Although Saint Augustine of Hippo found it necessary to suppress the continued traditional celebratory meal practice of recent converts whose grave side meals got a little out of hand.) It was common for the food at such meals to be shared with the deceased by way of basins and tables to hold food, or pipes to conduct libations into the grave. Archaeological evidence reveals that fish was sometimes one of the foods offered to the deceased. It is reasonable to assume that Christians would have continued the tradition as a simple pious act of familial devotion. It is not likely the stone or marble tables found at some graves were altars used for Eucharistic liturgies.
It is possible the meal scenes had many shades of meaning — surely including a Eucharistic one—but, given the funerary context, it is more likely they symbolized a hoped-for celestial banquet.

Basic Christian Iconography: the “Good Shepherd”

November 10th, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie

In the Christian catacombs dating from the second through the fourth centuries, there are two categories of images painted on walls and ceilings, and carved on sarcophagi. In one category we find scenes depicting stories from scripture. That, of course, does not surprise us. However, in the second category, there are many images that do not appear to be part of a story. In fact, these images are shared, both in design and in primary meaning, with those decorating pagan burial chambers.

Shared images —those images we find in both pagan and Christian funerary art— are sometimes referred to as non-narrative images because they appear most often as isolated images lacking an environment or background that would suggest a story line.

Shared non-narrative images were usually depicted in the same fashion whether appearing in a pagan or Christian context. In fact, in many instances it is difficult to tell a Christian burial chamber from a pagan one based solely on the images depicted on the walls and ceilings. Standard pagan funerary images were often used in Christian context as long as they did not contradict Christian sensibilities and as long as they could be understood to have a Christian interpretation.

(click on the photographs)

Left: Hermes (Mercury) as a shepherd. As a crosser of boundaries, Hermes ("guide of the soul"),  brought newly-dead souls to the underworld, Hades. Right: Calf-Bearer , ca. 570 BC, Acropolis Museum, Athens. Christian imagery got its start through the adoption and modifica- tion of pagan images. If we were to substitute the calf in the pagan statue above with a lamb we might very well identify it as the Christian ‘Good Shepherd’.

Left: Hermes (Mercury) as a shepherd. As a crosser of boundaries, Hermes (“guide of the soul”), brought newly-dead souls to the underworld, Hades. Right: Calf-Bearer, ca. 570 BC, Acropolis Museum, Athens. Christian imagery got its start
through the adoption and modification of pagan images. If we were to substitute the calf in the pagan statue above with a lamb we might very well identify it as the Christian ‘Good Shepherd’.

The image of the (good) shepherd is one example of a non-narrative image (it is, in this case of course, also related to the biblical story of the “Good Shepherd”). There are variations in the depiction of shepherd imagery whether pagan or Christian. He is usually shown as young, beardless and wearing a short tunic with boots and often carrying a purse, musical pipes or a bucket filled with ewe milk. In some cases he is shown standing among a few sheep, carrying one on his shoulders. At other times he is shown milking a ewe. Carrying a lamb/sheep is the most common representation of the shepherd type.

dobl shepherd

Left: Jesus as the “Good Shepherd” is represented in this Christian catacomb as carrying the deceased (represented by the lambs) to heaven (“Paradise”, as represented by the trees and birds). In the painting we see some context: trees and birds which help us understand the Christian meaning. The statue on the right has no context. It is now known as Christian and yet it was thought to be pagan for a long time after being discovered.

The Christian icon of the Good Shepherd is, of course, well known to Christians and we think of the imagery as unique to Christianity and so it may be troubling to learn that it originated in pagan imagery. That seems, somehow, to cause us to think that perhaps Christianity is not all that unique –and truthful– after all.

I was once on a flight seated next to a man who noticed I was reading the Divine Office which he interpreted as being a Bible. He remarked that he used to be a Christian but was put off when he learned that so many Christian “things” actually had origins or similarities to paganism. I’m not sure if maybe he thought I was ripe for picking. I told him that his observation of pagan “inspiration” was one of the reasons why I became convinced of the truth of Christianity.

Pagan, polytheistic, and other pre-Christian religions were not so much evil inventions as misguided attempts to reconnect the fallen world with God. They represented man’s searching for a way back. They had some sense of which way to go but lacked a truthful, reliable, guide. With the Incarnation, God came into the world as it was and redeemed it. All those previous wandering routes could be made straight, realigned, reoriented in Christian truth. Tweaked, as it were. (It’s more than just that, of course, but I’m trying to be brief and simple, here.) God, in the Incarnation, redeemed man and the world. He didn’t destroy man and the world in order to make something entirely new.

The shepherd image, when used by the pagans, personified gentle protective care, and charity or philanthropy; good sentiments. The shepherd, sometimes, was also a symbol of the god Hermes who guided the deceased to the underworld and the afterlife. The Christian image of the Good Shepherd, on a primary level, communicates the same sentiments (with exception to the reference to Hermes).

In their myths pagans yearned for a “good” shepherd. God provided the “Good Shepherd” who, in addition to being gentle and protective, laid down his own life for the flock so his sheep might enjoy eternity with God.

Several Christian icons or symbols have their origins in pagan imagery. I’ll post a few as part of this series on “Basic Christian Iconography”.


October 12th, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie

(click on pictures)

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St Matthew the Evangelist from the Lindisfarne Gospels

September 21st, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie

by David Clayton

From The New Liturgical Movement website

Matthew.Lindisfarne…There are profound lessons here for those who wish to pray, and for those who wish to paint…or both. This simple painting, which is over 1200 years old and was created by an obscure monk working on a bleak island of the northeast coast of England in the North Sea, can tell us so much. It reveals truths about…

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Basic Christian Iconography: the Holy Trinity at Saint Thomas the Apostle Church

September 8th, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie

 (Click on pictures to see clearer, larger images)

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Fig. 1  St. Thomas the Apostle Church, Irondequoit, NY (Home of the Traditional Latin Mass Community) in the Diocese of Rochester.

Suspended over the high altar at Saint Thomas the Apostle Church in Irondequoit is a modern mid twentieth century presentation of Trinitarian imagery that may have first appeared around the 14th century in Europe. This traditional presentation of the Trinity is represented as three figures grouped within a circular mandorla or full body halo.


Fig 2  The Holy Trinity, St. Thomas the Apostle Church.

One figure, a dove, symbolizes God the Holy Spirit and occupies a position in the grouping between God the Father, represented as a large kingly figure and God the Son, crucified.

It is mildly interesting that Saint Thomas the Apostle Church is now home to the Traditional Latin Mass Community in Rochester which recently moved from a church, St. Stanislaus Kostka, that also had the same iconic imagery of the Trinity over its altar.

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Fig. 3  The Holy Trinity, St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, Rochester, NY. In this composition the Holy Spirit is at the top of the composition.

This icon of the Holy Trinity is actually quite common in the history of Christian art.

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Fig. 4  Mercy Seat, Michiel van der Borch from a 1332 copy of the Rhyme Bible.

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Fig. 5  Master GH (1400 – 1500) (Unknown) Holy Trinity, Central Panel from the High Altar of the Trinity Church, Mosóc 1471. Hungarian National Gallery

15_Austrian_Trinity with Christ Crucified National gallery London The Trinity with Christ Crucified about 1410   AUSTRIAN

Fig. 6  Trinity with Christ Crucified, National Gallery London
about 1410, Austrian

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Fig. 7  Albrecht Durer 1471-1528. The Adoration of the Trinity, 1511 Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Once again, we see that the Holy Spirit is represented above the Father and the Son.


Fig. 8  The Trinity with Saint Mary Magdalen and Saint John the Baptist, the Archangel Raphael and Tobias 1491-94 Botticelli (Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi)


Fig. 9  The Holy Trinity with St Jerome and Two Saints by Andrea Del Castagno, 1453. This is unusual in that the Trinity is depicted in perspective.


Fig. 10  Masaccio, 1428, Early Renaissance, fresco, Santa Maria Novella, Florence Italy.

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Fig. 11  Frans Floris 1517-1570, Allegory of the Trinity, The Sacrifice of Jesus Christ, Son of God, Gathering and Protecting Humanity 1562, Eglise Saint-Sulpice, Paris


Fig. 12 Trinity, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1518. The arrangement here slightly alters the traditional iconic design and also introduces perspective.


Photo Credits:

Fig. 1  Bernard Dick

Fig. 2  Bernard Dick

Fig. 3  Bernard Dick

Fig. 4

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Fig. 6  National Gallery, London

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Fig. 11

Fig. 12

Basic Christian Iconography: the “Majestas (Maiestas) Domini”

July 28th, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie

Majestas Domini is Latin for “the majesty (glory) of the Lord”.[1]

This iconic image is arguably older than the cross –especially the crucifix– in Christian art, having its origins in the 4th century, whereas the cross did not appear until the 5th century and the crucifix, even later.

The Majestas Domini is not often employed now-a-days perhaps due to the ascendency of a theology of “Jesus, our brother” or even “Jesus, our friend” and the simultaneous suppressing of a Christology that emphasizes the divinity of Christ along with his humanity, as the Majestas Domini does.

In the iconic image, Christ sits regally upon a throne (signifying his authority to make laws) surrounded by a special halo called a mandorla, an almond shaped aureola[2] that encircles the entire body, signifying holy or divine status. He raises his right hand in the ancient gesture of an authoritative orator, teacher or law giver. He is not giving a blessing as some believe.[3] His left hand holds a book that is sometimes open with an inscription that varies depending on the contexts in which the image is deployed.

In some renderings Christ holds a closed book which is interpreted as a book of the Gospels, the “new” law.

The image is very much in the spirit of the opening chapter of the Gospel of Saint John; “In the beginning was the Word (Logos) and the Word was with God and the Word was God…  “ establishing Christ as divine, consubstantial, co-eternal, and co-creator with the Father.

The image of divine creator, ruler of the universe and authoritative teacher and law giver that we see in the Majestas Domini does not fit the softer, more ambiguous and non-judgmental “Jesus our friend/brother” theology of the modern liturgist and that may account for why the icon is seldom used today but it may also explain why we do not see, anymore, the various themes or dogmatic images it was paired with –the Last Judgement or Second Coming. In fact we don’t see anything concerning judgement or law in contemporary liturgical art.

Following are just a few of the various appearances of the Majestas Domini icon in Christian art history.

(Click on pictures to see larger images)

"Codex Bruchsal", Romanesque illuminated manuscript Gospel Book, c.1220. Here we can see the basic "Majestas Domini" icon in one of its most common presentations; with symbols of the four evangelists depicted in the corner medallions (upper left: winged man for St. Matthew; upper right: an eagle for St. John; lower left: a winged ox symbolizing St. Mark; lower right: the winged bull symbol for St. Luke. One interesting aspect is almost always include in the Majestas Domini: the Lord's orator hand and one or both feet overlap or even extend beyond the boundary of the mandorla/full body halo.

“Codex Bruchsal”, Romanesque illuminated manuscript Gospel Book, c.1220.

Above, we can see the basic Majestas Domini icon in one of its more common appearances, with symbols of the four evangelists depicted in corner illustrations (upper left: winged man for St. Matthew; upper right: an eagle for St. John; lower left: a winged lion symbolizing St. Mark; lower right: the winged bull symbol for St. Luke). The arrangement of the fingers on the Lord’s extended hand is the standard ancient Roman arrangement utilized by teachers and orators when teaching and speaking.

Central tympanum of the Royal portal, Chatres Cathedral, 1145-50. The "Majestas Domini" in the typmanum of the Main potral of the Chartres Cathedral is usually called a "Last judgement" as the symbols of the four evangelists are often interpreted as the four beasts of the apocalyse although the title would be more obvious if the Lord was seated on a rainbow as mentioed in Old Testament phrofit's vision.

Tympanum of the Royal Portal of the Cathedral of Chartres, France, 1145-150.  The harmonious style and coordination of shapes within the design offers us a simple but very powerful image. The four symbolic figures next to the image of Our Lord, in this instance, represent the four beasts of the Second Coming (tetramorphs).

During the Middle Ages, the Majestas Domini icon was often paired with the theme of the Second Coming over the central entrance to a church. Doing so suggested to the faithful entering the church the glory and power of the Lord and the promise of future glory for the faithful.

Below is a depiction of the Second Coming as the Last Judgement with several scenes from the story paired with the icon of the Majestas Domini. The faithful were reminded, as they entered through the portal of the church under this image, to live according to the divine law if they wanted to enter through the gates of heaven.

"Last Judgement" in the typanum over the central portal of Autun Cathedral, ca. 1130.Lazare, Tympanon Autun (Saone-et-Loire), Kathedrale Saint Lazare. Westportal, Tympanon: - Christus als Weltenrichter in der Mandorla und Juengstes Gericht. - Skulptur von Gislebert von Autun, um 1140. Foto, undat. E: Autun, Cath. Saint Lazare, tympanum Autun (Saone-et-Loire), Cathedrale Saint Lazare. West tympanum: - Christ as Judge in the mandorla with the Last Judgement. - Sculpture by Gislebert von Autun, c. 1140. Photo, undated.

The Last Judgement in the tympanum over the central portal of Autun Cathedral, ca. 1130. (Click on the image in order to read the labels.) The right hand and left hands of the Lord are empty but appear to be presenting to us the two groups of people: the condemned on the left and the saved, on the right.

During the Middle Ages, disputes, both secular and religious, were decided in the portals of churches under the depiction of the Last Judgement.

The next image (below) is of  the earliest known Majestas Domini image in a church setting. The mosaic icon is in a 5th century small apse in the chapel of Hosios David (Blessed David) attached to a monastery in Thessaloniki, Greece. A young Christ appears in front of a radiantly colored aureole, seated on a rainbow. Four abbreviated creatures –the beasts of the Second Coming– flank the central figure of Christ and are partially overlapped by the transparent aureole. Below the figure of Christ, the four rivers of paradise flow from a hill. Christ holds a scroll that reads “I am the spring of living water”.

"The Vision of Ezekiel", apse mosaic in Blessed David Chapel, Thessalonica, ca. 425-50. The "Majestas Domini" depicted with the Lord seated upon a rainbow is usually associated with "Last Judgement" themes. (Ezekial 1: 1 - 28: "...and from the appearance of His waist and downward I saw, as it were, the appearance of fire with brightness all around. Like the appearance of a rainbow in a cloud on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the brightness all around it [the mandorla]. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord").  The term "Majestas Domini" comes from Ezekial's last sentence of his description.

“The Vision of Ezekiel”,
apse mosaic in Blessed David Chapel,
Thessalonica, ca. 425-50. This Majestas Domini depicts the Lord seated upon a rainbow surrounded by rainbow colored bursts of light [the mandorla]. It is based on the biblical text of Ezekial 1: 1 – 28: “…and from the appearance of His waist and downward I saw, as it were, the appearance of fire with brightness all around [the mandorla]. Like the appearance of a rainbow in a cloud on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the brightness all around it  This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord). The term Majestas Domini is an excerpt from Ezekial’s last sentence.

The scene is of the prophet Ezekial’s vision as recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament. The figure seen cringing and turning away in terror on the far left, hiding from the vision, is the Old Testament prophet, himself.  St. John the Evangelist, the writer of the Book of Revelation, is shown seated to the far right in the mosaic. John describes a similar vision to Ezekial’s in the Book of Revelation, but he is calmly writing done what he is seeing. In the Hosios David mosaic we see depicted the two contrasting images favored by the Eastern and Western branches of Christianity. The Old Testament vision of the god-head, Ezekial’s vision, was favored by the Eastern Church. [4] The New Testament vision revealed to St. John was favored by the Western Church.

Below is another composition using the Majestas Domini in depicting the Second Coming. In this tympanum the centrally placed iconic Majestas Domini is surrounded on three sides (left, right and bottom) by the twenty-four elders described in the Book of Revelation.

Tympanum, Second Coming, Moissac Abbey, ca. 1125

Tympanum, Second Coming, Moissac Abbey, ca. 1125

details of Second Coming, Moissac Abbey. The central Majestas Domini image and the left hand Elders.

details of Second Coming, Moissac Abbey. The central Majestas Domini image and the left hand Elders.

Another tympanum from the Middle Ages (below) employs the Majestas Domini in a most interesting composition as it might stand as a visual metaphor for a couple of important religious activities that took place at the time: pilgrimages and crusades.

The Vezelay tympanum is in the narthex of the church, just over the door into the nave.

The tympanum is in the narthex of the church of Saint Mary Magdeleine in Vezelay, France –just over the door into the nave.

The theme of the composition, above, is the Commissioning of the Apostles: “Go out into the whole world and… ” spread the good news. Surrounding the central image of the Lord are compartments –symbolic of foreign lands– occupied by figures representing the different peoples of the world, many of whom were not well known at the time.[5]

Sending the apostles out involved travel, of course, and so did going on pilgrimage and joining a crusade, both of which were happening at the time this tympanum was created. This church was the point of origin or staging for many significant pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and it was also the site of the preaching of the Second Crusade.[6]

Tympanum of the Church of the Abbaye Sainte-Marie-Madeleine de Vézelay, "Commissioning of the Apostles", 1130

Tympanum of the Church of the Abbaye Sainte-Marie-Madeleine de Vézelay, “Commissioning of the Apostles”, 1130

The Majestas Domini in the (above) tympanum is significantly different than the usual. Here, the symbols of the four evangelists (or the beasts of the Apocalypse) are missing and the Lord is not teaching or holding a book. Rather, both arms are extended with palms of the hands open and rays of light (or power) emanating from the finger tips to the heads of the apostles. There is still a regal pose to the figure of the Lord and there is still a mandorla but we can see that there are significant changes in some of the specifics of the basic iconic image.

The poses of all the figures in the composition of the Commissioning tympanum suggest a kind of jittery and intense movement that conveys excitement and movement (traveling?).

Russian, 1874?

Russian, 1874?

In the particularly beautiful ceiling fresco shown above we notice that the normal flat Byzantine Eastern icon style has given way to the influence of the European  style of “Renaissance” space and form. The symbols of the four evangelists are shown as if in real space, two in front of the throne and two farther back. The mandorla looks almost as if it is a snow globe enclosing the symbols of the evangelists as well as the figure of the Lord. The Lord holds the Book of the Gospels in his raised right hand and an Eastern crozier or staff in his left indicating teaching and governing authority. He wears the vestments of a tsar.

Below is a photo of a late 4th century apse mosaic in a church in Rome. In it we see a Majestas Domini depicted as a rather natural Christ seated upon on gem studded throne under the gem studded cross of Golgotha, erected on orders of Constantine the Great in the 4th century on the actual site of the crucifixion of Christ. The Lord, wearing gold vestments with purple trim (a sign of imperial authority), sits regally and yet comfortably holding an open book in his left hand and teaching with his right. The four evangelists (we can only see two from this angle) are in the sky over Jerusalem. Acting as a virtual mandorla is the profile of the hill of Golgotha just behind and over our Lord. To the Lord’s left and right are his apostles.[7] Standing behind Saint Peter, on our right, and holding a wreath over Peter’s head is a woman who symbolizes the Church of the Jews. On the left is depicted the same idea only it is Saint Paul being crowned by a figure representing the Church of the Gentiles.


Below are two “modern” uses of the Majestas Domini.

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The large tapestry of Christ (Majestas Domini) in Coventry Cathedral, England, designed by Graham Sutherland. 1962.

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Christ in Glory, “Christ the Light” Cathedral, Oakland , California. 2008. The window depicts a 90 foot image of Christ in majesty taken from the transept of Chartres Cathedral in France (see the second photo at the top of this post). The image is created by natural light passing through aluminum panels that have been pierced with 94,000 holes.

Finally, the Majestas Domini icon is thought to have originated in the 4th century with the so-called Dominus Legem Dat (the Lord Gives the Law to Peter [and Paul]) image.

Dominus legem dat Petro, from the 4th century sarcophagus of Junius Bassus.

Dominus legem dat Petro, from the 4th century sarcophagus of Junius Bassus.

Above, Christ sits or stands with his feet on Caelus, the Roman sky god. This image proclaims that the new law of Christ has defeated the world of the ancient gods and goddesses (represented by Caelus) and all the worldly powers that invoked them. The two apostles (Peter on Christ’s right and Paul on his left) symbolize the proclamation of the new law to the entire world for Peter symbolizes the Jewish wing of the Church and Paul, the Gentile wing. The new law is, therefore, for everyone –Gentile (the non-Jewish world) as well as Jew. Many times in the history of Christian art the Majestas Domini appears as a Dominus Legem Dat.

There are even more compositions we could look at that derive from this basic dogmatic icon but this will serve as a basic introduction to those not familiar with The Majestas Domini.


[1] The image (icon) is usually referred to as “Christ in Glory”

[2] a full body halo or nimbus

[3] Eastern Roman Catholic and Orthodox priests use it when giving a blessing (which is why some say the Lord is giving a blessing. He isn’t)

[4] The Hosios David type Majestas Domini is assumed to have been a popular image in the churches of Constantinople because they were frequently deployed in the apses of Egypt and Armenia. Some survive in Cappadocia, Turkey. Constantinople, as the Eastern capital would have influenced the decoration of Egyptian and Armenian churches and those in Cappadocia. At that time, the image was known as the theandric or god-man image.

[5] Many of the figures in the boxes are distorted characterizations of reports made by people who had been in those foreign lands or who had heard from people who had been there.

[6] by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, beneath this very tympanum.

[7] Two are missing, cut off from the ends, unfortunately, when the mosaic underwent restoration in the 16th century.

In Defense of Holy Images

April 9th, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie

A post on the New Liturgical Movement website by PETER KWASNIEWSKI :

…Given the iconoclastic half-century that has passed, it can never be amiss to remind ourselves of why the Catholic Church of East and West has always produced, loved, venerated, and defended “icons” or holy images of Christ, His Mother, and all the saints. Although in what follows I will be speaking primarily of icons in the usual sense of the term, the theological principles definitely apply to stained glass, relief carvings, sculptures or statues—in short, any art that seeks to bring the holy ones into our midst or, more properly, to bring us into contact with their glory.

In response to heretics who were rejecting and destroying holy images (the iconoclasts), the seventh Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church, called the Second Council of Nicaea (787), unambiguously…

Read the entire post.

An Icon of the Coptic New Martyrs of Libya

February 28th, 2015, Promulgated by Bernie

From the New Liturgical Movement website


Coptic Martyrs“I am sure that all of our readers are aware of the recent massacre in Libya of a group of Egyptian Copts, who were killed for their faith by Islamic terrorists. The Patriarch of Alexandria, His Holiness Pope Tawadros II, has officially recognized them as martyrs, and ordered that their commemoration be inserted into the Synaxarium; their feast will be… ”   (Read More Here)

Click on the image to see the entire icon. The writer of the icon is Tony Rezk.

The Virgin’s Three Stars

March 10th, 2014, Promulgated by Bernie
Icon of the Theotokos "Odigitria" ("Directress"), painted by the Fathers of Vatopedi Monastery, Mount Athos

Icon of the Theotokos “Odigitria” (“Directress”), painted by the Fathers of Vatopedi Monastery, Mount Athos

(Click on Pictures to see sharper images)

“And was Incarnate of the Holy Spirit

and the Virgin Mary”

In many icons of the All Holy (“Panagia”) Virgin she appears with three stars on her. Most westerners probably do not notice them as anything more than decorative accents but they are an important visual code to those of the Eastern Orthodox, and Byzantine Catholic Churches.

Do you know what they signify?

Christ’s incarnation is a great mystery. Christ was not conceived in the way that men are conceived. The conception took place from the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Consequently, a man did not participate. We can see this if we study the event of the Annunciation of the All-Holy (Panagia) Theotokos (see Luke 1:26-38). The Virgin Mary is called the Theotokos,which is a Greek word, used by the Fathers. It means Birthgiver of God. This is because she gave birth (tokos) to God (Theos)and not to a mere man (Jesus is one Person not two Persons, but of/in two natures, completely human and completely divine). The third Ecumenical Council concerned itself especially with this point. The Panagia was a virgin before the conception, virgin after the conception and virgin after the birth.

Comnenus Mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey

Hodegetria Madonna, Comnenus Mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey

We see this in every icon that represents the Panagia; she is depicted with three stars on her, one on her head and the other two on each shoulder. The Panagia was completely pure. In the Holy of Holies she had achieved theosis. The purity of Panagia was due to the grace of God, her own personal ascetic effort, and the successful purification of her ancestors. All the purifications in the Old Testament had the Panagia in view. Indeed, the Panagia’s parents conceived her with prayer, fasting and obedience to God; this is why the seed of Joachim (the father of the Panagia) is called “immaculate seed”.  –Metropolitan of Nafpaktos Hierotheos, Entering the Orthodox Church”.

Happy New Year!

December 31st, 2013, Promulgated by Bernie

Russian Theotokos “of the Sign” Icon

(Click on picture for a much clearer image.)

The Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God

Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign:
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son,
And shall call His name Immanuel
(Isaiah 7:14)

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them a light has shined.

For unto us a Child is born; to us a Son is given.
And the government shall be upon His shoulder, and of His peace there will be no end.

And His name shall be called the Messenger of Great Counsel, Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace, the Father of the World to Come.

God is with us! Understand this, O nations, and submit yourselves! For God is with us!
(from the Song of the Holy Prophet Isaiah)

Mary Shows Us The Way

March 14th, 2013, Promulgated by Bernie

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Click on picture for a sharper image.

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.

Saint Anne’s Nativity of Mary Window

September 8th, 2012, Promulgated by Bernie

(click on pictures to see clearer images)

While attending a funeral Mass this morning in Saint Anne Church in Rochester I looked up at one of the gorgeous windows overhead and, low and behold, there was an image of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin. I should have remembered it being there as I no doubt saw it hundreds of times when we belonged to that parish. I should have also recalled that since nearly all the windows in Saint Anne Church represent events in the life of Mary and her parents -as well as events she shared with her son- that there would no doubt be a representation of the Nativity of Mary.

The entire set of windows in this church are beautiful with events represented as vignettes on soft pastel colored stained glass panels. They are characterized by graceful figures carefully arranged into complete compositions unified by a very limited range of low intensity hues.  Emphasis is added by the placement of pure, bright color here and there. You can see that treatment in the Nativity of Mary window in which brighter yellow-oranges emphasize St. Anne and her child, Mary, as well as the star in the sky. (Why do you think there is a star depicted?) For visual balance a touch of a slightly duller yellow-orange livens up the the base of the scene.

The Western treatment of the Nativity of Mary can vary considerably from the traditional iconography of the Eastern and Byzantine Catholic Churches. Eastern icons tend to not only depict the historical event but also include elements perhaps not even mentioned in the Gospel narrative in order to stress a doctrinal belief.

Western imagery has done the same, of course, but the freedom of expression allowed Western artists can sometimes make the doctrinal statement less clear or even less important -sometimes more important! Western images, although initially inspired by the iconic images of the East, have gradually evolved into more ‘creative’, unique, and personal expressions of the artists. You can see the possibilities for problems arising! Such a development would be a no-no in the East where icons are not viewed as personal expressions but rather as imaging the orthodox (right) faith and liturgy of the whole Church. To change the image in a significant way by omitting or adding to the scene would be to change the faith and to introduce heterodoxy (wrong faith or practice).

The image we see here in this window in Saint Anne Church would no doubt be considered incomplete in Eastern eyes. Where is Joachim, for example? He should be represented in the vignette at some distance from St. Anne, usually in another part of the house. Where is the house? St. Anne, in the Eastern tradition is always represented reclined on a couch or bed with the baby Mary attended to by servants (Mary’s parents were reported to be well-off). Sometimes, St. Joachim stands next to the bed and, with St. Anne, points to Mary. All of these elements would be necessary in an Eastern icon for the scene to be ‘realistic’ and recognizable.

In the Saint Anne Church window we see an abbreviation of the event rendered in touching tones, colors and shapes personally important to the artist, and offering us few iconic clues. The scene is something of a mystery as we are not quite sure of the story represented. In that way the vignette draws us in and invites us to linger and discover what the scene represents.