All being well, this is the first post of a series on uncanonical or doubtful images which have appeared in the Orthodox world over the years.
The images I am posting are all produced by iconographers who are Orthodox. I do not, in any way, wish to judge their faith or sincerity, and, for this reason, I will not mention their names, where the names are known. I post these images and my accompanying comments, not to draw attention to myself, but to alert folks to some pitfalls which can befall those who paint icons.
Animals as evangelists
Imagery from the Book of Revelation of four mystical creatures (an angel, an ox, a lion, an eagle) in the presence of the throne of God were interpreted by the Fathers as mystically representing the four Evangelists: in order, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The image here, from mural iconography in a church, shows two of these creatures, with inscriptions Mark and Luke. Let us look at Canon 82 of the Quinisext Ecumenical Council:
In certain reproductions of venerable images, the Forerunner is pictured pointing to the lamb with his finger. This representation was adopted as a symbol of grace. It was a hidden figure of that true Lamb who is Christ our God, shown to us according to the Law. Having thus welcomed these ancient figures and shadows as symbols of the truth transmitted to the Church, we prefer today grace and truth themselves, as a fulfilment of the Law. Therefore, in order to expose to the sight of all, at least with the help of painting, that which is perfect, we decree that henceforth Christ our God be represented in His human form, and not in the form of the ancient lamb. We understand this to be the elevation of the humility of God the Word, and we are led to remembering His life in the flesh, His passion, His saving death and, thus, deliverance which took place for the world.
We also have, from his authoritative treatise defending iconography, St John of Damascus’ statement of:
Of old, God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was not depicted at all. But now that God has appeared in the flesh and lived among men, I make an image of the God who can be seen. I do not worship matter, but I worship the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material, and deigned to dwell in matter, who, through matter, effected my salvation. I will not cease from venerating the matter through which my salvation has been effected.
Iconography is concerned with the fullness of divine revelation: in essence, the Word made flesh. Where only a prefigurative or mystical image has been revealed, then that image may be permitted in an icon. Where the fullness has been revealed (most notably in the incarnation of Christ), then only the fullness of that image may be properly depicted. As, according to Canon 82, it is not considered proper to represent Christ in His prefigured forms (as a lamb, as a youthful winged angel, etc), so also is it wrong to portray the mystical creatures in the book of Revelation with the inscriptions of the names of the Evangelists. The Evangelists were human beings, and not the abovementioned creatures in essence or nature. Was St Mark an ox? Or St Luke a lion? Of course not. We should not confuse symbolic forms with reality. Therefore, while it is permissible to show these mystical creatures around the throne of God in icons of Christ in Majesty, as per the Book of Revelation, the inscriptions of the names of the Evangelist-saints should not be there.
It is sufficient that iconographer-saints are portrayed holding an icon with which they are associated. The presence of holy objects such as the Gospel or a cross in icons is quite proper, as are other items which represent spiritual qualities, such as medicinal kits, weapons, or crowns, where such items are also relevant to a saint’s earthly life.
Some food for thought:
In Western religious art, saints are frequently portrayed holding various items relating to their earthly occupation, or martyrdom. In Orthodox iconography, objects carried by the saints are restricted to those which are holy, such as the Cross, the Gospel, a scroll representing Holy Wisdom, or a model of a church (for apostles, equals-to-the-apostles and enlightener-saints). There are other objects which are iconographically acceptable, such as the kit of the physicians, the weapons of the warrior-saints, and the vials of perfumes and oils carried by the Myrrh-bearers Joanna, Salome, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James. Such objects have a spiritual meaning as well as being a reference to the saint’s earthly life.
Physician saints are shown holding their medicament box and spoon, referring not only to their earthly deeds of healing the physically ill, but symbolic also of spiritual healing. Warrior-saints, such as Great-martyrs George and Demetrius, St Menas of Egypt, or St Alexander Nevsky, are shown in military dress, and bearing weapons. The presence of weapons is not simply a reference to the saint’s earthly station, but a symbol of the struggle against sin and evil. The Epistle which is generally read on the feast day of a warrior-saint is Eph. 6:10-17:
In conclusion, be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of His might. Put on the complete armour that God supplies, so that you will be able to stand against the devil’s intrigues. For our struggle is not against flesh-and-blood opponents, but against the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly spheres. Therefore, take up the whole armour of God so that you may be able to stand when you have done all the fighting. So stand your ground, girded with the belt of truth, wearing the breastplate of righteousness on your body, with the readiness of the Gospel of peace bound on your feet; above all, taking up the shield of faith, with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Saints of noble birth are shown dressed accordingly, though they should not be shown holding articles such as orbs and sceptres which denote earthly power. Crowns and swords (for kings and princes), however, are permissible, as they represent triumph over evil, particularly in the case of martyrs. There are constant liturgical references to such saints being bestowed with “the crown of martyrdom”, the reward for “fighting the good fight”.
The presence of artists’ paint-pots and brushes for iconographer-saints is not in these categories, and is therefore superfluous. It is more proper to show iconographer-saints holding an icon through which they are associated (such as St Andrei of Radonezh (Andrei Rublyev) with an icon of the Holy Trinity). In such icons, the icon held by the saint is placed in a central, frontal position, drawing the viewer towards it.
Children of Abraham
In the parable of Lazarus the beggar and the rich man, mention is made of the soul of Lazarus being in the bosom of Abraham. This imagery features in the hymnography of the Church, in its funeral and memorial services, as a place where the souls of the righteous dwell. What struck me about this image is the presence of Christ Emmanuel in the bosom of Abraham. It would make more sense to show Christ bearing the soul of Abraham in His bosom, confirming Abraham’s righteousness before God.
Christ, Image of the Father
This line drawing is another example of an attempt to portray complex theological concepts in pictorial form. Such an approach has led to images such as the Balkan trinity I posted earlier, and a number of complex, didactic images which arose in the Orthodox world between the 14th and 17th centuries, but which are, essentially, speculative and imaginative.
Edited by Olga, 23 October 2015 - 09:22 AM.
Restored working links to graphics