Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Hail Elbereth

I wanted to push back on a popular misconception concerning prayer in Tolkien's legendarium. It is often said that the "Window in the West" passage is the only example of a prayer, or at least of something approximating to it, in The Lord of the Rings. This seems to me to not be the case. I would agree that it is one of the only examples of men praying (unless Hobbits count), but the book is absolutely full of prayers, one in particular. The longest version of it goes like this:

Snow-white! Snow-white! O Lady clear!
O Queen beyond the Western Seas!
O Light to us that wander here
Amid the world of woven trees!
Gilthoniel! O Elbereth!
Clear are thy eyes and bright thy breath!
Snow-white! Snow-white! We sing to thee
In a far land beyond the Sea.
O stars that in the Sunless Year
With shining hand by her were sawn,
In windy fields now bright and clear
We see your silver blossom blown!
O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!
We still remember, we who dwell
In this far land beneath the trees,
Thy starlight on the Western Seas.

Then of course there is the hymn of the elves of Rivendell:

A Elbereth Gilthoniel, 
silivren penna míriel
o menel aglar elenath!
Na-chaered palan-díriel
o galadhremmin ennorath, 
Fanuilos, le linnathon
nef aear, sí nef aearon!

In translation (Tolkien's own) this runs:

"O! Elbereth who lit the stars, from glittering crystal slanting falls with light like jewels from heaven on high the glory of the starry host. To lands remote I have looked afar, and now to thee, Fanuilos, bright spirit clothed in ever-white, I here will sing beyond the Sea, beyond the wide and sundering Sea."

I could cite more examples (such as Galadriel's amazing song, which does some very interesting things with the dual pronoun). In all, I counted 10 instances of where her name was invoked as a kind of prayer:

  • 7 in The Fellowship of the Ring
  • 1 in The Two Towers
  • 2 (or arguably, 3) in The Return of the King

What is so interesting about these uses is that they begin to taper off after Lothlorien, as invocations of Varda/Elbereth are replaced by invocations of Galadriel, who the Three Hunters thank in their hearts for the gift of Lembas, and to whom Sam wishfully prays for light and water in Mordor--after which they find both. In fact, whenever the words "the Lady" are used without any other name in The Two Towers and The Return of the King, they always refer to Galadriel.

Friday, July 12, 2019

VI. An Icon of Paradise

And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of. And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. And he called the name of that place Bethel: but the name of that city was called Luz at the first. And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, So that I come again to my father's house in peace; then shall the Lord be my God: And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God's house: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee.
- Genesis 28:12-22

Nathanael saith unto him, Whence knowest thou me? Jesus answered and said unto him, Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee. Nathanael answered and saith unto him, Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel. Jesus answered and said unto him, Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig tree, believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than these. And he saith unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.
- John 1:48-51

Following the previous look at Paradise and its hierarchical structure in the Old Testament scriptures, and in the poetry of St Ephraim the Syrian, we have laid the groundwork to consider the interaction of sacred art and sacred space in the construction of the Eastern Orthodox "temple," the name which Eastern Christians usually apply to their places of worship. I've chosen this as my first case study for three reasons:

  • I can speak from personal experience here, since my encounter with sacred art and sacred space in this context answered a certain longing I have felt since childhood.
  • As one of the oldest, stable iconographic and architectural traditions in the world, there is a lot of material to work with--not just in Russia or Greece, but in Italy, Sicily, Spain, Romania, other parts of Western Europe, and even the British Isles. The features I will be focusing on in this post are not specifically Eastern, and at one point in time were part of the common expression of the sacred that was found throughout Christendom.
  • The beauty one encounters in an Eastern Orthodox church is an excellent example of beauty as an objective reality rather than a subjective "in the eye of the beholder" response. What I mean is this: many people, when first stepping into the nave of a canonically adorned and decorated Orthodox church, will say something like "it's very beautiful," with the often explicit caveat that it is not to their taste. In other words, they recognize the transcendent qualities of the art and architecture while at the same time acknowledging that it belongs to a world so far removed from their own time and context that they would not choose to decorate their own houses of worship (let alone their own houses) this way. It will perhaps seem ironic, but I consider this to be one of the surest proofs of beauty in this tradition--objective beauty is beautiful whether or not I like it.

The Temple

It's become a commonplace in certain circles to notice the similarities between the temples of the Ancient Near East (and first and foremost, the Tabernacle of Moses) and the layout of the Christian house of worship. This is particularly true in the Eastern Rite, where the ancient understandings of sacred space have only been reinforced by medieval and early modern developments (such as the development of the curtained templon into the great carved iconostasis in the Russian Orthodox tradition).

Photo credit: http://stdemiana.church/orthodoxy/inner-layout-structure/

As discussed in a previous post, this basic understanding of hierarchical space was a means of incarnating ancient understandings about God, man's relationship to the divine, and even the interior structure of human nature itself. The amount of attention given to the Tabernacle/Temple in both Old and New Testament Scriptures, and the extensive Patristic commentaries on the long passages found in Exodus and elsewhere detailing the exact dimensions and materials to be used in the Tabernacle all point to the great significance of this concept in ancient Jewish and Christian thought. In The Language of Creation, Mattieu Pageau suggests that the structure of the Tabernacle (and by extension Eden, the Genesis narrative, etc.) functions like the spelling, grammar, and syntax which forms arbitrary lines on paper into a means of communicating an abstract spiritual reality:

Given our current materialism, the best way to understand the role of the temple is through analogies with our written language. Like a written word, the temple is made from a collection of physical parts arranged by the rules of an arcane language. The purpose of this "body" is to host an invisible "breath." This pattern is then reiterated within the temple itself (in the Ark of the Covenant) where the written tablets (the testimony) physically host the spoken laws of God... With the analogy of written language, it is easier to understand why the plans of the temple are so detailed and complicated. These patterns are examples of "lowering meaning" into the lowest depths of material reality. At these levels, they are like the rules of an alphabet because they organize "marks" in a very detailed manner. Similarly, if we were to describe how to embody the meaning of "holy temple" on this page, the plans for its construction might look something like this:
You shall make nine vertical marks, ten horizontal marks, and six slanted marks. Three of the slanted marks shall be left-leaning, and three shall be right-leaning, etc. You shall make two of the following patterns: three horizontal marks joined to the right of one vertical mark in equal distance, etc. 
- The Language of Creation, pp 94-5 

The diagram to which Pageau refers in the quote above. The book is full of many such helpful diagrams which show the work of man to "raise earth" (potential) and that of God to "lower heaven" (meaning) in Genesis.
The Old Testament Tabernacle--and therefore the Christian temple--is thus a meta-cognitive pattern. The structure alone is, of course, not enough. The structure is significant because it reveals to us "the pattern" which is the basis of beauty and meaning. For a Temple is not a monument, a mere edifice to remind us of some bygone era when Classical or Medieval man managed (usually to our great astonishment) to create something of lasting beauty. It is a place where something happens.

Here we can think of the difference between going to tour one of the great cathedrals of Europe and attending (and participating in) a Mass there. These are two radically different experiences. In the first case, the cathedral is merely an idea--an artifact or relic from a bygone era. It may be deeply moving, as a beautiful painting in a museum is moving, but a safe distance is maintained between ourselves and the structure.

In the second case, the structure--magnificent as it is--exists to uniquely and truly facilitate the meeting of heaven and earth. That this meeting could happen anywhere--say, on the side of a mountain in the Sinai peninsula--does not in any way refute the fact that some places or structures are better suited to incarnating certain spiritual realities than others. To partake in the Divine Liturgy in a great cathedral (or a small church--it is the peculiar genius of Eastern Orthodox architecture that small buildings can reveal Paradise as effectively as large ones; the impressiveness of the size is not the primary focus) is to ascend up and through the art, architecture, and music to something which is beyond any of them, but provides meaning to them all.

The nave of St John of Damascus Orthodox Church, Tyler TX. The space is relatively small--by Protestant standards--for a congregation of this size, however the lack of pews means that space which would be occupied by auditorium style seating can instead be arranged along traditional lines. Note that as this is a new temple, the process of adorning it with frescoes has not yet begun.
A tiny church in Urkaine. Photo credit.

In this experience, no particular attention need be paid to the icons--many of them are in fact in the high recesses of the ceiling where you cannot see them very well--or to the music, or to the smell of incense, or any of the other multi-sensory experiences of worship. For the thing which demands our attention is the Liturgy itself--all of the other incarnational aspects of art and architecture facilitate this journey in a way which aids our perception of the spiritual.

It is with this in mind that I will attempt to speak of the iconographic scheme of an Orthodox Church. It must be understood that the visual beauty is only one aspect of this experience, one which flows out of the basic forms of the architecture and moves us, not toward sensationalism or emotion, but sot a place of higher communion where God may be known.

The Narthex

Entry into an Orthodox church begins in the narthex (sometimes, there is a secondary area just inside the doors called the exo-narthex, sort of a narthex before the narthex). This word means "porch" and is analogous to the porch of Solomon's Temple, or to the outer court of the Tabernacle. The journey "up the mountain of Paradise" towards God begins when the faithful leave the world and step into this area. Ritually and iconographically, this is a border, a transitional space. Baptisms are traditionally held here, since Baptism is both a ritual death as well as a crossing through death into new life. Here also (at least traditionally) those who are not of the Faithful--catechumens, penitents, and well-behaved visitors--stand during the Liturgy. This is the base of the mountain.

Iconographically, the narthex is usually decorated with scenes from the Old Testament scriptures. One church near my house features:

  • The creation of Adam and the expulsion from Paradise [Located on the Western wall, so that it is the last thing one sees when one leaves the church--the typology here, which goes all the way back to St Ephraim the Syrian, should be clear: the church is paradise.]
  • Moses and the Burning Bush
  • Moses parting the Red Sea
  • Moses receiving the tablets of the Law
  • The hospitality of Abraham at the Oak of Mamre
  • The sacrifice of Isaac
  • The Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace
  • Jonah in the belly of the great fish
Each of these stories has a special relevance to the Christian understanding of God's redemptive work on behalf of His people--but the selection and arrangement is hardly unusual. Many of these same stories feature prominently in the narthex of my own parish. Thus, each approach to God, each ascent up the Mountain, begins in Genesis and takes us through the Law and the Prophets. In my parish, on the eastern verge of the narthex as one is about to step into the nave, one sees a large fresco of the Prophet Isaiah on one's right, and of King David on one's left. 

The Nave

As they arrive for the Liturgy, the Faithful move through the narthex into the nave, the name of which echoes well the understanding of the Church as the "ark of salvation." This is where the Faithful will stand, chant the Psalms, pray the prayers, and sing the hymns of the Liturgy. It is also the place where, at the summit of the journey, they will partake of communion. This is the largest space in the church, and corresponds to the Holy Place of the Tabernacle. The fact that all of the Faithful worship here has to do with the understanding of the Christian priesthood, which is a blog post for another day (and perhaps another blog).

As the largest area of the church, this is where we are likely to see the greatest iconographic variety--with some important exceptions:
  • The dome (and there is always a dome over the nave if the building has been purpose-built for an Orthodox church) contains an icon of Christ enthroned in glory--most often of the variety called Pantocrator -- "the ruler of all."
  • The Western wall (the direction you face when leaving the church) usually has an icon of one of the following subjects: the Last Judgment, the Dormition of the Theotokos, or a synaxis (gathering) of evangelist/missionary saints. Each of these makes a slightly different statement about what thoughts should occupy the Faithful as they return to the world.
  • The Eastern end of the nave is dominated by a raised platform and, joining the nave to the Most Holy Place, the templon or iconostasis.
Here I can draw specifically upon the iconography of my home parish. At the apex of the dome (i.e. the top of the hierarchy) is Christ Pantocrator, surrounded by the Hebrew prophets. Each of the latter holds a scroll in their hand with a quotation from their prophecy, which directly relates to the Great Feast which is portrayed on the next tier down. [In the Orthodox Church, a Great Feast is a moment in the life of Christ, or the Church, which the Church specially commemorates; the feasts of the Mosaic Law were the original bases for these, and more have been since added. There are twelve of these plus Pascha/Easter, which is the "Feast of Feasts" and the "Day of Days."]

The dome of St Seraphim Orthodox Cathedral, Dallas TX
Supporting these top two tiers is a third, which goes all the way around the base of the dome, showing the Holy Apostles. The fourth tier of frescoes are more Great Feasts as well as other scenes from the Gospels. The fifth tier (which is eye-level if you are standing in the nave) includes moments from the life of the parish's patron saint, as well as numerous panel icons of Christ, the Mother of God, a crucifix, and a reliquary. These are places where the faithful may light candles, say their prayers, and stand in worship. 

Since the main windows (often the only windows) of the church are in the dome, the hierarchy of meaning follows the movement of light: from above, at the throne of God (where Christ is seated at the right hand) down through the prophets (the Old Testament Scriptures) and into the Gospels. At the lowest level--the saint frescoes, panel icons, and the living icons (the Faithful) standing in the nave, we see the implications of the Scriptures and Gospels lived out--incarnated, the way the architecture incarnates a divine pattern--by ordinary people in a variety of times and places, most of which are far removed from First Century Palestine.

On the West (rear) wall of the nave there is a fresco of the Bosom of Abraham and two tiers of evangelist/missionary saints (making it a combination of the themes of the Last Judgment and the Great Commission). Much more could be said about this scheme, which has been executed so well by a local iconographer who has done many churches in the area and throughout North America.

The Iconostasis

The iconostasis is easily the most visually dominating feature of the nave. It separates (or joins, depending on your perspective) the nave to the Sanctuary/Most Holy Place. Just as the dome and layout of the building are arranged hierarchically, so too the iconostasis suggests a hierarchy into which the Faithful are invited to move and partake.

The iconostasis.
In the top tier of the iconostasis featured above, Christ is shown at center, seated enthroned as the Son of Man, surrounded by the cherubim, which accords with the visions of the Prophet Ezekiel and St John the Theologian. This format is commonly called a deisis, where those on his right hand (here the Mother of God, St Michael, St Peter, and St Tikhon) and those on his left (St John the Baptist, St Gabriel, St Paul, and St Innocent) as well as the figures on either end of the bottom tier (Sts Herman and Seraphim) have their heads inclined and hands raised in worship. Immediately below the enthroned Christ there is a doorway, known as the Royal Doors (corresponding to the veil of the Most Holy Place in the Tabernacle; there is an actual veil which is drawn over this doorway at certain times in the Liturgy). On either side of it there are icons of Christ and the Mother of God, and then two other side doors known as the "Deacon's Doors" (more about them in a a future post, perhaps).

The doors themselves are of interest here, for they traditionally bear certain icons which help to reveal their purpose.


At the top row are two panels portraying the Annunciation--the moment of the Incarnation, when Christ the Word entered the womb of his mother. In the bottom four panels are icons depicting each of the four Gospel writers. These icons help us understand the purpose of the doors, of the veil, and of the whole iconostasis: it is not to keep us from God, but rather to reveal him as the man born of Mary, whose life is given to us in the Gospels. Thus, the first two ways that the Church encounters Christ--in the Incarnation and in Holy Scripture--open the way for the third and most intimate encounter: Holy Communion. 

Like the iconography of the nave, therefore, the iconostasis reveals to us not just a hierarchy, but participation and movement along that hierarchy.

The Sanctuary

The "summit of the mountain" is the Sanctuary, or Most Holy Place, corresponding to the sanctum sanctorum of Moses' Tabernacle. To fully understand the significant of this place--its role and purpose--one must understand the role of altars generally in the Hebrew Scriptures. They are--like Noah's altar, or the rock of Jacob at Bethel--a place where something (a sacrifice) is offered, and something (a blessing or anointing) is received. This basic understanding of sacrifice is retained in the Christian Eucharist: bread and wine, ourselves and all our lives, are offered to God; he sends down his Holy Spirit (often typologically understood as oil, as in the story of Jacob above) upon the gifts, making them the body and blood of the one who offered himself up "for the life of the world." By receiving these gifts in communion, the Faithful participate in the life of God. This is the same pattern of "man raising" and "God lowering" we see in the interaction of the giving of the pattern and construction of the Tabernacle.

What happens in the Sanctuary, then--and what happens at the apex of the Liturgy, for we must always remember that the temple is primarily a space where the cosmic drama is being played out--forms the summit of the experience of worship. All throughout the service, the clergy will process in and out of this place with books, cups, plates, fans, lances--a series of veritable Grail processions saturated with mystical meaning. 

Behind and above the altar there is--most often--in the apse, an icon of the Mother of God of the type known as Our Lady of the Sign. Her hands raised in the orans position, she invites us to adore the Christ child on/within her. The placement of this icon in the apse is important to our understanding of hierarchy as the basic grammar of the "language of beauty."

In the Tabernacle of Moses, the principle object in the Holy of Holies was the Ark of the Covenant. This box contained, as noted earlier, the tablets upon which Moses had received the Law, along with several other items of great significance to Patristic commentators: the Rod of Aaron that budded, and a jar of manna. The ark was topped by a lid with images of two cherubim worked from beaten gold. This lid is rendered in the LXX as hilasterion -- the Mercy Seat. Understood in the light of the visions of Isaiah (which shows the Lord enthroned and surrounded by six-winged seraphim) and Ezekiel (which shows the Lord enthroned upon the cherubim) and the following declaration,

There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel. (Exodus 25:22)

it seems clear that the Mercy Seat is meant to be understood as a throne--a place where God meets with his people, rules over them, and dispenses justice. It is first and foremost a place where heaven meets earth. Christianity retained this understanding of the Holy Place and of the Ark, but extended it, so that in the divine liturgy which plays out in the Book of Revelation, the opening of the Holy Place reveals first the Ark, which is then followed by/transformed into the Woman Clothed with the Sun, who Patristic commentators universally understood to be the Virgin Mary and (by typological relationship) the Church:

And the temple of God was opened in heaven, and there was seen in his temple the ark of his testament: and there were lightnings, and voices, and thunderings, and an earthquake, and great hail. And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars... (Revelation 11:19-12:1)

This, and other extensive typology found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, gave rise to the common understanding of the Virgin Mary as the Cherubic Throne, the Ark of the New Covenant, and the "living mercy seat." Her womb is, in the Christian understanding, literally the place where heaven and earth meet (where "Word becomes flesh"), and her lap becomes the new Cherubic Throne where the Magi come to adore Christ:

I behold a strange and wonderful mystery:
The cave a heaven, the Virgin a cherubic throne,
And the manger a noble place in which hath lain Christ
The uncontained God.
Let us therefore praise and magnify him.
- Katabasiae of the Nativity

Much earlier in this series I opined that the image of the Virgin and Child was the whole basis of the classical Christian understanding of beauty and wonder. It is little wonder then that in the Christian Holy of Holies, we most often find this image, for it contains within itself the whole mystery of the Eucharist--and the whole mystery of salvation. Here, at the very top of the hierarchy, the Word of God comes to us not from between the cherubim, but from the arms of his mother. 

A glimpse through one of the deacon's doors, up into the apse.
Here, at the very top of the hierarchy of space, there is a great mystery--not precisely the inversion of the hierarchy, but something which goes far beyond our own notions of hierarchy. The rest of the iconography in the Sanctuary is concerned with demonstrating the sacramental implications of the incarnation. Christ is shown here vested as High Priest, but also as a child in a grail or Eucharistic dish.

"Ascending and Descending Upon the Son of Man"

All of this--the art and architecture of the Orthodox temple--creates a space where the Faithful can ascend the Mountain of Paradise; where they can, in the Eucharist, partake of the fruit of the Tree of Life which is Christ himself. This matches perfectly with St Ephraim's spatial understanding, and it is thus an excellent case study of how the proper understanding of the Incarnation allows space and art to be transfigured, allowing a glimpse of He Who Is beauty itself.

Detail from secco of The Transfiguration, by Aidan Hart. Photo credit.


---

Note 1: As I have mentioned before, I believe that this "language of beauty" applies to all of the arts. I have begun with the liturgical arts because within the traditional framework in which I am working--and in which, for instance, Tolkien was working--they occupy the highest place in the hierarchy, since they show the pattern most clearly. In future posts we will turn to how this same "spatial understanding" of hierarchy plays out in imaginative literature. Right now I am inclined to bump The Silmarillion farther down the list and start with the Grail story, since it's a very natural transition between liturgical arts and imaginative fiction.

Note 2: This is not a theology blog. However, given the subject matter of this and some of the other recent posts, speaking of higher things has been unavoidable. The views put forth here about certain things--such as sacred space, the sacraments, the typological readings of Scripture, and the Incarnation--are those views accepted "everywhere and by all" in the Church catholic for at least a thousand years, and remain the teachings of the Eastern Orthodox Church today. I lay claim to no unique theological views or insights. As for my own beliefs, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, they can be found in the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. 

Note 3: Hopefully it will have become clear in this post that hierarchy itself is not enough for beauty. There must be movement along hierarchy--both up and down. It is for this reason, I think, that the most-portrayed scene in all of art history is that of the Annunciation, which shows us simultaneous movement in both directions.

Note 4: Anyone more interested in a fuller explanation of the Orthodox liturgical arts and the way iconography, architecture, music, and the minor arts work together to create an icon of paradise should read this series by Andrew Gould. Gould is an architect and liturgical artist and, unlike me, actually knows what he's talking about.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Further Up, Further In

It is as hard to explain how this sunlit land was different from the old Narnia, as it would be to tell you how the fruits of that country taste. Perhaps you will get some idea of it, if you think like this. You may have been in a room in which there was a window that looked out on a lovely bay of the sea or a green valley that wound away among mountains. And in the wall of that room opposite to the window there may have been a looking glass. And as you turned away from the window you suddenly caught sight of that sea or that valley, all over again, in the looking glass. And the sea in the mirror, or the valley in the mirror, were in one sense just the same as the real ones: yet at the same time they were somehow different—deeper, more wonderful, more like places in a story: in a story you have never heard but very much want to know. The difference between the old Narnia and the new Narnia was like that. The new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more. I can't describe it any better than that: if you ever get there, you will know what I mean.

It was the Unicorn who summed up what everyone was feeling. He stamped his right fore-hoof on the ground and neighed and then cried:

"I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this. Bree-hee-hee! Come further up, come further in!"

-- The Last Battle

Mythmoot VI After-Action Report

Just a quick note this time to say that I returned from Mythmoot VI last week, so blogging will be resuming shortly. This was my second Mythmoot, and my most "active" one from a participation standpoint. I took part in a number of panels:

  • A Thesis Theater panel along with a fellow philology grad and one other Signum graduate (also brilliant!). 
  • A Wilderness of Dragons panel, along with some (but alas, not all--you were missed, Simon, Jeremy, and Oliver) of my fellow authors for this essay collection. 
  • A "Tolkien and Gaming" panel, with Dr Corey Olsen, Trish Lambert, Jacob Rogers (one of the designers of Cubicle 7's The One Ring RPG, of which I am a superfan).
  • And, of course, my own graduation. I walked an aisle, received "congratulations" from Dr Olsen (pic below) and read some of the Hervararkviða in Old Norse and in my own translation.
Other highlights included meeting one of my favorite living Inklings scholars, Diana Glyer, and hearing a wonderful talk she gave on creative collaboration; seeing a presentation from a DoD illustrator (who works at Langley, VA) on illustrating the Fall of Gondolin, hearing the inimitable Kevin Hensler talk about Semitic Chaos Dragons, and, of course, dancing.

But the best parts of Mythmoot were, as always, the long conversations around the firepit after the lights went out. Staying up long past respectable hours talking about the Holy Grail--that's why I go to these things.

Not the least of the joys of last weekend was stopping by St Nicholas Cathedral in DC for liturgy and coffee hour before I headed to the airport. My thanks to the wonderful folks at St Nicholas for their hospitality. At the end of a fun but exhausting weekend of travel and running around, it was good to stand still in church and know exactly where I was.

On the Wilderness of Dragons panel with the great Tom Hillman.
Like any good Anglo-Saxon, I chose to receive my 'congratulations' in Latin.

Hanging out with Lesley and Sara at the masquerade ball Saturday night. These two brilliant ladies put up with me through three semesters of Philology.

St Nicholas Cathedral, Washington DC. An icon of Paradise.

Friday, June 21, 2019

V. Beauty and Barriers: The Mountain of Paradise

This post is the first in a series of meditations on hierarchy as the fundamental grammar of the Language of Beauty. My original intent was to look at the iconographic layout of an Orthodox Church as an illustration of how this worked, but in the process I found I needed to go deeper into the "roots of the mountain"--the mountain itself, as it turns out, being the Mountain of Paradise.

For much of this post I will be relying on the writings of St Ephraim the Syrian. St Ephraim is a 4th century Church Father from Mesopotamia. Unlike the Greek Fathers, St Ephraim read and wrote in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic. And although he treats on many of the same theological issues as the Greek Fathers, he does so primarily in the same Semitic poetic idiom which is prevalent in the Hebrew Scriptures. In these, and particularly Genesis and the prophets, St Ephraim demonstrates a great fluency, mining them for rich imagery which he employs in theological meditations on a number of subjects.

St Ephraim the Syrian, Legacy Icons

Although he is little-known in the West, St Ephraim has over 300,000 lines of verse attributed to his hand (some of these are probably pseudoepigrapha, but it remains a fact that his poetic output was prodigious). He is probably best-known for the lenten prayer attributed to him, which the Eastern Orthodox Church uses many times a day during the season of Great Lent:

O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.

One of St Ephraim's most significant works is the Hymns on Paradise, a series of 15 hymns which together form a meditation on Genesis 2-3. In these hymns Ephraim draws on a deep well of the Hebrew scriptures, Second Temple Judaism, Syriac rabbinical traditions, and early Christian understandings of the Cross, the Tree of Life, and Paradise to express the sacramental character of the created world, and the Triune God as the ultimate source of all beauty.

The Mountain of God

Following a very old interpretive tradition which predates Christianity, St Ephraim (in keeping with the prophet Ezekiel) understands Paradise, or Eden, as both mountain and sanctuary, seeing in it the basic pattern on which Moses' tabernacle was later modeled. In this he is perfectly in keeping with a Second Temple Jewish tradition concerning God's command to Moses:

And look that thou make them [the fittings and furnishings of the Tabernacle] after their pattern [in the Septuagint Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures this word is typos], which was shewed thee in the mount. (Exodus 25:40)

Today we would probably be inclined to understand pattern as something like a set of blueprints which Moses was shown, and then commanded to execute. Second Temple Judaism, as well as later rabbinical traditions and the early Church Fathers, all understood this to mean that Moses has been shown the heavenly sanctuary which Isaiah, Ezekiel, and John the Revelator saw, and commanded to build an earthly image of the heavenly original. There exists a truly staggering amount of rabbinical and Patristic commentary on the detailed instructions for the Tabernacle found in these chapters.

All of this forms the backdrop for the direct parallels which St Ephraim draws between Paradise and the structure of the Tabernacle/Temple. To quote from the excellent edition from SVS Press which I have linked to above:

The Paradise Hymns provide us with a number of topographical details which, taken together, can give us some idea of how St Ephrem conceptualized this Paradisiacal mountain. We learn that the mountain is circular (I.8) and that it encircles the "Great Sea (II.6), enclosing both land and sea (I.8-9). The Flood reached only its foothills (I.4), and on these foothills is situated the "fence" or "barrier"...guarded by the Cherub with the revolving sword (II.7, IV.1, based on Genesis 3:24). This fence demarcates the lowest extremity of Paradise. Halfway up is the Tree of Knowledge which provides an internal boundary beyond and higher than which Adam and Eve were forbidden to go (III.3); this Tree acts as a sanctuary curtain hiding the Holy of Holies, which is the Tree of Life higher up (III.2). On the summit of the Mountain resides the Divine Presence, the Shekhina...

In this structure St Ephraim saw the model for the Old Testament Tabernacle and Temple, as well as for the physical layout of the Christian Church--but also (as I shall discuss in the next post in this series) the threefold structure of the human person. There are also frequent comparisons made to the progression of Moses up Mount Sinai (an important image in Christian thought, cf. the Epistle to the Hebrews, St Gregory of Nyssa's The Life of Moses). Expanding on one of the charts found in the SVS edition, I would make a feeble attempt to plot the relationships between these hiearchies thus:

Paradise Sinai The Tabernacle/The Temple The Christian Church Human Person
summit: Shekhina/Tree of Life the Glorious One Shekhina/The Mercy Seat/Cherubic Throne (Holy of Holies) The Cross (new Tree of Life) and its fruit (the Eucharist)/The "Warm Mercy Seat" divinity (1 Cor 16:19)
heights: Tree of Knowledge  Moses Sanctuary Veil Iconostasis/Templon intellectual Spirit
slopes: Fig Tree/Fence Aaron
priests
Holy Place Nave soul
lower slopes: Thorn Tree tribes Porch/Outer Court Narthex body

As noted in my previous post, the idea of barriers or veils within a hierarchy is something which is likely to raise the hackles of those raised in a democratic, individualistic society. Since we are looking at hierarchy as a source of beauty, I am going to take the liberty of a somewhat long (and theological) digression to consider how these barriers function.

Barriers and Veils

Of particular interest in the Hymns on Paradise is the connection between the Tree of Knowledge and the sanctuary veil which hung before the Holy of Holies. A veil is something which both conceals and reveals--one might even say that it reveals by means of concealing. One common way of understanding this is the bridal chamber: the bridal chamber is concealed, private, intimate, and therefore "holy." It is a place of revealing intimacy to those within, but by its privacy it also reveals the sanctity of the place to those without. Understood this way, the tearing of the sanctuary veil at the hour of the crucifixion (Matthew 27:50-51) is neither a signal of the abolition of all holy places (no-one prior to the Protestant Reformation thought of it this way) or some kind of censure on the Jerusalem temple specifically (where the Apostles continued to worship after the Resurrection until the establishment of the Church).

The Sanctuary Veil, credit: https://steve-creitz-kreh.squarespace.com/

This moment is best understood in light of the Genesis narrative. Following his rabbinical and Second Temple sources, Ephraim and other early Church Fathers interpreted the Tree of Knowledge as something which had been placed in the Garden as both a test and a reward for mankind. If Adam and Eve obeyed the command to abstain from the Tree, they would be given to eat of it, and their "eyes would be opened" to see the Tree of Life, allowing them to progress further up the mountain, into closer communion with God, becoming in fact "like God." The Serpent promises them this godlikeness on their own terms, and being deceived, they partake of the fruit. The Tree of Knowledge works as intended and the veil is torn, but where the vision of the inner sanctuary ought to have given them joy, now it gives them only sorrow, and they are driven outward beyond the Fence of Paradise in order to prevent their seizing the Tree of Life on their own terms:

When the accursed one learned
  how the glory of that inner Tabernacle,
as if in a sanctuary,
  was hidden from them,
and that the Tree of Knowledge,
  clothed with an injunction,
served as the veil
  for the sanctuary,
he realized that its fruit
  was the key of justice
that would open the eyes of the bold
  --and cause them great remorse.

Their eyes were open--
  though at the same time they were still closed
so as not to see the Glory
  or their own low estate,
so as not to see the Glory
  of that inner Tabernacle,
nor to see the nakedness
  of their own bodies.
These two kinds of knowledge
  God hid in the Tree,
placing it as a judge
  between the two parties.

But when Adam boldly ran
  and ate of its fruit
this double knowledge
  straightway flew toward him,
tore away and removed
  both veils from his eyes:
he beheld the Glory of the Holy of Holies
  and trembled;
he beheld, too, his own shame and blushed,
  groaning and lamenting
because the twofold knowledge he had gained
  had proved for him a torment.

Whoever has eaten 
  of that fruit
either sees and is filled with delight
  or he sees and groans out.
The serpent incited them to eat in sin
  so that they might lament;
having seen the blessed state,
  they could not taste of it--
like that hero of old
  whose torment was doubled
because in his hunger he could not taste
  the delights which he beheld.

For God had not alllowed him
  to see his naked state,
so that, should he spurn the commandment,
  his ignominy might be shown him.
Nor did He show him the Holy of Holies,
  in order that, if he kept the command,
he might set eyes upon it
  and rejoice.
These two things did God conceal,
  as the two recompenses,
so that Adam might receive, by means of his contest,
  a crown that befitted his actions.

God established the Tree as judge,
  so that if Adam should eat from it,
it might show him that rank
  which he had lost through his pride,
and show him, as well, that low estate
  he had acquired, to his torment.
Whereas, if he should overcome and conquer,
  it would robe him in glory
and reveal to him also
  the nature of shame,
so that he might acquire, in his good health,
  an understanding of sickness.
(Hymns on Paradise, III.5-10

Templon at Church of St. Eleftherios in Athens, photo credit Wikipedia

The moment of Christ's crucifixion is thus shown, by the rending of the temple veil, to be the moment of revelation, revealing the new "Tree of Life"--the Cross, made available to us by the obedience of the Second Adam [note: the Cross as the Tree of Life is one of the most fertile subjects for hymnody within the Eastern Tradition of the Church, and it is an image to which St Ephraim returns over and over again]. Whether this moment of revelation is a source of joy or sorrow depends, as it did for Adam, on the disposition of the viewer. 

The Nave and Iconostasis of St Seraphim Orthodox Cathedral, Dallas, TX

For Christians worshiping in the Eastern Rite (myself included), the opening and closing of the Holy Doors of the iconostasis (or the opening/closing of the veil of a templon) functions in this way. The presence of the barrier reveals the Sanctuary as holy. For the Faithful, the opening of the doors at particular moments in the Liturgy (most of all during the consecration of the Eucharist) reveals the promise of greater joy, deeper communion, the way made free to go "further up and further in." For the penitent, the excommunicated, the vision is one of sorrow--what is denied and must be reclaimed.

But someone reading St Ephraim closely--or for that matter, anyone who has ever attended a Mass or read a good story--will realize that while beauty uses hierarchy as a framework, the hierarchy alone is not inherently beautiful. Movement--up and down, in classical terms "comedy" and "tragedy"--is necessary for beauty to be found and experienced.

In the next post we'll examine the series of contrasts and movements in Paradise, and find them in the layout, iconographic scheme, and Liturgical movements of the Church. In the post that follows that, we will consider how the same grammar of beauty is present in a Western dialect in Rogier van der Weyden’s Seven Sacraments.


Currently reading: Hymns on Paradise, St Ephraim the Syrian
Current audio book: The Silmarillion, Tolkien

Saturday, June 8, 2019

IV. Beauty and the Kingdom of Heaven

In my previous post, I concluded by setting myself this question to answer:

"The second difference is an artistic question of how--if Christ is the icon of the Father, and therefore the only reliable means by which we can know and commune with the God who is Beauty--all of the other arts (particularly those which are non-liturgical or not specifically religious) can be arranged so as to be transfigured by the Light of Tabor."

In the many weeks which have transpired since writing that post, I have had time to contemplate the salutary phrase "the artistic question of how..." For it is exactly a question of art--"the art remaining with the artist." Here I am not so much interested in the question of art as a "thing" ("but is it art?!") as I am in ars as craft, such as "the art of cheesemaking" or "the art of storytelling" or "the art of Iconography." I am enough of a traditionalist to insist that while cheesemaking, storytelling, and iconography each have their own distinct associated skills and techniques (the combination of which defines the "art" of the thing), yet too they each have a capacity to which they can (according to their kind) be integrated into a world which is not merely fallen, but which has been redeemed.

The best pattern for understanding the arts is that of the hierarchy. All the arts contain a hierarchy within themselves, relate to each other in terms of a hierarchy, and produce artifacts which move the human person towards a specific place in a hierarchy. We may think of a hierarchy in terms of a mountain--as St Gregory of Nyssa understands the progression of the human person toward God in The Life of Moses. We may also think of it in terms of a king's court, or of the Ptolemaic model of the universe (concerning which, more later)--Dante uses all of these models in The Divine Comedy.

Some of us may find the notion of hierarchy repulsive, for any number of reasons which point to any number of disorders in the human condition. Some of us have been wronged by evil hierarchies, some others of us have spent so much time staring at inverted hierarchies that they have begun to look normal to us--thus the Inferno is always the most popular book of The Divine Comedy with any audience, with interest waning as Dante purges more and more of his sin and comes closer and closer to God. I have never believed the fault lay with Dante's genius.

Still others of us have been formed by habits of thought, culture, and education to explicitly reject traditional hierarchies, having become oblivious to those present within our own society which we accept without question. Once, beginning a long-running study on the books of the "Kingdoms" (1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles) I asked a room full of evangelical adults what sort of government or society best mirrored or imaged Heaven (these are the sorts of unfair, troublesome questions which young and arrogant teachers like to use to break the ice). The answer, given nearly unanimously and without hesitation, was "democracy" (though one clever person suggested a "representative republic" instead). This, despite the fact that Christ has very little to say about "the Democracy of Heaven." Like most Evangelicals, they considered themselves "people of the book," but they had always been taught that the American model of government was the most inherently biblical and therefore the most like Heaven.

I am of course neither interested in nor qualified to set out any kind of political theory. The fact that congregationalists equate democracy with the Divine order is not really a comment which requires much consideration, nor am I keen on the idea of elevating any of our current political leaders to the status of absolute monarch. Much more important to the Fathers of the Church--and in my view, much more immediate to us--is the fact that each of us contains, as human persons, a microcosm--a whole cosmos in miniature--within ourselves. This microcosm, because it images the Divine, is inherently hierarchical. Learning to perceive beauty requires the restoration of this hierarchy to its proper order (which is the goal of asceticism).

There is of course the danger that you have already tuned me out due to the repeated use in this post of words such as "hierarchy" and "tradition," all of which we have been taught to think of as stale, dead, and irreparably corrupt. Over the course of the next four posts, I will attempt to show how when we engage with and participate in these things we find them living and breathing, dynamic and attractive. For true hierarchies are not static things--rather, they are processions, or parades: as stately as a coronation; as ecstatic as David dancing before the Ark; as festal as any triumphus through the streets of the Eternal City.

We will consider four works of art: two visual, one poetic, and one literary. The artistic hierarchies I intend to examine are, in order:

  1. The Multi-Dimensional Iconography of the Orthodox temple
  2. Rogier van der Weyden’s Seven Sacraments
  3. The Divine Comedy
  4. The Silmarillion

Currently reading: The Person in the Orthodox Tradition, Hierotheos of Nafpaktos
Current audio book: Bread, Water, Wine, and Oil: An Orthodox Experience of God, Meletios Weber

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

III. On the Unreliability and Reliability of Incarnate Beauty

So far in this series of posts, I've taken some shots at Iconoclasm and especially at the form of "soft" or "accidental" Iconoclasm which exists within American evangelicalism (which has its roots deep in the intentional Iconoclasm of the Puritans) as I've experienced it.

But the incidents of Iconoclasm within the first millennium--notably of course the two great Iconoclast persecutions, which have contributed more martyrs and confessors to the Church calendar than any of the persecutions under pagan emperors--surely show that this is a perennial concern, something which we cannot take for granted. Like every heresy, after all, Iconoclasm seems to be concerned mainly with the preservation of God's honor, a motivation that no person of faith should despise.

The Eastern Orthodox Church has in fact acknowledged this in the feast, commemorated on the first Sunday of Lent, of the "Triumph of Orthodoxy" which celebrates the return of the icons in 843. As part of this celebration, every Orthodox parish in the world reads the decrees affirming the place of beauty in Christian worship:

As the prophets beheld, as the Apostles have taught,... as the Church has received... as the teachers have dogmatized,... as the Universe has agreed,... as Grace has shown forth,... as Truth has revealed,... as falsehood has been dissolved,... as Wisdom has presented,... as Christ Awarded,... thus we declare,... thus we assert,... thus we preach Christ our true God, and honor as Saints in words, in writings, in thoughts, in sacrifices, in churches, in Holy Icons; on the one hand worshipping and reverencing Christ as God and Lord; and on the other hand honoring as true servants of the same Lord of all and accordingly offering them veneration. 
This is the Faith of the Apostles, this is the Faith of the Fathers, this is the Faith of the Orthodox, this is the Faith which has established the Universe.
Note that the emphasis placed here is not merely on aesthetic beauty itself (though no one would argue that there is not present in Eastern Orthodox worship a high standard of aesthetic beauty), but on beauty as a means to two things: faith (confession in and worship of Christ as God and Lord) and love (the physical embodiment of the Communion of the Saints). Inasmuch as one Patristic view of the Church is as a "communion of faith and love," icons affirm both.

All of this is by way of saying that classical "traditioned" Christianity has always acknowledged that some uneasiness exists about the use of beauty, with objections ranging from "this could have been sold, and the money given to the poor" (need I remind anyone who said those words first?) to genuine concern about graven images. By the same token, the Holy Trinity has seemed too much like Polytheism for some, while the idea of the Incarnation of the uncontainable God has proven difficult for philosophers and theologians right up to the Protestant Reformation. The Church acknowledges this uneasiness and both addresses it and re-orients herself through celebration.

According to the Tradition, icons (taken in the broadest sense to include crosses, vestments, architecture, etc.) are an extension, an implication, and a necessary consequence of the Incarnation. Thus, uneasiness about beauty (and it really is just about beauty--few Evangelicals today would object to spending money on a larger auditorium which would seat more people; it always seems to be the money that could be spent beautifying the Church, not the money spent enlarging it, which ought to have been given to the poor) may be understood as a larger and quite reasonable uneasiness about human nature and the things which it produces.

Concerning this uneasiness, the Patristic tradition is not silent. One of the first and most important stops for anyone trying to articulate a "language of beauty" must surely be The Life of Moses by St Gregory of Nyssa. In this work, St Gregory introduces a multi-level reading of the life of the prophet Moses that views it at the literal/historical, typological, and allegorical levels. One of the important images that St Gregory sees in the life of Moses (as a type of the ascent of the soul towards God) is the concept of the "garments of skin," something typified both in the clothes God gave Adam and Eve to wear when they were expelled from Paradise, as well in the shoes which Moses must remove so that he can come into the presence of God:
The light instructs us in what we must do when we stand within the rays of that true light. Feet that have sandals are unable to ascend to that lofty height where the light of truth is seen. Rather the dead and earthly skin coverings which clothed our nature at the beginning when we were discovered to be naked on account of our disobedience to the divine will, should be taken off the feet of the soul.
Moses and the Burning Bush; fresco, St Seraphim Orthodox Cathedral, Dallas, TX
These garments of skin are not bad or evil, in fact at some point they may even be necessary for our survival. Moses' shoes do take him a long way up the Mountain, after all. But in the end they are those things which we must lay aside in order to truly encounter God. They are the pharmakon, the things (including both technology and "thought constructions" such as metaphors) which extend our ability to act in the world, even to have power over it, but which also ultimately set greater limitations upon ourselves. For example: writing, and much later the Internet, have extended the human ability to process and disseminate information in a dramatic way, but they have come at the cost of a reduced capacity for memory in most people. It is worth remembering in a similar vein that the prohibitions against idolatry in the Old Testament are always prohibitions, not simply against making an image, a work of art, but against making an image of the invisible God after our own understanding. Thus the prophet Isaiah prefaces his tirade against idolatry with the question "To whom then will you liken God? Or what likeness will you compare to Him?"

St Gregory elsewhere extended this metaphor of the "garments of skin" to techne, a word at once encompassing both technology and art (Christ is referred to in the New Testament as a tekton, a word often translated "carpenter," though the broader sense seems to have been "skilled artisan"). One argument which could be therefore made against the arts--and first and foremost the liturgical arts--is that they are a "garment of skin," a finite and therefore unreliable way of coming to know a God who is Infinite. Since they are made by human beings, this line of thinking goes, they can never bridge the unutterable gap between the human and divine. Their place is as amusement, or at best on the periphery of our religious experience.

Here, something pernicious seems to have poisoned the well in regards to the visual arts. Most modern "accidental iconoclasts" are more than willing to acknowledge the role music plays in worship, but balk at the employment of at least traditional visual arts--though one should note that the Puritans were at least more consistent on this point, destroying both musical instruments and sheet music (and driving all of England's best organists into exile) during the years of Cromwell's rule.

To answer this question we could look some of the ways we see the "garments of skin" transfigured and redeemed in Scripture and elsewhere in the Tradition--first and foremost, Noah's ark. Ultimately of course there is the whole paschal mystery of Christ, the transfiguration (foreshadowed by his literal transfiguration, the whole content of which was the Passion and the Resurrection) not only of human nature, but of all created things.

The Transfiguration of Christ
It is only in this understanding of the purpose, and destiny (one might say the final cause) of the created order that St Paul speaks of "bringing all things in heaven and on earth together in Christ." St Gregory of Nyssa, within the same breath of speaking of the garments of skin, sees in the burning bush a foreshadowing of the transfiguration of the garments of death into garments of light:
The fact that the fire which enlightened the soul of the prophet was lit from the thorny bush will not be without value in our examination. Because if truth is God and truth is light, and the Gospel affirms these splendid and holy names apply to God who made himself manifest to us in the flesh, such direction in virtue directs us to the knowledge that a light has descended, even upon human nature. For fear that one suppose that the brilliance did not emanate from a material substance, this light did not come forth from a star but rather from a bush of the earth and it excelled all the heavenly stars in its brilliance. From this we discover also the mystery of the Virgin. The radiance of divinity through whose birth shone from her into the life of men did not consume the burning bush, just as the flower of her virginity did not fade by giving birth.
The essential grammar of our "language of beauty" is, as I have said, that image of the Virgin and Child, for the Mystery of the Virgin is the Mystery of the Incarnation, of the God-become-man. The difference between this--the flesh of the Virgin which becomes the flesh of God, and becomes the flesh of Christ in the chalice--and the "garments of skin" which we must discard to know God is really a twofold difference: it is a difference in who makes the image, and in what and who is the center.

The first difference is really an epistemological question: are there any metaphors or analogies by which we can know God, and if not, but what can He be known? As far as this question goes, classical Christianity entirely insists that God is only known reliably by his Word, who is a person, and who reveals both the written Scriptures and the whole of creation as a epiphany of God by means of his paschal mystery, of which and of whom we are not merely the audience, but actual participants through Baptism, the Eucharist, and the whole Mystery of the Church. God is therefore an image (eikon) maker, and the most ultimately reliable "eikon of the invisible God" (Colossians 1:15) is is Son, Jesus Christ. Much more could be said of this; in a way it is the only thing that classical Christianity ever tries or needs to say. If I do not spend more on this point, it is only because it has been said so much better and so much more elegantly many other places, and what is more, one can only begin to understand it in terms of a living context. Christ is not a subject, he is a person.

The second difference is an artistic question of how--if Christ is the icon of the Father, and therefore the only reliable means by which we can know and commune with the God who is Beauty--all of the other arts (particularly those which are non-liturgical or not specifically religious) can be arranged so as to be transfigured by the Light of Tabor. This question of arrangement will be the focus of the next post in this series.


Currently reading: Great Lent, by Fr Alexander Schmemann
Current audio book: St Francis of Assisi, by G.K. Chesterton

Hail Elbereth

I wanted to push back on a popular misconception concerning prayer in Tolkien's legendarium. It is often said that the "Window in t...