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
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:

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

Joining the Chorus of Martyrs: Culture, Evangelical Copypasta, and the 40 Holy Martyrs of Sebaste

Today, on the Revised Julian Calendar used by the Orthodox Church in America, it is the feast of the 40 Holy Martyrs of Sebaste. This feast ...