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.


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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.

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