Elder Aimilianos and Christ Pantokrator

christ sinai

Please have a look at the eyes of the Elder how much they resemble Christ’s ‘different’ eyes and left vs right features in that famous Sinai icon*. Isn’t this a striking similarity? I am completely mesmerised, if I may use such an expression, with this photograph of the Elder, and I have been spending really a lot of time simply looking at him, ever since his repose in Christ. Such Compassion, Peace, yet such Severity too. It feels like an icon to me, and not a photograph. Your thoughts?

Elder aimilianos

*

Many (1) agree that the icon represents the dual nature of Christ, illustrating traits of both man and god, perhaps influenced by the aftermath of the ecumenical councils of the previous century at Ephesus and Chalcedon. Christ’s features on his left side (the viewer’s right) are supposed to represent the qualities of his human nature, while his right side (the viewer’s left) represents his divinity.

(1) Cf. Manaphēs, Sinai: Treasures, 84; Robin Cormack, Oxford History of Art: Byzantine Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 66.

 

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Christmas as the Anchor for Reality

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Every year, though the cycle of the liturgical seasons in the Church, I am discovering new levels of meaning in festal icons. Here is what I have recently come upon about the Nativity icon: “Like most festal icons, the Nativity icon is not only the image of an event that happened two thousands years ago, but rather by its form and the hierarchy of its elements, shows us the inner working of how the Divine Logos is Him by whom at things were made. The icon also shows us how His incarnation acts as the anchor, the fulcrum around which all manifestation holds together. Christ unites the highest:  angels, star, with the lowest which are the animals and a cave. He brings together the far and wise, the wisemen, to the near and simple, the shepherds. All of this is an image of how the Divine Logos holds the world together. By its reference to death, to the entry into the cave, the nativity icon links it imagery to other icons in which Christ is underground, such as the icon of Theophany and the Anastasis.” (Jonathan Pageau)

For more about The Nativity Icon as an Image of Reality go here

 

For The Ass and The Ox in The Nativity Icon go here

For The Cave in the Nativity icon go here

PS.  Please share with me more analysis of the Nativity icon

 

Veiled Before God

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Because of the Angels

For 2000 years in the Orthodox Church, the tradition has been for women and girls to veil their heads during worship, whether at church for the liturgy, or at home for family prayer time.

What is the Scriptural and Patristic evidence for this tradition, and why is it important?

In this article, we will take a look at headcoverings in the Old Testament, headcoverings in the New Testament, headcoverings according to the early Church, headcoverings in icons, and headcoverings today. At the end of the article there are links to additional resources for learning about Christian headcoverings.

Headcoverings in the Old Testament

Centuries before the birth of Christ, women’s headcoverings were an accepted practice for God’s people. It was not merely an option for those who wished to be holy. Rather, it was a matter-of-fact expectation that all women would cover their heads.

When the Holy Spirit inspired Moses to pen the first five books of Scripture, women’s headcoverings were simply assumed to be the normal practice. In the book of Numbers, when a unique ceremony is performed that requires an uncovered head, Scripture makes a point to say that the woman’s headcovering needs to be removed:

the priest shall stand the woman before the Lord, uncover the woman’s head, and put the offering for remembering in her hands” (Numbers 5:18)

Of course, such a requirement would make little sense, if women did not normally keep their heads covered.

Even earlier than this, in the book of Genesis, we read about Rebekah, on a journey to meet her future husband, Isaac:

Then Rebekah lifted her eyes, and when she saw Isaac she dismounted from her camel; for she had said to the servant, “Who is this man walking in the field to meet us?” The servant said, “It is my master.” So she took a veil and covered herself.
(Genesis 24:64-65)

Christian girls worshiping in traditional headcoverings at a Russian Orthodox Church

Her godly discretion is a model for women today. She did not flaunt her physical beauty. Rather, she veiled herself, increasing her allure through an outward display of modesty.

Women’s headcoverings can also be found in the story of Susanna. It is the captivating story of a beautiful, virtuous woman who was falsely accused, and later vindicated by the wisdom of young Daniel. Susanna wore a veil that covered not only her head, but her face as well. Scripture looks disapprovingly upon the removal of her veil:

Now Susanna was exceeding delicate, and beautiful to behold. But those wicked men commanded that her face should be uncovered, (for she was covered,) that so at least they might be satisfied with her beauty. Therefore her friends and all her acquaintance wept. (The Story of Susanna / Daniel 13:31-33)

In this passage of Scripture, virtuous people approve of women’s headcoverings and veils, while ungodly men seek their removal.

Headcoverings in the New Testament

Women’s headcoverings are one of the many points of similarity between Israel and the Church. Godly women had covered their heads for thousands of years prior to the advent of Christ. And when the New Testament Church was born, godly women continued the practice.

Women’s Head Coverings in the Orthodox Church

In St. Paul’s first epistle to the church in Corinth, he instructs everyone to follow the holy traditions which have been received:

Now, I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you. (1 Corinthians 11:2)

Women’s headcoverings are one of the holy traditions which the Church had received, and St. Paul spends the next several paragraphs discussing them. He says that headcoverings manifest honor, in the context of worship:

  1. Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonors his head.
    (1 Corinthians 11:4)
  2. Every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head.
    (1 Corinthians 11:5)

The message is pretty clear:  It is honorable for a woman to wear headcoverings during worship, but it is dishonorable for men to wear them. This is why men remove their hats for prayer, even to this day.

Not content to make his point only once, St. Paul reiterates himself a few verses later. Women are to cover their heads, and men are not to do so:

  1. A man indeed ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. (1 Corinthians 11:7)
  2. The woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.
    (1 Corinthians 11:10)

Catacomb of Priscilla

The Old Testament reveals that this holy tradition is ancient, but it only begins to hint at the reasons.

Here in the New Testament, we are given some reasons for the practice. According to 1 Corinthians 11, headcoverings manifest a woman’s honor. They also are important “because of the angels”.

Angels are present with us when we pray, and when we worship. While we may not fully understand why headcoverings are important to the angels, it is sufficient for us to know that this reason is given in Scripture. If Scripture says that women’s headcoverings are important to the angels, then it is something we should take seriously.

Headcoverings according to the Early Church Fathers

St. Mary Magdalene, wearing a headcovering

St. John Chrysostom (d. A.D. 407), in a sermon at the Feast of the Ascension, spoke both of angels and the veiling of women:

The angels are present here . . . Open the eyes of faith and look upon this sight. For if the very air is filled with angels, how much more so the Church! . . . Hear the Apostle teaching this, when he bids the women to cover their heads with a veil because of the presence of the angels.

Origen, another prominent teacher in the early Church, said,

There are angels in the midst of our assembly . . . we have here a twofold Church, one of men, the other of angels . . . And since there are angels present . . . women, when they pray, are ordered to have a covering upon their heads because of those angels. They assist the saints and rejoice in the Church.

The Apostolic Tradition was written in the second century, and the author is believed to be St. Hippolytus of Rome. This book has instructions for catechumens, including this:

And let all the women have their heads covered with an opaque cloth . . .

Myrrh Bearing Women

And St. Cyril of Alexandria, commenting on First Corinthians, wrote:

The angels find it extremely hard to bear if this law [that women cover their heads] is disregarded.

Headcoverings in Icons

Icons in the Orthodox Church are a visual guide to the Faith, a sort of “picturebook” of Christianity. Icons teach us about the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and about the lives of many Christians who have gone before us.

Icons also teach us about headcoverings.

The Mothers of Modern Medicine

Virtually every icon of an Orthodox woman displays her wearing a headcovering. As far as I know, the only exception is St. Mary of Egypt, and she was a solitary saint who lived alone in the desert, far away from any people.

Among the female saints who participated in society, all of them wore headcoverings, and their headcoverings are shown in icons.

Even Mary the Mother of God–the most blessed woman in the entire universe–is shown in icons, wearing a headcovering.

Can you think of a better role-model for women?

Headcoverings Today

In our church, all women and girls are asked to wear headcoverings, in obedience to God’s command in Scripture, and out of respect for the holy traditions of the Orthodox Church. Just inside the front door of the church, we keep a basket of headcoverings, just in case a woman forgets hers at home and needs to borrow one for the day. Headcoverings are also worn at home, during family prayer time.

While honoring God’s direction is a reward unto itself, there are many other benefits as well. For example:

Headcoverings manifest a woman’s honor. As St. Paul points out in Scripture, a woman brings honor to herself by covering her head during prayer.

Headcoverings encourage humility. Godly women come to church to focus on worship, not to draw attention to themselves. A girl may be tempted to show off an attractive hairdo. When a woman wears a headcovering, this temptation is removed. She can focus on prayer, instead of on hair.

Headcoverings save time. In today’s culture, it can be tempting to spend a lot of time and energy on hairstyles. But headcoverings are quick and easy. It takes a lot less time to put on a headcovering, than it does to prepare a hairdo for display.

Headcoverings help us show love and consideration for our brothers. Godly men come to church to focus on worship. But the flowing locks of beautiful woman can be distracting. By veiling her hair, a woman can display her modesty, and remove an unnecessary distraction.

A mainstream theological journal recently published an article about women’s headcoverings. Soon after, the author of the article became a member of the Orthodox Church. In the article, she beautifully illustrates the iconic purpose of headcoverings:

My wearing a head covering is not only a symbol or sign that I am in agreement with His order, but that I visibly, willingly submit to it. With submission comes blessing.
~ Christa Conrad

Theotokos Tender Mercy Icon

In an issue of The Handmaiden, a lady named Elizabet gives her testimony about wearing headcoverings:

For twelve years I have worn a scarf [headcovering] at all times. I now perceive that it has been—and continues to be—essential for the pilgrim journey and salvation of my soul. The bottom line for me—and a growing number of my sisters—remains obedience. And with it comes a sense of being in our rightful place in God’s ordered universe, rejoicing with the angels. Now I gratefully say, “I am!” in the presence of the great I AM—at prayer and in church, surrounded by the angelic host, worshipping our Lord and King. To God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be the glory, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen!

Reference: Women’s Headcoverings

The Broken Priest

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Such insight and perception of the all too frail human priest from Father Seraphim Aldea!

St. Drostan — Spiritual Fatherhood

Bishops, priests and monastics – male and female – can suffer (God willing, maybe not all of us do) from a type of loneliness that comes from the responsibility of always comforting (without being comforted), always forgiving (without ever being forgiven), always getting everyone back on their feet and spiritually renewed (while hardly ever receiving any spiritual support themselves). Yes, this is the cross we were given; and yes, this is the path we have taken. And yet, we are all human – clergy and monastics included – and like all humans, we need forgiveness, we need light, we need support, we need to be allowed to get up and start again. We need what all humans need – to feel loved.
There is so much I love about St Drostan, yet I suppose it is this particular miracle – the healing of a priest called Symon – that brings him instantly close to my heart. There is something special to me, a priest, about this story. St Drostan’s miracle speaks loudly about a suffering which is rarely talked about in the Church, a kind of suffering that goes mostly unnoticed by all except those who are affected by it – the clergy of the Church.
Because of this perception – that clergy should never need any help – priests and monastics tend not to ask for help when they suffer. And they do suffer, for it can be very lonely as a priest. It can be depressing. Life can get very dark. People forget that our bishops, priests and monastics are the most exposed among us – spiritually, they are on the front line, they are the ones under the greater attacks, they are the ones both God and the devil test most. God does it out of an excess of love; the devil – out of an excess of hatred.
St Drostan’s miracle spoke to me because it envolved the healing of a priest, but also because of the nature of that healing. Symen, the priest, needed light. The priest had lost his sight, had lost his direction, had lost his hope. When darkness engulfs the heart of a priest, that is no ordinary darkness, but the deepest of the deep. Symeon, the priest, goes to St Drostan to ask for light, and St Drostan opens his spiritual eyes to the Light of Christ.
When we were working on the compostion of this icon, there were a number of things I wanted it to convey. Priest Symeon (note his epitrachilion, a symbol of his priesthood) has his eyes closed, as a sign of the spiritual darkness which is fighting him. There is complete abandonment on his face. St Drostan is his last hope, and he places his soul in the hands of this holy man. I know from my own experience how much a priest longs to be blessed himself, to feel a hand over his own head taking away his sins, forgiving him, granting him light and the hope of a new beginning. A priest can hold his hands over hundreds of heads in a week, praying for all, absolving all, while his heart longs for a loving hand above his own head.
St Drostan does precisely that. His expression is loving, but focused and deep in prayer. He does not look at the kneeling priest, but at the Light pouring through his hands over Symeon’s hands, completely aware that this Light (not himself) is the source of all healing and salvation. Like all confessions, this icon depicts the meeting of three Persons, not two: the spiritual father, the son and God Himself. Symeon’s humility (he is kneeling before the saint) comes from his need and despair, but St Drostan’s humility (note his posture) comes from his awareness that he is doing God’s work, in His Maker’s presence (which is why is is slightly bowing, as if standing before Christ). I purposely chose not to depict St Drostan as a priest (although he was ordained), because I wanted to signify that spiritual fatherhood is not an exclusive charisma of the ordained clergy – the Tradition of the Church has kept the memory of simple monks (and, indeed, nuns) whom Christ had blessed for this particular work.
Finally, pay attention to the Light that crosses the icon diagonally, from the upper right corner to the lower left one. This Light, the Uncreated Divine Light, God Himself, descends from Heavens and first rests on the spiritual father. St Drostan’s hallo is ‘fed’ by the divine Light, as a sign that his holiness is God’s holiness – God and Man become one in His Divine Light. The Light then travels from the spiritual father onto his hands, as a sign that holiness is always translated into holy works. In this case, the holy deed is the healing, the restauration of Symeon’s sight, the very gift of the Divine Light from the spiritual father to his spiritual son, who have now become as one. in God’s Light.
… As I prayed for an understanding, for a vision of what this icon should look like, I was reminded once again of how much I owe my own spiritual father. I am totally aware that all I received through him came from Christ; I am aware he is only human. But for me, this ‘only human’ man has kept me spiritually alive (and has spiritually resurrected me many times).  … for one’s spiritual father, the most simple and direct way to tell him that nothing of his sacrifice is forgotten. It lives on through me. I am alive through this sacrifice.

Garments of Skin

Detail from North Door of Iconostasis

Forgiveness Sunday in Icon and Prayer

Lenten Reflections (II)

A composition of Icons and portions of Saturday vespers and the Sunday hymns on the theme of Forgiveness Sunday: The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise

From Saturday Vespers:

The Creation of Adam (Monreale)

The Lord, my Creator, took me as dust from the earth, and with the breath of life He gave me a soul and made me a living creature.

He honoured me as ruler on earth over all things visible and as a companion of the Angels.

But Satan the deceiver, using the serpent as his instrument, enticed me by food, separated me from the glory of God and gave me over to the earth and to the lowest depths of death. But as Master and compassionate, call me back again.

+++

Adam and Eve Hide from God

Wretch that I am, I have cast off the robe woven by God, disobeying Your divine command, Lord, at the counsel of the enemy, and I am clothed now in fig leaves and in garments of skin.

I am condemned to eat the bread of toil in the sweat of my brow, and the earth has been cursed so that it bears thorns and thistles for me.

But, Lord, who in the last times were made flesh of a Virgin, call me back and bring me into Paradise again.

+++

From Sunday of Forgiveness service:

Expulsion and Lamenting

Adam sat opposite Paradise and, lamenting his nakedness, he wept:
‘Woe is me ! By evil deceit was I persuaded and robbed, and exiled far from glory. Woe is me ! Once naked in my simplicity, now I am in want. But, Paradise, no longer shall I enjoy your delight; no more shall I look upon the Lord my God and Maker, for I shall return to the earth whence I was taken.Merciful and compassionate Lord, I cry to you, ‘Have mercy on me who am fallen’.

+++

Adam and Eve Lamenting

Through eating Adam was cast out of Paradise. And so, as he sat in front of it, he wept, lamenting with a pitiful voice and saying, ‘Woe is me, what have I suffered, wretch that I am! I transgressed one commandment of the Master, and now I am deprived of every good thing. Most holy Paradise, planted because of me and shut because of Eve, pray to him who made you and fashioned me, that once more I be filled with your flowers.’

Then the Saviour said to him, ‘I do not want the creature which I fashioned to perish, but to be saved and come to knowledge of the truth, because the one who comes to me I will in no way cast out.’

+++

Fall and Exile

ʺWoe is me!ʺ cried Adam in lament, “that a serpent and a woman have deprived me of intimate communion with God; and eating from the tree has estranged me from the Paradise of delight. Woe is me, for I cannot bear the disgrace! Once the king of all God’s creatures on the earth, I am now viewed as a hostage because of one piece of illicit advice; and though once vested with the glory of immortality, I, as mortal, carry about the skin of deadness lamentably. Woe is me! Which lamentation shall I enlist to collaborate with me? But You, Friend of man, who fashioned me from the earth, and who donned compassion; recall me from servitude to the enemy and save me.”

Return to Paradise

The stadium of virtue is now open; those who wish to compete, enter therein, girded for the good contest of Lent, for those who compete according to the rules shall receive their laurels rightfully. Taking up the full armor of the Cross, let us do battle against the Enemy. As an impregnable wall, we have the Faith, prayer as our breastplate, and acts of mercy as our helmet. Instead of sword, there is fasting, which cuts every evil from the heart. He who does this shall attain a true crown from Christ, the King of all, on Judgment Day.

(Idiomela of the Praises)

+++

Paradise; Abraham's Bosom

O precious Paradise, unsurpassed beauty, tabernacle built by God, unending gladness and delight, glory of the just, joy of prophets, and dwelling place of saints, with the sound of your leaves implore to the Maker of all to open for me the gates which I closed by my transgression, and may count me worthy to partake of the Tree of Life, and of the joy in which I delighted when I dwelt in you before Adam was banished from Paradise through disobedience and cast out from delight, beguiled by the words of a woman.

(from Saturday Vespers)

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The Expulsion from Paradise (Genesis 3)

Saturday Stichera for Forgiveness Sunday (pdf)

Selected Hymns for Forgiveness Sunday

Sermon on Forgiveness Sunday

Embracing the Burning Coal

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Lev Gillet’s Reflections on the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, the famous Byzantine ‘waltz’, Ormylia Women’s Monastery choir, Byzantine icons and hymns with lyrics

Symeon receiving Our Lord is of course an Icon in the true sense of the word of how we too receive Christ 

* The Russian icon above emphasizes the meeting aspect. Pay attention to the way Jesus and Simeon are so face to face.

Lyrics for the famous Orthodox ‘waltz’, the Megalynarion, the “Magnification”; also called Velichaniye in Church Slavonic), the special Byzantine hymn for Panagia and the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple by Ormylia convent.

What glorious Hope, what tenderness amidst weariness, old age, frailty and shadows, what consolation especially when ‘dealing’ with end of life care, as I currently am, what a wonderful ending to our life, should we accept Lord’s offered Love! Rejoicing with Symeon, let us sing a hymn of thanksgiving to God and say: “Let me depart in peace, for my eyes have seen Your compassion and Your holy Salvation.”

-That which is fulfilled in you is beyond the understanding both of Angels and of mortals, O pure Virgin Mother.

-Symeon the Elder embraces in his arms the Maker of the Law and Master of all.

-The Creator, wishing to save Adam, took up his dwelling in your virgin womb.

-The whole race of mortals calls you blessed, pure Virgin, and glorifies you with faith as Mother of God.

[Come and see Christ, the Master of all, whom Symeon carries today in the temple.]

-You look upon the earth and make it tremble how then can I, aged and weary, hold you in my arms?

-Mary, you are the mystic tongs who conceived in your womb Christ, the burning coal.

[Symeon had lived for many years when he saw Christ, and cried aloud to him, ‘Now I seek my release.’]

[O God, who are before all things, of your own will you became man, and are carried in the temple as a child of forty days.]

-Symeon the priest received the Master of all, come down from heaven.

– Make bright my soul and the Light of my senses, that I may see you in purity, and I will proclaim that you are God.

– Pure Virgin Mother, why do you bring into the temple a new-born babe and commit him to Symeon’s hands?

From you, the Creator, I now seek release, for I have seen you, O Christ, my salvation and my light.

‘In the shadow and letter of the Law, Let us the faithful discern a figure. ‘Every male child that opens the womb shall be holy to God.’ Therefore the firstborn Word, Son of a Father who has no beginning, the firstborn child of a Mother who had not known man, we magnify.’ [Irmos]

Him whom the Ministers at the Liturgy on High entreat with trembling, here below Symeon now takes in his arms.

For those of old there was a pair of doves and two young pigeons In their place the godly Elder and Anna the sober prophetess, ministering to the One born from a Virgin and only offspring of the Father as he enters the temple, magnify him. [Irmos]

Glory to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.

In nature Unity, but in Persons Trinity, watch over your servants who put their faith in you.

‘You have granted me, O Christ, the joy of your salvation’, cried Symeon, ‘Take your servant, wearied by the shadow, as a new initiate and preacher of grace, as with praise he magnifies you.’ [Irmos]

Both now and ever and unto ages of ages, Amin.

Mother of God, hope of all Christians, protect, watch over, guard all those who put their hope in you.

Reverently holy Anna, sober and aged, openly confessed the Master, announcing him clearly in the temple. While as she proclaimed the Mother of God to all those present, she magnified her. [Irmos]

meeting of the lord.jpg

In accordance with the law of Moses, forty days after the birth of a male child, its mother had to present it in the tabernacle and to offer as a sacrifice either a lamb or a pair of doves or pigeons for purification ‘from the issue of her blood’. The presentation of a first-born creatures, whether animal or human, were considered to belong to God. Mary and Joseph obeyed this precept of the law. They brought Jesus to the Temple where he was blessed by the aged Simeon, and recognized as Saviour by the prophetess Anna, It is this event which we celebrate at the feast of February 2nd.

Meeting-c1000MenologiumBasilPresentation.jpg

“Let us also go to meet Christ and let us receive him … Adorn thy bridal chamber … and welcome Christ the King; salute Mary, the heavenly gate.” These texts from the feast of the Presentation can also be applied to our souls. Each soul ought to be a Temple of God, to which Mary brings Jesus. And each one of us should, like Symeon, take the child in his arms and say to the Father: “My eyes have seen thy salvation.” The prayer of Symeon, “now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace” does not simply mean that someone who has seen Jesus and has held in his arms can now leave this life and die in peace: it also means for us, having seen and touched the Saviour, we are released from the hold that sin has on us, and, in peace, can leave the realm of evil. (The Year of Grace of the Lord by A Monk of the Eastern Church)

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For 43 DIFFERENT ICONS, FRESCOES AND PAINTINGS: THE MEETING OF OUR LORD, go to http://catalogueofstelisabethconvent.blogspot.com.by/2016/02/icons-frescoes-and-paintings-meeting-of.html

The Altar and The Portico (II)

Head 6. By Aidan Hart, 1979. Ceramic.

THE SACRED AND THE SECULAR

The Relationship of Orthodox Iconography and Gallery Art

Part II: Gallery Art (here for Part I)

The journey of an artist  

At this stage in our story, by way of illustration I would like to be a little biographical. I will speak a bit about my own journey first as an artist in the world and then as an iconographer.

Though born in England, I was raised in New Zealand. Although as a child I had a modicum of education in Christianity, I ultimately came to believe in God’s existence through trees. In my childhood home there were splendid samples of trees and bushes in which my friends and I used to play hide-and-go seek and build huts. The many hours spent in their branches nurtured a deep respect and love for trees. Quietly I came to believe that a higher Wisdom must have made such splendid things. In them, function and beauty married. Trees were my proto-evangelists, leading me to belief on God.

It is pertinent that the Psalm verse set for feast days of Evangelists  -“Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (Psalm 19:4a) – is actually referring to the skies, to creation. The previous verses read:

The heavens are telling of the glory of God;

And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.

Day to day pours forth speech,

And night to night reveals knowledge.

There is no speech, nor are there words;

Their voice is not heard. (Psalm 19:1-3)

In other words, the beauty of creation is a form of proto-evangelism.

This early experience of being led a step closer to God through creation is the seed of my belief in the importance of threshold beauty. In fact, in gratitude to trees for being my proto-evangelist, thirty years later I planted 5,000 native trees in the hermitage where I then lived.

After graduating in literature and biology I began work as a sculptor, eventually going full-time. By then Christian within the Anglican/Episcopalian church, I was seeking ways to indicate in my sculptures the spiritual nature of the human person. Most of these works were not for church commissions but for gallery exhibitions.

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This period reinforced for me the role of threshold art, art that was not overtly religious or liturgical but which might draw some people a little closer to at least a primitive belief in the spiritual.

As a Christian I wanted this spirituality to embrace the material world, not to be a flight from it. I felt that this incarnational approach was all the more important in a secular age which worshipped matter and where one could not assume any prior knowledge of Christianity.

There was a parallel in the then communist and atheistic Russia. I had heard that many people there began their journey to Christian faith with Buddhism. They could not take the step straight from atheism into fully-fledged faith, but  they could took their first steps by following what is essentially an agnostic philosophical system, and one that did not require a communal and liturgical commitment as did Christianity. Having discovering some truth within Buddhism, but eventually finding it incomplete, many of these seekers then progressed onwards to Christ. I came to believe that the right sort of art, portico art, could do a similar thing, and so I wanted to make art that would affirm the numinous quality of life.

But before attempting this numinous quality I was convinced that as a sculptor one had to begin with technique and gain proficiency in depicting the material world, particularly the human body. Only then could one progress to suggest invisible realities. St Paul’s advice seemed pertinent: But it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual (I Cor. 15:46).

Since God had created both the material and the spiritual realms I believed that one would echo the other.

After mastering the essentials of modelling the human body, including making anatomical studies.

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I then concentrated on how to indicate the spiritual nature of the human person. I tried varying degrees of abstraction.

Head 6. By Aidan Hart, 1979. Ceramic.

Man with a White Turban. By Aidan Hart, 1981. Ceramic, plaster and fabric.

Man in Green Shirt. By Aidan Hart, 1982. Ceramic, pigmented plaster, fabric.

To abstract means literally to “draw out”, and in its original meaning it denotes the discovery and manifestation of the essence of the subject, and not departure from reality as it tends to be understood today.

The art most influential for me at this stage was Egyptian and African work. Although perhaps too disembodied, too extreme in their abstraction, these sculptures helped me to reach some conclusions about how to indicate the spiritual. Most notably I learned the importance of a strong vertical axis or elongation; stillness rather than agitated movement; and emphasis on the eyes. Constantine Brancusi and Modigliani were also influences.

Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne. By Modigliani, 1919.

Bird in Space. Constantin Brancusi, 1930.

Having thus studied the two poles of figurative naturalism and abstraction I then sought ways of uniting them, of incarnating the spiritual in flesh. In retrospect I see now that I was trying to hint at holiness – essentially, to sculpt icons.

Gradually I came to some conclusions how to do this stylistically,  but knew I still needed help in such a task. In due course a friend suggested that I should visit two Orthodox monks in New Zealand, one of whom was an icon painter. My friend said that icons did what I had been trying to do for some years. So I visited the monks, and found at their little monastery all that I had been seeking, both artistically, spiritually and historically.

Man in a White Turban, 2. By Aidan Hart, 1982. Ceramic, plaster, fabric.

In 1983 I was received into the Orthodox Church and soon afterwards returned to my birth place of England, where I began work as a full-time iconographer.

The last thirty-three years I have spent more or less full time as a liturgical artist, working first in relief wood carving, and then panel painting, fresco, stone carving, silverwork, and more recently, mosaic. But my earlier labours in pre-iconographic work as an exhibiting sculptor taught me the potential of gallery art to draw people a little closer to faith, to a sense of the numinous.

Crucifix,  at St John of Kronstadt Convent, Bath, UK. By Aidan Hart, 1985. Limewood/linden.

The Annunciation. By Aidan Hart, 2012

The Transfiguration. Our Lady of Lourdes Roman Catholic Church, Leeds, UK. By Aidan Hart, 2012. 20 feet high, fresco.

Our Lady of Lincoln. Lincoln Cathedral, UK. By Aidan Hart, 2014. Polychromed limestone carving

Episcopal staff, for the Patriarch of Russia. By Aidan Hart. Solid silver, 2016.

St Mary Magdalene and The Mother of God (unfinished). Detail from crucifixion for St George’s Orthodox Christian Church, Houston, Texas. By Aidan Hart, 2016. Mosaic.

How can gallery art operate as a portico to belief?

For me personally there are two types of artwork that do this: that which depicts suffering but with compassion, and that which suggests the world transfigured by light. The creators of such artworks are not necessarily people of faith, but they have grasped some truth in their search, and because this truth is an image of spiritual reality it elevates us.

Art of compassion

So first, compassionate art. Such works can help us see the divine image beneath suffering, and even behind ignorant acts. They show us that what makes us capable of suffering is also what makes us human. The Church Fathers tell us that although only holy people are in the likeness of God, all people are made in the image of God. It is precisely our God-given freedom that allows us to choose the wrong as well as the right. Compassionate artists do not idealise, but nor do they judge the wrong doer or feed on their suffering.

Dostoyevsky was the literary genius of such compassionate work, as was also the Greek writer of short stories, Alexandros Papadiamantis (1851-1911). In his short novel “The Murderess”, which is about a lady who kills the daughters of poor islanders so the parents don’t have to pay their dowries, without in any way condoning the murderous acts Papadiamantis somehow manages not to condemn or hate the woman herself.

In the artistic realm, compare a Rembrandt painting, a Van Gogh, or an Alberto Giacometti sculpture with the works of Francis Bacon.

Self Portrait. Rembrandt van Rijn,1659.

Rest from Work (after Millet). By Vincent Van Gogh,1890.

The Walking Man I. By  Alberto Giacometti, 1960.

Self Portrait. Francis Bacon, 1969.

The first two indicate the suffering of humankind with pathos and compassion. Bacon on the other hand – despite his undoubted brilliance as a colourist and the visceral power of his work – seems to feed on the suffering and torment of his subjects. One feels that he needs suffering to feed his inspiration. Indeed he said:

The feeling of desperation and unhappiness are more useful to an artist than the feeling of contentment, because desperation and unhappiness stretch your whole sensibility.[5](Francis Bacon)

It is true that great art needs a certain tension. Sentimentality and its consequent flaccidity is the bane of those trying to be positive in their art.  But even iconographers, who are trying to suggest an harmonious world, feel the tension between aspiration and reality, the struggle to express both brightness and sadness, joy and sorrow, strength and gentleness.  But to feed on negativity is different from depicting it with empathy  and identity.

Art of illumination

Another form of threshold art is the art of illumination. Ascetic writers both East and West describe three stages in the spiritual life: purification, illumination and union. In the degree to which the soul is purified it experiences the created world illuminated by God’s grace, animated by the divine logoi or words that direct and sustain each thing. We see not just the bush, but the bush burning. In due course this leads the person towards union with God Himself, with the Logos who spoke the logoi.

Icons indicate this luminous grace symbolically by such things as gold lines on trees, furniture and garments, and of course also haloes and golden backgrounds.

Threshold artists will indicate luminosity in less symbolic ways. And most critically, they personally will not necessarily relate this light to God. But through their fascination with the way light interacts and animates matter they, perhaps inadvertently, hint at a world aflame with grace.  The Impressionists are the obvious school that come to mind.

The Japanese Bridge at Giverny. Claude Monet, 1896.

The Impressionists have been criticized for being somewhat too sensual in their depiction of nature, even sentimental. Most Impressionists were not particularly religious people, but I suggest that their preoccupation with the interaction of light with matter meant that they inadvertently hinted at a transfigured world, a world not just reflecting light but radiating light. One feels just this when standing before a Monet haystack, as also a Van Gogh sunflower, landscape or farmers.

First Steps, after Millet. Vincent van Gogh, 1890. “I want to paint men and women with a touch of the eternal”.

The light seems to emanate from within these objects and not merely reflect off their surface.

Unlike the Impressionists, Van Gogh was quite deliberate about the spiritual aim of his painting. He wrote:

And in a painting I’d like to say something consoling, like a piece of music. I’d like to paint men or women with that je ne sais quoi of the eternal, of which the halo used to be the symbol, and which we try to achieve through the radiance itself, through the vibrancy of our colorations…[6]

And in the sculptural realm Constantin Brancusi too was conscious of his purpose. He wrote:

The artist should know how to dig out the being that is within matter and be the tool that brings out its cosmic essence into an actual visible essence. [7]

Brancusi’s Paris studio.

Might not such an art of illumination help keep alive in us nostalgia for the paradise that is our true home? What is the fall if we do not know the heights from which we have fallen? What is paradise lost if we have forgotten paradise? What is salvation if we do not know into what we are being saved? If hell is darkness, then it is a place where luminosity is absent, where all appears without light, where we experience the flame of the bush without its light.

From prophecy to evangelism

In conclusion, we ought to have no time for a religiosity that wants to keep us enclosed within church walls, makes us fearful of the outside. True faith finds and rejoices in the good wherever it is found. As Saint Paisius of the Holy Mountain taught me, a healthy soul is like a bee that seeks flowers and ignores rotting flesh. An unhealthy soul by contrast is like a fly that ignores vast fields of flowers and is attracted to a little rotting flesh.

One task of the Church is therefore to find the partial good in its surrounding culture and bring it to fruition. In this respect, living as we are in an increasingly non-Christian but educated epoch, our task is akin to that of the Apologists of the first centuries after Christ. They sought for truths in the Greek philosophy of the time, putting aside what was wrong, adopting what accorded with truth, and adapting what was partial. We need to embrace this creative and theological activity in our own times.

Some contemporary icon painters have done the same with modern art, most notably Gregory Krug.

Christ the Saviour, Fr Gregory Kroug.

Whether or not he consciously adopted aspects of modern art, the fact remains that his unique icons could only have been made in the 20th century. Dr. Isaac Fanous certainly adopted aspects of Cubism into his Neo-Coptic iconography in a deliberate synthesis of old and new.

The Transfiguration.  By Dr Stéphane Réne, of the Neo Coptic school founded by Dr. Isaac Fanous.

A prophetic assessment of a culture will not always of course be affirmative; it will also be critical. I suggest, for example, that an Orthodox Christian’s reading of art history will differ from the dominant narrative of secular scholarship. Scholarship reveals facts, but these facts need to be interpreted. Too often, for example, the history of art has been measured against the assumption that naturalism equals realism. So Byzantine art is considered without perspective, while Renaissance to be the champion of proper perspective.

In reality, Byzantine art uses five or six systems of perspective. These offer a far richer palette with which to express spiritual reality than the mathematical one-eyed system propagated by the Renaissance.

The Annunciation, showing different perspective systems.

They also accord more closely with our subjective experience of reality. For example, even though I do not see both sides of a building I know that they are there, and therefore the icon will often depict these sidewalls simultaneously through its multi-view perspective.  Unlike single view perspective, icons depict what we know and not just what we see. This is in fact the metaphysics behind much of early modernism, which reacted against the neo-Classicism then dominant in Europe.

The secular art historical narrative has also been too silent about the spiritual impetus behind much of the early modernist movement. Kandinsky for example was quite articulate about the spiritual aims of his art, most notably in his work “On The Spiritual in Art”, which was particularly influential in its English translation. Although perhaps more a Theosophist than an Orthodox, his Orthodoxy nevertheless informed a lot of his thinking, and sometimes, as in his “Sketch with Horseman”, icons provided inspiration for his compositions.

Sketch with Horseman. Vasily Kandinsky, 1911, showing the influence of icons, in this case, Elijah in the fiery chariot and St George slaying the dragon.

For Kandinsky painting was a spiritual exercise with spiritual aims. He wrote:

The artist must train not only his eye, but his soul.[8]

The world sounds. It is a cosmos of spiritually affective beings. Thus, dead matter is living spirit.[9]

We have already discussed the consciously religious basis of Brancusi’s work. (for more discussion see my article  “Constantin Brancusi” in http://aidanharticons.com/category/articles/).

The Scriptures and the history of the Church teach us that the best missionaries first discover what God has already revealed to the culture they are addressing, and only then begin to proclaim the Gospel. These evangelists are first listening prophets and seeing seers, and only then preaching missionaries. They perceive the words of God already accepted by the people and then try to take their listeners to the next stage.

The Apostle Paul. By Archimandrite Zenon, crypt church of Feodorovsky Cathedral, Petersburg.

Although St Paul was indignant about all the idols that he saw at the Areopagus, he began his address not by condemning his listeners for idolatry but by praising them for being so religious. He went on to base his message on their inscription to “An Unknown God”. He built his Gospel narrative on this germ of truth, even quoting their own philosophers and poets.

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[5] Quoted in Art, Robert Cumming (DK, London, 2005), page 433.

[6] Vincent van Gogh, Letter to Theo van Gogh, 3 September 1888, (Letter 673), in Vincent Van Gogh: The Letters.  http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let673/letter.html.

[7] Brancusi, in F. Bach, M. Rowell and A. Temkin, Constantin Brancusi. MIT Press, 1995. Page 23.

[8] Quoted in  Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art (New York, 1994), eds. Kenneth C. Lindsey and Peter Vergo, page 197.

[9]  Kandinsky, in “The Blaue Reiter Almanac”, quoted in  Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, page 250.

Source: Orthodox Arts Journal