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
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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.

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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.

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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’.

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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.’

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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)

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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]

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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.

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“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.

———————————————-

[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

 

 

The Gaze of a Surgeon

 

christ-pantocrator-andrei-rublev-1410-1420s-the-central-part-of-the-iconographic-deesis-of-zvenigorod-moscow-the-state-tretyakov-gallery

Understanding Icons

The first thing we sense about an icon is its great seriousness. Compare an icon in your mind, a great Western religious painting, one that moves you to deeper faith or even to tears. You’ll notice that there is a difference in the *way* it moves you, however. A Western painting—which is undeniably going to be more accomplished in terms of realism, perspective, lighting, anatomy, and so forth—moves us in our imaginations and our emotions. We engage with it like we do a movie or a story.

An icon hits us in a different way, though. In comparison, it is very still. It is silent. We find ourselves coming to silence as we stand before it. An icon somehow takes command of the space around it. It re-sets where the baseline of our awareness is.

christ-sinai

Many years ago my husband bought our first icon, a copy of the famous 12th century Russian icon known as the Virgin of Vladimir. We hung it on a wall in the den and grouped other, smaller pictures and paintings around it. But it never looked quite right. We kept rearranging the pictures, and then started taking some of them down. It still didn’t work somehow. In the end, we wound up taking down every other painting, so that the Virgin reigned alone in that length of space. She blew all the other pictures off the wall. Such is the quality of her presence in this image, a quality we can’t describe apart from words like “majesty,” “mystery,” and “gravity.”

 

It is the gravity of an icon that is the other thing I want you to notice. The people in these images are very sober. Their silence is unsettling. We don’t know how to respond and feel awkward. I think this is something like what St. Peter felt when the Lord told him to let down his nets for a catch. When he hauled up teeming nets, St. Peter said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

The sober presence of the Lord in an icon makes us uncomfortable because it makes us realize how far short we fall from the ineffable beauty and power of God. Sometimes people accuse Christians of trying to make people feel bad or guilty, of being judgmental in their words. When that is the case it is unfortunate. But in this case, we feel the effect of judgment from the only true judge, the only possible judge, and he does it without a word. Yet it is a judgment wrapped in a promise of healing. It is not a rejection, but an invitation. It is an opportunity to receive the healing that only God can give, because he knows us better than we know ourselves.

The steady, unsettling gaze of the Lord in an icon is like the gaze of a surgeon as he looks at a patient’s wounded, broken body. The surgeon understands our woundedness better than we do ourselves, and he knows exactly what it will take to heal it. Our Lord sees brokenness and failures in us that we can’t, that we simply won’t, that we could not bear to see. And he invites us to open ourselves to his healing, a healing that will progress very gently, very gradually, as we are able to bear it.

This isn’t to say that the healing will always be comfortable. He may ask us to give things up that we think we can’t bear to live without. He may ask us to take things on that we think we can’t begin to carry. Only he knows what it will take to heal us. No wonder an icon looks so serious. Our condition is serious. Through the merciful condescension of our Lord, we don’t have to enter into healing with a surgeon we have never seen. He has revealed his face to us, and as we gradually learn to trust him, we can reveal our own broken selves in return.

 
By Frederica Mathewes-Green
This article was published as an inclusion in The Sacred Way by Tony Jones, Zondervan, 2004, and at  http://www.frederica.com
 
 
 
 
For the making of an icon, watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HTb7l3VF1HY
 
 
 
 

Face to Face

Nothing about the human body is as intimate as the face. We generally think of other aspects of our bodies when we say “intimate,” but it is our face that reveals the most about us. It is the face we seek to watch in order to see what others are thinking, or even who they are. The importance of the face is emphasized repeatedly in the Scriptures. In the Old Testament, it is the common expression for how we rightly meet one another – and rarely – God Himself – “face to face.”

In the New Testament, St. Paul uses the language of the face to describe our transformation into the image of Christ.

Χώρα-των-ζώντων

The holy icons are doubtless the most abundant expression of the “theology of the face,” and perhaps among the most profound contributions of Orthodoxy to the world and the proclamation of what it truly means to be human. Every saint, from the least to the greatest, shares the same attribute as Christ in their icons. We see all of them, face to face. In the icons, no person is ever depicted in profile – with two exceptions – Judas Iscariot and the demons. For it is in the vision of the face that we encounter someone as person. It is our sin that turns us away from the face of another – our effort to make ourselves somehow other than or less than personal. It is a manifestation of our turning away from God.

In human behavior, the emotion most associated with hiding the face is shame. The feeling of shame brings an immediate and deep instinct to hide or cover the face. Even infants, confronted by embarrassment or mild shame, will cover their faces with their hands or quickly tuck their face into the chest of the one holding them. It is part of the unbearable quality of shame.

Hiding is the instinctive response of Adam and Eve. “We were naked and we hid…” is their explanation. Readers have always assumed that it is the nakedness of their intimate parts that drive the first couple to hide. I think it more likely that it was their faces they most wanted to cover.

In an extended use of the story of Moses’ encounter with God after which he veiled his face, St. Paul presents the gospel of Christ as a transforming, face-to-face relationship with Christ.

Therefore, since we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech–unlike Moses,who put a veil over his face so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the end of what was passing away. But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ. But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart. Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord. Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor handling the word of God deceitfully, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them. For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2Co 3:12-6 NKJ)

The veil of Moses is an image of the blindness of the heart and spiritual bondage. Turning to Christ removes this blindness and hardness of heart. With unveiled faces we behold the knowledge of the glory of God revealed in the face of Jesus Christ and are transformed into the very same image which is Christ.

In Russian, the word lik (лик) can mean face and person. Sergius Bulgakov plays with various forms of the word in his book Icons and the Name of God. It is an essential Orthodox insight. The Greek word for person (πρόσωπον) also carries this double meaning. The unveiled or unhidden face is a face without shame – or a face that no longer hides from its shame. This is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of our transformation in Christ. The self in whom shame has been healed is the self that is able to live as person.

We are restored to our essential and authentic humanity – our personhood. We behold Christ face to face, as a person would who looks into a mirror. And, as St. John says, “We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1Jo 3:2 NKJ).

The sacrament of penance boldly walks directly into the world of shame. Archimandrite Zacharias says:

… if we know to whom we present ourselves, we shall have the courage to take some shame upon ourselves. I remember that when I became a spiritual father at the monastery, Fr. Sophrony said to me, “Encourage the young people that come to you to confess just those things about which they are ashamed, because that shame will be converted into spiritual energy that can overcome the passions and sin.” In confession, the energy of shame becomes energy against the passions. As for a definition of shame, I would say it is the lack of courage to see ourselves as God sees us. (from The Enlargement of the Heart).

This is not an invitation to toxic shame – nor an invitation to take on yet more shame – it is a description of the healing from shame that is given in Christ. That healing is “the courage to see ourselves as God sees us.” It is the courage to answer like the prophet Samuel, “Here I am!” when God calls. God called to Adam who spoke from his shameful and faceless hiding.

Some of the mystical sermons of the fathers speak of Christ seeking Adam out a second time – but this time, in Hades, when Christ descended to the dead. There, Adam, hid no longer, turned to face the risen Lord. And so the traditional icon of the resurrection shows Christ taking Adam and Eve out of the smashed gates of Hades.

The gates of Hades are written in our faces – as are the gates of paradise. It is the mystery of our true self – the one that is being re-created in the image of Christ – precisely as we behold Him face to face and discover that no shame need remain. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. Sweet liberty!

Source: glory2godforallthings.com/