Christmas as the Anchor for Reality

nativity-icon.jpg

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

 

Advertisements

The Tree of the Cross

“The fiery sword no longer guards the gate of Eden, for in a strange and glorious way the wood of the Cross has quenched its flames.  The sting of death and the victory of hell are now destroyed, for Thou art come my Saviour, crying unto those in hell: ‘Return again to Paradise.”

DSC_5762

I have recently completed a small but highly interesting project, two years in the making, and involving several master artisans. It is a wooden cross with carved stone icons, crafted like a jewel, wholly traditional, and yet quite unlike anything seen before.

This is one of those projects that grew, perhaps providentially, from an initially simple commission. The client wished for Jonathan Pageau to carve an iconographic cross from stone to hang on the wall. But a stone cross is fragile, so we considered how to frame it. As the frame became more elaborate, I suggested the cross ought to have a more prominent liturgical function. Ultimately we decided to make two bases for it – one that allows it to stand on a table for veneration, and another, a tall shaft, that allows it to be used as a processional cross. It is intended to be a companion piece to a gospel book we made for the same client.

DSC_5734

DSC_5713

I began by designing all the parts, and sent templates to Jonathan. He carved the four icons in steatite, a fine stone from Africa that was used to carve icons in ancient Byzantine times. He also gilded certain details, which considerably increases the material beauty of the carving. I crafted the wooden frame, edging it in African rosewood and inlaying the front and sides with marquetry banding. Finally I designed the turned base, processional shaft, and matching candlesticks, and had them made by a master wood-turner. These parts are made from instrument-grade American curly maple and walnut. I ebonized the walnut with ferrous sulfate solution and finished all the woodwork with shellac and wax.

Thus this work is a collaboration among four artists: myself, the designer and woodworker; Jonathan Pageau, the carver; Lee Henson, maker of the marquetry banding; and Ashley Harwood, master turner.

DSC_5868

DSC_5475

Stylistically, this project draws from several traditional sources to synthesize what might be considered a new style. The use of inlay in Orthodox woodwork became prevalent in Greece in the 17th century. There are many fine doors and other furnishings on Mt. Athos that include inlay banding, and there is the spectacular example of the abbatial throne at the Phanar in Istanbul. This type of inlay work was, in a sense, foreign to Orthodoxy, but it arrived in Greece via simultaneous influence from both east and west. In the 15th-16thcenturies, inlaid furniture was developed to great refinement in the Islamic world, and at the same time, Italian masters began a fashion of decorating choir stalls and sacristy cupboards with a tour-de-force of marquetry. So it is no surprise that Greek monasteries imitated the beauty of foreign inlay work, and thus baptized this craft into Orthodox tradition.

Choir stalls, Church of Santa Maria in Organo, Verona, Italy, 16th century.

Inlaid door, Stavronikita, Mt. Athos

Abbatial throne, Ecumenical Patriarchate, Istanbul, 17th century

Much later, in the 19th century, inlay work became popular in American woodworking, not so much in fine furniture from urban centers, but in folk-woodwork, often made by farmers in wintertime. This American inlay-work often bears a striking resemblance to the old Athonite pieces. Whenever I observe a connection like this – an accidental resemblance of an American tradition to an Orthodox one, I know that it is a connection worth developing. After all, emphasizing these cultural sympathies is the natural way for Orthodoxy to become at home in a new land. As an artist, I also recognize that this process is periodically necessary to breathe new life into Orthodox tradition, to keep it fresh.

Inlaid picture frame, American, 19th century

Inlaid box, American, 19th century

Inlaid sideboard, American, 19th century

I hope you’ll agree that this carved and inlaid cross, made with materials and traditions from both sides of the world, constitutes a successful and inspiring marriage, and provides a glimpse of the staggering beauty that American Orthodoxy could potentially offer the world.

DSC_5822 used

DSC_5785 used

DSC_5730 used

DSC_5727 used

DSC_5586 used

DSC_5717 used

DSC_5589 used

DSC_5590 used

DSC_5366 usedDSC_5608 usedDSC_5692 used

DSC_5840 used

DSC_5665 used

DSC_5634 used

DSC_5713 used

DSC_5659 used

DSC_5755 used

 

Source: A Carved and Inlaid Cross, a Collaborative Work by 

 

 

cross1.jpg

Shine, Cross of the Lord, shine with the light of thy grace upon the hearts of those that honor thee.

The Ass and the Ox

nativity1

Nativity of the Lord” Andrei Rublev 1405, Cathedral of the Annunciation, Moscow

As of today, I thought I might begin to concentrate on certain details of the Nativity iconography and explore their symbolism and theological significance in order to prepare my cave (a hermit as I am 😊) to receive the Word in the flesh.  My starting point will be a symbolic (and typological) analysis of the ox and the ass figures in the nativity iconography.

Generally speaking, the presence of any animals in the Nativity icon is in addition to any symbolic meaning a theological statement of restoration. It reminds us, I think, that all creation worships God ( the stars and the sun and even the dumb animals). That which was brought about by Adam’s transgression meant that the dominion he was given in Genesis over the birds of the air, the fish of the sea and the animals on the land was corrupted, made incomplete and he started eating that which was originally meant for companionship. When the Word who becomes flesh  is born, He who made Heaven and Earth and all that is in it,  it is only fitting that representatives of His creation are there to worship and adore the mystery of the Incarnation.

 
Revelation 5:13                
And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” 
nativity5

Specifically now to the ox and the ass. “These two manger animals are ubiquitous in Nativity images.  They peer over the new-born Christ child in wonderment, usually with their muzzles close to the child, as if to warm him with their breath.  Their significance should be plain: The ass carries Jesus into Egypt, away from the murderous Herod who, like Pharoah, orders the slaughter of infants.  (The flight into Egypt in Matthew’s gospel is the first of many Jesus/Moses parallels.)  Later, the ass will carry him into the holy city of Jerusalem to the acclaim of the crowd: “Hossana!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” The ass who greets the Lord at his birth is the same ass who bears him into Egypt and carries him to his death at Jerusalem where he is hailed as “king of Israel” but crucified as a common criminal.  The red ox stands as a stark and basic  symbol of Hebrew cultic sacrifice.” (1)

There is no ass or ox in the Biblical narratives of the birth of Christ.  Yet, besides the Christ Child himself, the ass and the ox are the most ancient and stable elements in the iconography of the nativity.  In fact the earliest example of a nativity known to us contains only the swaddled Christ in the manger flanked by the ox at his head and the ass at his feet.  David Clayton, on the New Liturgical Movement blog, has written a detailed piece on the subject, and I will go through the basics while adding a few more aspects he does not mention.

nativity6

Nativity scene on a 4th century sarcophagus from Italy

When reading comments on the nativity (for example in Ouspensky’s “The Meaning of Icons”) one finds that the inclusion of this detail is a reference to the prophecy of Isaiah:

The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel has not known me, and my people have not understood.

nativity4

Some apocryphal texts have the ass and the ox worshiping the Christ child, such as the gospel of pseudo-Matthew:

Therefore, the animals, the ox and the ass, with him in their midst incessantly adored him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Habakkuk the prophet, saying, “Between two animals you are made manifest.”

nativity7

The Nativity – Icon in the Monastery of St. Catherine
[Many thanks to Bill M. for the link and drawing attention to the look on the ox’s face 😊 The icons of St Catherine’s, being isolated and in dry desert conditions meant that their icons have survived remarkably well, making it is a treasure of pre-Iconoclast iconography] (2)

nativity9.jpgFreiburg, Couvent des Cordeliers / Franziskanerkloster, MS 9, fol. 11r. 

What though is the relationship between the ox and the ass, why are these animals paired together so?  We will often read that traditionally, the ox is seen as Israel, and the ass is seen as the Gentiles.  This comes from a very important distinction about the two animals.  The ox is a “clean” animal, and the ass is an “unclean” animal according to dietary proscription in the Old Testament.

Mixing the clean and the unclean is related very tightly to the mixing of Jews and Gentiles.  The clearest example of this is in St-Peter’s vision of the clean and unclean meats placed together, which signify the entry of Gentiles into the body of the Church.  Indeed there is a Mosaic law which I have never seen quoted in relation to the Nativity Icon, but which seems to hold one of the keys to the ass and the ox:

Thou shall not plow with an ox and an ass yoked together.

What is proscribed, the yoking of the clean and unclean, the bringing together of the “inside” and “outside” can only be accomplished without sin by the Christ, the incarnation of the Logos.  In fact, even St-Paul following this tradition, uses the same imagery to warn Christians not to be “yoked” with unbelievers.

nativity6

This brings out another meaning, which is related to the incarnation and its relation to universality of the Church.  The ass is a beast of burden, a “mindless” strength which was created to “carry” .  In this respect, the ass is a symbol of corporality itself.  One should not be surprised that the symbol of the unclean and “outer” is analogical to fallen corporal existence and sensuality. This can be seen so strongly in the hesychastic tradition in its relationship between the heart and the senses.  The “outer” part, corporality, the senses, the Gentile, are related to the garments of skin, which we have discussed before, and this periphery can be seen as protecting but also carrying what is precious, like the shell of the ark…

nativity3.jpg

Icon of the Nativity carved in linden by Jonathan Pageau

It therefore follows naturally that stories such as the talking ass of Balaam are seen as prefigurations of the incarnation in sources as early as St-Irenaeus, or that it is so important for Christ be found riding an ass (even in later Rabbinical Judaism, the ass and colt of Zecharia’s prophesy are seen as representing the Gentiles) .  These Old Testament images, like the joining of the ass and the ox in the icon of the Nativity, are symbolic of the joining of extremes, the union of the spiritual and corporal, the clean and unclean, the inside and outside and ultimately the uncreated and created in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. (3)