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The Principles of Hagiography

4.The Icon of the Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

by fr. Constantine Strategopoulos

Source:   http://www.floga.gr/50/04/2005-6/04_2005112504.asp

The following text is the transcript of the fourth lesson on the Theology of Orthodox icons by the workshop for icon-making, delivered on Friday, November 25th, 2005, by father Constantine Strategopoulos, vicar of the Church of the Dormition of the Holy Metropolis of Glyfada, Attica, Greece.


We shall continue with our lessons on the theology of icons.  And of course it will be at that same level as the one that we are tackling - one-sided.  That is why we are doing an analysis of the theology of the icon.  Icons also have other key features inside them, so that we can approach them beyond the theological approach. One very important approach that pertains to the balance of the image itself is the geometry of the icon. In future lessons we will begin to also notice the balance of the image.  Balance of image means that unbeknownst to him, the artist (which is why he is an artist; it is an instinct) gives the image a pure geometric balance.  That is, if I select a central point in the icon - say, for example, the head of the Holy Mother - and draw triangles that lead to Her feet, I will notice those pure balances.

Or, if I observe any icon of the Holy Trinity - where the three angels are seated at a table - and I draw an imaginary circle around the three of them, I will be able to discern that the exact centre of that circle is on the table - and that the Angels are clearly "included", along with the table (see example below).


This is a balance that is found in the artistry that belongs to superior craftsmen, because this art has a latent geometrical balance. Recently, at a university in America where they study Byzantine hagiography, a special study was performed on icons, with the use of computers.  They stored images of the icons in a computer, they studied them, and they discovered actual geometrical balances in them. Even if we ourselves are not knowledgeable and are not as great craftsmen, we are nevertheless helped, by becoming familiar with these balances. This is the visible theology of art and these are the visible balances that we are analyzing.

Let us observe the icon of the Presentation of the Lord - the reception of the Lord - on the fortieth day after His Birth, at the Temple, the only existing Temple at the time, the Temple of the Jews, the Temple of Solomon.  The religion of the Jews had only one Temple. Up until that Temple was built by Solomon, they had no Temple at all; they merely had a tent - the tabernacle - from the time of Moses; the Tabernacle of the Witness, in which they kept all the sanctified objects. In it, they had placed the tablets of the Law, the Mannah, the Staff - whatever they had as evidence.  And they would carry everything on their backs, saying that this is the Tabernacle of the Witness, where they would say their prayers.  When Israel finally settled down in its own land and acquired a kingdom (Solomon was the third major king), that was when they built the Temple of Solomon. And it was the one and only Temple where the rituals and the sacrifices were performed. Without the existence of a temple, they were unable to do anything. And in fact, when the temple was destroyed later on, or when the Israelites left their land after they were made captives, all the while that they were in exile and their temple destroyed, no rituals whatsoever could take place. Only prayers were said.  The Jews underwent two captivities - the Babylonian captivity and the captivity by the Assyrians.  In fact, the destruction of the Temple of Solomon in 67 A.D. had been foretold by Christ, and He had said that not a stone would be left standing in that temple.  In 67 A.D., when Vespasian's armies stormed the city, they trashed everything.  Jerusalem was under siege for three years, and the Jews endured for three years, however they ended up in tragic circumstances. First, they ate all the animals in the city - even the cats and the rats, then they ate their own children in order to defend the sacred city.  The city finally fell, and they dispersed. This was the historical diaspora (dispersion) of Israel to all the parts of the world, up to the year 1048 when they returned and acquired the State of Israel.  From that time and up until this day when they still don't have a Temple (even though they have a State, but because they don't have a Temple), they do not perform any rituals. Not a single ritual. Everything else that they do is merely an expression of a synaxis, a congregating inside the synagogue to be reminded of what used to be performed inside the Temple. That is why - until this day - the people of Israel have such a burning desire to rebuild the Temple of Solomon. But the Temple cannot be built. All it has now is the Wailing Wall. Because today, atop the area of Solomon's Temple, there is the Mosque of Omar - an Islami mosque, which at present may operate as a museum, but it nevertheless deprives them of the possibility to perform worship there. And that is a grand expectation for all the people of Israel.  The expectation of Israel is for that area to be opened, as a Temple.

In the icon of the Presentation, we find ourselves in that single place where worship was performed. And it was at a time when worship did take place. Christ came along at the time when the Temple of Solomon was in existence. So, we are at that Temple, which, from its exterior appearance as we see it, has the form of an Orthodox Christian temple, because as you can see, there is the royal portal, the way it used to be, up until the 8th or 9th century. We have the Holy Altar and we have the Kivorion (canopy) over it - or the "sky", as it used to be called - which is an element that one finds in Orthodox architecture. "Kivorion" is that which covers. And if you go to any proto-Christian churches or churches up to the 4th or 5th century, you will find kivoria. If you go to the church of Panaghia Ekatontapyliani (= of 100-portals) on Paros Island and pay your respects there, you will see its Holy Altar also has a kivorion standing over it (photo below). 

All the old temples have a kivorion; therefore, this temple here - judging by its appearance - reminds us of a Christian temple. This is absolutely correct, because the Temple of Solomon was destroyed and has been transformed into a Christian temple. In other words, the temple simply changes its method of sacrifice. There used to be physical animal sacrifices, but now there are logical sacrifices. Christ is sacrificed, and we perform a logical sacrifice:  "...a heart that is crushed and humbled" is what God wants. "I want charity, not sacrifice" - a heart that is contrite... Therefore, this temple here, in the icon of the Presentation, is rightly depicted hagiographically as an Orthodox temple, even though when Christ had entered it, it was the Temple of Solomon at the time.  But here we have a transformation, precisely because Christ had entered it. And He transforms everything inside an Orthodox temple. You must pay attention to these metaphors; we now go beyond the historicity of events and embark on the interpretation of the events depicted.  I have mentioned this at other times - that we do not deal with historical analysis. Nor is it our purpose to present a history by way of pictorial designs.  In hagiography, we theologize on History, which is why we very aptly do not depict the actual Temple of Solomon the way that we imagined or knew approximately what it looked like. We are now touching on elements of the Christian temple, which has preserved the old elements, but merely gives them a different ethos: we no longer have an altar for sacrificing animals; instead, we have a sacrificial altar on which Christ will be sacrificed - the Holy Altar.

I will say a few more words on the substructure of this icon, which is its architecture.  I have already mentioned the royal portal. Indeed, from the 1st to the 9th century, the royal portal of the sanctum was positioned lower. After the 9th to 10th century, the royal portal was raised, to form the present, all-familiar templon (iconostasis).  And this is very appropriate, as our Church develops its architecture according to the measures of Her theology. And theology is ever evolving, ever incremental.  Incremental does not imply an abolishing of previous things. It is a multiplying. Because, for as long as we are living within the History of the world, the Grace of the Holy Spirit comes along and sheds light among Christians. And we thus increase our theology. In other words, we have an incremental theology. This does not mean we have abolished Saint John the Chrysostom and Saint Gregory the Theologian, who lived in the 4th to 5th centuries. Everything that they said was extremely significant and huge.  Then, later on, the Holy Fathers come along and add even more to them.  This is along the lines of what Christ had said to His disciples: "when the Holy Spirit - the Comforter - comes, He shall lead you to all the truth".  Someone who does not understand what this means - for example a Protestant - will wonder: "Does that mean Christ had not told all the truth?"  Of course Christ said all the truth! And there is nothing that we could add to it. However, by the Grace of the Holy Spirit, and according to the measure of our intellectual and logical potential, we strive to analyze that truth in more detail.  This is why we notice the Fathers analyzing the same verse in even more depth.  Even I for example may read a text, then examine a hermeneutic approach to it, then I read the text again, and then approach more hermeneutic approaches, and in this way, I can see the same text in even more depth than before.  Because when a text is a divine and revealed one, it always has a greater depth to it.  This is what we call the incrementing of our theology. That is why the templon (iconostasis) was eventually raised - according to the measures of our incremented theology.

What kind of incremental theology did we have? Well, after the 10th century we had a situation which had created those terrible hesychast quarrels that began in Thessaloniki at the time of Saint Gregory Palamas, when the huge issue of how we approach God was posed.  Are we near Him or far away from Him? Do we see Him or don't we see Him?  Well, God is both visible and invisible. He is approachable and inapproachable. He is visible, to the degree that we can see Him, according to the potential of our nature - as for example with the Sun.  To the degree that our eyes can tolerate it and we do not get burnt, we can look at the Sun.  To the degree that our eyes will be burnt, we cannot see the Sun.  In the same sense, we can and we cannot see God.  We can see only whatever our human nature can bear. 

Whatever we cannot see of God (which means our human nature cannot bear it), we call it the Essence of God

Whatever we can see of God (which means our human nature can bear it), we call it the Energies of God

Be careful here: when I say "Energies", it is a totally different thing to -let's say- electric energy. This is God Himself. This is a theological term. When I say "an Energy of God", I mean God Himself, but only to the degree that I can "see" Him.  And when I say "His Essence", I also mean God - the same God - to the degree that I can't "see" Him. Thus, we have a theology of the Essence and of the Energies - and specifically of the uncreated energies of God (in order to differentiate them from any other energy, such as electromagnetic, or electric etc.).  The only uncreated energy is God. So, if we have Uncreated Energies, then that is God.  This is a terminology that also came to permeate the architecture of a church, where the sanctum was separated from the main temple, by means of a templon (iconostasis).  There the sanctum symbolically denotes the Essence of God, while the space beyond the sanctum denotes the Energies of God. The approachable and the unapproachable. What I can see and what I cannot see. They are symbolisms.  So we see with the incrementing of our theology, it takes on a finalized form in the 13th - 14th century with Saint Gregory Palamas, hence we observe the raising of the templon higher up. In other words, it is not an architectural whim; it is theology that guides the church towards developments.

You see, churches initially were linear. Just like a corridor. The so-called "basilicas". You would enter through the door and ahead of you would be the sanctum. Quite correct. You enter God's space and you move forward to find God. This is a linear, horizontal movement. However, when theology was incremented on the issue of Triadology and specifically on the issue of Christ's extreme condescension (especially at the 4th Ecumenical Council in 451 A.D.) when Christ came along and became incarnate and assumed the entire world, we also wished to express Christ's descent into Hades. Christ descends. So we add the dome. This is Christ's embrace which assumes the world, which descends towards us, and we ascend towards Him. There is here the course towards Christ, and at the same time Christ's embrace. You see, in the year 451 A.D., there existed a Christological theology. The church of Hagia Sophia is built and the first dome in history is constructed around 532 to 538 A.D., which was the result of this theology - a theological action by the emperor Justinian.  And the Church honours Justinian as a saint as well; that is, he had a divine conception when he embarked on building this temple.

Now let us take a look at the Holy Altar.  Atop the Holy Altar we always have the Gospel. Whereas in the temple of Solomon there was no Gospel; there was only the place where the sacrifices were performed.  The Gospel is the Word of God. We always place it on top of the Holy Altar, except in one instance. Half way through the Divine Liturgy, when the procession of the Great Entrance takes place and we bring the precious gifts to be sanctified, we remove the Gospel from its place and put it aside, and at the center we now place the bread and the wine which are to become the Body and the Blood of Christ. This is the only moment when the Word of God is not atop the Holy Altar. This too is absolutely correct. Christ, Who is the Word-Logos, first comes and is proclaimed, then He is sacrificed.  The first procession (Entrance) is performed with the Gospel. We read the Gospel. All these things are interlinked and comprise a theology. The Entrance of the Gospel is performed during the Divine Liturgy, which signifies that the Word-Logos will be proclaimed. Then we have the Great Entrance of the Precious Gifts, which signifies that the Word-Logos will be sacrificed. So we have the liturgy of the Logos and the liturgy of the Sacrifice, where the Precious Gifts arrive and the Gospel is put aside.

Now look at this other, liturgical movement:  Old Simeon comes along, he holds Christ in his hands on the fortieth day after His Birth, and receives Him like an offering that will be placed on the Holy Altar to be sacrificed. This is a purely liturgical scene. Do you see?  The elderly Simeon is a priest, and he takes the infant Jesus as though he is taking an offering from the hands of the Holy Mother, in order to sacrifice the Christ on the Holy Altar - exactly the way that a priest always does.  So, this scene is a statement that Christ came, to be sacrificed. You cannot portray this image differently.  When priests officiate in church, they wear an overgarment - the phelonion - with which they cover their hands. This signifies that their hands are not theirs, because they are lending them to God. The elderly Simeon therefore receives Christ with his hands hidden, because he has nothing of his own to say. He will be doing whatever God tells him. And he will be ministering to Christ.  And in hagiography, the depiction of an inclined head denotes the acceptance of an event.  The picture speaks for itself with the postures that are depicted. Here we have the elderly Simeon, who was waiting at the temple for the Christ to come, so that he could say "Now release Your servant o Lord - according to your word - in peace."

In the icon we have the Holy Mother, the way she is depicted hagiographically, with the three 8-pointed stars. You will note that the Holy Mother has Her one hand uncovered and the other one covered.  The covered hand denotes the hand that is ministering; the open hand is the hand of acceptance - not merely the hand that is offering Christ, but the hand that is par excellence acknowledging acceptance of the event. In other words, She is offering Him to be sacrificed, and She is accepting that event; because that is the sole reason Christ came to this world : to sacrifice Himself.

Behind Her stands the prophetess Anna, daughter of Fanuel, the way she is described by Luke the Evangelist who knew all the events of the Holy Mother's life because he lived close to Her and had learnt of these events from Her mouth.  Thus we have Fanuel's daughter who is recorded as a prophetess and who was also expecting to see the Christ, which is why she is depicted in hagiography as pointing towards Christ with her finger. Prophets are indicators. And the prophetess Anna also has her one arm inclined.

The last figure depicted behind Her is Joseph the Betrothed. He is once again depicted as a deacon ministering to a mystery, just as he was ministering in the Icon of the Nativity.  In hagiography we never depict a "holy family". If it were an actual family, Joseph would have been near Her - next to Her. But here he is behind Her. Everyone is ministering to Christ. There is no family per se; not the usual kind.  Joseph is once again a deacon ministering to a mystery and he is holding two doves in his hands. This detail was a Jewish tradition, when people would go to the temple bringing their offerings.  A poor family would offer grain or produce of the earth, in other words cereals.  A family could also offer animals for sacrificing, while others would offer two young doves.  The two doves here represent the Old and the New Testaments.  The "sky" (the kivorion) as you can see is also an inclined form - it is like a dome that "condescends" earthwards, in order to embrace the world.  And, once again, the backdrop is hagiographically depicted as an outdoor scene, even though the event is taking place inside the temple.  We never have a closed space in Orthodox hagiography.  All scenes are in the open and we are on an exiting course - we always exit.

I will now go back to the subject of ministering to the Logos and to the Sacrifice:  In the Orthodox Church, it is never permitted for the sermon (the kerygma) to take place at any other point during the Divine Liturgy, except only after the Gospel reading and interpretation.  After the interpretation of the Gospel, it is time for the Sacrifice.  When Christ was being sacrificed, He was not speaking. That is why it is so inappropriate, anti-liturgical and non-Orthodox for the priest to preach the sermon at any other moment. Was the Gospel proclaimed? Then the sermon comes immediately after, and then, nothing else.  An illogical thing that sometimes occurs today is that the priest comes forth to give the sermon, a little before it is nearing the time to impart Holy Communion.  That is entirely illogical. What are the reasons for the sermon? For people to hear it. Why should they hear it?  After all, they came to partake of the Liturgy, to experience the Church of Christ. That is why the sermon must be given earlier. Because later on, during the phase of Holy Communion, the people are fewer... Never mind... We want to perform the Liturgy, we don't want to make any speeches....

If we are ignorant of theology, then neither will the Liturgy be performed correctly, nor will hagiography.


Question: How do we depict the ear?

Reply: We are already finishing with the parts of the face. The last part of the face that we haven't analyzed at all is the ear.  If the whole head is a measure, then the whole body is comprised of eight heads lengthwise. Always remember that. A person's entire body is comprised of eight heads.

Something about the word ear (Greek:  otion, pron. aw-teeon). When you encounter the root word "otion", you can recognize it in other, related words. Quite often you will encounter the word "hearken" in the Holy Bible.  The word "hearken" contains the particle "hear", just as the equivalent Greek verb in the Holy Bible: "εν-ωτίζου" (pron. en-awteezou) signifies "listen well" ("lend me your ear").  In fact the prophet Moses uses this expression when he is concerned that the Israelites will not pay attention to him - he says to them: "hearken to me, o heaven and listen, earth". In other words, he is saying that he hopes the inanimate sky and the earth will listen to him, in the hope that they (the Israelites) will be moved and listen to him. 

Now the Greek word otion is written with omega as its first letter (ωτίον).  According to the ancient Greek language, the omega is in fact two "o"s joined together. The letter "o" has always represented a circumference - an enclosure:  O.  It is a visual thing.  A boundary, a space that you define, is an "O".  It is a border, see?   The word "border" contains an "o" within it. It is an expressive medium - a geographical one, describing a specific area.  If that area is a large one, it is denoted (in Greek) by two "o"s placed next to each other. That is what is known as the "o"-mega (the large "o").  Thus, the Greek word for ear - "otion" - begins with the letter omega, because it is an expressive magnitude of mankind that extends to a great distance.  Similarly the (ancient Greek) word for eyes (ώπα - pron. aw-pah) likewise begins with omega.  Whatever sensation reaches a long distance is omega.  Otion and Opa.  In this sense, the otion - the ear - in hagiography expresses the potential to hear something very distant, which implies the messages from God.  When we depict the ear in hagiography as relatively exposed and relatively hidden, the ear is partly visible.  The ear has to exist in the depiction, but only in the sense of an ear's spiritual presence - the kind that perceives in a deeply spiritual manner whatever the ear hears about God. Therefore that is how you should approach the ear. You must not say "oh well, it doesn't matter - after all, the saint had a lot of hair and his ears can't be seen" etc...  a small expressive portion of the ear must always be depicted, thus showing that the sense of hearing is also present, and is cultivated like all the other senses.



Source:   http://www.floga.gr/50/04/2005-6/04_2005112504.asp




Translation:  K.N.

Δημιουργία αρχείου: 13-12-2009.

Τελευταία ενημέρωση: 13-12-2009.