Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Icons: the baptism of Jesus and the Harrowing of hell

Focus on two icons

Icons are for many of us pictures that come from an alien world.

Idolatry – prohibition of second commandment: ‘You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.’ Sympathy with iconoclasm.

And yet ..

Icons: meaning ‘image’. Christ is the ‘eikon’ of God

1. Based on idea that Christ truly came in the flesh: The invisible God cannot be depicted in an image.That is still the same. But the coming of Jesus has changed something. The big issue behind the iconaclastic controversy was whether Christ was fully God and fully human. If he was, then the divine can be represented. One of earliest icons was of Christ (‘the image made without human hands’).

St. John of Damascus, in his treatise "On the Divine Images" writes: "If we've made an image of the invisible God, we would certainly be in error... but we do not do anything of the kind; we do not err, in fact we make the image of God incarnate Who appeared on earth in the flesh, Who in His ineffable goodness, lived with men and assumed the nature, the volume and the color the flesh.”

"Since the invisible One became visible by taking on flesh, you can fashion the image of Him whom you saw. Since He who has neither body nor form nor quantity nor quality, Who goes beyond all grandeur by the excellence of His nature, He, being of divine nature, took on the condition of slave and reduced himself to quantity and quality by clothing himself in human features. Therefore paint on wood and present for contemplation Him who desired to become visible."

2. God used material: flesh – to bring about our salvation. God can use matter to bring us into a relationship with himself who is beyond matter.  

3. There is a difference between venerating an icon and worshiping an icon. Icons are venerated but not worshipped. They are treated as windows into the divine world. There is no need to confuse an image of my wife with the reality of my wife. Yes, there is a danger that I might become more attached to a visual image of my wife than to my wife herself – but that does not mean that the image is wrong.

I use the icon to pray to Christ. Similar to having an empty chair.

4. Icons are often associated with prayer to the saints and to Mary. I find that difficult, and I still need convincing that that is a right practice.  However, we can look at the icons of the saints and Mary in other ways. We go into a church and are surrounded by icons: Here is ‘the great cloud of witnesses’. Through the icon, the people represented are present with us – or, perhaps more accurately, we are present with them.

5. Icons are painted (written) according to a strict tradition. It is a tradition which governs the preparation of the board, the type of paints, the way that they are painted, and the image that is portrayed. There is very little space for the expression of the individual spirit. What is painted is an expression of the spirit of the church (cf. modern art, which is an expression of the individual spirit). Having said that, major innovations do happen (eg Rublev’s icon of the Trinity dispenses of Abraham and Sarah and much of the detail)

6. Icons teach: richness of theology.

Learn the language of icons
Learning from icons (Icons as theology books)
Learn to pray with icons

(Difference between windows – looking in on something; and doors – going in yourself)

So I’d like to look at two icons – associated with Lent and with Easter. There is a connection between them, as you will see. They come from a series of 12 icons associated with the life of Jesus. The first is the baptism of Jesus – and the second is the icon that is known as ‘the harrowing of hell’.

The baptism of Jesus

The story is well known, and the icon is remarkably close to the gospel narrative. Jesus goes to John to be baptised. The Spirit comes down on him visibly ‘like a dove’, and a voice from heaven says ‘This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased’. This icon is obviously called the baptism of Jesus, but it is also called ‘the epiphany’: the making of Christ known. This is the first time that Jesus is publicly declared to be the Son of God, and that his place in the Trinity is confirmed. We see a hint of a circle at the top, representing the divine sphere, but it is distant. What we do see is the Spirit coming down as a dove descending on Jesus.

So here we have John the Baptist, dressed in the robes of a monk; He is looking up to heaven and praying. He places one hand on the head of Jesus. Jesus is naked standing in the water. His body is impressive (according to classical understanding of the ideal body) – he is shown here as the new Adam. His hands are shown in the act of blessing.

There are the three angels. They are gazing in solemn awe at what is going on. Two are looking at Jesus, one is looking up to heaven. They seem to be holding garments to clothe Jesus as he steps out of the water; whatever, they are in a position of service.

We have two figures here in the water: a woman symbolising the sea (‘The sea saw and fled: Jordan was turned back’ Psalm 114:3), and a man who symbolises the Jordan (2 Kings 2:8-14). I am not sure what the vessels symbolise.

Also in the water are fish. Fish are the symbol of Christians swimming in the now blessed water.

And here we have an axe which has cut the tree: a picture of John the Baptist’s preaching: Matthew 3:10, ‘Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire’.

As always with icons, the light comes from the figures themselves. In this case, the light flows diagonally from Jesus.

And the perspective: I have spoken how some icons have a reverse perspective. But in this case there is some normal perspective, but it is very shallow. And many icons have no perspective whatsoever. In other words there is no movement out, and no movement in. These really are windows into eternity. And the practical implication of this is that Jesus could be both standing up in the water, or lying down.

And so this icon of the baptism points us both to his baptism and to his death. The black background of the tomb in which he is laid.

So what is going on here? How are we meant to read this icon, because it is speaking.

It represents to us the Christ who has come right down into the pit. We are shown Christ as the Son of God. But what a Son of God. Contrast this with the Greek images of their gods. He has been obedient to God, humbled himself, stripped himself of all things, chosen to become naked (remember Adam and Eve who, in their pride disobeyed God, and realised that they were naked), and come into the pit, even into death. As one of the Orthodox hymns for the day say: ‘He strips himself, Who clothes the heavens with clouds’.

It is Philippians 2

It is the creed:
“And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord,

who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead and buried.
He descended into hell”

For me, this icon has become very precious over the last few weeks. The Jesus who I pray to is the Jesus who has come into the pit of this world, the dark mess. He is there. He is here. But he fills it with rays of light. And he fills it with light. The Jordan and the Sea, once symbols of rebellion against God, are tamed. And in this mess he gives life to men and women – the fish. 

But there is a second icon that I would like to look at: very appropriate for us. 

The icon of the Harrowing of Hell

There is no icon of the actual resurrection. That is because the moment of resurrection is a mystery. It took place in a closed sealed tomb. It is not shown to us. The aftermath of the resurrection is shown: the grave clothes, the angels, the meeting with Jesus.

What instead is depicted in iconography is called the harrowing, the plundering, of hell.
It is depicting as an icon the events of 1 Peter 3:18-20.In many ways it is very similar to the icon of the baptism. The two mountains, and the pit. But it is very different.

The circle of heaven has come down and is now right in the centre of the icon. The circle is fascinating: it starts with blackness, and out of that blackness comes rays of light becoming increasingly light, until Christ shines with absolute brilliance.

Usually black symbolises death and the grave and hell, but in this case the blackness symbolises God: the God who is the creator of light and who is therefore beyond light. Bigger than light. How do you represent that which is bigger than light? – with non-light.

Jesus is shown standing on the shattered gates of hell. In hell you see the instruments of prison (keys) and torture. On either side of him kneel Adam and Eve. He is in the process of raising Adam. Eve awaits her turn. This icon appeared at the same time as images of conquerors returning from victories were shown lifting up those who had been held captive. Around Jesus are figures from the Old Testament, or more accurately, the old covenant. David, Solomon and John the Baptist on the left (I don’t know who the fourth character is). On the right we have Moses (with the tablets of the law) and the prophets. They gaze on in wonder: the thing that they foretold has happened.

There is very shallow, if any perspective, in this icon. But there is movement. On one hand it looks as if Christ is descending – his robe is flowing up. But that means that Christ gives shape to the mountains. But the position of his hand on Adam’s wrist is that of one who is ascending. And just off centre Christ is holding the cross: the symbol of shame is now a symbol of victory.

Icons are a language that need to be learned –they speak to the mind. But they also speak to the heart.

Three actions associated with icons
Carrying of icons – the presentation and proclamation of the person
Bowing before icons – bowing before the person (obedience)
Kissing icons – kissing the person (intimacy)

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