Saturday, April 30, 2011

Icon of the Resurrection

Icon of the Resurrection
Pskov, Later Sixteenth century

In the wording of the Creeds, Jesus was “crucified, died, and was buried. On the third day, he rose again...” This icon illustrates some of the early traditions about what the Spirit of Jesus was doing in that interval, while his body laid in the tomb. Also called: “The Harrowing of Hell,” this icon of the Resurrection is part of the collection of the Andrei Rublev Museum in Moscow, dedicated to preserving early Russian art, and named after one of history’s greatest iconographers. It is located in a former monastery, where Saint Andrei Rublev once lived and worked.

The area around Pskov and Novgorod was known for a relatively egalitarian social system, in terms of gender relations. This is reflected in the center of the icon, where Jesus has the hands of both Adam and Eve, pictured as regular human beings, minus the haloes of saints. He pulls them up from Hades, along with many figures from the Hebrew Bible, who had died before the time of Jesus. The company includes Moses, King David, King Solomon, Rebecca, Rachel, Sarah, and Miriam, positioned to echo the positions of Mary and Martha in Russian icons of the raising of Lazarus. Also included, behind Eve, is John the Baptist, the Forerunner of Christ in birth as well as death.

Two angels subdue the forces of Evil at the bottom of the Pit of Hell, as the dead are raised to new life. Two other angels hover over the scene, bearing the instruments of the Passion. The Old Church Slavonic lettering reads: “The Resurrection of the Savior.”

Jesus stands with his feet on the crossed and broken doors to the tomb, symbolizing the gates of hell. Combined with his outstretched arms and the cross that appears in his halo, the composition becomes in itself an embodiment of an Orthodox Cross.

Early Russian icons of the Resurrection illustrate the words to the chant, sung over and over again during the Orthodox Great Liturgy of Pascha – the “Passion” – a word derived from Pesach, or “Passover” in Hebrew. In English translation, the words to the chant are:

Christ is risen from the dead!
Trampling down death by death,
and upon those in the tombs, bestowing Life.

Written by St. Matthew’s Parish Iconographer, Lisa Bellan-Boyer
One Spirit Interfaith Seminary Class of 2011

Friday, April 29, 2011


Epitaphios – the Entombment of Christ

This Greek Orthodox icon was written by iconographer, Anathios Clark, in a stark and simple form that conveys the grief and devastation of the little group that laid Jesus in the tomb that Friday at dusk.

Though there are sometimes others in the scene, the people most often depicted in the Epitaphios (related to the Greek word: epitaph) who took Jesus down from the Cross and placed him in the Tomb are Mary, his Mother; Mary Magdalene; John the “Beloved Disciple,” and Joseph of Arimathea, as mentioned in John, Chapter 19.

Dressed in the dark terra-cotta color of the red earth, Mary bends low over Jesus and is shown here in a touching gesture that movingly duplicates the cheek-to-cheek caress of Mother and Child in the icons known as “Valdimirskaya” and “the icon of humbleness.”

Behind her is Mary Magdalene, who is crying out in her grief and distress, hands raised in the “orens” position of outspoken prayer.

In her role as preacher and proclaimer, the “Apostle to the Apostles” she was depicted with her hands raised this way in some of the very earliest examples of Christian art. She is dressed in the brighter red of witnesses, saints, and martyrs (‘witness” in Greek).

Dressed in purple and blue, colors of nobility of spirit and gratitude, John is beside Jesus, and behind him looms the foot of the Cross, but we do not see the arms where Jesus was hanging – that part of the story is over, now.

Jesus is shown on a winding sheet that resemble traditional Eastern European as well as Hebrew textiles, and while the wounds in his hands and feet, and in his side, are clearly visible, they are not graphically emphasized, as in Latin American and Spanish art traditions.

An Epitaphios is also a liturgical, ritual object as well as an icon. The body of Christ, as represented in this icon, is embroidered on a pall, which is laid out in the church, as for a funeral, on Good Friday evening, and until the Great Saturday Vigil begins. It is carried, horizontally, as on a stretcher, in a funeral procession around the church, three times, and then placed in the church to rest, as in the Tomb.

Joseph of Arimathea, who is dressed in green, the color of paradise and unity between heaven and earth, is placed at the feet of his teacher. Behind him is the cave that represents the Tomb.

Echoing the Eastern Orthodox tradition that Jesus was born in a cave (stables were often in caves in those times) and was buried in a cave, this is an ancient symbol of the mystery of the unknown in birth and death, a mystery which caves have represented, as an archetype, since neolithic times, if not before.

Were you there when they laid him in the Tomb?
Were you there when they laid him in the Tomb?
Were you there when they laid him in the Tomb?
Oh, Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble...
Were you there when they laid him in the Tomb?

African-American traditional sources

Written by St. Matthew’s Parish Iconographer, Lisa Bellan-Boyer
One Spirit Interfaith Seminary Class of 2011

See the website of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

Icon of the Crucifixion

Icon of the Crucifixion
Russia, Late Sixteenth century

Depicting the moment when Jesus bequeaths Mary and John to each other: “Woman, Behold your son,” the simple composition of this icon reflects the gravity of this world-changing event.

Above the Cross, two grieving angels, representing the sun and moon often seen in Crucifixion scenes, attend Jesus. Though John, said to be the “beloved disciple” is often dressed in brilliant red, in this icon he wears muddy, earthy green and terra cotta colors. Mary’s outer red robe has so much dark pigment in it that it appears nearly black. Standing behind to support her is Mary Magdalene, who stayed with Jesus to the very end, as it says in the Gospel of John. She wears the brighter red robes of a witness, one who testifies.

Standing behind John is the centurion, whose name has come down in tradition as Longinus, though he is not named in the Gospels. He is the Roman soldier who saw Jesus at the moment of his death and proclaimed: “In truth this man was the Son of God” (see John 19:34, Matthew 27:54, and Mark 15:39)

Beneath the Cross yawns a cavern that symbolizes the Pit of Hell. It contains a skull, said to be the Skull of Adam, marking Golgotha as the “Place of the Skull.” The cross in the halo around the head of Jesus glows red, in witness to his suffering, along with the grieving angels.

This icon is now in the collection of the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, and came from the Arkangelsk, or Archangel, region of Northern Russia, near the Arctic Circle. It was painted in the style of the Stroganov School, famous for expressive detail and theological depth.

The anonymous iconographer who created this work probably occupied a middle ground position in Christological controversies about the humanity and divinity of Christ, based on the balanced qualities of pathos and dignity conveyed in this icon.

Over the top of the Cross is the sign, in Old Church Slavonic, bearing the initials for Jesus Christ and declaring: “This is the King of the Jews.” On either side of the Cross are two doorways into the unknown realms of birth and death, which Jesus went through, as a human being, our Brother and Friend, Teacher, Redeemer, and Healer.

Surely he hath borne our grief,
and carried our sorrows

Isaiah 53:4

Written by St. Matthew’s Parish Iconographer, Lisa Bellan-Boyer
One Spirit Interfaith Seminary Class of 2011

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Jesus Washing the Feet of the Disciples

John 13:1-38

Pskov, Early 16th century

This icon is a panel in an iconostasis (icon screen) now in the collection of the Pskov Museum. An ancient city of Northern Russia, icons from Pskov and Novgorod have many attributes in common, including great theological depth of meaning.

The iconostasis from which this icon comes stood in the Thirteenth-century Church of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel in Gorodets, Pskov District, until 1927, when it was confiscated by the new Soviet regime.

During WWII, it was looted by the Nazi invaders of the region, but was returned to the people of Pskov after the War.

The faces of the characters in the icon are typical portraits of people from the Pskov region in the Middle Ages, with dark skin and hair coloring. One of ten panels located in the Church Feast Tier of the large iconostasis, this icon includes many interesting features.

Note the cock sitting on a column, waiting for his cue to crow, at the top of the composition.

It is a detail known from Byzantine icons since the 13th century, when the church was built, but one that is rarely found in old Russian icons. Peter points at himself, objecting to Jesus’ humbling act.

The font holding the wash water resembles the baptismal fonts in old Russian churches, and the laver in which the midwives wash the infant Jesus, as depicted in Russian icons of the Nativity.

The towel Jesus uses is bordered with decorative striping that looks like traditional Hebrew textile weaving; but it also resembles the ritual towels of the Eastern Orthodox church, symbols of God’s protection and care for people, that are used to drape icons and decorate domestic altars in Russian and Ukrainian homes. These towels are an interspiritual parallel to the marigold garlands used in Hindu practice and the white prayer scarves used by Buddhists, as signs of love, respect, and veneration.

All the disciples are looking at Jesus, or speaking with each other, except for Judas. He is facing out toward a doorway topped by an iron porticullis. This detail offers a portent of the next part of the story, the betrayal and brokenness that is present even in this moment of Communion.

“A new Commandment I give you:
that you love one another, as I have loved you.”

Written by St. Matthew’s Parish Iconographer, Lisa Bellan-Boyer
One Spirit Interfaith Seminary Class of 2011

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Prayer on Holy Saturday

God of Glory, yesterday we all ran away, or at least tried to keep a safe distance from your suffering and death.

This day, like so many others, we are lost, and know not what you are doing behind the scenes. Your tomb seems rock solid, just like the oppressive empires and the despair which haunt us.

Yet your life is now beyond death, hidden from our view and shrouded in Holy Mystery, like yeast in a large measure of flour. Help us rise on your new day, and lift the veil from us, that we may see your living Word and be made new with resurrection Glory, in the name of Jesus Christ, who awaits our awakening. Amen.

Artwork: Tomb, by Sieger Köder.