Tag Archives: icon

Picturing God?

Holy Trinity of God, by Viktor VasnetsovThis image, “The Holy Trinity of God,” by Viktor Vasnetsov is a rather interesting image for Christians.

Some will say, with historical precedent, that this image of the Trinity is heretical because God the Father cannot be depicted in a human form. The proponents of a biblical and liturgical theology state that God the Father is invisible and unable to be depicted in matter. Jesus Christ was born of the indescribable Father, therefore the Father cannot depicted be in an image. Having said this, it has not stopped artists from attempting to show us the Father. The Russians are noted for this.

I happen to like this image but I understand the caution and even the rejection of the image. For many, this issue may an Eastern Christian matter and not a Western one. It is, however, not that easy to say that this is a matter for one portion of the Church and not another. There is something called the unity of faith.

The teaching comes from 7th Ecumenical Council in AD 787, Second Nicea which focussed on the place of iconography in the Church and the very heated controversy between the iconoclasts and the iconodules. No doubt I can’t deal with the whole of the Council but the teaching of the Church was formulated by Saint John of Damascus who said,

Concerning the charge of idolatry: Icons are not idols but symbols, therefore when an Orthodox venerates an icon, he is not guilty of idolatry. He is not worshipping the symbol, but merely venerating it. Such veneration is not directed toward wood, or paint or stone, but towards the person depicted. Therefore relative honor is shown to material objects, but worship is due to God alone.
We do not make obeisance to the nature of wood, but we revere and do obeisance to Him who was crucified on the Cross… When the two beams of the Cross are joined together I adore the figure because of Christ who was crucified on the Cross, but if the beams are separated, I throw them away and burn them.

The Second Council of Nicea formally taught as a result of the Damascene:

Icons are necessary and essential because they protect the full and proper doctrine of the Incarnation. While God cannot be represented in His eternal nature (“…no man has seen God”, John 1:18), He can be depicted simply because He “became human and took flesh.” Of Him who took a material body, material images can be made. In so taking a material body, God proved that matter can be redeemed. He deified matter, making it spirit-bearing, and so if flesh can be a medium for the Spirit, so can wood or paint, although in a different fashion.
I do not worship matter, but the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who through matter effected my salvation.

Now, where do we go from here? In my mind I think of this issue as very similar to the biblical prohibition from pronouncing he name of God (YHWH). Recall that Benedict XVI asked Catholics to respect this biblical discipline. Sadly, Catholics can have a rather bold and sometimes arrogant approach to some things…

Earliest icon of the Annunciation

I love early Christian history. Don’t you? In fact, I have enjoyed time spent in the various musea, locally and notably here in New Haven, Connecticut at the Yale Art Museum where there is a marvelous exposition of Dura Europus, one of the earliest house churches. But there are marvelous early collections at the world’s musea. I’d suggest going on a study tour. The study of our early Christian roots is about our common Christian memory.

I saw this icon today in cyberspace making the historic claim of being the oldest surviving icon of the Annunciation. A terrific find! The icon is located in the Catacomb of Priscilla on theVia Salaria in Rome. This icon dates from the second century AD.

Several years ago I had the privilege of walking and praying in one of the catacombs but not this one. Historians of Christian archeology say that the Roman catacombs are treasuries of early iconography.

For more info on this early icon of the Annunciation is located here.

One of the interesting comments made is “One difference between this depiction of the Annunciation and later icons is that the Mother of God is shown with her head uncovered. In Rome, young virginal maidens would always have their heads uncovered, and so the imagery is in keeping with the Christian beliefs regarding Mary, the Mother of Jesus Christ. The veil worn in the East would come to dominate iconography of the Mother of God in later centuries.”

Knights of Columbus Museum presents Orthodox Christianity in Early Russia: the Formation of a Tradition

Holy Theotokos and childFor the better part of the past year the Knights of Columbus museum has had an exhibit on Russian icons, “Windows into Heaven.”

There is a forthcoming lecture to open up the windows into heaven even more, “Orthodox Christianity in Early Russia: the Formation of a Tradition”  The lecture is presented by Paul Bushkovitch Ph.D.

Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014, @ 2 p.m.
Free admission and parking

Knights of Columbus Museum
1 State Street, New Haven CT 06511
kofcmuseum.org | 203-865-0400

Orthodox Christianity has been Russia’s pre-eminent religion for more than a millennium and is integral to the nation’s history and culture. Yale University history professor Dr. Paul Bushkovitch will discuss the origin and foundation of Russian Orthodoxy, which has endured attacks and repression throughout the past, most notably during the preceding century. Dr. Bushkovitch earned degrees from Harvard and Columbia Universities and has studied in Russia. He has been a member of the Yale faculty since 1975 and has published and lectured extensively on Russian history.

The Knights of Columbus Museum’s exhibition of Russian icons, Windows into Heaven, runs through April 27, 2014. The museum is open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Saint John of Damascus

St John of DamascusGrant, we pray, O Lord, that we may be helped by the prayers of the Priest Saint John Damascene, so that the true faith, which he excelled in teaching, may always be our light and our strength.

Saint John of Damascus lived when the heresy of Iconoclasm prevailed, a scourge for the Church in the East (that also crept West later) during the eighth and ninth centuries. It was Saint John who fought vigorously against the decrees of Emperor Leo III which outlawed the use of icons by Christians  since they were interpreted as idols in the Old Testament.

Saint John argues in his Discourses against those who speak against the icons that man can progress from the knowledge of the senses to knowledge of the Divinity:

Since He is no longer physically present, we hear His words read from books and by hearing our souls are sanctified and filled with blessing, and so we worship, honoring the books from which we hear His words. So also, through the painting of images, we are able to contemplate the likeness of His bodily form, His miracles, and His passion, and thus are sanctified, blessed, and filled with joy. Reverently we honor and worship His bodily form, and by contemplating His bodily form, we form a notion, as far as is possible for us, of the glory of His divinity. Since we are fashioned of both soul and body…it is impossible for us to think without using physical images. Just as we physically listen to perceptible words in order to understand spiritual things, so also by using bodily sight we reach.

One of the gifts Pope Benedict XVI gave the Church was his weekly teachings on the Church Fathers. He explored the richness of the life and teachings of various Fathers of the Church. Saint John of Damascus is known to be “among the first to distinguish in the cult, both public and private, of the Christians, between worship (latreia) and veneration (proskynesis).” This distinction has been in use ever since.

The Damascene taught, more precisely, he distinguished, that our worship is due to God alone, while veneration, a lesser form of honor, but not worship, was to be given to Mary, the Mother of God, and to the saints. The Damascene, hence, taught that icons could be venerated because they were images of Christ (and the Theotokos and the saints) which called to mind and taught about the invisible God who loved humanity and entered in human history.

Windows into Heaven –Knights of Columbus Museum exhibits Russian icons

I am always looking for the way heaven touches earth. Perhaps you are, too. The image that comes to mind is the finger of God touching that of Adam in a painting done by Michelangelo. I also recall that the Incarnation is a manifestation of the beauty of heaven touching the ordinariness of earth and making our existence forever beautiful. These are some thoughts on an experience of “Windows into Heaven: Russian Icons and Treasures” at the Knights of Columbus Museum (New Haven, CT). Though the icons aren’t in their original liturgical context, they nonetheless open the heart and mind onto something and someone beautiful. The icons, for me, are more than nice pieces of Christian art; they truly are positions of grace that allow my desires to be opened anew by an experience with the Divine Majesty. There is an emphasis here on the personal relationship we have with the Trinity. To say otherwise is to neglect a piece of your humanity because the beauty of the icon does invite us to a different way of living the faith.

kofc icon collage.jpg

I was just reading an address of Cardinal Ratzinger on beauty. An amazing act of the Spirit to allow me to see the icons and then reflect with Ratzinger on the experience. He had addressed the annual meeting organized by members of Communion and Liberation in August 2002. A paragraph sticks out:

To admire the icons and the great masterpieces of Christian art in general, leads us on an inner way, a way of overcoming ourselves; thus in this purification of vision that is a purification of the heart, it reveals the beautiful to us, or at least a ray of it. In this way we are brought into contact with the power of the truth. I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to enter into contact with the Beautiful.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

“The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty”

Rimini Meeting 2002

Take the time this summer to visit the KofC Museum and be inspired! Allow yourself to be wounded by beauty, as Ratzinger said.

About the author

Paul A. Zalonski is from New Haven, CT. He is a member of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic ecclesial movement, and an Oblate of Saint Benedict. Contact Paul at paulzalonski[at]yahoo.com.
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