- Steve Addazio's inaugural press conference as Boston College head football coach (pg. 9)
- Wake Forest University president Nathan Hatch's keynote address at the Sesquicentennial symposium "Religion and the Liberal Aims of Higher Education" (pg. 34)
- David B. Couturier, OFM Cap., on "New Evangelization for Today's Parish" (pg. 42)
- Guerilla Orchestra: the Callithumpian Consort and student musicians rehearse John Zorn's Cobra (pg. 10)
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In the image
To pray with an icon
In Flannery O’Connor’s final story “Parker’s Back,” completed shortly before her death in 1964, the main character, O.E. Parker (his initials stand for the biblical names Obadiah Elihu), meets and marries a very plain and rigidly pious woman, Sarah Ruth. She confounds him endlessly and he cannot seem to love her or leave her. Before meeting Sarah Ruth, the one passion in Parker’s existence had been tattoos. He had inscribed his flesh with one tattoo after another until only his back was clear. Then, sometime after his marriage, he receives a violent visitation of divine grace. His tractor crashes into a tree, upturns, and bursts into flame, and he survives. Once again he has the urge to get a tattoo. Leaving behind the burning tractor, he gets into his truck and heads for the tattoo shop.
“Let me see the book you got with all the pictures of God in it,” Parker said breathlessly. “The religious one.” . . .
“Oh,” said the artist… “Who are you interested in . . . saints, angels, Christs, or what?”
“God,” Parker said.
“Father, Son, or Spirit?”
“Just God,” Parker said impatiently. “Christ. I don’t care. Just so it’s God.”
The artist shows him a large book filled with images, and Parker is drawn to one:
the haloed head of a flat stern Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes. He sat there trembling; his heart began slowly to beat again as if it were being brought to life by a subtle power.
With the icon inscribed on his back, Parker rushes home, eager to show Sara Ruth this sign of their new communion in faith. But his wife is outraged: “Idolatry!” Sarah Ruth screams. “Idolatry! Enflaming yourself with idols under every green tree!” She drives Obadiah Elihue from the house with a broom. The story ends with him leaning against a lone pecan tree, “crying like a baby.”
Parker may seem the more sympathetic character in this tale, but one shouldn’t dismiss Sarah Ruth’s outrage. A certain objection to the notion that we can presume to see the divine is arguably a prime ingredient of the Christian tradition. The Old Testament contains express prohibitions against images of the divine, as in Exodus: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above. . . . You cannot see my face. No one can see my face and live.” In the New Testament, we are told in the gospel of John, “No one has ever seen God.” And the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, the tradition that I belong to and know best, says that God is “beyond description, beyond understanding, invisible, incomprehensible.” We cannot see God, and the presumption to see God is a deep violation of the Judeo-Christian revelation. Point to Sarah Ruth.
But if our relationship to God must always transcend seeing, it also transcends not-seeing. Alongside the Old Testament’s prohibition on images, there are accounts of the presence of God rendered somehow visible. God leads the people of Israel out of Egypt under a cloud by day and fire by night, and the prophets are given visions of the heavenly throne. In the gospel of John, Jesus says, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.”
In our own time, the Catholic philosopher Jean-Luc Marion speaks of two ways of visually encountering the divine. One way he associates with the idol and the other with the icon. An idol claims to fulfill the human gaze that seeks the divine. But, he writes, “The gaze can never rest or settle [on] an icon; it always must rebound upon the visible, in order to go back in it up the infinite stream of the invisible.”
The earliest Christian art, such as that found in the catacombs in Rome and other locations, tended to be symbolic, pertaining especially to the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist, as represented by the ark, for example, and the lamb. From these beginnings grew a more representational art, which by the fourth century led to the relatively widespread display of icons—images of Jesus and of various saints—in churches and public places. Enthusiasm for icons was fanned in 451, when the Council of Chalcedon declared Jesus Christ to be both divine and human, “without change, without division, without separation,” thereby affirming the integral humanity of Jesus.
By the seventh century, however, the appreciation for icons was being carried to excess. St. Anastasius of Sinai complained, for instance, that some people were too busy kissing icons to pay attention to the Divine Liturgy. Such abuse, perhaps coupled with a defensive reaction to a ban on images by the rapidly expanding religion of Islam, led some Christians to advocate a return to immaterial worship. The early iconoclasts (literally, “icon-breakers”) argued that an icon, by its nature, purports to depict either Christ’s humanity separate from his divinity or divinity itself, both of which were impermissible. Under the Byzantine emperor Leo III, who reigned from 717 to 741, this view gained imperial force; decrees were issued forbidding the veneration of icons, and the episcopacy was purged of those who might object. Thus matters stood until the reign of the empress Irene (780–802), who herself practiced the veneration of icons. In 787, the bishops at the Second Council of Nicaea (the last ecumenical council of the undivided Church) affirmed the legitimacy of icon veneration, holding that the material image referred the beholder to the divine.
Today, discussions of icons generally center on the Eastern, and especially the Byzantine, tradition. By this I mean those churches that are historically derived from the Greek Church of Constantinople and whose customary Eucharistic liturgy is that of St. John Chrysostom: principally the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches and their Catholic counterparts. There is a seriousness in the Eastern practice of praying with icons that surpasses the conception of the icon as a mere visual aid to worship. It is a kind of sacramental seriousness, in which the iconographer and the viewer collaborate in affirming creation’s transparency to the divine in an offering of prayer and thanksgiving. Three of my favorite images, each in their own way, exemplify this experience.
The icon I usually pray with is Christ the Law-Giver (above, right) from a sixth-century monastery in Sinai. The visage is tempered with gentleness, but in it you see the primacy and authority of Jesus—O.E. Parker saw this too, in the “all-demanding eyes” of his Christ tattoo. You do not so much look at Jesus in this icon or even look past the image to a greater invisible reality—rather, Jesus looks at, and through, you. The experience is that of being seen, more than seeing.
I also like this icon because Jesus is holding the Scriptures, which is common in Byzantine depictions of Christ. Their presence relativizes his physical presence, as if to say that Jesus is to be perceived less in the depiction of a face than in the fullness of the Word.
The painting displays stylistic features common to many icons—the golden aura, representing divinity; the hand uplifted in blessing, with two raised fingers signifying the unity of divine and human nature; the thumb and two remaining fingers touching to represent the Trinity.
Typically at the center of an icon, there’s a human face with a strong gaze. If not, there’s a dramatic event, such as the Resurrection or the Nativity. In a Nativity icon that I sometimes pray with, an early 15th-century rendering from the Russian Novgorod School (top, left), the central figure is that of the baby Jesus, whose infant size is accentuated by the elongated figure of Mary beside him. The contrast between the two dramatically expresses the paradox of the God who became small, celebrated by St. Ephrem in the fourth century.
The absence of depth perspective lifts this icon out of mere representational history. With its flattened aspect, time and space are somehow timeless and placeless, which is to say that all that you see in the image is happening now, here in front of you, as you pray with the icon.
Another appealing feature of this scene is the human interaction between Joseph and Mary, in which faith is tested but ultimately affirmed. In the lower left corner, Joseph has turned away from Mary, and he is being tempted by the devil, who no doubt is suggesting that Mary has betrayed her husband and slept with another man. Mary is looking away from the baby Jesus and toward Joseph, with sympathy, compassion, and maybe hurt feelings. But ultimately an atmosphere of openness to the miraculous event of the Nativity suffuses the scene—in the expansive wings of the angels, the generosity of the wise men, the blasting horn of the shepherd. Joseph, even in temptation, recoils physically from the devil, with hope in his eyes.
The third icon I especially like was created by the Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev, who lived in the early 15th century (above). Many people know it as Rublev’s Trinity. It does not depict the holy Trinity, but rather the story from Genesis in which three men visit Abraham, who prepares a meal for them, and who receives from them the promise that his wife Sarah will bear a child in her old age.
There is no focal figure in this scene. Instead, the three are turned toward one another in a circle of seeing, a unifying effect that symbolizes the mutual indwelling of the divine Trinity.
The visitors are seated around a sacrificial table. In the story, as we know, the promise to Abraham will be fulfilled. Sarah will bear Isaac. But Abraham will be tested by a call to give up his only son in sacrifice to God. In early Christian exegesis, this testing of Abraham foreshadows the Trinitarian sacrifice, whereby the Father gave up his Son to be incarnate and crucified. The Genesis story of hospitality, promise, and sacrifice is thus taken as a parable of Trinitarian life.
The cup on the table evokes the Eucharist. The chalice is positioned toward the edge of the table, toward the viewer, as if in invitation. Scripture is the source of this image, and Eucharistic communion its goal. Like the Eucharist, the icon interacts physically with the one who prays with it. Think of Obadiah Elihu, who, in an instant of grace and thanksgiving, inscribes the image of Christ on his skin.
Khaled Anatolios is an associate professor in the School of Theology and Ministry and the author of Retrieving Nicaea. The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine (forthcoming). His essay is drawn from a talk he delivered on October 18, 2010, at the School of Theology and Ministry.