Sacred Icons and Sacred Images – the Nicene Debate Continues!

AyaSofya
A photo of the inside of the Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia) church in what is the present-day city of Iznik, Turkey. Iznik was called Nicaea prior to the rule of the Ottoman Turks . This photo shows the interior of one of the rooms in the  building complex that served as the location for the First Council of Nicaea (AD 325). Also, in the late 8th century the Seventh Ecumenical Council met in this building, too. That Council met to debate and decide the issue of iconoclasm (should sacred icons and images be prohibited and destroyed). The written arguments of St. John Damascene (Damascus) won the day and sacred icons were allowed to continue to be made. Iconoclasm was to raise its ugly head again in later years, and came to full fruition during the Protestant rebellion/reformation, the French Revolution, and worldwide Communism in all its cultural forms.  This photo of the inside of the Nicaean building is from Bryan Cross’ website: calledtocommunion.com. It was posted in May, 2010. Thanks Bryan!

I would like to thank one of my readers who identified the  contemporary icon of St. Spyridon (thanks Carol!). The iconographer is the Catholic priest William Hart McNichols. He is a very talented artist who paints traditional icons and sacred images. At times, he steps out of the bounds of the traditional approach and adds his own personal interpretation of the person he is portraying. His artistic vision is unique.

John Daly from Australia emailed me this morning to provide further grist for our mill concerning St. Athanasius, St. Spyridon, and the Council of Nicaea. One of the participants in his iconography school is a Greek Orthodox lady who is the sister-in-law of an Orthodox priest. He is coincidentally named Athanasius.

John had the opportunity to discuss with her the icons that we were analyzing in my posts of the last few days. She provided John some valuable information by explaining  that her mother had given her a beautiful sacred image of the First Council of Nicaea and specifically St. Spyridon’s role in the debate with the heretic Arius. The sacred image is below.

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Greek Orthodox sacred image of the First Council of Nicaea. Notice St. Nicholas on the lower right about to possibly physically strike Arius who reacts by pulling away. On the left you see St. Spyridon, holding a brick with flames streaming upward and water puddling below it to the floor (confer yesterday’s post of April 16th to obtain the explanation of that imagery). The room of the actual Council, as portrayed in this sacred image is quite ornate.

Also, like the sacred icon we examined in yesterday’s post we see the Emperor Constantine, dressed in the royal robes of Byzantine reddish purple (almost a maroon) sitting on the right. On the Emperor’s right we again observe a bishop, maybe its Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, Egypt. In front of him we again see a deacon, dressed in what is either an alb or dalmatic (he would have to stand up to see all the garments).

In the above sacred image, the deacon is again seated at the scribe’s desk. This makes sense, since a deacon serves the administrative needs and report’s directly to his bishop. That is true to this day; yet, throughout the world today the local bishop has his deacons serving in parishes, hospitals, prisons, etc. rather than in an administrative capacity in the local chancery. Notice the bishop is behind the deacon scribe to facilitate accurate communication.

The above sacred  image, which I have never seen before John Daly sending it to me, is very well done. The painter has captured the meaning of the Council as a whole and two of its major participants: St. Nicholas’, in his famous interaction with the heretic Arius, and the great oratorical and mystical abilities of St. Spyridon challenging Arius, too.

Is the deacon pictured in the painting from the Latin Rite or is he Orthodox? Truly, there is no way to accurately tell because the deacon is seated, and what is showing of the deacon’s stole is inconclusive. Depending on the angle of view both the Western and Eastern Rites’ deacon’s stole placement looks the same.

In today’s painting and in yesterday’s post of the icon, the deacon is seated and the possible vertical panel on the Eastern Rite and Orthodox stole is in shadow or not detectable, yet, the panel that drapes from left shoulder and gathers at the waist is visible, and would appear, as you see below, in both Latin, Eastern, and Orthodox Rites!

Just between you and me, I think the deacon depicted in the icon, from my April 16, 2019 post and today’s, is St. Athanasius from Alexandria, Egypt. The Catholic Church, the Eastern Rites in union with Rome, and all the Orthodox Churches venerate St. Athanasius as a great saint and designate specific feast days for him. He belongs to all of us.

The deacon’s stole in the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church that are in union with Rome; and, the Greek Orthodox, the Russian Orthodox, and Coptic Orthodox deacon stoles look like this:

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Orthodox deacon’s stole in a royal Byzantine fabric (in  what appears to be a royal maroon purple) is bordered in gold thread with gold crosses. Originating at the left shoulder, gathered at the waist, with the fabric of the stole hanging vertically on the left shoulder both in the front and the back. The stole is worn on top of  the ornate gold and white dalmatic.

The cassock, alb, stole, and dalmatic all have the same meaning and functions in both the Western and Eastern Rites of the Church. In today’s Western, that is, the Latin Rite (Roman Catholic) tradition, a deacon wears the rank of his ministry and ordination, the stole, over the alb but under the dalmatic. Latin Rite deacons would wear their stole’s in this manner:

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A Roman Catholic deacon’s stole running from the left shoulder and gathered at the waist, then hangs vertically under the right arm. It is worn on top of a white alb, and under a dalmatic. The dalmatic is only worn during Holy Mass. When the deacon performs baptisms, marriage and funeral services, liturgical prayer services, and formal blessings, etc. the deacon would not wear a dalmatic, so the deacon would appear as in the above photo wearing a simple white or cream colored alb and a stole in the appropriate color..  The stole’s fabric in the photo above is dyed dark purple for Lent; during the season of Advent a purple stole is used, too; sometimes, it is of a lighter purple than the Lenten penitential purple. A white stole would be used for Baptisms. Marriages, Funerals, Holy Thursday services, and during the Easter and Christmas season. Red stoles would be worn at Palm Sunday and Good Friday services, Pentecost, and on the feast days of martyrs.
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A Roman Catholic deacon’s dalmatic which is worn over the white alb and the stole. The dalmatic is in the corresponding color to the stole. The color green is worn during “Ordinary” time (which is the liturgical period that borders the great seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter).

I’ve really enjoyed this lively information exchange. Thanks to all who participated in it!

May you have a blessed Easter Tridiuum of the Passion and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Peace be with you.

Copyright © 2011- 2019, Deacon Paul O. Iacono – All Rights Reserved. Permission to reprint must be obtained from the author in writing. Students, and those interested, may quote small sections of the article as long as the proper credit and notation is given. Thank you.

Saint Nicholas Slaps a Heretic! A Reflection Appropriate for Palm Sunday

The extensive Gospel reading for Palm Sunday relates the Scriptural and historical truth that Jesus  triumphantly entered Jerusalem, yet, five days later He was arrested, put on trial, tortured, and executed.

As you know, the religious and secular leaders of Israel did not accept Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God. They were adamant about the fact that Jesus was just a man and that His claims, teachings, and healings were all fraudulent.  Their disbelief took place during the first century, yet, two hundred years later there were Christians saying the same thing.

The questions came down to, “Who is Jesus Christ? Is He a man? Is He God? Is He both?”

These were the same questions that the people of Jerusalem, some of them waving palm branches, and their leaders were asking each other.

In the year 325 scholars and clerics were still grappling with those questions, too.

Many deacons, priests, and bishops of the Church had settled the question in their own mind, yet, all of Christendom was not in agreement. Emperor Constantine was worried; as a military man he knew trouble when he saw it. Religious disagreements could easily spread into civil war. Something had to be done.

Stories have come down to us through the centuries that St. Nicholas of Myra, a faith-filled bishop, decided to defend Sacred Tradition and the Scriptural interpretation of the reality of Jesus as the Son of God the Father. The story relates that he not only vigorously defended Sacred Tradition but became so worked up that during one of the debates he slapped the author of this heresy which was called Arianism.

But, was it a verbal or physical slap?

Let’s take a brief look at some of the details:

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Partial icon of the “incident” at the 1st Council of Nicaea. Immortalized in an early icon. The Early Church was well aware of the importance of this Council in debating and agreeing to the specific dogmas of the Church that would be ultimately proclaimed in the Nicene Creed. All catechumens that enter the Church at the Easter Vigil Mass proclaim their belief in the great Sacred Mysteries and historical truths of the Nicene Creed.

Who: Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bishop, (Myra, an Ancient Greek city on the coast of present day Turkey),  vs.  Arius, priest from the diocese of Alexandria, (Alexandria, a city on Egypt’s Mediterranean coastline). Emperor Constantine, Roman Empire, centered in the new city named in his honor: Constantinople (present day Istanbul, Turkey). Constantine convenes an ecumenical council of bishops from the five major patriarchies of Christendom (Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Rome).

What: Supposed incident of Bishop Nicholas “slapping” the priest Arius, at the first ecumenical Council of Bishops: the Council of Nicaea. This was the first Council since the Council of Jerusalem (held in the first century and was attended by luminaries such as St. Peter and St. James).

When: Late Spring and early Summer of the year 325.

Why: The incident concerned the critical issue of who is Jesus Christ, and whether Jesus Christ is “the same in being and the same in essence” as God the Father. Arius was promoting the heresy that Jesus Christ was “just a creature” of God and not a divine Person of the Holy Trinity.

Where: Nicaea, an ancient city in Asia Minor; it is the present day city of Iznik, Turkey.

As it applies to sacred art, the Council of Nicaea provided a specific creed: a set of theological proclamations that impacted  sacred artists from the 4th century to the present day. It is stated clearly in this Creed that God the Father has communicated His love, mercy, and laws to humanity through His revealed word in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. This action culminated in the ministry, passion, death, and resurrection of His incarnated Word, His Son Jesus Christ.

The Nicene Creed definitively proclaimed that Jesus Christ is the same in essence, and the same in being, as God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. So we have the great Mystery of the Incarnation, the nature of Jesus Christ: He is both human and divine – the Son of God – One Person with two natures – human and divine.

orthodox_icon_of_our_jesus_pantocrator_of_sinai._large
The above is a 6th century sacred icon of Jesus as Pantocrator. Pantocrator is a Greek word describing the all knowing, all powerful Son of God: Jesus Christ. The Council of Nicaea declared that Christ, as God, is consubstantial: Jesus is the same in essence (substance) and in being as the Father and the Holy Spirit. Also, Jesus possesses two natures: human and divine. This is truly a great Mystery of the Church. The sacred artist of the above icon, probably a monk, used hot pigmented wax (the encaustic method) to render this likeness. This sacred icon is currently located in St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai Peninsula, Egypt. The face has a striking resemblance to the face on the Holy Shroud of Turin.

The day-to-day proceedings and debate notes of the Council have been lost to history, so we will never know if St. Nicholas gave Arius a physical or just a verbal “slap.” Regardless, St. Nicholas made his point and contributed to giving us the gift of the Nicene Creed.

In AD 381, the Nicene Creed was edited and amended at the First Council of Constantinople (thus, the Creed is called the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. Try to say that phrase fast, three times!😃).

Thanks for visiting with me. May you have a prayer-filled Holy Week.

Sources for the above post are found in my bibliography post, entitled Early Church Fathers – A Short bibliography of February 8, 2019. I relied primarily on Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s works, also Aquilina and D’Ambrosio’s volumes.

Copyright © 2011- 2019, Deacon Paul O. Iacono – All Rights Reserved. Permission to reprint must be obtained from the author in writing. Students may quote small sections of the article as long as the proper credit and notation is given. Thank you.

 

 

 

The Black Mass at Harvard – Is It A Hate Crime?

News reports have been circulating the story that Harvard University’s Memorial Hall will be the site of a Satanic Black Mass on Monday evening May 12, 2014. The Satanic Mass, by its very nature, is a spiritual crime against the truth, goodness, and beauty of the Catholic Mass and everything that it stands for – specifically the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the real presence of the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club is hosting this despicable event. Its promoters and supporters know exactly what they are doing and why they are doing it, and the attempt to sugar coat this blasphemy by saying that it is an attempt to promote cultural understanding is preposterous and vile.

Reports from the Catholic News Agency (http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/priest-sees-deluge-of-support-against-harvard-black-mass/) state that “Early media reports included confirmation from Priya Dua, a spokesperson for The Satanic Temple, which is staging the event, that a consecrated host would be used. However, updates to the initial reports said that Dua later retracted her statement, saying that there had been a miscommunication and no consecrated host would be used.”

It is my belief, and the belief of over one billion other Christians in the Latin, Greek, and Russian Rites, that a consecrated host is the most sacred and precious object on earth and the “source and summit” of our faith. I do not understand, how is it not a crime if the original intent is to show a ritual that promoted the desecration of the Mass in its Word and Matter?

If a person or organization desecrates a Koran, or promotes racism or sexism would we not vociferously object and demand justice?

Would Harvard University allow a reenactment to occur in Memorial Hall in which students were shown how to desecrate a Koran, or stone  a woman because she desired an education, or bullwhip a racial or sexual minority for their culture or personal views. What’s next, a symposium on teaching the elite student body of Harvard how to tie a correct knot for a lynching?

We are not taking about an avant garde theatrical performance in which the boundaries of good taste can be obliterated and the right of free speech can be stretched. We are talking about a Satanic ritual that has for many years had the express purpose of spewing hate and ridicule against the specific liturgical and spiritual meaning and reality of the Catholic and Orthodox Mass.

Catholics in the Harvard and MIT communities and the Archdiocese of Boston are wisely protesting and engaging in prayer and witness to this affront to all Christians.

Allow me to pose two questions: What is the definition of a hate crime, and, is Harvard University, by allowing this event to take place in Memorial Hall, condoning a hate crime?

Laws.com states that a hate crime is “an intentional, deliberate, and methodically-charged crime executed in order to cause harm or damage with regard to a specific victim chosen as a result of prejudice, racism, bias, and unlawful resentment.” It goes on to say, “The following are commonly associated with charges of a Hate Crime:

a. Prejudice: Unfounded opinions that are preconceived in nature.

b. Bias: Favoritism that is not based on empirical or pragmatic reasoning.

c. Aggravated Felony: A classification of an intentional, premeditated crime that is severe in nature.

d. Defamation: The slandering or unjust conveying of libelous sentiment.

e. Ethnicity: The country or nation of origin belonging to an individual or entity.

f. Racism: Preconceived prejudice resulting from bias with regard to race.

g. Religion: The process of spiritual belief latent in an individual.

h. Sexual Orientation: The nature and particularity of the sexual attraction latent in an individual.

i. Unalienable Rights: The right of every citizen to ‘Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness’.

j. First Amendment: The right of every citizen to the Freedom of Speech.” (http://criminal.laws.com/hate-crimes)

Don’t some of the above ten articles apply to this situation?

Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants believe that the Holy Trinity is the repository of all truth, goodness, and beauty. In the Trinity’s love and mercy for humanity they have shared themselves with us through word, grace, and sacrament. The ministry, suffering, and death of Jesus Christ won for us the opportunity to be fully participating members of God’s family. Christ’s resurrection is the proof of His victory over sin and Satan. With this in mind we should not be afraid, but we do need to be prudent.

Jesus warned us that Satan, and his minions, still prowl the earth searching for souls to devour. We must be as innocent as doves but as clear eyed as the eagle. Let us pray this afternoon and evening for the Harvard Catholic Community that they may have the strength to witness, in a non-violent Christ-like manner, against Satanic hate.

Copyright © 2011- 2014 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

 

Mary, The Holy Mother of God – The Sign of Our Unity

We celebrate on this the first day of the New Year the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God.

Mary, by this very title, is the Holy Mother of the human nature of Jesus Christ. We receive insights on how the Church came to this title within the Holy Scriptures; for through a prayerful reading of them we come to an understanding of who this remarkable young woman was and what she means for us today. Three evangelists, Matthew, Luke, and John help us with this in their presentation of Mary as a woman who was clear minded, humble, intelligent, devout, loving, immensely strong, and quietly, yet fiercely, devoted to her Son.

Our beautiful Scriptural readings for this Solemnity (Numbers 6: 22-27, Galatians 4: 4-7, and Luke 2: 16-21) help us  approach today’s celebration through the perception of Mary herself. Today’s Scriptures remind us that Mary and  Joseph were devout Jews who understood the importance of faith, family devotion, tradition, and the fulfillment of the Jewish Law itself. It was with Holy Scripture – Hebrew and Christian – in mind, and the sacred tradition provided by the Apostolic fathers, that the debate over Mary’s title rested upon.

The designation of Mary, as the Holy Mother of God was debated and decided upon at the third Ecumenical Council of the Church. It was held in the year 431 at the city of Ephesus in Asia Minor. This Church Council was known as the First Council of Ephesus and was attended by over 250 bishops from the four (soon to be five) patriarchates of the Catholic Church: Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and eventually, in 451, Jerusalem (Jerusalem, at the time of the First Council of Ephesus was part of the Patriarchate of Antioch, Syria). Now that the formal persecutions by the Roman Empire had ended, the fifth century saw much activity within the Church to formally secure theological positions on both Christ and the role of His mother in salvation history. The catechesis of the people was paramount. Using their gifts of reason and the Holy Spirit, combined with the Holy Scriptures, and the sacred Tradition of the early Church the assembled bishops determined to safeguard the Truth of the Church while simultaneously further establishing the foundations for the  catechesis of its clergy and laity.

But at the heart of the matter, for all Christians, Jesus is the human incarnation of God Almighty. He presents to us in His Person, the true, physical Presence, of God; and with His Divine Nature intact, He in turn with a true human nature, could then call us His brothers and sisters. We are, through Him, and Mary’s maternity, adopted sons and daughters of our Father in Heaven. Mary is the Mother of Jesus’ human nature, and, she is the Mother of the Church.

How do we know this?

We know it because Jesus said it was so: “Whatever you did for the least of My brothers and sisters, you did for Me” Matthew 25:40; and let us not forget John 19: 26-27: Jesus saw His own mother, and the disciple [John] standing near whom He loved; He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son.” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother.” And from that hour, he took his mother into his family.” 

Such is the love of God for His creation.

Theotokos

While doing some other research a few weeks ago, I was struck  by some quotes from the three main leaders of the 16th century Protestant revolt. While certainly these men steered their new churches along a different path from the Tradition of the Western and Eastern Rites, the quotes provided below show them to have an understanding and love for Mary as the Holy Mother of God and the significance of her perpetual virginity.

Martin Luther: “It is an article of faith that Mary is Mother of the Lord and still a virgin… Christ, we believe, came forth from a womb left perfectly intact.” (Works of Luther, Vol. 11, pages 319-320; Vol. 6, page 510.)

John Calvin: “There have been certain folk who have wished to suggest from this passage [Matthew 1:25] that the Virgin Mary had other children than the Son of God, and that Joseph had then dwelt with her later; but what folly this is! For the gospel writer did not wish to record what happened afterwards; he simply wished to make clear Joseph’s obedience and to show that Joseph had been well and truly assured that it was God who had sent His angel to Mary. He had therefore never dwelt with her nor had he shared her company… And beside this Our Lord Jesus Christ is called the first-born. This is not because there was a second or a third, but because the gospel writer is paying regard to the precedence. Scripture speaks thus of naming the first-born whether or no there was any question of the second.” (Sermon on Matthew 1:22-25. Published in 1562.)

Ulrich Zwingli: “I firmly believe that Mary, according to the words of the gospel, as a pure Virgin brought forth for us the Son of God and in childbirth and after childbirth forever remained a pure, intact Virgin.” (Zwingli Opera, Vol. 1, page 424.)

Perhaps, in God’s Divine Plan, the beautiful and holy virgin Mary – the Holy Mother of God – will be the cause for the reunification of all the Christian Churches: Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant.

As a fellow Christian, please consider making the following prayer that I wrote a few hours ago part of your own prayer arsenal for the New Year: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, keep us within your most precious and immaculate heart. Through your maternal love, intercede with your Son to remove the painful scars of division and hurt that lie within our own hardened hearts. We implore you to ask your Son to strengthen us with His Truth, Goodness, and Beauty so that we may always fulfill His Divine Will. Amen.”

Copyright © 2013 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved

Notes: Source of the sacred icon of the Holy Theotokos with the Christ: http://en.lpj.org/2011/12/30/solennite-de-marie-mere-de-dieu/ 

Protestant leader quotations taken from http://blackieschurchmilitant-apocalypsis.blogspot.com/2008/01/perpetual-viginity-of-blessed-virgin.html

 

Saints Pontian and Hippolytus and Our Call to Duty

Today we celebrate the martyrdom of Saint Pontian, who was the lawfully elected successor pope to St. Callistus during the early 3rd century. St. Pontian was considered a criminal by the emperor Maximinius and banished to the silver mines in Sardinia – an exile which meant certain death. We also celebrate today a saint by the name of Hippolytus, who was a priest in the Church of Rome at this same moment in time.

Saint Hippolytus is recognized because of his brilliance and profound scholarship. He is considered to be one of the finest theologians of the 3rd century, and is the source of the 2nd Eucharistic Prayer recited at Mass. Hippolytus’ most important work is a treatise known as The Apostolic Tradition; and scholars such as Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio, (at http://www.crossroadsinitiative.com) tell us that it provides “an enlightening and extensive glimpse into the liturgical and devotional life of Roman Christians around the year 200.” The statue found below is of Roman origin, found in the mid 16th century. It has the name Hippolytus carved into it as well as references to works of other Apostolic Fathers. The image is presented through the courtesy of Dr. D’Ambrosio.

Controversy, however, erupted when St. Callistus, was elected to the papacy. St. Hippolytus considered Callistus to be a liberal since Callistus extended absolution to new converts who had committed mortal sins such as adultery and murder. Hippolytus contested the election, violently disagreed when Callistus was affirmed, and then made history by declaring himself pope, thus becoming the first anti-pope in the history of the Church!

As a result of his action he divorced himself from full communion with the Church. When Pope Callistus was martyred, in the year 222, Hippolytus began disagreeing with his successors – the last being Pope Pontian.  Hippolytus’ theological differences and self-imposed actions didn’t mean anything to the Romans for they arrested him, too, and exiled him off to Sardinia; and there, St. Hippolytus – the anti-pope met St Pontian, the true pope and lawful successor to Pope Callistus.

In the silver mines of Sardinia, Pope Pontian abdicated his office, making way for a lawful successor to be elected, and Hippolytus renounced his anti-papacy and was absolved of his sins by Pontian. Fully reconciled they died together for the faith in the year 235.

So, what does this have to do with us?!

Our Gospel today (Matt 17: 22 – 27) provides the answer, for in it our Lord and the Apostles were confronted with the arrogance of the officials who implied they were evading the local taxes.  Jesus attempts to clarify His position not only for St. Peter but for the officials as well.

Jesus is basically saying that, yes, they must pay the tax; the reason being they must not do anything to put a stumbling block in the way of people understanding His ministry and message. Again we see Christ not getting political. He is not ranting about the just or unjust qualities of the Temple tax, or Roman occupation. He is beyond that, and demands that the Apostles, as His successors, not give a bad example to the people.

This is a lesson that St. Hippolytus, for all of his brilliance never learned. He did give bad example to the Church of Rome in declaring himself an anti-pope. His dissension and attacks were not productive or helpful in a highly charged environment which constantly witnessed Roman persecution.

Yet, St. Hippolytus ultimately saw his sin, repented of it, and along with Pope St. Pontian, did his duty and defended the true faith with his life. We must always do the same, and whatever our calling or ministry may be, we must never become a stumbling block that prevents others from seeing and believing in Jesus and His Church.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved   Images of all the popes are found in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, Italy. The custom of having a mosaic of a deceased pope put on display was started by Pope Leo the Great.

Seeds of Faith and Art

In our Gospel today, from St. Mark Chapter 4: 26-34, we have two important parables concerning the reign of God: the first concerns the farmer’s sowing of seed and the second refers to the growth of the seed.

When we examine the threads running through these parables we hear  Jesus explaining not only the functions that the farmer performs, but the nature of the seed that is sown, as well. This first parable is found only in Mark’s Gospel and explains that through the ministry of Jesus, God’s sovereign and all-powerful rule over mankind is made visible.

This is similar to a passage from the book of Ezekiel, chapter 17: 22-24, where we hear God asserting His sovereignty; the prophet Ezekiel concludes his passage with God saying, “As I, the Lord, have spoken, so will I do.” God is telling the ancient Hebrews that they will see what He can do – He will manifest and make Himself visible to them.

In the first parable the evangelist Mark explains that God is the Divine Sower, the Divine farmer, and that God’s power and fruitfulness appears throughout the history of the Jewish people. Mysteriously, at a time known only to God, His reign would suddenly be made visible and manifest – like a seed which was nestled in the warm soil, suddenly appearing one morning as a young shoot – ready to grow into a fruitful plant.

Jesus is that fruitful plant – that vine – that cedar – that shoot of Jesse that developed out of  the family of King David, and suddenly appeared in ministry to all of Israel.

If we are open to its influence, spiritual and natural growth in the life of Jesus Christ is the process  of entering into the rhythm of God’s beating Sacred Heart; with every beat there is growth. We may be unaware of it – but it occurs – it goes on all around us – it sustains us in our very being –  it sustains the very existence  of the universe.

In the second parable from this passage from Mark’s Gospel, we again hear Jesus speak of a growing plant and tell His disciples that the Kingdom of God works like the natural growth process of a typical mustard seed.

Jesus is emphasizing that the growth of the Kingdom of God, and the reign of God in our individual hearts through faith in Him, is exactly like a natural process. A mustard seed is small but when it matures it becomes a large shrub – and the same is true with faith.

When I was younger, my wife and I enjoyed planting a  large garden. we quickly learned that in order to have a successful garden, we needed to thoroughly pastor the soil, sow the seed in a specific way to allow it to germinate, and then water and feed the plants when they sprouted.

I mention this because the Divine Sower must also pastor the seed of faith in order for it to grow. St. Mark explains that Jesus tells His disciples that the Kingdom of God will sprout and  grow in their hearts. Like a garden, their hearts, as well as  ours – must be tilled, warmed, and watered, to receive the seed of His Son who is Sower, Servant  and Savior. Once that is done, the people of the Kingdom of God – the Church – will grow into a mighty plant, a mighty tree, one in which there will be many branches. That tree, as Ezekiel tells us, will be fed and watered with God’s graces.

So, how does this Gospel challenge us – especially those of us who are artists?

Our faith is like an unmarked packet of seeds – God sows – we grow; and sometimes we stand in astonishment at what has – or has not – taken root. As the faith of a child grows and receives the good, or, bad food that the family, Church, and society provides, he or she ultimately begins to make choices – choices which may, unbeknownst at the time, have a dramatic impact on whether their faith bears fruit abundantly, moderately, or not at all.

God is the Divine Sower of the seeds of faith. Each seed that He sows is good, each soul that receives it is good – and we, as pastors of that seed, must do all that we can to assist God in its growth in our own hearts and the hearts of those around us. If you are Christian, you may have been taught to believe that we must never tire of carefully tending the vine of faith that has enwrapped our hearts. God the Father’s witness is our model. He continuously gives of Himself to His Son, who in turn, gives of Himself to us through Scripture and Sacrament, and sends the Spirit to shower His Gifts upon our hearts.

But this blog reaches many people throughout the world. As of the last count, people in 65 different nations have stopped by and read some of these posts. I am sure that there may be many people who are not Christian who read this blog for one reason or another, Some artists may be  attracted to it because of a “prompting” within their soul to see and read about the truth, goodness, and beauty of God, others may just be curious, and that’s fine, too.

So as artists, I believe that the promptings that we follow to create something new, to experiment with color, clay, sound or image, are sprouts of the divine vine that blooms within our own soul. Our art, whether we realize it or not, is an expression of the fruitfulness of that seed that Jesus speaks of in His parable. The problem that many of us face is that we want the vine to “fruit” as quickly as possible. The virtue of Patience is an absolute necessity for the successful artist. We are not born with this virtue, it must be developed, and cultivated. How many artists have been frustrated and irritated by the fact that some thing, some person, some event has gotten in their way to start or finish a project or piece – whatever it might be. Yet, many times, it is the artist him or herself, that is the cause of the delay. For we forget that the seed, when planted, is a good seed. The concept, the idea, the score or sculpture, is a good idea – we just have to follow through with it and have confidence in our own abilities, that it will “sprout.”

So if the Lord is the Divine Sower, who has planted and enabled the seed to germinate, sprout, and take root, it is now our job – as His servants, to model His work, and tend the seed, tend the gift of our faith and our art, as well as we can; and then, know when to get out of the way, and trust God to do the rest.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved.     The painting of The Sower is by Harold Copping. Copping was a British artist who was born in 1863 and died in 1932. He was especially known for his Biblical scenes and travelled to the Middle East on a number of occasions to study the people and places of the Bible. Thanks to Bing images and Wikipedia for the reference.

Icons, Icon Painters, and Praying With Sacred Icons: PART 3

My favorite sacred icon of  Our Lord Jesus Christ is the 6th century encaustic icon of Christ Pantocrator (Christ The Almighty One) from St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula.

This sacred image was a paradigm shift in the way early Christians viewed and portrayed Jesus Christ. This icon (shown below) is not the thin young  Messiah of the Catacombs, or the Roman nobleman presentation of the first four centuries of Church art (for examples confer Pierre du Bourguet’s book on Early Christian Painting). The Sinai Christ Pantocrator is portrayed as a robust Semitic man, who knows exactly what He is about, what His mission is, and what He expects of His followers in their living out of His Gospel life.

Interestingly, recent research has shown that when the image from the Shroud of Turin is compared to the image of Christ in this icon of Christ Pantocrator there are many points of similarity between the two images; possibly implying that the painter of Christ Pantocrator had seen the facial image found on the Shroud of Turin.

Allow me to suggest that when we are painting a sacred image/icon we must prayerfully enter into conversation with the Heavenly person we are representing, we must research his or her life, and then view what the Traditional forms of their representation has been in the history of sacred iconography.

We should then explore how we could make the truth of the Lord’s or a saint’s holy witness speak – using the language of the palette – to the 21st century. We should learn from the past, and absorb and pass on the beauty that is found within Holy Tradition.

Yet, at the same time, we need to constantly examine the work of some of the fine icon painters in the world today, people like my teachers: Peter Pearson, Marek Czarnecki, Anna Gouriev Pokrovsky, and Dimitri Andreyev. I have recently been influenced by the work of  Ksenia (Xenia) Mikhailovna Pokrovskaya, originally from Moscow, and now living in Massachusetts. Not to be missed is the work of Vladimir Grygorenko from Dallas, Texas. His sacred icons have a richness and luminous quality that is very beautiful and spiritual. We must also become familiar with the work of British iconographers Brother Aidan Hart, and David Clayton; the Norwegian Solrunn Nes, and the Russians: Archimandrite Zinon from the Pskov-Caves Monastery, and Philip Davydov and Olga Shalymova from St. Petersburg, Russia –  all of these people, and many others, prayerfully create beautiful icons that speak to 21st century people who are willing to listen. The wonderful news is that there are many sacred artists and iconographers – known and unknown – that are prayerfully engaging the ancient traditions of Catholic and Orthodox art, and prayer from the heart, throughout the world.

As we enter into our study of sacred art and iconography we need to first start with a survey book which gives us an overview of the sacred artistic tradition of the Eastern Church. We should first examine the great little book Icons and Saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church (ISBN 0-89236-845-4; translated by Stephen Sartarelli and published by the J. Paul-Getty Museum, 2004) and use it as a starting point to observe the styles and techniques of the various regional traditions over the last 1500 years.

We don’t have to “like” all the styles of the images that icon painters, from various cultures, have portrayed down through the centuries. But, we must respect their efforts because, hopefully, they were created in the true spirit of prayer, and each of them can teach us something about technique, color, symbol and theology.

When we begin our studies with a teacher of iconography, and sit down to draw the sacred image and apply the paint and gold-leaf, we must remember that we have a sacred responsibility to the faithful who view our sacred icons and images. These images must be correct from a theological, semantic, and aesthetic point-of-view. Our call, our ministry, is to lead the viewer to prayer and communion with Christ and His Saints, not to a secular admiration for an avant-garde or cavalier attitude toward our Holy Faith, or the people who died witnessing to it.

Copyright © 2012 Deacon Paul O. Iacono All Rights Reserved