The mission of The Fra Angelico Institute for Sacred Art is to deepen the prayer life of Western Rite Catholics by evangelizing the truth, goodness, and beauty of God through education and the prayerful creation of sacred art.
Today, May 2nd, is the “Memorial” day of St. Athanasius, a Doctor (profound theologian) of the Church.
There are four “giants” of the Nicene and Post Nicene period, all are known as “Doctors” of the Church: St. Athanasius, St. Ambrose, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Augustine. They are immortalized in bronze by the Renaissance sculptor, Bernini, and are portrayed in his magnificent sculpture of the Throne of St. Peter found in the sanctuary of St. Peter’s Basilica.
St. Athanasius and St. John Chrysostom are saints of both the Latin and the Greek Rites of the Church. Both were bishops. Yet, Bernini does not put the Bishop’s mitre on their heads. Sadly, the sting of the Great Schism of 1054 between the Latin and Greek Rites still stung in the 17th century.
Thus, these two Greek Fathers of the Church were slighted, not because of anything that they did (they were profound shepherds and theologians), but because Bernini wanted the authority of and preeminence of St. Peter’s position of “first among many” and the importance of two of the Latin Rite Fathers, to be showcased in bronze and remembered in the centuries to come.
The above photo is the “Chair of St. Peter” and is found in St. Peter’s Basilica (Chair created 1656 – 1665). It is an extraordinary masterpiece by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598 – 1680) which he made for Pope Alexander VII (Chigi family, 1655/67). Bernini was a child prodigy and polymath. This Chair proved to be a wooden throne dating to the year 875. It was donated by Charles the Bald to Pope John VIII (served AD 872/882) on the occasion of his coronation to the papacy. Four humongous bronze statues of Doctors of the Church flank the chair: In front to the right “St. Augustine”, to the left “St. Ambrose” (Latin Rite). Behind to the left “St. Athanasius”, to the right “St. John Chrysostom” (Greek Rite). The entire bronze structure’s weight is 74 tonnes (81.5 tons). The height is 14.74 m (48.3 feet). The statues of the Doctors of the Church are 5.35 m (17.5 feet) high. Above the four saints is located a stained glass window: “Dove of the Holy Spirit,” dated 1911 by the German glassmaker Hagle from the original design of Giovanni Paolo Schor (1615/74). These facts are from https://romapedia.blogspot.com/2013/10/basilica-of-st-peter-second-part_3.html. That blog is edited by David Macch. This is an excellent website about all aspects of the art, architecture, and history of Rome.
There are five Councils of the Church that had major impact on the development of the Church’s sacred art: the Council of Nicaea, the First Council of Nicaea/Constantinople, the Council of Ephesus, the Council of Chalcedon, and the 2nd Council of Nicaea (2nd Nicaea met in AD 787 and is the last of the Seven Ecumenical Councils). Besides these Councils all the Church Fathers through their scholarship, pastoral zeal, and extraordinary homilies, witnessed to the truth, beauty, and goodness of the Holy Trinity.
The list below provides the names and birth/death dates of the Fathers of the Church within the “Post Nicene” (that is, the time after the Council of Nicaea, AD 325) period of Church history. A quick review of each of their contributions will prove to be beneficial to you if you decide to paint a sacred image of them. How can you truly benefit from painting a sacred image of a person that you don’t know! 🙂
I recommend that you refer to my bibliography (“Early Church Fathers”) provided in my post of February 8, 2019. There are a number of different books in that bibliography that will prove to be helpful to you.
The Post Nicene Church Fathers born within the Western (Latin) Rite are:
St. Ambrose (AD 340-397),
St. Jerome (AD 345 – 420),
St. Augustine (AD 345-430),
Pope St. Leo the Great (AD 400 – AD 461),
St. Benedict of Nursia (AD 480 – 547) and
Pope St. Gregory the Great (AD 540 – 604);
the Post Nicene Fathers born within the Eastern (Greek) Rite are:
St. Athanasius (AD 295 -373) – (he straddles the Nicene and Post Nicene Periods),
St. Basil the Great (AD 330 – 379),
St. Gregory of Nazianzus (AD 330 – 390),
St. Gregory of Nyssa (AD 330 – 395)
St. John Chrysostom (AD 345 – 407),
and St. John Damascene (Damascus) (AD 675 – 749)
All of the saints listed, including those in the Greek Rite, are venerated within the Western Rite of the Catholic Church.
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.
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:
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:
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.
I am always very appreciative of my readers writing to me and providing new information and interpretations of sacred icons and images. Happily, that occurred last evening when a reader, Mr. John Daly from Australia, provided me with information on the second icon that was in yesterday’s post on St. Athanasius. Let me provide you with that image so we will have a reference point:
Mr. Daly is correct – it is St. Spyridon (born AD 270, died 340).
Let’s take a look at the reasons for this correction:
The bishop castigating the heretic Arius is wearing a distinctive hat. The hat is unique. It is shaped like a beehive. It is made of woven straw and was traditionally worn by Cypriot and other shepherds tending their flocks – an apt metaphor for a bishop caring for the flock of his faithful.
St. Spyridon was from the island of Cyprus, and eventually became a bishop serving the people of Trimythous, thus, he would have been invited to the First Council of Nicaea as were all the other bishops in Christendom.
At another time, possibly in Cyprus, St. Spyridon was involved in a debate with a pagan philosopher whom he ultimately converted to Christianity. Besides his theological arguments about the Holy Trinity, the good bishop used a piece of pottery or a brick, to demonstrate to the philosopher how you could have one single substance be also composed of three separate substances (pottery and bricks consist of clay, water, and are unified by the substance of fire).
The story of his discussion with the pagan philosopher continues and says that as soon as St. Spyridon finished speaking the piece of pottery or brick burst into flame, water dripped from it, and clay ash remained in his hand. Well that would have been enough to place me on the road to conversion, and so it was with the philosopher, too. If you look closely at the icon above you can perceive the fire bursting out of the brick and the water puddling beneath it. Hmm, I didn’t see that! As Sherlock Holmes once said, “Watson, you see, but you do not observe” (taken from the story A Scandal in Bohemia by Sir A.C. Doyle). Wise advice.
Mr. Daly also relates that it was [and probably still is] common for an iconographer to fuse the two incidents of St. Spyridon converting a pagan, and St. Spyridon at the Council of Nicaea debating with the heretic Arius.
There it is: the beehive woven straw hat, the bishop’s vestments, the water, fire and ash metaphor, the confrontation with an individual that has an opposite argument, and the public venue for both incidents.
So where is St. Athanasius in this icon? Mr. Daly offers that in the upper left corner of the icon, we see an individual portrayed as listening intently to St. Spyridon. He is dressed in a dark alb with a white collar. He suggests that this is St. Athanasius. That argument makes some sense because, as a deacon, Athanasius may not have been up front with the bishops, rather he possibly would be located near the altar ready to perform his diaconal duties. At the same time he is still involved in the proceedings, and/or ready to respond to the needs of his bishop – Alexander of Alexandria. You notice the priests and monks in the back of the room, too, in dark conical monastic hats and cassocks.
My only issue with that interpretation is that the figure portrayed in the upper left does not have a nimbus (halo) circling his head, nor is he wearing his deacon’s stole; however, the scribe in the lower left corner is wearing a deacon’s stole. My stole comes across my chest from the left shoulder and is gathered at the right hip; and the scribe’s stole does the same thing. Is this individual St. Athanasius? There appears to be writing on his stole. I have no proficiency in Greek so I cannot be of help there.
The scribe in the lower left corner has a halo, too, and so do all the bishops. Did the iconographer think that all the bishops present were saints? This is not unlikely, since they produced a Creed for Christendom in three months. Truly, a stunning achievement. It indicates that the assembled bishops were very clear in their own minds what the Faith, based on Scripture and Apostolic Tradition, was all about. The bishops all appear very animated and involved in the Council proceedings. It’s obvious that the Holy Spirit was working within that Council!
There is a lot going on in the upper part of this icon, too. Christ, as a young child, is found walking across what appears to be an altar towards another bishop. That bishop on the upper right is seen discussing some issue with, possibly, another dissenter (a priest, or deacon; even though the priests and deacons in attendance didn’t vote, they certainly could influence the bishop of their diocese on issues and arguments).
Sadly, I believe that the only existing documents that we have concerning this Council that are still in existence are the Nicene Creed itself, the procedural rules of the Council, and Emperor Constantine’s address to the assembled bishops. It is said that many of the bishops came, returned to their dioceses, and then came back to the Council. This probably contributes to the fact that we don’t have all the names of the participating bishops, just those mentioned in other documents or in the stories that were passed on through to the faithful (confer Anna Erakhtina’s article The “Model of Meekness,” and Slapping Arius, at http://www.orthochristian.com, May 22, 2016, specifically the contribution by Archpriest Vladislav Tsypin. He discusses the documents available to us today). If anyone has additional information on the actual participants please tell me your source, and the participants, and I will spread the information through a post.
St. Spyridon was also known as a miracle worker, especially for his successful intervention (caused by the prayers of the soldiers and sailors of the Catholic Rites) in the 1716 battles with the invading Ottoman Turks on the Greek island of Corfu.
John, thanks again; this was a fun interaction.
Additional images of St. Spyridon:
In the Roman Catholic Church, St. Spyridon is venerated on his feast day, December 14th; and on December 12th in the Eastern Rites and the Orthodox Church.
St. Athanasius of Alexandria was “the Lion” of the Council of Nicaea. He was instrumental in providing well argued testimony rebuking the heretic Arius during the Council’s debates. His verbal skills, as powerful and commanding as a lion, shredded Arius’ arguments. His eloquence convinced the assembled bishops of the correct dogma that Jesus Christ has two, separate and distinct, natures (divine and human), and that Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine. The heretic Arius insisted that Jesus was “just a creature” of God.
The Council’s main purpose was to address the divine nature of Jesus Christ and the concept of HIs being the Son of God the Father. This had to be done in order to squash the Arian heresy once and for all. It was also to establish a date for the celebration of Easter, resolve organizational and clerical issues, and the development of Church law (what today is called Canon Law). They were also attempting to settle a schism that had occurred in Egypt. That schism was being fomented by another bishop who had enlisted with the heretic Arius.
The Council was also tasked with development of a Christian Creed that would provide unity of belief for both the Eastern and Western Rites of the Church. This unity of belief was critical since the Church needed a formal set of beliefs that could be used as a catechetical tool and a binder that kept all the cultural and geographical “Catholic” churches together.
The Council of Nicaea basically resolved all the main issues of its agenda. It was a stunning achievement. The priest Arius was banished for promoting heresy and his ideas declared anathema. Yet, the problem the Council still faced was convincing Arius’ followers of their heretical errors. Banishment or not, an unrepentant Arius continued to spread his opinions fomenting confusion throughout the Empire.
The Eastern and Western Rites of the Catholic and Orthodox Church have always believed that sacred icons and sacred images are always venerated by the faithful; they have never and are never worshipped.To worship sacred icons, sacred images, statues, and other visual reminders of the glory of God and His saints is against the 1st Commandment (confer Exodus 20: 2-17, and Deuteronomy 5: 6 – 21). If anyone worshipped those visual images they would correctly be called idolaters. Worshipis for God alone, that is, the Holy Trinity – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; Three Divine Persons in One God.
Our Savior Jesus Christ is One Person with two natures: human and divine; that is a state of being which is part of the great Mystery of the Incarnation of God into human existence.
Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God, sacrificed in Jerusalem through His Passion, Crucifixion, and death. Jesus, following His Father’s will, suffered and died for us in order to atone for all of humanity’s sins (past, present, future). God the Father and God the Holy Spirit responded by raising Jesus from the dead on the third day, ultimately enabling Jesus to interact and be seen by His Apostles and hundreds of disciples.
Truth, Goodness, Beauty, and Love, incarnate in our Savior.
Thanks for stopping by.
May you continue to have a prayerful Holy Week and a joyous Easter Season.
Can you pick out the seven similarities between the two sacred icons of Church Apologists that are below? The differences?
Let’s take a look at the two icons above.
Both are correct in the way they are represented. From an artistic and symbolic point-of-view there are distinct similarities.
They have seven similarities: the beard (signifying experience, authority, and that the saint is an elder); a large, highforehead (signifying Christian wisdom as influenced by the Holy Spirit which is visualized through the saint’s works and knowledge); the Holy Cross upon the priest’s stole (it appears as a garment that circles the neck and extends down the torso which signifies Christ’s Redemptive suffering and the saint’s willingness to give witness and suffer for Christ); the presence of the book of the Gospels (the revealed truth of God through His Son, Jesus Christ); the script of the saint’s name at the top or side of the icon; and the halo circling the head (representing the sanctity of the saint).
There are twoabsolutelynecessary and critical indicators that designate a valid orthodox icon or sacred image: the artist must distinguish the person represented with his or her name, and, the icon must give witness to their life and ministry to the Church.
How does the sacred artist accomplish this requirement?
The artist needs to follow this rule: if the person(s) represented is/are a cleric (deacon, priest, or bishop) they need to be clothed with the proper vestments of their rank, and prototypical appearance. If their physical appearance is known (such as St. Therese of Lisieux or St. Maximillian Kolbe) they must be represented in a correct and accurate manner. The artist must also represent some aspect that distinguishes their ministry, such as the Book of the Gospels.
This is also true if the person(s) is/are a martyr, holy man or woman, monk, etc. This is, again, necessary since the faithful need to know the name of the saint so they “may honor, revere, and give salutation to them and aspire after them” (from The Seventh Ecumenical Council: Concerning the Holy Icons).
The differences between these two icons of Church Fathers are primarily in the icons’ age, the colors used by each sacred artist, the adornment of the garments and book of the Gospels, and whether or not the halo, and area surrounding the figure is gilded. Many of these differences reflect the specific culture the sacred artist lived in, the time period of the artist’s life, and the artistic resources (such as pigments) that were available.
Historically, violent disputes broke out between icon supporters and icon destroyers. The situation came to a head in October AD 787, when the 2nd Council of Nicaea, among other issues, reinstated the validity and necessity of the veneration of holy icons/images. It specifically quoted: Genesis 31: 34; Exodus 25: 19 ff; Numbers 7: 89; and Hebrews 9: 5 ff;) in support of their position. The Council Fathers especially cited various passages of the Fathers of the Church which proved to be critical in the authority of their proclamation. They were also heavily influenced by the writings of St. John Damascene. The Council documents were signed by the Byzantine Empress Irene, as many as (or more than) 300 bishops, and two legates of the Pope.
Sacred icons, sacred images, statues, etc are never worshipped. Worship belongs to God alone as represented in the Holy Trinity. The holy personalities represented give witness to unity with Christ and point us in the truthful – orthodox – direction. We venerate sacred statues, icons, and sacred images – never worship them. (See the documents of the 7th Ecumenical Council of the Church (AD 787) to reiterate this position).
Church tradition also warns the sacred artist who paints sacred icons to guard against unnecessary innovations and artistic flourishes. Please remember that in my blog I make a distinction between sacred icons and sacred images. My articles on this subject can be found in the Category window found on the top, right hand side, of my Home Page. You may find that my article A Canon for Catholic Sacred Artists, found in the Category: Sacred Artists, in the month April, 2018 (once there, scroll down to April 2, 2018 and you’ll find the article). That article has a short section in the Notes following the ten elements of my suggested “Canon” that express my opinion on the differences between sacred icons and sacred images.
Thanks for visiting with me. My best wishes for a relaxing weekend.
A Challenge: Are you as a Christian artist willing to internalize the message of the saint, scene, or Scripture passage you are artistically representing, and then, correctly portray it according to Church tradition?
Sacred artists must have more than just an awarenesses of Jesus, His Mother, angels and saints because their witness provides us with the foundation stones of our Faith. Sacred artists must be more than artists who propose “Art for art’s sake”.
If we do this what do we become? We become evangelists to the truth, goodness, and beauty of God, through the witness of Jesus Christ and the holy men and women who called Him the Son of God.
In the years immediately following St. Polycarp’s martyrdom (died, circa AD 155, and remembered yesterday, February 22nd, in the Roman Breviary and Missal) a group of eight Western and Eastern Rite scholars and clerics arose known as the Apologists (Defenders of the Faith).
The Apologists defended the beliefs and traditions of the Church that passed down to them, in an uninterrupted line, directly from the Apostles and Apostolic Fathers. This occurred during the years of continued persecution – AD 155 through AD 313.
The works and ministerial witness of the Apologists provide evidence for the continuity of beliefs and dogmas in the Early Christian Church. It is through this historic development, and the literary and physical witness of their efforts, that we have religious and cultural traditions which dramatically affected the growth of sacred art. These clerics and scholars desired to unify and establish the beliefs of the Western and Eastern Rites of the Church.
Church artists, and the later group of clerics and scholars known as the Nicene Fathers (who I will cover in later posts), were heavily influenced by their efforts. These two groups, the Ante Nicene and Nicene Fathers all desired to make concrete and visible the correct teaching – the orthodoxy – of the Church. These efforts ultimately produced artistic representations of these early spiritual heroes – a visible sign of the truths of the Gospels being preached – and in some cases, their witness in blood.
The Apologists have also been termed The Ante (Before) Nicene Fathers because they lived and died prior to the establishment of the Creed of the Catholic Faith, ultimately to be known as the Nicene Creed.
Let us briefly review two of the Apologists: St. Irenaeus of Lyons, and St. Clement of Alexandria. In a subsequent post you will have the opportunity to read three or four sentence descriptions of the contributions of the other six Apologists.
St. Irenaeus of Lyons was born in AD 130 and died circa AD 202. He speaks of the four Gospels as being the “Four Pillars of the Church,” and was in a position to know that since he heard St. Polycarp (a friend and disciple of the Apostle John) preach. He was steadfast in supporting the belief in Apostolic Tradition. He taught that the true Faith is the one imparted by the bishops of the Church who, in turn, received it directly in an uninterrupted set of teachings from the Apostles. St. Irenaeus was tenacious in his fight against heterodoxy, specifically the Gnostic heresy.
St. Irenaeus understood the value of St. Polycarp’s New Testament scholarship and his emphasis on the Church’s sacred Tradition. He spoke with authority on Mary as the New Eve, and the Holy Eucharist. St. Irenaeus barely escaped death during the persecution of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, however during the round-up approximately 50 other Christians had the joy of earning the holy crown of martyrdom. He may have eventually died a martyr, yet, there is not sufficient evidence to support it.
Another critical Apologist is St. Clement of Alexandria (born circa AD 150, died circa 215). He led a major catechetical school in Alexandria, Egypt and agreed with St. Irenaeus that the truth and knowledge of the holy Gospels proceed through the bishops and are for the population as a whole and not for any secret society (thus, he fought against the Gnostic heresy).
He taught that in order to understand the truths of the Gospels you must have faith in unison with reason. He is also known for three major catechetical works which are still in existence. These works were meant to accompany catechumens and those baptized into the Christian faith as an aid to their spiritual development. He was not martyred.
Thanks for stopping by the Institute. I hope you have a relaxing weekend.
If you click on the Tab in the Menu titled St. Joseph’s Art Workshop, and scroll down, you will find my recent addition (as of April 26, 2018) on painting a sacred image. That new post – LESSON 2 – describes obtaining, drawing, and applying a sacred image to a wood panel. Enjoy!