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, Holy Saturday, is observed by the Western and Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church, and other denominations as the Anastasis (Greek, “resurrection”), or the Harrowing of Hell by Jesus Christ.
In this harrowing, Christ’s purpose was to free the righteous people of the Old and New Testaments from their inability to enter Heaven. This occurred because of their death prior to the passion and death of Jesus. His Redemptive acts freed them from what Roman Catholics would call Purgatory and the Eastern Rites and some Protestant denominations would call Hades.
There are over fifteen verses and references found in both the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures that mention Hades. It is also discussed in non-canonical apocryphal writings such as the Gospel of Nicodemus. Its referred to as Purgatory because it is “the state of those souls who die in God’s friendship, assured of their eternal salvation, but who still have need of purgation to enter into the happiness of Heaven” (CCCC; para. 210, see notation below).
An analogy for Purgatory, though limited, would be the understanding that you cannot enter a beautiful wedding without showering and dressing appropriately. Hell, however, is the place of eternal damnation for those who through reason and free will die in the state of unconfessed mortal sin. They have deliberately intended to separate from the love of God by pursuing and participating in deadly sins.
Please enjoy another Fra Angelico fresco of the Resurrection of Christ. I wish you a happy and blessed Easter!
CCCC: refers to the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd edition, 2012.
On this solemnity of the Annunciation, March 25th, we remember St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation:
“Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary.”
“And when the angel had come to her, he said, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women.” When she had heard him she was troubled at his word and kept pondering what manner of greeting this might be.
And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God. Behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he shall be king over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end”
“But Mary said to the angel, “How shall this happen, since I do not know man?”
“And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee; and therefore the Holy One to be born shall be called the Son of God. And behold, Elizabeth thy kinswoman also has conceived a son in her old age, and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month; for nothing shall be impossible with God.”
And Mary said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word.” And the angel departed from her.” (Luke 1: 26-38)
Mary, the Blessed Mother, the Theotokos – “the God bearer” at first, questions Gabriel, “How shall this happen…” Upon his explanation Mary undertakes her all important journey with perfect trust and obedience to God’s will. She accepts her eternal role not in fear but in love. Mary will be the God Bearer, the bearer of her Son Jesus, our Savior, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.
Jesus, at the moment of His conception, is both true God and true man: two natures in one Person.
Mary is the perfect disciple of God. She provides us with the model of love, obedience, and trust in Him. There were many times throughout her life that she had to express her trust and obedience, and at times not knowing where the journey would lead. It led from the great joy of her pregnancy, Jesus’ birth, family life, through to His ministry, and her motherly presence before the Holy Cross.
A few verses later, in her beautiful canticle the Magnificat, she exclaimed to her kinswoman Elizabeth her lack of doubt in what has happened. She praises the mercy of God and her willingness to be the servant of Him who is faithful to His word. In her humility, trust, love, and obedience to God, Mary, as the New Eve, will be given the privilege of crushing Satan at the end of time.
From the beginning, the Catholic Church has neverworshipped Mary. The Church venerates her as the first disciple and its greatest saint.
On this beautiful Solemnity of the Annunciation let us join with the great St. John Henry Cardinal Newman in his prayer to Jesus: “Dear Jesus, Your Holy Mother cooperated with the divine plan for the human race. Let me try to imitate her in her obedience and service to You.” Thank you, Jesus.
Note: The sacred image that appears at the top of all of my posts is The Annunciation by Fra Angelico.
We celebrate the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary. In her honor let us review some the Church’s truths; dogmas which progressed to the point of Venerable Pope Pius XII proclaiming the meaning of the Blessed Mother’s life and her Assumption into Heaven.
We are able to see this progression through Sacred Scripture, the various early ecumenical Councils of the Church, the individual writings of the early Church fathers (such as St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. John Cassian, St. Vincent of Lerins, St. Irenaeus, Tertullian, St. Augustine, St. John of Damascus, and the Gothic Missal of the 6th century).
The Church’s movement through the process of unfolding the truths that were to become its dogmas progressed over time. Below are a few key occurrences which provide evidence for the debate and development proclaiming the dogmas of the Church.
• In AD 313, the Emperor Constantine declares that Christians can freely worship throughout the Roman Empire, thus, providing for a peaceful development of Christian communities, formal places of worship, and the continuation of theological scholarship and Scripture study.
• In 325, the Council of Nicea declared that the Father and the Son are consubstantial (that is, having the same substance);
• In 381, the Edict of Emperor Theodosius declared that Christianity is the official religion of the Roman Empire (the Roman Empire formally collapsed in 476);
• In 431, the Council of Ephesus proclaimed that Mary is the Mother of God, that is, mother of the human nature of Jesus: Mary is declared to be the Theotokos, the God Bearer – Mother of the Son of God’s human nature.
• In 451, the Council of Chalcedon declared that two natures, both human and divine, coexist in Jesus Christ;
In 1950, Venerable Pope Pius XII, in his Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus, declared the Assumption of Mary to be a dogma of the Faith. Dogmas are defined as the set of principles of the Church which are unquestionably true, and must be accepted and believed if a person is a member of one of the Rites of the Catholic Church.
Pope Pius XII tells us in this Apostolic Constitution that “from the second century the holy Fathers present the Virgin Mary as the new Eve, most closely associated with her Son, the new Adam.”
“She is subject to Him in the struggle again the enemy (Satan).” Confer the Book of Revelation (chapter 12, verse 1 ff) on her role in the war with the deceiver of mankind.
Pope Pius XII continues: “Hence, the august Mother of God, mysteriously united from all eternity with Jesus Christ in one and the same decree of predestination, immaculate in her conception, a virgin inviolate in her divine motherhood, the whole hearted companion of the divine Redeemer who won complete victory over sin and its consequences, gained at last the supreme crown of her privileges: to be preserved immune from the corruption of the tomb, and like her Son, when death had been conquered, to be carried up body and soul to the exalted glory of Heaven, there to sit in splendor at the right hand of her Son, the immortal king of the ages.”
Mary is not a goddess. Eastern and Western Rite Catholics do not worship her, rather, we venerate her as the greatest of all the saints.
Catholics view the Blessed Mother Mary as an intercessor. As our spiritual Mother she intercedes with Jesus, similar to our biological mother interceding on our behalf with our biological father. Eastern and Western Rite Catholics do this because this example of her intercession is seen in Sacred Scripture, when at the Wedding Feast of Cana Mary intercedes with her Son to help the newly married couple avoid embarrassment and additional expense.
Mary is always present and truly cares for all of us. We should never ignore her.
May Jesus Christ and His Blessed Mother bless you and your loved ones on this holy day of the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary.
P.S. I’d like to thank all the new followers of this blog who came aboard this summer. I pray that you continue to find my posts beneficial. I would like to thank Mr. Marek Czarnecki for use of the image of his beautiful icon of the Assumption of Mary. I had the pleasure and good fortune of studying with him during one of his workshops a number of years ago.
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.