My present to myself this Christmas was this icon, from artist Eva Campbell. The icon, Our Lady of the Sign, is an ancient one, but this is a modern take on it. I love the bright colors, and the golden hues of Mary’s and Jesus’ skin.
Jesus is at the center of the image, yet Mary is behind and all around him, the Mother of God, revealing to us her divine Son.
A graffiti artist in Moscow is taking iconography to a new destination: the street.
I love the concept. It reminds me of the speech Pope Francis (then Cardinal Bergoglio) gave to his fellow cardinals at the last conclave—a speech which likely contributed to his election. Behind the locked doors of the conclave, he spoke about how Jesus stands at the doors of the church and knocks—not to get in, but to be let out!
The iconographer, Alexandre Tsypkov, shares the pope’s sentiments:
“In ordinary churches today, we see gilded, staid, sentimental images that appeal to church babushkas. You see but you don’t believe — the gilding feels false. Sometimes the church instructs the artist to make the cheeks of the Virgin rosy, and to make her beautiful and her hands so alive you want to touch them. That’s not good. I always wanted to draw freestyle on the street, not to depend on anyone, to look at examples from the 15-16th century and try something of my own.
That’s what we call a living tradition.
I like the willingness to transgress certain customs here, but especially the movement of Christ out of the gilded cages we build for Him and into the street.
Here’s another sample:
Also critical: Tsypkov refuses to part from the canon. The work is transgressive, yes, contemporary, yes, but also rooted in the tradition.
One of my favorite icons I own is this one, pictured above.
(I took this picture last night from my parents’ trailer where, for COVID reasons, we are spending Thanksgiving weekend.)
I like it because it reads two possible ways: the first, most obviously, as an icon of the Ascension. You can see Christ, at the top (shrouded in darkness since he’s furthest from the candle). Behind him, the blue circles signify his movement between earth and heaven, escorted by two angels. Below are the eleven disciples in disarray, along with Mary. Jesus has just instructed them to wait in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Among them, two angels speak to the disciples, saying, “Why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).
This word from the angels point us to the second way of reading the icon: as the Second Coming. The image itself gives us no clear indication of whether Jesus is going up or coming down. So we might also see it as a picture of the Church—here represented by Mary and the disciples of Jesus—awaiting the apocalypse, a Greek word which means “revealing”.
Which makes this icon not only appropriate for the Feast of the Ascension, but for Advent as well.
Advent is a time of awaiting, hoping, expecting. We prepare, of course, to celebrate Christ’s birth, which was his first coming—but we also prepare ourselves for that second coming, when the Kingdom of God, hidden for the present time, becomes revealed in full, and the world is set to rights by its coming King. The disciples gaze into the sky, awaiting the return of their Lord and God. So we, the Church on earth, watch and wait.
Since I wrote a bit yesterday about Jesus Wars and the Council of Chalcedon, I thought I’d look up an Orthodox icon that depicts the event.
I don’t always know how to “read” the icon, but it’s fun to try!
Enthroned in the center is the Byzantine Emperor Marcian, who convened the council after Pope Leo invalidated the previous one and called for another. Marcian asked Pope Leo to preside, but he couldn’t make it on such short notice, so he sent representatives in his stead (are those the guys in the funny hats behind Marcian?).
He is surrounded by the bishops who have come together to resolve the question of Christ’s nature.
In the foreground are (squinting at the Greek text, it looks like) Eutyches and Dioscuros, who taught that Christ had a single divine nature rather than both human and divine natures. You can see little devils on their shoulders, whispering in their ears. Their teaching was declared heresy by the Council.
Also important: the Holy Spirit, depicted as a dove at the top of the icon, guiding the Church into all truth.
The idea is that after his beheading, John the Baptist went down to hell, here not understood as a place of punishment but as Sheol or Gehenna: simply, the place of the dead.
There he encounters—who exactly? The prophets of the Old Testament, I imagine. That could be King David wearing a crown on the left. They could also be virtuous Gentiles (I’ve seen icons that include Plato and Aristotle, for example). But who is the woman on the bottom-right? And the figures not given any color? And what is the creature attempting to devour them?
I’m not sure.
I can say with some confidence that the icon anticipates the harrowing of hell that is coming in the time between Jesus’ death and Resurrection, when, as we say in the Apostles’ Creed, “he descended into hell.”
So here’s John the Baptist, preparing the souls of the dead for Jesus’ coming liberation.
I saw this making the rounds online and had to go find the original. A classic:
Ten years ago, a devout beekeeper thought to place in one of his hives an icon of the Crucifixion of the Lord. Soon thereafter, when he opened the hive, he was amazed that the bees showed respect and devotion to the icon, having “embroidered” it in wax, yet leaving uncovered the face and body of the Lord.
What is that the psalm says? “The heavens proclaim the glory of God, and the earth shows forth the work of his hands.”
Yesterday was the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. Francis was a great lover of nature, so Bekah and I went on a hike in his honor, and today I’m featuring this icon by Father John Giuliani. From the product description:
In this icon print by Father John Giuliani, Francis of Assisi, robed in a garment of patches, calms the famed wolf of Gubbio, while two magpies join in his song of thanks and praise.
Traditional iconography gives witness to the human face of the Sacred. This icon, imaged in the features of America’s indigenous peoples, reveals anew that sacred power. It celebrates the soul of the Native American as the original spiritual presence on this continent, and as a prophetic sign, it celebrates the vision of Native and Christian peoples of this land.