Sunday, October 4, 2015

Ikons, ikons!

Seeing that naturalistic ikon of the Mother of God holding the Child Jesus in the platytera of the Kiev cathedral of St Vladimir made me think of another image that is deeply etched in my memory, and it has to do with the way the Savior's arms and hands are portrayed in the ikon by Vasnetsov.

The infant Christ isn't doing with His hands any of things we normally see Him doing: He's not holding an open or closed evangelion in one arm and blessing with the fingers of the other. No mystic spelling of the Divine Name with those tiny fingers.

Instead, He's doing what any child being held like that is likely to do: He's all arms, and His gaze is direct, lively and true. With them He speaks greater blessing and desire for us than anything else He could have done. He's here, and He's one of us. He even has a mother. Yes, He is the Son of God, but even His heavenly Father needed a daughter to become His Mother.

What the ikon made me remember is a scene in Franco Zeffirelli's film of the life and passion of Christ, Jesus of Nazareth. Everything about that film is, to me, ikonic, and it is obvious that the casting and the costumes were done with reference to Orthodox ikons. When Christ stands before the tomb of Lazarus about to call him forth into life, He suddenly and abruptly raises His arms in the same way as He does in the ikon. I was hoping the arms would be in exactly the same position as in the ikon but, alas, they are in mirror image. Yet, the enigma of why He holds up His arms like that, resembling the hands on the face of a clock—what is He trying to tell us? Do Zeffirelli and Vasnetsov know something we don't? Or am I just being captured by an odd visuality?

Back to the ikon. In most images of the Theotokos with the Child Jesus, the focus seems to be on the Mother, even when by her hand gestures and her look she is supposed to be inviting us to worship her Divine Son. The same is true of most Western art renditions of ‘the Madonna.’ But in Vasnetsov's work, the Divine Child practically leaps out at us, and the look on the Mother's face is something like, ‘Don't say I didn't warn you!’ I just love this image, it's so real.

Although Zeffirelli's film Jesus of Nazareth is now somewhat dated, it's still a very powerful film about Christ. In the same scene, the raising of Lazarus (which is one of my favorites) as Christ approaches the moment when He will call Lazarus forth from the tomb, there is a gradual movement of the camera toward His face, as He is praying to His Father, thanking Him beforehand for letting Lazarus be raised, confirming His authority as the Resurrection and the Life. In this frame taken from the film, we can see the resemblance to the face of Christ as depicted in the traditional ikon, ‘Holy Face.’

Yes, Zeffirelli was thinking of ikons when he directed this film. And why shouldn't he have? They have passed into the human psyche and so deeply that most people don't even notice they are there. We all know what Jesus looks like in our hearts, even though our minds may deny it.

Ikons, ikons! Where would we be without them? And the more closely we look at God's world and our own, the more ikons we find, until we finally discover, it is all ikon, and all pointing to the Artist.

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