Sunday, February 27, 2011


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.


Unknown said...

Love love love!!!

Anonymous said...

This is a very well-written article on icons, and a movie review as well: a unique combination of topics that seems to come from your depth of knowledge, experience, and from your walk with God. The visual aspect of the Orthodox Church is sublime--but I must admit that I miss the stained glass windows of the Catholic Church. (I have actually been in a couple of Orthodox Churches that had stained glass--either this was grossly improper to the theology of icons or, perhaps like me, they also love stained glass.) I would like to reprint this post on my blog, Walk in Wisdom. This post is educational and personal and, although I do not get a lot of traffic on my blog, I feel that some people will relate to this who might not otherwise have access to it. Many thanks for your contributions to study and spirituality.

Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

Some Orthodox (Greek) churches have whole walls of stained glass ikons behind the ikonostasis and elsewhere. Stained glass is not often used this way, but rather in a more symbolic way, in Orthodox temples.

In my local church, the windows are very long and narrow and have a geometric image of the Trinity at the top in colors, and then descending from it in gradually darkening hues of violet till it becomes purple at the bottom of each window, where an outline of a city skyline is stylistically rendered, and the leading between the stained glass in the descending purples gradually becomes more and more complex, as if to show metaphorically that at the point of emanation, all is simple, and then as He descends to create and order the universes, the Divine Logos becomes more and more articulated and complex.

I like those windows very much. They always remind me of the way back to God, through gradual dismemberment of our fantasies, as He draws us upward into the embrace of His single Light.