On Iconography in the Orthodox West

Hieromonk Seraphim Rose 1934-1982

From the beginning, the Christian basilicas were adorned with mosaics or frescoes, at first in the apse, and very soon on the walls as well. Those in Gaul were lost together with the churches that housed them, and so we can only judge of them by contemporary descriptions and by surviving examples, especially in Italy, which was in close with Gaul at this time.

The iconography of the 4th century is rather close in style to the realism of later Roman painting, although by the end of the century, even in Rome, it is already changing towards the Byzantine style; in content it combines themes from the symbolic paintings of the catacombs (Christ as the Lamb, the Good Shepherd, etc.) with scenes from the Old and (more and more with time) from the New Testament. The basilica of St. Ambrose in Milan, dedicated in 386, contained frescoes (as we know from the inscriptions of the saint himself) from the Old Testament, and the following ones from the New Testament: the Annunciation, the conversion of Zacchaeus, the woman with the issue of blood, the Transfiguration, and St. John leaning on the breast of the Savior. Judging from the contemporary mosaics at St. Pudentiana in Rome, the style of these icons was already very close to the later Byzantine style. In the Basilica of St. Paulinus in Nola (404), the two sides of the nave contained scenes from the Old and New Testaments, and in the space between the windows above were apostles and saints, with Christ the King in the apse. There was yet no fixed rule for the depiction of various feasts or scriptural events, and there was no formal canonization of the saints who might be portrayed in icons; apostles, martyrs, and even recent bishops and ascetics were depicted according to their local veneration. There is even a case where, in the baptistery of the monastery of Sulpicius Severus at Primuliacum in southern Gaul, the recently-reposed St. Martin is depicted on one wall, and the still-living Bishop Paulinus of Nola on the opposite wall – something which aroused the good-natured protest of St. Paulinus, who wrote Severus: “By depicting me alone on the opposite wall, you have contrasted my lowly figure, shrouded in mental darkness, with Martin’s holy person.” (St. Paulinus, Letter 32)

The distinctive Byzantine style is already evident in the 5th century, and the 6th century is the age of an already developed and perfected art. The great basilicas of Ravenna are monumental triumphs of Byzantine iconography – an art which in style and subject-matter has not changed essentially through the ages, and is still very much alive today. The Byzantine style was universal in the Roman Empire, as may be seen in the icons even of the remote border area of Mt. Sinai, where the mosaic of the Transfiguration in the apse is identical with later icons of the feast down to our day. This is the Christian art that was known to the great Western hierarchs of the 6th century, St. Gregory, Pope of Rome and St. Gregory of Tours.

In Gaul, mosaic icons are known (History of the Franks 2.16; 10.45), but more commonly we hear of frescoes. The original basilica of St. Martin had frescoes which were restored by St. Gregory, as he himself relates (HF 10.31): “I found the walls of St. Martin’s basilica damaged by fire. I ordered my workmen to use all their skill to paint and decorate them, until they were as bright as they had previously been.” These frescoes must have been impressive, for when treating of the stay of a certain Eberulf in the basilica (under the law of sanctuary which then prevailed), St. Gregory writes: “When the priest had gone off, Eberulf’s young women and his men-servants used to come in and stand gaping at the frescoes on the walls” (HF 7.22). St. Gregory has preserved for us a brief account of how the frescoes were painted (5th century): “The wife of Namatius built the church of St. Stephen in the suburb outside the walls of Clermont-Ferrand. She wanted it to be decorated with colored frescoes. She used to hold in her lap a book from which she would read stories of events which happened long ago, and the tell the workmen what she wanted painted on the walls” (HF 2.17). This “book” might have been the Scriptures, the Life of a saint, or even, as Prof. Dalton suggests, “some sort of painter’s manual like those used in the East” (vol. 1, p. 327).

When restoring the main basilica of Tours (distinct from the basilica where Martin’s relics reposed), as Abbot Odo informs us precisely in his life of St. Gregory (ch. 12), the latter “decorated the walls with histories having for subject the exploits of Martin.”  It so happens that we have a list of these iconographic scenes in a poem of Fortunatus describing the basilica (Carmine 10.6). They are: (1) St. Martin curing a leper by a kiss; (2) dividing his cloak and giving half to a beggar; (3) giving away his tunic; (4) raising three men from the dead; (5) preventing the pine tree from falling on him by the sign of the Cross; (6) idols being crushed by a great column launched from heaven; (7) St. Martin exposing a pretended martyr. We can only regret the disappearance of such a notable monument of Orthodox Christian art, just one of many in 6th-century Gaul, the likes of which were not seen in later centuries in the West (where the Roman-Byzantine style was gradually lost); but we may gain a general idea of its appearance in the contemporary basilicas of Ravenna with their mosaic icons. One of these basilicas, indeed, was dedicated originally to St. Martin of Tours, the dedication later being changed to Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo.

Separate panel icons also existed at this time. In the history of Bede it is stated that St. Augustine of Canterbury and those with him, after landing in Britain in the year 597, came to King Ethelbert of Kent “bearing a silver cross for their banner, and the image of our Lord and Savior painted on a board” (Ecclesiastical History of England, Book I, ch. 25). In the Life of the Fathers (12.2) we read of “the icons (Latin iconicas) of the apostles and other saints” in the oratory where St. Bracchio prayed. It should be noted that the oratories and small village churches of Gaul would not, of course, be in basilica style or usually made of stone; they were generally of wood, and the icons in them were painted on boards and hung on the walls. The most detailed reference to these 6th-century panel icons is in St. Gregory’s Glory of the Martyrs (ch. 22), where we read, in the account “of the Jew who stole an icon (Latin iconica, or in one manuscript, icona) and pierced it,” the following which is also an impressive testimony of the truly orthodox attitude of the Church of Gaul at that time, as contrasted with the iconoclast sentiment which seized part of Gaul (as it did also of the Christian East) in the century of Charlemagne. Here are St. Gregory’s words: “The faith which remained pure among us up to this day causes us love Christ with such a love that the faithful who keep His law engraved in their hearts wish to have also His painted image, in memory of His virtue, on visible boards which they hang in their churches and in their homes… a Jew, who often saw in a church an image of this sort painted on a board (Latin imaginem in tabula pictam) attached to the wall, said to himself, ‘Behold the seducer who has humiliated us’… Having come then in the night, he pierced the image, took it down from the wall, and carried it under his clothes to his house in order to throw it into the fire.” He was discovered when it was found that the image shed copious blood in the place where it had been pierced (a miracle which occurred also later in Byzantium with the Icon of the Iviron Mother of God, and in Soviet times in Kaplunovka in Russia with a crucifix).

A number of such panel icons on wood have come down to us from 6th-century Mount Sinai; they are identical in appearance to the icons which pious Orthodox Christians cause to have painted for their churches and homes even today. (Vita Patrum: The Life of the Fathers by St. Gregory of Tours. Introduction to Orthodox Gaul, pp. 80-82)

On the Dormition and Angelic Powers

St. Gregory of Tours ca. 538-594

Finally, when blessed Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was about to be called from this world, all the Apostles, coming from their different regions, gathered together in her house. When they had heard that she was about to be taken up out of the world, they kept watch together with her.

And behold, the Lord Jesus came with His Angels and, taking her soul, handed it over to the Archangel Michael and withdrew. At dawn, the Apostles lifted up her body on a pallet, laid it in a tomb, and kept watch over it, awaiting the coming of the Lord. And behold, again the Lord presented Himself to them and ordered that her holy body be taken and carried up to heaven. There she is now, joined once more to her soul; she exults with the elect, rejoicing in the eternal blessings that will have no end. (Libri Miraculorum I, De Gloria Beatorum Martyrum 4; PL 71, 708. Excerpted from “Mary and the Fathers of the Church, The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought” by Luigi Gambero pg. 353)

St. Maximus the Confessor ca. 580-662

And behold, the glorious and wonderful  arrival of Christ her God and Son took place, and there were with Him innumerable hosts of angels and archangels and other hosts of seraphim and cherubim and thrones: they all stood with awe before the Lord, for wherever the King is, the host also accompany Him.

As she escaped the pains of childbirth in the ineffable Nativity, so the pains of death did not come upon her at the time of her Dormition, for both then and now the King and Lord of natures altered the course of nature. Then the host of angels invisibly applauded the send-off of her holy soul. The house and the surrounding area were filled by a waft of indescribable perfume, and unapproachable light (cf. 1 Tim. 6:16) spread forth over the holy body. And in this way the master and the disciples, and heaven and earth led forth the Holy Virgin: the gracious and glorious Lord and master led away the holy soul of His immacualte mother to heaven; the disciples took care of her immacualte body on earth, anointing it with myrrh and tending to the things that she had planned. And after a little while, her Son and God wished to translate the body to Paradise or somewhere. The Holy Apostles encircled the bed on which the Holy Theotokos’ body, wider than the heaven. They honored it with hymsn and praise; they embraced it with fear and trembling. They not only showed faith and devotion but were also gratified to receive grace and great benefit, and the work of faith had only just began.

Nevertheless, as soon as news of the holy queen’s Dormition had spread, all the sick and infirm assembled there. Then the eyes of the blind were opened, the ears of the deaf were unblocked, the lame stood up to walk (cf. Isa. 35:5-6), demons were expelled, and every suffering and sickness was cured. The sky and the heavens of heavens were sanctified by the ascension of the holy soul, and the earth likewise was made worthy of the honor of sanctity by the immaculate body. (The Life of the Virgin: 109, 110-111)

St. John Damascene ca. 676-749

Angels with Archangels bear thee up. Impure spirits trembled at thy departure. The air raises a hymn of praise at thy passage, and the atmosphere is purified. Heaven receives thy soul with joy. The heavenly powers greet thee with sacred canticles and with joyous praise, saying : “Who is this most pure creature ascending, shining as the dawn, beautiful as the moon, conspicuous as the sun? How sweet and lovely thou art, the lily of the field, the rose among thorns; therefore the young maidens loved thee. We are drawn after the odour of thy ointments. The King introduced thee into His chamber. There Powers protect thee, Principalities praise thee, Thrones proclaim thee, Cherubim are hushed in joy, and Seraphim magnify the true Mother by nature and by grace of their very Lord. Thou wert not taken into heaven as Elias was, nor didst thou penetrate to the third heaven with Paul, but thou didst reach the royal throne itself of thy Son, seeing it with thy own eyes, standing by it in joy and unspeakable familiarity. O gladness of angels and of all heavenly powers, sweetness of patriarchs and of the just, perpetual exultation of prophets, rejoicing the world and sanctifying all things, refreshment of the weary, comfort of the sorrowful, remission of sins, health of the sick, harbour of the storm-tossed, lasting strength of mourners, and perpetual succour of all who invoke thee…Thy pure and spotless body was not left in the earth, but the abode of the Queen, of God’s true Mother, was fixed in the heavenly kingdom alone.

O how did heaven receive her who is greater than heaven? How did she, who had received God, descend into the grave? This truly happened, and she was held by the tomb. It was not after bodily wise that she surpassed heaven. For how can a body measuring three cubits, and continually losing flesh, be compared with the dimensions of heaven ? It was rather by grace that she surpassed all height and depth, for that which is divine is incomparable. O sacred and wonderful, holy and worshipful body, ministered to now by angels, standing by in lowly reverence. Demons tremble: men approach with faith, honouring and worshipping her, greeting her with eyes and lips, and drawing down upon themselves abundant blessings. (Homily I, On the Dormition)

How can death claim as its prey this truly blessed one, who listened to God’s word in humility, and was filled with the Spirit, conceiving the Father’s gift through the archangel, bearing without concupiscence or the co-operation of man the Person of the Divine Word, who fills all things, bringing Him forth, without the pains of childbirth, being wholly united to God? How could Limbo open its gates to her ? How could corruption touch the life-giving body ? These are things quite foreign to the soul and body of God’s Mother. Death trembled before her. In approaching her Son, death had learnt experience from His sufferings, and had grown wiser. The gloomy descent to hell was not for her, but a joyous, easy, and sweet passage to heaven.

…What happens? Nature, I conjecture, is stirred to its depths, strange sounds and voices are heard, and the swelling hymns of angels who precede, accompany, and follow her. Some constitute the guard of honour to that undefiled and immaculate (panagia) soul on its way to heaven until the queen reaches the divine throne. Others surrounding the sacred and divine body proclaim God’s Mother in angelic harmony. What of those who watched by the most holy and immaculate (panagiw) body? In loving reverence and with tears of joy they gathered round the blessed and divine tabernacle, embracing every member, and were filled with holiness and thanksgiving. Then illnesses were cured, and demons were put to flight and banished to the regions of darkness. The air and atmosphere and heavens were sanctified by her passage through them, the earth by the burial of her body. (Homily II, On the Dormition)

St. John Maximovitch 1896-1966

[T]he Vir­gin Mary during Her eart­hly life avoi­ded the glory which belon­ged to Her as the Mot­her of the Lord. She pre­fer­red to live in quiet and pre­pare Her­self for the depar­ture into eter­nal life. To the last day of Her eart­hly life She took care to prove worthy of the King­dom of Her Son, and before death She prayed that He might deli­ver Her soul from the mali­cious spi­rits that meet human souls on the way to hea­ven and strive to seize them so as to take them away with them to hades. The Lord ful­fil­led the prayer of His Mot­her and in the hour of Her death Him­self came from hea­ven with a mul­ti­tude of angels to receive Her soul. (The Orthodox Veneration of Mary the Birthgiver of God)

[T]he so-called “toll-houses,” at each of which one or another form of sin is tested; after passing through one the soul comes upon the next one, and only after successfully passing through all of them can the soul continue its path without being immediately cast into gehenna. How terrible these demons and their toll-houses are may be seen in the fact that Mother of God herself, when informed by the Archangel Gabriel of her approaching death, answering her prayer, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself appeared from heaven to receive the soul of His Most Pure Mother and conduct it to heaven. (A Homily on Life After Death)

Also see: http://classicalchristianity.com/2011/12/12/who-is-the-king-of-glory/

On the Noetic Sun, Moon and Stars

St. Gregory of Tours ca. 538-594

When the Lawgiver-prophet began to speak of the creation of the world and to show the Lord forming the expanse of the heavens by the majesty of His right hand, he added, “And God made two great lights and the stars and placed them in the firmament of heaven, so that they rule over the day and the night and shine in the firmament of heaven” (Gen. 1:16-17). Likewise, in the firmament of human understanding He placed – as the authority of the Fathers affirms – two great lights, that is, Christ and the Church, in order that they shine in the darkness of ignorance and illuminate our humble intelligence as the Evangelist John says of the Lord, because truly He is the light of the world, Who “enlightens every man who comes into the world” (Jn. 1:9) He also placed in this firmament stars, that is, the patriarchs, prophets, and apostles, who instruct us with their doctrine and illuminate us with their miracles, as He has said in the Gospel: “You are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14), and again, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father Who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). The Apostles, to whom these words were addressed, have rightly been taken for the whole Church, which does not have wrinkles and which remains wihout blemish, as the Apostle says: “That He might present the Church to Himself pure, having no blemish or wrinkle or anything similar.” (Eph. 5:27)

Now, thanks to the doctrine of the Apostles there are up to our times men who, like unto stars in this world, not only were resplendent by the light of their merits, but also shone by the grandeur of their teachings; and who have lighted the whole universe by the rays of their preaching, going to teach in every place, founding monasteries for divine worship, instructing men to abstain from earthly cares and to despise the darkness of concupiscence in order to follow the true God, by Whom everything has been created. (Vita Patrum: The Life of the Fathers by St. Gregory of Tours trans. by Hieromonk Seraphim Rose. Chap. 18 pp.275-276)

On St. Salvius the Seer of Heavenly Mysteries

St. Gregory of Tours ca. 538-594

The feeling of reverence which I have for him compels me to say something about St. Salvius. He often used to tell how, during his years as a layman, while he was occupying himself with worldly affairs he never permitted himself to be ensnared by the carnal desires which so frequently fill the minds of young people. When the Holy Spirit finally found a place in his heart, he gave up the struggle of worldly existence and entered a monastery. As one now consecrated to Almighty God, he understood that it was better to serve the Lord in poverty and to humble oneself before Him, rather than to strive after the wealth of this transient world. He spent many years in his monastery and observed the rule instituted by the Fathers…

One day when Salvius lay in bed, gasping for breath and weakened by a fever, his cell was suddenly filld with a bright light and the walls seemed to shake. He stretched out his hands to heaven, and as he gave thanks he breathed forth his spirit. The monks, together with his own mother carried his dead body out of the cell with lamentation; then they washed it, vested it and placed it upon a bier. They passed the long night in weeping and singing psalms.

When morning came and all was ready for the funeral, the corpse began to move on the bier. Salvius’ cheeks became flushed, he stirred himself as if awakened from a deep sleep, opened his eyes, raised his hands and spoke: “Oh merciful Lord, why hast Thou done this to me? Why hast Thou decreed that I should return to this dark place where we dwell on earth? I would have been much happier in Thy compassion on high, rather than having to begin once again my profitless life here below.” Those around him were in perplexity. When they asked him the meaning of the miracle which had occurred, he gave no reply. He rose from the bier, feeling no ill effects from the illness which he had suffered, and for three days he remained without food or drink.

On the third day he called the monks, together with his mother. “My most dear friends,” he said, “hear what I am about to say. You must understand that all you see in this world is entirely without value. All is vanity, exactly as the prophet Solomon proclaimed. Blessed is he who behaves in such a way in this earthly existence that he is rewarded by beholding God in His glory in heaven.”

As he said this, he wondered whether he should say more or stop with this. He was silent for a while, but the monks begged him to tell them what he had seen. “When my cell shook four days ago,” he continued, “and you saw me lying dead, I was raised up by two angels and carried to the highest peak of heaven, until I seemed to have beneath my feet not only this miserable earth, but also the sun and moon, the clouds and the stars. Then I was conducted through a gate that shone more brightly than the light of the sun and entered a building where the whole floor shone with gold and silver. The light was impossible to describe. The place was filled with a multitude of people, neither male nor female, stretching so far in all directions that one could not see where it ended. The angels made a way for me through the crowd of people in front of me, and we came to the place towards which our gaze had been directed even when we had been far away. Over this place there hung a cloud more brilliant than any light, and yet no sun or moon or star could be seen; indeed, the cloud shone more brightly than any of these with its own brilliance. A voice came out of the cloud, as the voice of many waters. Sinner that I am, I was greeted with great respect by a number of beings, some dressed in priestly vestments and others in ordinary dress; my guides told me that these were the martyrs and other holy men whom we honor here on earth and to whom we pray with great devotion. As I stood here there was wafted over me a fragrance of such sweetness that, nourished by it, I have felt no need of food or drink until this very moment.”

“Then I heard a voice which said: ‘Let this man go back into the world, for our churches have need of him.’ I heard the voice, but I could not see who was speaking. Then I prostrated myself on the ground and wept. ‘Alas, alas, O Lord!’ I said. ‘Why hast Thou shown me these things only to take them away from me again? Thou dost cast me out today from before Thy face and send me back again to a worldly life without substance, since I am powerless to return on high. I entreat Thee, O Lord: turn not Thy mercy away from me. Let me remain here, I beseech Thee, lest falling once more to the earth, I perish. The voice which had spoken to me said: ‘Go in peace. I will watch over you until I bring you back once more to this place.’ Then my guides left me and I turned back through the gate by which I had entered, weeping as I went.”

As he said this, those who were with him were amazed. The holy man of God wept. Then he said: “Woe to me that I have dared to reveal such a mystery! The fragrance which I smelled in that holy place, and by which I have been nourished for three days without food or drink, has already left me. My tongue is covered with sores and has become so swollen that it fills my whole mouth. It is evident that it has not been pleasing in the eyes of my Lord God that these mysteries should be revealed. Thou knowest well, O Lord, that I have did this in the simplicity of my heart, and not in a spirit of vainglory. Have mercy on me, I beseech Thee, and do not forsake me, according to Thy promise.” When he had said this, Salvius became silent; then he began to eat and drink.

As I write these words, I fear that my account may seem quite incredible to some of my readers; and I am mindful of what the historian Sallust wrote: “When we record the virtue or glory of famous men, the reader will readily accept whatever he considers that he might have done himself; anything which exceeds these bounds of possibility he will regard as untrue.” I call Almighty God to witness that everything that I have related here I have heard from the lips of Salvius himself. (Vita Patrum: The Life of the Fathers by St. Gregory of Tours; trans. by Hieromonk Seraphim Rose. Chap. 21 pp. 295-298)

On the Wrath of God

St. Gregory of Tours ca. 538-594

[T]he heretics upbraid us because the Holy Scripture says that the Lord was angry. Let them know therefore that our God is not angry like a man; for He is aroused in order to inspire fear; He drives away to summon back; He is angry in order to amend. (The History of the Franks Bk. 1.4)

Bede the Venerable ca. 673-735

Wisdom 12:18 But you, O Lord of power, judge with serenity.

Any sort of human judge judges someone failing in his duty with serenity of mind, even if he judges justly; but he is not able to imitate the justice of divine judgement, into which emotion does not know how to enter. (Commentary on James)

On the Meaning of “Without Spot or Wrinkle”

St. Gregory of Tours ca. 538-594

In the beginning the Lord shaped the heaven and the earth in His Christ, Who is the beginning of all things, that is, in His Son; and after creating the elements of the whole universe, taking a frail clod He formed man after His own image and likeness, and breathed upon his face the breath of life and he was made into a living soul. And while he slept a rib was taken from him and the woman, Eve, was created. There is no doubt that this first man Adam before he sinned typified the Redeemer. For as the Redeemer slept in the stupor of suffering and caused water and blood to issue from His side, He brought into existence the virgin and unspotted Church, redeemed by blood, purified by water, having no spot or wrinkle, that is, washed with water to avoid a spot, stretched on the cross to avoid a wrinkle. (History of the Franks Bk. 1.1)