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A' Byzantine Hagiography

1. Byzantine Temples

2. The Holy Icons

3. The Iconnomachy Period

B' Icons Pertaining To The Twelve Feasts

1. The Annunciation Of The Theotokos

2.The Birth Of Christ

3. Christ's Indroduction Into The Temple

4.The Baptism

5. The Transfiguration

6. The Resurrection Of Lazarus

7. Palm Bearing Day - Christ Entering Jerusalem

8.The Crucifixion

9. The Resurrection

10. The Ascension

11. The Pentecost

12. The Dormition Of The Theotokos

Abraham's Hospitality

The Almighty

The Holy Mantelion

Icons Of The Holy Mother:
"The Merciful" or "The Tenderly Kissing"

The Apostole Peter

The Apostole Paul

The Archangel Michael


Everything that was said about the Person of the Lord applies equally and extends to, the persons of the Theotokos and the saints.

Of the Theotokos, we mentioned that her person is directly related to the Lord's incarnation. If we deny her the status of "Mother of God", the dogma of her Son's incarnation is traumatized and retracted. The Theotokos did not give birth to the man Christ, as Nestorius asserted; she gave birth to the Persona of the Son and Logos of God, the incarnate God. This is the reason John the Damascene says that the title of 'Theotokos' " comprises the overall mystery of divine providence " (Orthodox faith edition 3,12). By naming the Holy Mother 'Theotokos', we are confessing that He who was born of her, was both God and man.

In order for the Theotokos to serve in the mystery of Christ's incarnation, she was prepared accordingly, by the Holy Spirit. Just as the archangel had told her during the Annunciation, she was to be visited by the Holy Spirit, and she was to be overshadowed by the power of the Almighty. It was thus, that the Theotokos became " the fiery vehicle of the Logos ", " the citadel of the king of all ", " the spacious tabernacle of the Logos ", as our Church addresses her in the Non-sedentary Hymn. According to Cyril of Alexandria, the Theotokos is " the most revered relic of the universe, the inextinguishable candle, the crown of virginity, the scepter of Orthodoxy, the indestructible temple and the space of the uncontainable power, the mother and virgin...." (PG 77, 992 B).

The orthodox hagiographer, likewise overflowing with sentiments of admiration as a member of the Church towards Our Lady, the Bride of God, the " more precious than the Cherubim and more glorious than the Seraphim ", does not dare to portray her in a naturalistic way (pic.3). He does not look for models amongst women for ideal characteristics, striking beauty, and sweetness of expression, in order to use them as models for portraying the Most Holy Theotokos. There are no human models for the faces of our Saviour and the Theotokos; they simply do not exist. " For this reason, orthodox art created those idealistic forms, by which the highlighting and exalting of characteristics distract the beholder from the semblances of everyday faces, imposing the idea of the transcendental reality in which these faces belong... Naturally, those who are far away from this Orthodox ideology cannot possibly understand why these faces are portrayed with supernatural characteristics such as oversized eyes, noses or hands. Those who do have a deeper perception of the orthodox artistic ideals, are able to appreciate the orthodox hagiographer's attempts, who, through the use of "exaggeration", "transcendence", and even "deformation" of natural characteristics, attempts to portray the "beyond nature, beyond reason and beyond understanding" elements of these divine faces" (K. Kalokyris).

Apart from the images of Christ, the Theotokos and biblical scenes, we observe in our temples individual portrayals of saints. Like other Byzantine art works, Byzantine icons of saints have also been misinterpreted by many. These icons may look weird, unnatural and even repulsive. To the faithful who are acquainted with and influenced by Western religious images, it is not easy to grasp the spiritual meaning of this Byzantine form of art. They forget that the faces portrayed are in fact immaterialized, unworldly, pensive, because they belong to the celestial and eternal sphere, and not to this terrestrial and ephemeral sphere.

In reply to the question "why isn't Byzantine art natural?", the memorable hagiographer Fotis Kontoglou notes in one of his studies: " It is not natural, because it is not intended to portray only the natural, but the supernatural as well. The art form, whose purpose is to represent only those things that can be seen with mortal eyes, is called representational art, because it represents a man, or a historical particular, or a natural phenomenon, the way it would most likely appear, if we all perceived it in the same way. The artist re-portrays it, using his personal fantasy. However, Byzantine art does not aspire to this achievement. It wants us to rise up, from the tangible to the intelligible; from the things we can see with our mortal eyes to those things that can only be seen by those who have spiritual vision; in other words, from the ephemeral to the eternal. This elevation is in fact a means of transferal. This art form also uses natural forms and colours, except that it intellectualizes them; it converts them from materialistic to spiritual. Shapes and colours in Byzantine art become mystic, in order to enable the portrayal of the mystic world of the spirit. This is why they do not remain natural. Just as a word or words that express something materialistic, can become spiritual and express certain spiritual and mystic meanings, so it is with the shapes and colours of Byzantine painting ".

As we can see from the above excerpt, Byzantine art transports the faithful to another world, the spiritual world - the world of heavenly bliss. The desire of this art form of orthodox hagiography is to transport us mentally to this paradise. That is why John the Damascene in response to the question: "what is the reason for the existence of icons?", tells us: " Every icon is a revelation and an indication of that which is hidden ". And elsewhere he notes: " Just as by listening to perceptible words with our corporal ears we can comprehend spiritual things, in the same way, with our corporal vision we can reach spiritual theory " (prev.3,12).

Before taking a look at saints in their icons, it is necessary to be aware of what saints are. " Saints - says a foreign orthodox theologian - are the more perfected Christians, because they were sanctified to the greatest possible extent; a standard that was attained by them actively living their faith in the resurrected and eternally living Lord Jesus. Indeed, they are the only, true immortals of the human race, because with all their being, they live within the resurrected Christ and for Him, and no death has any authority over them. Their entire life belonged to Christ, hence their life was a Christ-life; their thoughts were Christ-thoughts, their senses were Christ-senses. Whatever was theirs, was first Christ's, then theirs. If it was the soul, it too was first Christ's, then theirs. According to them, they were not themselves, but everything was Christ's and in Christ " (Justin Popovic).

A saint - to summarize all the above - is that which our Church says of them: " terrestrial angels and heavenly mortals " (from hymns for saints). Indeed, saints may be carnal beings, but they do not lead carnal lives. They are, like all of us, denizens of this earth, but unlike many of us, they behave as denizens of heaven.

Saints therefore are athletes in the arena of spiritual living. For their perseverance in the arena, they received the victory wreath from the "Event-Placing" Lord; the unfading wreath of justice and glory. They are the inheritors of the " kingdom prepared since the beginning of time " (Matthew, 25, 34); they donned not only the image of earthen men, but also the image of a celestial person. Their images should not remind us of the perishable, earthly world, but the celestial one that they have inherited. The images of saints are the mirrorings of man's theosis by the grace of the Holy Spirit. We honour them and we revere them, keeping in mind their celestial bodies and their partaking of divine life. This is the life that we shall attain - that we must attain - as they did.

After all that has been said about the saints, let us see how their forms are portrayed. A saint has lived a life imbued and transfigured by the Holy Spirit. Thus, his image does nothing more than portray his transfigured life. It reminds us of his place and his ministry in the Church ( if - for instance - he was an apostle, a bishop, a monk, a martyr etc. ), and at the same time, of his theosis - his sanctified state.

According to the term given by John the Damascene, " the icon is a semblance that portrays the original, along with any differences that it may have; for an image can not resemble the original in everything ". The image therefore can resemble the original, but also differ from it.

Similarity is necessary, because it is the only way to preserve the direct, living connection with the portrayed person. Certain external characteristics are stereotyped in every icon of the same saint, because " a genuine image - one that is believed to resemble the authentic prototype - is an image blessed by the grace of the portrayed saintly person, therefore every icon of the same saint must faithfully replicate an older icon, so that the older icon's grace may "migrate" to the new icon, through this similarity " (Manolis Chatjidakis). We encounter this same com- ment in Theodore Studite's text, who wrote that the veneration of an icon is not demoted in the event of dissimilarity to the prototype (attributed to the artist's unskillful technique), because what is important, is those things that it has in common with the prototype. " Veneration, not of that which is lacking from the image, but of that which it represents " (PG 99, 421 C).

Since the image of a saint is definitely related to his person, the saint's grace passes through to his image. John the Damascene unambiguously states that: "...for the saints and the living were filled with the Holy Spirit, and, upon their demise, the Holy Spirit - without egressing - continued to remain in them, in their souls, their bodies, their graves, their writings, and their holy icons, not in essence, but through the Holy Spirit's grace and energy " (prev. 1,19).

Apart from the resemblance to the set characteristics of a saint, a necessary element of Byzantine images is also its differentiation from the original. Since the saint is enrobed with the grace of God, his image on the icon must not be materialistic and mortal in appearance, that is, natural-looking. It must be such, that it reveals his status of divine Grace, the sanctity of his person and his imperishable status in the kingdom of heaven.

How can this second status - the transfigured life - of the saint be portrayed? Quite often, a saint departs from this life unobserved. Many insignificant people in this world - labourers, slaves, simple people of a community "living secretly", monks " wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and the hollows of the earth " - have proved to be the select members of the faithful. The Church has drafted her saints and blessed ones from these very ranks. " The world cannot see the saints, just as a blind man cannot see the light ", says the Metropolitan of Moscow, Filaretos. In order for orthodox hagiography to portray spiritual reality, it resorts to symbolic means. It does not depict the various members of the body with their proper anatomical proportions. The eyes are usually large, almond-shaped, and lively. The fingers of their hands are longer, the cheekbones more prominent. The nose is long and thin, and the mouth notably smaller. All members of the body have been distorted, because they have become instruments of the spirit.

The background of an icon has the same kind of spirituality. The scenery is depicted differently. The buildings in these depictions do not conform to reality. They are only schematically portrayed, in order to frame the main theme and to project the saintly forms. " In hagiography, everything depicted in an icon has been sanctified, and that is why their character is spiritual; not only the persons of the saints, but also the mountains, the trees, the animals, the buildings, the grass on the ground. Even if a hagiographer has seen a living saint with his very own eyes, he will still not portray him in a natural manner, materialistically, but in a spiritual way, illuminated by divine Grace " (Fotis Kontoglou).

Everything in icons is divine light and spirit. The halo that we see around the heads of saints symbolizes the divine light that bathes the one being portrayed. Saints radiate the glory of the Holy Trinity. It has been aptly observed, that from one aspect, an icon is similar to a tourist bureau poster, which invites us to travel to a wondrous land. An icon is likewise an invitation, for a journey to heaven.

We shall conclude the present examination of Byzantine painting, with an excerpt from the conditions of faith of the 7 th Ecumenical Synod (787 A.D.). This Synod condemned iconomachy, and, on the basis of Saint John the Damascene's teachings, defined the relative orthodox teaching : icons are to receive honorary veneration, which refers back to the prototype, that is, the person depicted therein. (Basil the Great, PG 32, 149 C). Actual worship " is due, only unto divine nature "; that is, worship is appropriate only for God. The purpose of venerating icons is: that those who look upon them, should bring to mind the persons depicted in them, and yearn to imitate their blessed lifestyle. Finally, the 7 th Ecumenical Synod, in its terms and its minutes, placed holy icons at the same level as the Bible and the holy Cross.

" We hereby decree with every accuracy and attention, to place - along with the symbol of the valuable and life-giving Cross - all venerable and holy icons made of colours and mosaic and other suitable materials, inside the holy temples of God, in sacramental vessels and garments, on walls and wooden surfaces, in homes and in streets; icons of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ; of his immaculate mother, our Lady the holy Theotokos; of the distinguished angels, and of all saints and blessed men. The more frequently these are looked upon in their icons, the more the beholders will be moved towards remembering and yearning for the originals depicted and towards offering their affection and honorary veneration - not as one would in actual worship (according to our true faith) which is appropriate only for divine nature - only the kind of veneration that is felt when making the sign of the valuable and life-giving Cross, or the reverence shown to the holy testaments, and other sacred votive items, or during incense-burning and illumination, as was the pious practice of the ancients. The reverence offered to an icon travels back to its prototype, and the one who venerates the icon, venerates the hypostasis of the one depicted therein ".

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