Icons (Case 2)
Father Loukas of Xenophontos, Icon of the Transfiguration of Christ
This icon depicts the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor (Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8, and Luke 9:28-36). Christ stands in the center, robed in a garment that is whiter than snow and surrounded by glory. His right hand is raised in blessing, while his left hand clutches a scroll. Rays shine forth from a complex areola of uncreated light behind Christ and strike the witnesses present. The prophets Moses, on Christ’s left with the Tablets of the Law, and Elijah, on Christ’s right, gesture toward him from adjacent peaks (Mount Sinai). The apostles Peter, John, and James have abandoned their sandals as they prostrate themselves on the holy ground at Christ’s feet, stunned by vision of the glorified Christ.
Several iconographic details suggest the icon’s affirmation and repetition of hesychastic Transfiguration imagery. Central to Gregory of Palamas’ hesychast theology1 is the doctrine of uncreated light, depicted in the icon with what scholars have called an hesychastic mandorla.2 With clear Trinitarian reference, its complex arrangement and coloration also reflect the experience of divinity on Mount Tabor: The Transfiguration is a vision of the invisible and comprehension of the incomprehensible. The blue color of the mandorla, which darkens toward the middle, depicts this paradox. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite’s apophatic theology calls the divine light a “luminous darkness.”3 The use of dark blue color is associated with the unknowable darkness of God’s essence, which is hidden by the profusion of light.
Likewise, the tripartate mountain emphasizes hesychast differentiation between the essence of God, hidden in darkness on Mount Sinai, and his energies, revealed in the uncreated light on Mount Tabor. Similar to the superimposed figures of the mandorla, the mountains are one unity that join at the base. As a “visual assimilation of Tabor into Sinai,”4 the iconography emphasizes hesychastic belief in the full revelation of Christ’s divintiy on Mount Tabor. The position of the apostles and their illuminated clothing confirm the transformative power of such an experience of divine energies.
The format and composition of Father Loukas’ icon indicate that it was likely modeled on a miniature of the Transfiguration (ca. 1370-1375) in the fourteenth century Palaeologan Byzantine codex (Cod. Par. Gr. 1242) at the Bibliothéque Nationale de France (Fig. 1).5 The figures of Christ, the prophets, and the apostles are in keeping with the elongated proportions and swelling of the middle that were common during the Palaeologan period. In this respect, it is also closely related to several sixteenth century Athonite predecessors, including the Stavronikita Transfiguration (Fig. 2) and the Pantokrator Transfiguration (Fig. 3), both attributed to Theophanes the Cretan and tied to the same codex.6 The iconographic peculiarities of the codex Transfiguration entered 16th-century art by way of the Cretan School and spread to the rest of the Orthodox world.7
Alfeyev, Hilarion “God in the Works of the Eastern Church Fathers,” in Orthodox Christianity: Volume II Doctrine and Teaching of the Orthodox Church, trans. Andrew Smith, Yonkers NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2012.
Andreopoulos, Andreas Metamophosis: The Transfiguration in the Byzantine Theology and Iconography Crestwood NJ: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2005.
Dionysius the Areopagite, “On Divine Names,” in The Works of Dionysius Areopagite, part 1, trans. John Parker, London: James Parker & Co., 1897.
Drpic, Ivan. “Art, Hesychasm, and Visual Exegesis: Parisinus Graecus 1242 Revisited,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 62 (2008): 217-47.
Galavaris, George. “Aspects of Book Illumination on Mount Athos,” Diethnes Sumposio Buzantinê Makedonia, 324-1420, Thessalonikê 29-31 Oktôbriou 1992. Athens, 1995, 91-103.
Karakatsanis, Athanasios, ed., Treasures of Mount Athos Thessaloniki, Museum of Byzantine Culture, 1997.
Krausmüller, D. “The Rise of Hesychasm,” in The Cambridge History of Christianity, vol. 5, ed. M. Angold, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Patterson, James. “Hesychastic Thought as Revealed in Byzantine, Greek and Romanian Church Frescoes: A Theory of Origin and Diffusion,” Révue des Etudes Sud-Est Européennes 16 (1978): 663-70.
1For an introduction to hesychasm in the Eastern Orthodox Church, see Krausmüller(2006), 101-126 and Alfeyev (2012), 111-179.
2For the iconography and history of the hesychastic mandorla see Patterson (1978), 663-670 and Andreopoulos (2005).
3Dionysius the Areopagite, 1-36.
4Drpic (2008), 232.
5Galavaris (1995), fig. 224.
6Karakatsanis, ed. Treasures of Mount Athos (1997), fig. 2.62, 2.74.
Brother Kassianos, Constantine and Helena
Constantine and Helena, dressed in a Byzantine imperial costume known as the loros, are shown flanking and holding the gemmed cross. The composition displayed on this icon is based on a common iconography found on Byzantine cross reliquaries and in icons going back to the tenth century, and the Athos icon finds a close parallel in an example at the Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai.1
Helena, also known as St. Helen, was married to Constantius Chlorus, and was the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine I (r. 306-337). According to the Inventio crucis (“Invention” or “Finding of the Cross”)2 – one of three legends surrounding the discovery of the cross – Helena was sent to Palestine in search of the holy sites by her son. As a result of her journey she is credited with the recovery of the cross in Jerusalem. It is said she encountered three crosses, but was guided by the Holy Spirit to identify that of Christ and not those of the thieves.3 Before its discovery, the location of the cross had been concealed for three centuries.4
Constantine the Great was the first Roman Emperor to accept and actively promote Christianity. In his early life he worshiped the sun god, Sol Invictus, as his father did.5 He later converted to Christianity for reasons that, to this day, are a bit ambiguous, but likely were motivated by political gain rather than spiritual reasons. With the Edict of Milan in the year 313 Constantine legalized Christianity, making Sunday the official day for worship.6 Prior to Constantine’s conversion, the cross had not been a widely used symbol for Christians; in fact it was secondary to the fish, ship, and dove. During his rule it became popularized and was dispersed in many forms such as prayer books, jewelry, coins, and clothing.7 Generally, Constantine is a celebrated figure among Christian communities. He became known as the isapostolos8 – thirteenth apostle – after his baptism on his deathbed in the 337 and according to his own plan, was buried amidst cenotaphs of the twelve apostles in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople.
September 14th marks the Exaltation of the Cross-, which is a major feast day in the Orthodox Church celebrating the joint veneration of mother and son, as well as the Discovery of the Cross. After recovering the cross, Helena brought it back to the court where the Patriarch then lifted it above the pulpit so that the crowd could see it, which proceeded to responded with “Lord have mercy.” This occasion became known as the Exaltation. The feast day provides an opportunity to celebrate the full significance of the cross, including its power and the triumph of God through it. The celebration consists of a Vespers service the night before, as well as a Matins service on the day of the feast. The monks place a cross on a tray and encircle it with sprigs of basil – the fragrant herb that grew where the cross was found. Then a procession takes place during which a hymn is chanted. The priest raises and lowers the cross in memory of its exaltation. At the end of the service, the priest disperses the basil to other monks as an offering.9
Baert, Barbara, and Lee Preedy. Heritage of Holy Wood: The Legend of the True Cross in Text and Image. Brill Academic Publishers, 2004.
“Feast of the Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross.” Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Accessed December 11, 2016 at http://www.goarch.org/special/listen_learn_share/exaltholycross/index_html.
Jones, Christopher P. Between Pagan and Christian. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.
Teteriatnikov, Natalia. “The True Cross Flanked by Constantine and Helena. A Study in the Light of the Post-Iconosclastic Re-evaluation of the Cross,” Deltion 18 (1995): 169-188; Accessed January 12, 2017 online at http://ejournals.epublishing.ekt.gr/index.php/deltion/article/viewFile/4619/4395.pdf.
Saunders, William. “St. Helena and the True Cross.” Catholic Education Resource Center. 2005. Accessed December 11, 2016.
Thompson, Glen L. Rethinking Constantine: History, Theology, and Legacy. London: James Clarke & Co, 2014.
Weed, Stanley E. “Reviewed Work: A Heritage of Holy Wood: The Legend of the True Cross in Text and Image by Barbara Baert.” The Sixteenth Century Journal 37, no. 3 (2006): 787-88. doi:10.2307/20478010.
1For the history of this theme in Byzantine art and its roots in the post-Iconoclastic cult of the Cross, see Teteriatnikov, “The True Cross Flanked by Constantine and Helena”.
2Saunders, “St. Helena and the True Cross.”
3Baert and Preedy, Heritage of Holy Wood.
4Weed, “Reviewed Work: A Heritage of Holy Wood.”
5Jones, Between Pagan and Christian.
6Thompson, Rethinking Constantine.
7Baert and Preedy, Heritage of Holy Wood.
8Thompson, Rethinking Constantine.
9“Feast of the Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross.” Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America online at http://www.goarch.org/special/listen_learn_share/exaltholycross/index_html. Accessed December 11, 2016.
Father Loukas, Anastasis (Resurrection)
This is the primary icon for the festival for Easter. It depicts Jesus Christ liberating Adam and Eve from confinement in Hell, along with John the Baptist at left and King David at right. Christ’s shifting pose reflects the burden of lifting all the virtuous dead who preceded him towards the light. Even mountain peaks bend towards his central position, reinforcing the idea of convergence or assembly that will occur in the Kingdom of Heaven. Dark-skinned Hades lies among broken locks and keys, bound and trampled beneath the gates of hell at Christ’s feet. Instead of showing the women coming to the empty tomb, this icon depicts a scene not described in the Bible: Christ descends into Hell, marking his human death, and through his divine nature, he triumphs over Hades and resurrects the dead.
The almond shaped aureole behind Christ, or mandorla (meaning almond nut in Italian), appears to be a form of portal into Heaven, and it can be found in other pictorial narratives of Christianity such as the Transfiguration and the Dormition of the Virgin. Its edges are white and it grows darker towards the center, reflecting the inability of terrestrial beings to see or depict divine light.
The origins of the Anastasis icon have been traced by Anna Kartsonis to the late 7th century in the context of theological debates over the status of the two energies, wills and natures of Christ within the context of Christ’s death and resurrection.1 The active image of Christ, radiating divine light, and trampling upon Hades as symbol of death, indicates the fully active divine nature of Christ, working through divine wills and energies even when Christ’s human body lies dead in the tomb.
While the first surviving examples of the Anastasis iconography date from the 8th century, this Athonite icon is based directly on a specific fourteenth-century example. Converging mountains peaks and hand gestures reflect the curved surface of the apse of the funerary chapel of the Chora Monastery in Istanbul, built and decorated under the patronage of Theodore Metochites (1315-21).2 The artist faithfully transfers the image from three to two-dimensional space, but excludes two large crowds who stood next to King David and John the Baptist. Due to the curve of the apse and the three quarter oblique poses of the figures, John the Baptist and King David physically face one another, without the viewer losing sight of their frontality.
Kartsonis, Anna. Anastasis: The Making of an Image. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.
Underwood, Paul. The Kariye Djami, 4 vols. New York: Pantheon Books, 1966–75.
2Underwood, Kariye Djami, vol. III: The Frescoes.