Most of us try to put our best foot forward every day. If we have the means, we want to wear nice clothes for work and put on our “game face.” In private, we might “let it all hang out” and put on our sloppy clothes, but only if we’re staying inside. This is why the pajamas at Walmart memes persist as the walk of shame from sea to shining sea.
We like our art “pretty” also. Indeed, if it doesn’t match our current decorating theme, we don’t buy it. We want our art to fade into the wall and not interact with us. If this is our attitude, we aren’t candidates for an icon in our space. The icon is meant to open up a conversation with the viewer and with the Holy Spirit. The icon opens a window into the world beyond this reality, into eternity, in which the Holy Trinity and the communion of saints live forever. While the image itself isn’t Holy, what it represents is Holy. Therefore the icon is venerated, but not worshipped. Only God is worshipped.
Because most of us like our images beautiful, we prefer gold and silver over fading and flaking. We also like polished and pleasant more than brutal and broken. This is why most of us like Christmas more than Good Friday, even though both are necessary to understand at-one-ment and atonement.
The oldest icons often show the ravages of age. Centuries of use, with smoking candle soot and oils from many hands, have worn their surfaces raw. Many of us also show the scars of Time, but we also are the image of God, just as Christ is the living image of God. We are like the ancient icons, worn and weathered. If we were given an ancient holy icon, damaged by circumstances or desecrated by human hands, we would treat it with tenderness, reverence, and compassion. We wouldn’t pay attention to the damaged parts, or to the tragedy of the act of damage, but we’d focus on what is left of its beauty, not what was lost.
Only those who are rapidly aging may be able to understand this concept, or those who’ve suffered. Yet, the Man of Sorrows icon exists for those who know life isn’t always a bowl of cherries and even the best people will suffer. The suffering servant contradicts the promises of prosperity gospel, but the icon reminds us we aren’t alone when hard times strike.
The Virgin Hodegetria and the Man of Sorrows
This double-sided icon in the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D. C., depicts two of the most influential images in Byzantine art. On the front, the Virgin Hodegetria (“she who points the way”) gestures toward the Christ child as the path to salvation.
The image derives from a venerated model, which was legendary. Saint Luke was the purported artist who painted the original from life in Jerusalem and others brought it to Constantinople in the fifth century. Pilgrims flocked to the Monastery of the Hodegon to revere the original icon, which was paraded weekly through the streets of the capital. Widely copied, it’s one of the most common types of images of the Virgin.
On the other side is the icon of Christ after the Crucifixion, laid out for burial with his arms at his sides. This is the earliest known panel painting of the Man of Sorrows, a name taken from an Old Testament description of the Messiah: “He is despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3).”
Called Akra Tapaneiosis (Ultimate Humiliation) in the Greek Orthodox Church, the subject originated in Byzantium in the 11th century in response to liturgical changes and became widespread in the medieval West. This icon dates from the last quarter of the 12th century.
The Kastoria icon imbues the traditional Virgin Hodegetria with heightened emotion found also in hymns and sermons, especially after Iconoclasm. Her sorrowful expression and furrowed brow suggest that she foresees her son’s death. On Mary’s grief at the Crucifixion, the ninth-century bishop George of Nicomedia wrote,“Who will enumerate the arrows that penetrated her heart? Who will recount in words her pains that are beyond words?” His sermon served as the lesson on Good Friday when this icon was displayed during the church service commemorating Christ’s Crucifixion.
Today is an official snow day here in our town. While other parts of our state got up to 5 inches of the fluffy white stuff, we got a mere dusting. However, our temperatures fell into the low teens with wind chills in the single digits. Those of you from our northern states might think we’re silly, but our schools don’t have heating systems adequate for these temperatures and our school buses don’t have special tires for icy back roads. I’m not leaving for nothing!
Today is a good studio day, since the sunshine is bright here in my sixth floor home overlooking the lake. I’m working on a new icon of the entombed Christ. These take a common form of the figure in repose, with the eyes closed as if in sleep, but the viewer reads the image as the sleep of death. The compact body lacks all physical power, so the truth of death is real. Christ doesn’t pretend to die, but suffers death for all creation.
We in the western world have limited the new creation to humanity, but scripture speaks of a renewal of this world at the Great Day of the Lord:
“But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” ~~ 2 Peter 3:13
Too many today are waiting for God’s destruction of this world so they can get on to the better world beyond. Instead, the icon of the entombment calls us to grieve over this world and hear the Easter call to make it new and fresh again.
When Good Friday’s sadness leads us to the joy of Easter’s resurrection, we discover the same cycle works out in our own life also. Most of us want only to go from joy to joy, but we forget the power of suffering. The prophets saw suffering as an opportunity for change and transformation, as well as hope. If we meditate on the entombment icon, we’ll hear the call to bring hope to the poor, justice to the marginalized, and joy to the suffering.
If we go from Christmas to Easter, we’ll always celebrate the festivities and parades. If we never look at the flight into Egypt, we miss the refugee holy family bearing the gifts from the three kings. If we only eat the hot cross buns, we dismiss the suffering servants of every age and every continent. If we only celebrate our success and prosperity in Christ, we are complicit in the suffering of our world and our failure to be God’s co-creators in the New and better world.
As an artist, I’m always creating a “new thing,” so perhaps this is why God’s message about humanity’s role in caring for the world and our neighbors, no matter where they are, is important to me. This painting will look different when I put the blues and greens on it, but right now it looks like a blaze of sunshine! I hope you will be a ray of sunshine in your corner of the world today.