The Beauty of Holiness – meditations on icons for Advent

Rachel Huckstep is a Roman Catholic lay chaplain at King’s College London.  She is an alumni of The Courtauld Institute,  London and Heythrop College, and is involved in projects combining art history and theology. She is a guest writer for Rochester Arts in Mission and has written some meditations for Advent on the subject of the beauty of holiness. 

Beauty and the Holy cannot be separated and we see this clearly in the greatly treasured religious icons from the eastern Christian tradition. Below are a series of reflections on four Holy icons for the season of Advent as we prepare for the arrival of Beauty in the person of the Holy Lord Jesus.

First Sunday of Advent – Icon of Christ Pantocrator

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This early sixth-century icon from St Catherine’s monastery, Sinai, Egypt, is considered the oldest depiction of Christ Pantocrator (“All Sovereign” or “Lord of Armies”). Also known as “The Blessing Christ”, the large and impressive encaustic (coloured pigments suspended in beeswax) on panel, 84 cm x 45.5 cm x 1.2 cm, is a highly precious survivor of Byzantine Iconoclasm (the War of Images, 726-843 AD).

Trimmed at the sides and top and painted on a thin panel, the icon was likely to have been made for magisterial display in the Sinai basilica where, when seen by flickering candlelight, the warm tones and surface of the beeswax medium lent itself to portraying the humanity and flesh of Christ. At the base of the icon paint has been worn away from fifteen hundred years of hands and lips giving veneration in prayer.

Full face to the viewer with his right hand raised in blessing and a large ornamented Gospel Book held by his left, the Sinai Christ wears the purple cloak, tunic and vertical stripe, with barely visible gold striations, of a Byzantine emperor. Whilst this image is commonly termed “Pantocrator” (a term first used in the ninth century) a later inscription can be seen above Christ’s right shoulder, “Philanthropos” (Lover of Humankind).

Christ fills the panel and appears to be caught moving out towards the viewer and away from an architectural background that recedes into the distance.  Christ’s sensitively-fingered hand is raised to bless and almost reach out and touch the viewer whilst his face appears still and timeless. Icon painters placed most attention on the face and eyes and as we gaze steadily into the luminous softness of light contours on Christ’s face he comes to greet us. Both as all-sovereign judging Lord and as our merciful saviour.

Most notable is the strong asymmetry of the icon. His eyes look out with differing expressions, the right eye peaceful and gentle whilst the left eye expresses an unsettling tension. His generous mouth is similarly conveying both tender mercy and authority and power. Why? Severe judge or benevolent saviour? This is the Christ of the Second Coming whose features are described by a later Byzantine viewer:

“His eyes, to those who have achieved a clear understanding, are gentle and friendly and instill the joy of contrition in the souls of the pure in heart . . . to those, however, who are condemned by their own judgement, (the eyes) are scornful and hostile and boding of ill”.

The Sinai Christ encourages me to trust the deeper meaning of judgement and compassion. The face of the Sinai Christ in some way mirrors our own interior face and calls us by our unique name this Advent to discern the self we have been freely given. The apostle Paul’s extraordinary insight into the judgement and mercy of the Word of God reveals to us the clarity of Christ’s gaze: “The Word of God is something alive and active: it cuts like any double-edged sword but more finely: it can slip through the place where the soul is divided from the spirit, or joints from the marrow; it can judge the secret emotions and thoughts. No created thing can hide from him; everything is uncovered and open to the eyes of the one to whom we must give account of ourselves” (Hebrews ‪4:12-13).

Second Sunday of Advent – St John the Baptist

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A sixth century icon showing John the Baptist from The Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko Museum of Arts, Kiev, Ukraine.

Looking at an icon we search for the relationship between divinity and humanity that is revealed through the volume and plasticity of movement as the figures become alive for the viewer. Additional truth is achieved by emotional drama and gesture as we see in the raised hands of the Baptist whose left leg is moving powerfully towards the viewer whilst his face and attention is towards Christ to his right.

The icon is worn and damaged and nail holes remain from a lost frame that has also damaged the left and right edges. The extensive loss of pigment reveals paint laid on board with no ground preparation. This is unusual and it appears as though the icon writer had a powerful image in mind and just set it out then and there in a rush with no prior preparation on the panel.

John the Baptist wears a mantle of animal skin over his golden tunic which is fixed and buckled by a heavy leather belt. The sandals on his feet together with the strong Hellenic-style shadowing of the tunic complete this unusual presentation of the Baptist and portray him as a strong and powerful wilderness figure with a turbulent message. In the Byzantine church John the Baptist is considered the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets and is remembered as being called by Christ: the “Elijah who is to come”(Matt ‪11:14). He is the “prodromos”, the forerunner of Christ.

The two medallions are of Christ and Mary, the Mother of God. St John the Forerunner points with his right hand to the medallion of Christ whilst the barely remaining scroll unrolled in his left hand reads: “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John ‪1:29), and through the mediation of John’s words, the glory and presence of God is with us now. His message is stark and clear. God is always willing to offer more and to give more. To forgive our shadows and enable our light to shine out.

The icon is a sacred text that leads the viewer into the silence of the desert where Christ becomes our question more than our answer. Who is he for me and when will he come?

We have to be curious and resilient in order to keep looking into the icon as we are led into gazing with our contemplative eye to our inner desert where the icon begins to question us. The gift given is a transformation of consciousness and I begin to dare to trust that in Jesus’ eyes I am blessed and good. The question that we are asking ourselves today is how do we recognise this and how does this become real for us in our ordinary lives. John left his family and village to go out into the vast silence of the desert wastes where scrubland gives way to the poverty of a bleached sand that does nothing except reflect the sun’s heat. I think that we are called to find this same poverty and emptiness within ourselves during Advent and to want nothing except to reflect the Divine light for others. But what a huge task this is and how I fail! So, how do I find my inner emptiness so that I can be present for God to fill me. Do I trust the deep silence of the desert?

It leads me to realise that I need to get in touch with the free gift and goodness of my own life and the purpose of the gift of my life. A desire for the absolute is within all of us as we long to be in touch with our deepest desires. In this we begin with a foundational yes to the original blessing of who we are and what is and gradually we are given the strength to live on the thresholds and in the liminal places which are our deserts. This is where everything is experienced as gift and is often surprising as our individuality no longer holds us and we become one grain of sand together with all the grains of desert sand and maybe we discover that this one-ness reflects our deepest desire.

Together with this panel painting we are worn with paint missing and ragged chips on our edges. Some of our cracks run painfully throughout our histories and we long for these wounds to be healed and made new. The broken wood of this simple icon that holds the Baptist joined with Jesus and his mother encourages us to a deep and profound trust that we are similarly held.

Third Sunday in Advent – Icon of Christ in Glory

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The Transfiguration, apse mosaic at the Monastery of St Catherine in Sinai, Egypt

This mosaic icon is set in the conch of the apse of the basilica of St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, and though richly decorated with gilded tesserae, is stark in its iconography. It is most likely to date from (565/566AD) and is the earliest surviving major iconographic type for the Transfiguration.

The theophany at Tabor is a celebration of the Divine Light and a prefiguration of the Second Coming of Christ. The spiritual brightness or Glory overwhelms in its attractiveness and leads us to trust that the fullness of the Word present in his Incarnation was further glimpsed in the radiant light of the Transfiguration, and what has happened in the past on Mt Tabor will happen again. The icon is framed by twelve apostles, seventeen major and minor prophets and two of the monastic community from the time of the dedication of the church.The inclusion of the living in this divine longing is found in the dedication inscription: “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, this entire work was made for the salvation of those who have endowed it . . . “.

St Luke, Chapter 9, recounts that Jesus takes his closest friends, Peter, James and John with him to the summit of the mountain and there he appears in his Glory and so the inner life of God is revealed. A bright cloud, blinding light and whiteness of energy burn but do not consume the disciples, recalling the consuming fire at Sinai and Carmel. Elijah and Moses appear to the right and left of Christ and point towards him with the blessing of two fingers, symbolising his human and divine nature. Peter lying below Christ awakens more slowly than James and John who fall back surprised by the power of this divine revelation. Enfolded by the eternal light the disciples are both passive and receptive as Moses was when he encountered God in the Burning Bush. Their defences are broken open through this experience of the divine and the invisible mystery of life made visible. It will no longer be possible for them to hide from the depths of their unconscious. Nothing can hide from the Divine light and now their life’s task will be to journey in the pathway of the prophets and saints towards the fullness of this experience of the holiness of God.

Timelessness is effected by the lack of perspective in the scene and the almost frozen expressions and movements of the figures who are all held in an eternity of golden space.  This is not a meek and mild Jesus but Christ in blinding Glory who meets Elijah in the fire of Mt Carmel; leads Moses through fire and light into the divine darkness on Mt Sinai; and who on Mt Tabor awakens and transforms consciousness for ever for Peter, James and John through the energies of this Uncreated Light flowing from God the Father above. As the monastic community celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation in the Eucharist, literally below this mosaic icon, the immediate presence of Christ is immediate and present to their viewing gaze.

For the Sinai viewer, the rich textured space of apse mosaic, lit by the changing morning and evening light, real and depicted, forcefully radiates the glory and hope of Christ coming again for his people. The sharp white beams of morning rays develop during the day into a strong deep searing heat of a desert light that, tempered by thick granite-stone walls, saturates the sanctuary (bema). It is then reflected from the surfaces of liturgical vessels and marble to illumine areas of the mosaic icon. The desert light, reflected and holding all together, becomes an image of Christ enlightening and enfolding all our journeys.

Fourth Sunday of Advent : The Annunciation.

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A late twelfth-century icon from The Holy Monastery of St Catherine, Sinai, Egypt. The physical landscape of the icon echoes that of St Catherine’s monastery as it sits on a desert oasis within the seemingly limitless space of the Sinai desert.

Tempera and gold on a wooden panel measuring 63.1 cm x 42.2 cm x 3.2 cm. The icon bears the Greek inscription, O XAIPETICMOC (Annunciation).

The iconography expresses a tension of movement and restraint as the figures are held by the Divine presence. Gabriel has flown from heaven with his message, and his feet and wings are still in movement. The agitation and earthward rush of drapery swirled over his arm, reminiscent of reliefs of victories from Greek art, emphasises the earthiness of the Incarnation to the Byzantine eye.

Christ is welcomed in the mystery of this icon of the Annunciation in the visual expression of calm and transcendence on the Virgin’s face together with the grisaille mandorla with an image of the Christ child on her breast. Whilst the enclosed rooftop garden, together with the nesting storks, symbolise her unassailable purity of heart.

The materials, narrative, style and medium of every icon are used in conveying the spiritual transformation that the icon effects, and this is always the birth of the Christ-child in me. Hence, in the Annunciation icon, Gabriel and Mary are filled with the presence of God for us and they wait for our response to enter into this Divine union with them. The Divine energies pour through the gold of the icon, increasing with intensity where the gold leaf is incised and burnished or pure, as beneath the dove, and revealing the spiritual brightness of the Uncreated Light. This Advent icon mysteriously invites us to a fundamental trust in the Divine Unknown, and to risk beginning a journey with Christ that will most likely include some incising and burnishing of our hearts.

*This is an edited version of Rachel’s meditations.  You can read the full text if you click on the link below.