Icon painting is rightly considered to be the visual expression of the Orthodox tradition. The icon speaks of the Gospel, the liturgy, the hymnography, the saints, the dogmas, and the pedagogy of the church. Icons testify to the reality of God’s Incarnation, the image of God in each of us, and mystically lead us into a transfigured, eschatological state of man and the world—“heaven on earth.”
And yet, icons are created and exist on earth, in particular cultures and societies. If so, do they have a social ethos? The general assumption seems to be that the social ethos of the icon should be “apophatic”: because it presents an ethic not of this world, it should keep away from muddling with society’s concrete challenges. However, given the circumstances of the current war in Ukraine, where Orthodox people fight on both sides, icons cannot escape the conflict. On March 13, 2022, on the feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, Patriarch Kirill presented the Russian Guard with a WWI icon of the Mother of God and by doing so practically blessed the Russian military aggression against Ukraine. Meanwhile, icons scratched on the walls by Ukrainian prisoners were found in a Russian torture chamber in the formerly occupied Vovchansk, Kharkiv region, after it was liberated by Ukrainians.
Icons that are created in the times of war may say something socially cataphatic, while their social ethos may turn out to be crucial for their iconic quality as such.
Late in J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic The Lord of the Rings, Samwise Gamgee finds himself in darkness and likely near death. Enemies have captured his dearest friend, and Sam lies alone, shivering and impossibly far from home. He tries to make sense of the situation, but “even of the days he had quite lost count. He was in a land of darkness where the days of the world seemed forgotten, and where all who entered were forgotten too. ‘I wonder if they think of us at all,’ he said” (The Lord of the Rings, HarperCollins, 2021, p. 987).
Forgetfulness is a key tool of evil in The Lord of the Rings. Cowardice, despair, and exhaustion tempt characters throughout the book, but forgetfulness—of home and friends, of beauty, of causes worth fighting for—is the fog in which treachery grows most threatening. Memory, in turn, has a distinct power in The Lord of the Rings. It rouses characters to hope in the face of staggering odds, hardening them against fear and doubt. Beyond this strengthening effect, Orthodox Christian writers also recognize memory’s role in enriching and beautifying a man’s life, even uniting him with God. Memory in The Lord of the Rings bears striking similarities to this idea as well. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov sets out both conceptions of memory—as a source of strength and as a redeeming force—and illuminates the centrality of memory to The Lord of the Rings.
The Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces was sprinkled with holy water by Patriarch Kirill in 2020, but that does not mean it is holy. It has forsaken the elegant curves of a traditional Russian dome to deliberately resemble nuclear missiles (which Russian priests have cheerily blessed). The classic two-dimensional apse mosaic of Christ has been swapped out for a tacky sculpture, defying centuries of Orthodox wisdom which traditionally eschewed three-dimensional representation. Defending the six billion ruble (US million) expenditure, one Orthodox priest said that “metal, wood, glass and talent were offered practically free, for a few kopecks. People worked, worked hard for the glory of God.” His statement calls to mind another priest, Aaron: “Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf” (Exodus 32:24).
The Virgin Mary of course features prominently in the cathedral mosaics, and will be especially honored today, the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25). She is commandeered as the sponsor of the third Rome (Moscow) just as she once sponsored the second Rome (Constantinople) before that. Our Lady of Kazan, “the most widely revered icon in late imperial Russia” (322), is especially emphasized, as is the icon of She Who Reigns, named because she was discovered after the abdication of Tsar Nichols II in 1917. Both images deliberately afford a link between Tsarist and post-Soviet Russia.
“The indescribable glory of His face was changing through grace”—Menaion for August.
Since the feast-day of the Mandylion Ikon of Christ, memories of encountering it have been galvanizing my prayer, recalling an extraordinary encounter meeting it on pilgrimage many years ago. The Mandylion Icon “Not Made by Hands” occupies a central place among Orthodox images of Christ, although its origins are shrouded in mystery. The Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 787 gave attention to it, and to commemorate the triumph of the holy images, it is this icon of Christ which is venerated at the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. The expression “not made by hands” derives its meaning from its Gospel context: “We heard him say, I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made by hands” (Mark 14:58). The term acheiropoietos in the Greek and spas nerokotvornyi in the Russian describes icons carrying the heritage of being created not by the mere agency of icon-painters, but by the tradition of direct impression of Our Lord’s body; they claim to derive from the first example and thus be genuine and pleasing to God.
The Mandylion Icon of Christ is displayed in a prominent place in the church, censed during the Liturgy, and often carried in procession. It is traditionally seen over doorways and gateways; and it is also often present, symbolizing Christ’s invisible presence, when the penitent and priest stand together in the church for the Sacrament of Repentance. Witnessing this icon for the first time was a jolting experience for me, at once unsettling and yet startlingly infused with love. One evening, during a memorable Russian pilgrimage, as we made the rounds of several Vespers services, we were joined by a Russian Orthodox nun, Sr. Galina. Even with no shared language, we became fast friends because we are both red-headed. Trailing behind her, I learned to circumnavigate the church and venerate the icons.