“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.
“Since the time of the Renaissance, the religious painting of the West has been one massive untruth.” So wrote Fr. Pavel Florensky in his Iconostasis, one of the most important works of 20th century Orthodox iconology. The heart of Western religious painting’s “untruth” was its naturalism, understood as the attempt to depict figures and scenes in as life-like a manner as possible. As Evan Freeman has shown, theological critique of Western naturalism was a staple of late 19th and early 20th century Orthodox reflections on the icon that elevated Eastern iconography in order to diminish Western religious art.
However, if we turn to the theological reflections on art offered by Florensky’s erstwhile disciple, Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, we find an outlier to this dominant trend. For in the course of his lengthy 1930 essay Icons and Their Veneration, Bulgakov does not shy away from linking, linguistically and so also conceptually, artistic production as a whole with the idea of the icon, so as to ground his broader argument that the condition for the possibility of the theological icon lies in the fundamental iconicity of the cosmos, in the latter’s transparency to the ideal proto-images of being that reside in the mind of God and that grant actuality to the flesh of the world. Thus all art that succeeds in representing these ‘proto-images’ is iconic, though not every piece of religious art is a theological icon. Still, Bulgakov’s argument here places Western religious art and Eastern icons on a spectrum together, thereby relativizing the—nonetheless real—distinction between them.
The Orthodox art of the predominantly Eastern Christian regions of Eastern Europe has much to offer, yet it has been relegated to the margins of inquiry. Outside of local communities and circles of academic specialists, relatively little is known about the countries, peoples, cultures, and histories of Eastern Europe. This is especially true of the Middle Ages and the early modern periods, whose studies have been divided between the Western traditions and those of the Byzantine Empire, including the centuries after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, with few moments of contact and interchange explored in scholarship or in the classroom. The history, art, and culture of Eastern Europe and the rich Orthodox artistic production of these lands have been excluded from the geographical, thematic, cultural, and temporal purviews of art history. In essence, Orthodox art poses problems to the artificial periodizations and geographical boundaries of art history, but its study has the potential to enhance the picture and bring into the conversation voices that have long been silent (or silenced).
Inconsistencies and disagreements in the geographical definitions of Eastern Europe have contributed to the marginalization of the Orthodox cultural spheres within it. What constitutes Eastern Europe, or Southeastern Europe, or Central Europe, or East-Central Europe at any given moment has shifted over time. The regions of the Balkan Peninsula, the Carpathian Mountains, and further north into Russia have been included in specific periods in select conversations; on other occasions, they have been excluded and ignored altogether. For much of the late Middle Ages and the early modern period, Eastern European territories—like the principalities of Wallachia, Moldavia, and Transylvania around the Carpathian Mountains (which later formed the country of modern Romania), the powers of Kievan Rus’, Muscovy, Serbia, and Bulgaria—experienced shifting political borders that complicate the picture. Today, these lands are located in many different countries, each with its own language and customs. The history is complex but enriching as well and could offer much to our understanding of the interconnectedness of the medieval world and the different traditions that contributed to the development of local customs and visual vocabularies.
“Who is my neighbor?” This question, posed coyly by a slick lawyer looking for an easy answer, is most poetically answered by Christ in his parable of the Good Samaritan. The story involves a man who is robbed, beaten, and left for dead by the side of the road. Many supposed noblemen pass by and offer no help, while a foreign stranger of an offbeat faith comes to the man’s aid with great compassion and becomes the silent hero of the day. The Good Samaritan was insightful in its Biblical time, but I also find the story to be most relevant now in our post-pandemic world.
It has been over a year now since I began working on a tribute art piece honoring lives lost in the Houston, Texas area due to Covid-19. I’ve combed through obituaries, news articles, TV programs, and have spent literally thousands of hours trying to place a name and a face to the over 7,000 deaths that have occurred just in and around my own city. So many stories have come out of this project—the loneliness, isolation, separation of families, the inability to properly grieve and bury loved ones, the mental strain—so much sadness.