Advent in Art 06: Icon of Madonna and Child with Saints

Alan Rodgers-Smith
Sunday, 10 December 2006


Advent in Art 2006. Week Two: Presentation by Alan Rodgers-Smith.

At the dollar book sale the other day I picked up a book on the Norse conquests of Scotland and England. Pictures of settlements, the first Norse interactions with Christianity, the intermingling of Scandinavian Germanic with middle English. I had a feeling upon reading it the same as when I went to the castle on top of Edinburgh, where there are maps of all the clans, which is just like looking at a pre-European map of New Zealand.

What it provides for me is an atavistic surge; the invitation to go deep into one’s origins, to get to those points in a history of yourself where your language and culture and whole context is barely visible, or its separate streams run much clearer.

To me the same goes for the early representations of Christianity.

Christian history seems to leave us just at the brink of a kind of pre-history. We can go back to the early church records and see how the structure began, who they were, see the reasonably accurate depictions of their faces and who they actually were as people.

But of Jesus we have no sign other than his words and stories, and a few brief inscriptions, and the transcripted records of his disciples written some time after his death.

We have our founder through his words, words and deeds heard through other eyes and ears. But of all the images of Christ, and there are many, none were of him during his lifetime. We know his as stories and as wisdom and as faith. But we just don’t know what he looked like.

And there is so much of the truth of a person in who they physically are.

Apparently there is a scratched sketch of Saint Peter from an eyewitness, deep on the walls of Rome’s catacombs, and we are fairly sure about where in Rome he is buried.

But otherwise we have no eyewitness description image even of the disciples of our founder.

So much of human historical and archaeological and genetic endeavour has exactly this same drive: we want to know who we are by being able to see what has made us up. At what point do our sources become separate and visible? At what point can we see that we are no longer recognisable, but are still coexistent with that lineage?

It is a powerful attraction indeed.

We have those tantalising first contact texts between Maori and missionaries in New Zealand.

I think it is an obsession not only with protestant Christianity’s search for the truth of things being in their purity which is in the origin of our faith.

It is an obsession to believe that the origin of things is a container of immortal truth, in total.

So it is with my search for the earliest images from Christianity. And this, from the St Catherine Monastry, one of the very oldest monastries ever established. This is one of those very, very early images.

Those television sets we have on during most of our services here are not intended to be noticed for their manufacturer, or for the historical manufacture of their design, or for their materials of plastic, glass and steel. We are instead invited to see them as windows through which the experience of God with us is amplified during the service.

So it is with icons. The materials are not important: it is the glow we bathe in, and its meaning, that provides power in everyday life.

The screen of the internet has become a devotional space in contemporary life, its blue glow is like the glow of an altar fire. Its promises of new stories and transparent images are like the promise of tribal epics and patron saints of ancient times.

The word icon proliferates in the context of contemporary media. We click icons on our screen, we revere icons of sport and celebrity, and we are quick to proclaim products as diverse as beer and sportscars as iconic.

We should recognise the power of icons over our lives.

The screens before us are not tubes of glass, plastic and steel. They are our daily icons.

The icons of the Russian, Greek, Ethiopian and Coptic Churches are not constructs of Hessian, vellum, pigment and wood. They were the daily icons.

They venerate them still.

We pick up women’s magazines in the supermarket counter because we want certain feelings to be magnified:

We want beauty and fame and glamour and prestige and honour and attractiveness and youth far beyond what we can ever hope to find in our own lives.

And we don’t want that for ourselves, because we know that would be absurd and embarrassing. We want to know that they exist and that they are true, able to be hoped for because those that have those qualities are somehow deserving of them. Because their pleasures and glories make us feel better. Don’t ask me how.

We want to see glorified that overflowing pleasure, all its beauties, its wonder, somehow in people. Victoria Beckham, Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, Brad Pitt and Angelia Jolie and her children.

We may say we don’t want those things and they have no part in our lives, but the sales figures prove you wrong. The demand is in our hearts.

These needs are of course spiritual needs. Not necessarily particularly pretty or virtuous spiritual needs, but spiritual nevertheless.

And let’s make a little distinction here: we don’t expect Brad Pitt to step down and save us. We are not praying to them for salvation.

Although there is now an official Church of Tom Jones in California.

There is perhaps no image we can turn to that will hold and confirm the beliefs that we live our life by.

We know we are not worthy enough to touch their glory or the glories that enshroud them.

No, we do not worship them. But we venerate them.

Well, that’s one pathway into this. But to the actual church setting.

The Orthodox church, which venerates icons of Christ, the Theotokos (mother of God), and the saints and patriarchs promotes a specific view of icons which is based on theology and on the experience of the viewer. The Western church, never comfortable with the worship of images, has sought to reduce the power of the image in church and society, and thus the rhetorical power of the icon is lost to many of us.

The history of art commences at the point that the sacred is removed from within the work. In the humanist definition of art, the new historicised presence of the work succeeds the former presence of the sacred in the work.

For this reason, many Westerners approach the painted icons of the Russian and Greek Church from either an anthropological or art historical perspective

The icon embodies two realities; the divine and the material. It is a reality because it is a manifestation of the reality of God meeting with the reality of human nature.

It gets down to the doctrine of Transsubstantiation pretty quickly.

Can the Spirit and the Flesh be in the same place at the same time and be the same thing?

Jesus said, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me”, and “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”

The Protestants that I have met tend to think of a complete break in time.  There is a sense that after the deaths of the people who wrote the last bits of the Bible, history picks up at about Shakespeare. Most of Christianity believes that the spirit of God is continuous from then to now.

Christians want to know what Christ looked like, what kind of person he was, as well as what his immediate first disciples looked like.

But we can’t. Yet images help us believe through the sensual. They magnify the ordinary and venerate them. They open religious experience. Textual interpretations help us believe through closing interpretation down and making it solid.

Like our ubiquitous veneration of the world through screens every day, I want you to image a life say 2000 years ago when the closest a believer could get to Jesus or the disciples he immediately touched, was a painting.

It did not presume to be a likeness; that was not the point. It represented beauty and fame and glamour and prestige and honour and attractiveness and youth and ideals and miracles far beyond what they could ever hope to find in their own lives.

Fifty or so years down the track, the memory of the movement had aged, but the painted image hadn’t. It remained closer to the original than those now living.

Two hundred or so years down the track, icons even more important at keeping time and the mortality of the movement at bay.

The originals had all died. What did they have in their hands to prove anything had been here at all?

The icons, in short, defied time. They were from that time. They interceded very closely between that original time and the time they now found themselves stranded in.

As well as invoking immortality by defying time, they also honoured all the beliefs, the stories, the joy and holiness they felt at those who had made it all happen.

They were honoured for all they stood for. These icons were made to re-present them to sparkle with everything available to show how much these originals meant to them. That they had lived, given their lives, seen and done miracles, touched the very origin of the faith.

In this church, I would suggest, we are used to interpreting Christian teaching for its relevance to our lives and to contemporary society.

Advent provides some challenges to that approach to Christianity.

“ angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’ ”

The challenge of Christmas is the challenge of the Incarnation of God.

The central message of Christmas is that God can become human. And did.

God and flesh were one. Spirit and matter were one.

Those who observe Orthodox faithful venerating icons may still feel they have claims against them on the grounds of idolatry. Let’s clarify a few terms. The Greek fathers understood the distinction between proskynesis (veneration, bowing down) and latreia (absolute worship, adoration). Veneration is due to kings, ancestors, elders, and fellow humans. There are many scriptural examples of veneration (Abraham to the sons of Hamor, Jacob to his brothers Esau and Joseph, Joshua and Daniel venerated the angel of God). Worship (adoration) is due to God alone. We worship God; we venerate icons.

Icons are not rational. They are not here to make sense and in many respects neither is Christianity. The specifically religious sense is about falling on your knees and obeying and self-abasing and emptying yourself to a will other than your own.

This is what wise men did. That is what wise men now should do.

This is the mother and child we face at Christmas.

At Christmas we are called to fall on our knees and worship the incarnate God.

Just as Moses’ face shone brightly following his encounter with God on Mt. Sinai, and Christ radiated Divine Light on Mt. Tabor during the Transfiguration, so saints depicted on icons also radiate the uncreated light. The challenge for the painter is to illustrate this inner glow – the light source of an icon is internal, not external.

The glorified body must glow through the drapery of the figure’s robes. And the hand, in giving a blessing, does not cast a shadow on the area behind it, but actually enlightens this area. There are no shadows in icons.

An icon has a sense of “other­worldliness,” un-natural, not of this world. We know that in seven out of eleven post-resurrectional appearances, Christ was not immediately recognized: Mary mistook Him for the gardener; the men on the road to Emmaus didn’t recognize Him until the “breaking of the bread” (which of course is interpreted in a eucharistic sense.) He appeared through closed doors, but was not a ghost. He remained flesh and blood, but “deified” flesh and blood.

There is a tradition that the first icon was made by Christ Himself. According to the History of Evagrius, a king from Edessa, Abgar, a leper, had heard of the healing power of Christ, and sent his ambassador Ananias to him asking for his prayers. Because of the crowd, Ananias was not able to get close to the Lord, and had to content himself with sketching him from a distance.

Christ, realizing the poor man’s predicament, took a linen cloth, pressed it to His Face, and gave it to Ananias, promising to send one of His disciples to Edessa after His Ascension. Disappointed, Ananias returned home and presented the linen to the king. The impression of Christ’s Face was clearly visible, and the king was cured from his leprosy. This Shroud is referred to as “the Image-made-without-hands.”

A western version often referred to as “Veronica’s Veil” and having been adopted as the Sixth Station of the Way of the Cross, has a maiden wiping the brow of Christ with a veil as He climbs towards Golgatha, and the impression of His Face remained imprinted. Historically, though, we know of no Veronica. The term comes from two words: Vera (true) icona (image). Vera icona. Veronica.

The Orthodox icon presents sanctified man entirely transfigured from within, deified by the grace of God, much like an iron horseshoe which radiates heat and light after being taken from the blacksmith’s furnace.

None of the images in the Advent series should be read purely in art historical terms, because we are not sitting in an art gallery. We are in a church. We are here to worship.


Icons had, and for many people still have, more world-changing power than the lounge photographs of Michael Joseph Savage. More centred energy than the busts of Lenin within the USSR. More fleshly reality than repeated scrolls of the American Constitution or the American Flag. More glamour than the magazine covers of Brad Pitt. More rallying force than standards raised during battle. More beliefs packed in than a pledge card.

They were all of these things in one, and more. They were visions of a world able to be changed through the presence of holy people. A world that would be ruled by a Christian order which was growing, and confident, and full of the life of a new movement, its temporal origins tantalisingly just beyond the reaches of lived memory.

They were visions of people that were real and in this world, so they were affirmations that these people had ideals that they believed in and fought for and suffered for and died for. Icons were for venerating the prime examples of the people who had made happen all that Christians believed in.

They were visions of people who had done miracles that they had heard of, spoken with utmost spiritual authority, people who had gone to the wall for them and to the cross for them, who had personally been sent by God to represent God here on earth and to be God for them, and who had now left them. All glory and honour belonged to them. So these icons had spiritual power.

This may not be something that we can understand now. Our icons are disposable, democratised, and desacralised through the television and internet.

But back then they were, and still are, windows of holiness. Proof that God had been here and His signs were still visible and had been radiant through actual people.

And perhaps the most important category of icons was the mother and child. Because that story broke us into a new religion altogether.

The icon, in short challenges that God can be within the human.

That the holy can be within otherwise ordinary things.

That heaven and earth are reconcilable. That matter and spirit can be one.

And we should venerate those who have gone before and have been close to God.

 So watch out beside you. Watch for yourself. It can happen here. Perhaps it is.

That is the challenge of the incarnation at Christmas.