Friday, October 2, 2009

The Icon and Total Human Nature


Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Yesterday morning, I hosted two theology classes from Xavier University here at the church. Neither was the class that I am currently teaching. Rather, one of the professors at XU (Dr. Elizabeth Groppe) is including a discussion about Orthodox iconography in her class and she wanted her students to see some genuine Orthodox iconography "up close" and in a church setting. Her students were given what sounds like a very fascinating and timely assignment: to contrast and compare the media's use of the human body - MTV, advertising, etc. - with the body in Christian iconography. She also wants them to explore the meaning of genuine asceticism. That is a good topic for any Orthodox Christian to "meditate" upon very carefully. How would any of us respond to that assignment? What do we notice about the role and place of the body in an Orthodox icon? As important as the human body is in an Orthodox Christian understanding of life and salvation, there seems to remain a tendency to ignore the body when we talk about "spirituality" or the Christian life in general. As if the human body did not count, or was some form of "neutral matter." We accept a dualism that concentrates on the soul at the expense of the body. This is called "warmed-over Platonism," after the Greek philosopher Plato whose real concern was the "soul" and its capacity to contemplate the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. The body is merely the "tomb" of the soul. However, this is not biblical and hence, not Orthodox.

My goals in speaking to a group of college freshmen and sophmores were rather modest. I simply attempted to make some basic points about iconography and its general relationship to theology. This is not that difficult for the Orthodox, because our theology over-all is a wonderful integration of Scripture, Liturgy, hymnography, and iconography. In fact, our iconography has been famously called "theology in color." Art, and thus human culture, is capable of expressing divine reality, of allowing us a glimpse of that beauty that Dostoevsky said "would save the world." And the icon reveals something very essential about the body, including its place in that process of drawing closer to God that we call theosis, or deification. An essay with a rather provocative title, "An Art Centered on the Body" by the Greek Orthodox iconologist, Nikos Zias, makes this point very well. Zias begins with an general observation about Byzantine iconography, the prototype of all subsequent Orthodox iconography:

In Byzantine art the human form is dominant, whether as a full-scale representation or as a portrait. The universal acceptance of this subject-matter is evidence of the acceptance in principle of the body as capable of salvation, and not as a priori or definitively evil; an acceptance, moreover, which has its beginning in the Incarnation of the Word made flesh. (Synaxis, Vol. II, p. 29)


Speaking specifically about the icon of Christ, Zias makes these further observations:

The two-dimensional depiction without mass and weight, with the light emanating not from an external steady source, but almost as it were out of the body, the prominence of the head and the emphasizing of the eyes, the unrealistic use of color - all these elements contrive to represent not simply a human body, but the divine-human body of Christ. It is the body which walks weightlessly upon the sea, without however being a "spirit;" it is the palpable body of the Transfiguration, which radiates the divine Light; it is the resurrected body of the Lord who passes unhindered into the room "while the doors were shut" in order to grant peace to His disciples. (Ibid. p. 29)


The saints of the Church are those men and women who had experienced the transfiguration of their own humanity in this life, through the ascetical life nourished by unceasing prayer. Perhaps the most "spectacular" example is that of St. Seraphim of Sarov (+1833). This transfiguration also included their bodies, as the Transfiguration of the Lord clearly revealed. How can an iconographer depict this transfiguration within the limitations posed by line and color? Zias writes the following:

The artistic means by which this transfiguration is achieved are the same as those used to depict the body of Christ. The frontal representation, the light radiating from within, the simplification of the different parts, the schematic rendering of the folds of the garments give to the depiction of the body a particular quality. The body is not autonomous, as in ancient Greek art, nor is it ruptured and deconstructed, as is often the case in modern art (cubism, surrealism). It co-exists and is exercised together with the soul, and expressed the eschatological faith that the body is saved and filled with grace, as is proved even today by the relics of the saints. (Ibid., p. 30)


The "strangeness" of the icon, its supposedly "naive" figuration and color schemes are actually the revelation of a consciously-chosen aesthetics that creates a genuinely spirtual art that embraces the whole person, body and soul. To further emphasize the integral place of the body in iconography - or in a sound Orthodox Christian "worldview" - Nikos Zias includes the viewer's participation in the over-all act of gazing upon and venerating an icon:

Byzantine art is ... an anthropomorphic art, an art centered on the human body, and rendering spirituality, sanctity and deification visible through the body. After all, communication with this art is also achieved physically, through the veneration of the icon by the faithful. Moreover, if we take the point of view of most modern art, which regards the viewer's participation as necessary to complete the work of art, then the believer's physical participation in Byzantine art is more direct than in any period of art history. Byzantine painting uses the human body as its means of expression, envisioning it, however, beyond corruption and beyond the oppression of natural law and physical necessity, in the freedom of grace and the dynamic of transfiguration. (Ibid. p. 32-33)


As in that horrific tale of anti-transfiguration, Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," the human body can be rendered in a grotesque manner in the contemporary world - in art or advertisement. Some art will "test the limits" and distort the human body to an almost unrecognizable degree; or use the body to "make a statement" that is intended to scandalize or provoke. In the ubiquitous world of advertisement it is usually the monotonous use of the body as an instrument of enticement, sensuality, or pseudo-eroticism. Youth, beauty, glamor and sexual attraction are "deified." Even "senior citizens" are invited not to be "left behind," and to join in on the "fun" that is only a performance-enhancing drug away. Arrest the aging process that leads to the body's corruption, for that is all there is! We witness here, at best, a highly ambiguous emphasis on our bodily existence. Perhaps gazing at the icons in our homes and churches with some of the attention that we dedicate to the various screens in our lives, will help restore a balanced and holistic vision to the role of the body in a decidedly Christian worldview. Rather than an object to be exploited, the body can be further restored to a level of respect and care that avoids the pitfalls of idolatry.

Is there an organic relationship between the soul and body? Certainly, according to the witness of the Gospel and our theological Tradition that is grounded in the Incarnation, Resurrection and Ascension of Christ, leading to the deification of our total human nature - soul and body. If we take care of our soul - having faith and doing good works - can we simultaneously indulge the body and its instinctual desire for gratification, be it food, drink, sex, excessive comfort, etc.? At what point does ignoring the body in our "spiritual life" affect our soul? Or, we could turn this around and ask: why does our body take on such importance and become the focus of attention when it becomes a matter of health or beauty? How is it that "working out" is good, healthy, rigorous activity; but standing in church, making prostrations, and fasting are often enough undesirable labors? Why are we so disciplined about the former, but lax about the latter? Actually, whatever our approach to "spirituality" may be, we are quite concerned about our bodies, but we struggle to integrate our bodily existence into our over-all Christian life. If we have "eyes to see" the icon restores the proper vision of our body that awaits both resurrection and transfiguration in the Age to Come. The icon anticipates in artistic form the revelatory promise made by the Apostle Paul:

But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself. (PHIL. 3:20-21)


Fr. Steven

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