Icons and the Scriptures

cefalu_pantocrator.jpg

I have had many thoughts this week about problems within the modern academic study of Scripture. An inherent problem is that scholars of Scripture lack both imagination and experience. I do not mean to impugn the intelligence of any particular academic – indeed, I have known many interpreters of Scripture whose work was almost pure imagination. What I am alluding to is a limit of imagination to see the many layers, the form and shape of Scripture and the wonders of its construction.

I can recall in both college and seminary courses having professors point to the fact that the Hebrew of Isaiah 7:14 reads (ambiguously) “a young woman shall conceive and bear a son,” rather than the Greek “a young virgin….” Early translators of the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek chose the unambiguous term parthenos to render the Hebrew ‘alma. The conclusion thrust to our young minds was that an error in translation led to the doctrine of Christ’s virgin birth!

Of course, this same simple conclusion ignored an entire tradition of Biblical interpretation that saw the Virgin Birth in far more than Isaiah 7:14, (not arguing the more obvious point that the doctrine of Christ’s Virgin Birth was actually based on His birth from a virgin). But the doctrine and the stories within Luke and Matthew have structures and layers and form that go far beyond the turn of a single Hebrew word. I could repeat this example many times.

My thoughts about the limitations of Biblical scholarship this week have not been accidental. They have come as I have been taking part in a workshop on painting icons. It has been my meditation on the Seventh Ecumenical Council’s proclamation: “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words,” that has led me to my conclusions about certain problems with Scriptural scholarship.

For I believe that it is not only true that icons do with color what Scripture does with words, but also that Scripture does with words what icons do with color. Scripture, as used traditionally in the Christian faith, is iconic in its structure and form and will not be well understood apart from this.

As I have taken part in the workshop this week, I have also had the benefit, and humbling experience of painting (or writing) an icon. And as all workshops should be – this one is conducted by a Master iconographer – someone who not only knows technique but also the theology and history of icons. It is a profound experience to be corrected by a Master iconographer (or to see the look of despair in her face as she would examine my work). But being in such a context I realized that no scholar of Scripture has ever sat with a writer of Scripture, or had someone stand over their work and critique them in quite the same manner. It is an inherent limitation of the academic study of Scripture.

This limitation has existed since the beginning – though the Master was present in that beginning to do the same as a Master iconographer. I think of the disciples on the road to Emmaus in St. Luke’s Gospel. They do not recognize the risen Lord, nor do they seem to have any understanding that His resurrection is to be expected. And so they receive a correction from the Master:

“O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning Himself (Luke 24:25-27).

The reading of Scripture, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets,” is not an obvious matter. Those who argue for “soul competency” seem to ignore such examples as the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, or presume that somehow Pentecost fixed all that. But it is still the case that reading Scripture is something that must be taught (though the manner of its teaching will go far beyond the bounds of a scholastic classroom). What is taught must be more than “this is what this means.” What is taught must also be the form and shape and structure of Scripture. Scripture has a language that is far deeper and more constant than Greek or Hebrew – and it is a part of its language that must be learned. For instance, how does the New Testament read the Old Testament?

It is here in such questions that the Christian understanding of Scripture as icon becomes apparent. We lack the experience of sitting with a master iconographer as we read Scripture, but the Tradition that is manifest in an iconographer, is also carried in the liturgical life of the Church. How do the prayers of the Church read Scripture? What form and shape do they see and what do they tell us about its structure? The liturgical life of the Church recognizes this iconic form in Scripture and even echoes it within its musical forms. That some feasts “sound” like other feasts is not an accident in Orthodox worship.

All of this tells me something about the study of Scripture. Although modern scholarship in many places is completely ignorant of the liturgical legacy of the Orthodox faith – that liturgical life has not disappeared, nor has its reading of Scripture.

To step into the active life of the creation of icons is to step into one of the deeper parts of the stream of Tradition. It is not a different stream than that of Scripture – one flows with color while the other flows with words – just as the liturgical life of the Church flows with music and action as well as words (and icons). All of them are one and the same stream of Tradition. It is good to stand deeply in any part of the waters (even if your work brings strange looks to the face of the master who guides you).

14 Responses to “Icons and the Scriptures”

  1. Pastor Andrew Says:

    Great insight, thanks for the post. I always enjoy reading your thoughts; they challenge my thinking. Thanks again. http://www.pastorandrew.wordpress.com.

  2. Br. Kenneth Says:

    What a wonderful connection between the use of Scripture and Icons! Indeed, Holy Scipture is an Icon of the Word for us to use. But, just like iconagraphy, the words, the translations, and the interpretations have gradually changed over the generations. If such uniform and static regidity were the case in iconagraphy, we would not have the different schools of style: Greek icons have their form, which varies from Russian, which varies from early mediteranian, which varies from the Celtic styles.

    But isn’t that the nature of this contemplative practice? True there is a Master to help guide and pass on Tradition. Where would we be without Tradition, afterall? But isn’t the icon meant to be a window into the realm of God? A window through which the soul can look? What the soul sees on the other side will have to do with their own individual perspective. Just as if you look out your window now, you will see an entirely different scene than I would outside my window. Or even if we were looking through the same window and you sat to the left and I the right, the scenes we would describe might be similar, but could never be exactly the same.

    I certainly agree that Scripture is an Icon for us to use. But as an Icon it is a portal through which we glimpse a sight of God. Therefore, the window cannot become so fixed in it’s image. If we are set in literal translation, so doggedly clinging to just one view, it’s as though we are painting our own image over the window. The window is no longer transparent then! If we can no longer see through the window, if it is no longer a portal through which we can see God, then how is it and Icon.

    It is a difficult balancing act, to be sure. You are absolutely right that many modern scholars do not research or write out of real experience. Just as one who can only see the Scriptures through past interpretations can paint over the window, so too can new interpreters paint over the window with blind swathes of their new brushes defeating the purpose of crystal clear glass. Either extreme is difficult when trying to see God through the Icon of Holy Scripture.

    I did enjoy reading your description of standing in the stream of Tradition when writing your Icon. A beautiful image. As a calligrapher, myself, I know what that wonderful feeling of emersion and conectivity is like. I hope your practice of writing Icons brings you great joy and great experience of the Holy Father, Son and Spirit for years to come. And thank you for your wonderful insight between Icons and Scripture.

    God’s Peace.

  3. Alice C. Linsley Says:

    Yes! What must be taught is not “this is what it means”, but rather “Do you see the pattern?” If you don’t, you either need to study the written Word more or you need the Holy Spirit to illumine your mind and imagination.

    The Holy Scriptures are fully trustworthy, yet people place greater confidence in less trustworthy things. I’m always amazed by this.

  4. Canadian Says:

    Father,
    Can you give some sources where this “form and shape and structure of Scripture” is fleshed out further?
    Grace and peace,
    Darrin

  5. fatherstephen Says:

    Br. Kenneth,

    Thank you for the very kind thoughts. I certainly do not understand tradition to be something that is nearly as rigid as modern fundamentalism – it is far too rich for such poverty. Neither do I see it as giving license to our American proclivity to individualism where everybody gets to see what they want to see. The window to heaven is not a window on my private version of heaven, but into a reality that challenges and changes me. But perhaps this is what you meant.

    Alice,

    Thank you again for your thoughts. They are always welcome and to the point.

    Canadian,

    My first suggestion would be the volume of the Festal Menaion, translated by Bishop Kallistos Ware and others. It contains the hymnography, etc., for the major feasts of the year in the Orthodox Church. They are certainly part of the liturgical tradition that I mention. I would also suggest the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete – though couched in the language of a largely personal devotion, they provide great commentary on many stories of Scripture.

    Just some places to start.

  6. Anna Says:

    Father,

    Will we eventually see the icon you have so prayerfully written this past week? It would bless me to see it, however humble.

    Christ is in our midst!

  7. fatherstephen Says:

    Anna,

    Thank you. I’ll probably post in in the next few days. There is a finishing process involving linseed oil and spar varnish that I will not complete for a week or two. The colors will be deepened in this process – but if I can get my daughter to share one of her pictures from the workshop retreat, I’ll post it. Since it bears many corrections of a master, I am not ashamed for it to be seen. It was indeed a very rich time. I’ve just returned home this afternoon (saturday).

  8. Dosia McKay Says:

    I like your comparison from the last paragraph: “one flows with color while the other flows with words – just as the liturgical life of the Church flows with music and action as well as words”. A beautiful image of God’s creativity.

  9. Mary Lowell Says:

    “It is good for brothers to dwell together in unity!” This week at the Six Days of Creation icon workshop was a testimony to David’s exclamation and to the wisdom and sweetness of Master Iconographer Ksenia Pokrovkskaya’s 40 years of long suffering to bring forth a pure stream of iconic tradition that was nearly extinguished by Bolshevik blood-letting and its aftermath in which she anonymously labored in Russia during the 1960’s, 70s and 80s. What a gift of God that Ksenia has been sent to us in these confusing times!

    There were in attendance at the workshop Roman Catholics, Episcopalians and folks from other Protestant backgrounds who found Ksenia’s great (O/o)rthodox Christian soul both wise and sweet with the love Christ. Our American land is a great desert, a wilderness in which we sift for treasure in the murky waters of entrenched ecclesiastical pluralism. As in the Gulag, Ksenia does not judge our origins, but tests our hearts to see “if there be any good thing” that may be made to shine and point the way to Paradise.

    My nearly two decades of association with Ksenia has taught me that the icons of every age reflect the spiritual condition of the times in which they are produced. We can read in the icons the purity or opacity of the stream from which they are drawn at any given time, albeit with happy surprises. This is not a matter of style or regional preference, but the honesty of the image flowing from the clarity of God’s instrument. These brightest ones are Ksenia’s models and source of inspiration, “from the depths, like speaks to like.”

    Congregations seeking iconographers to adorn their temples will seldom find her name on “approved” lists published by bishops. She does not compile references or busy herself with smart portfolios. She does not vie for commissions with “money changers” and seekers of temporal reputation; those who know what true treasure is will find her and be glad! Her iconic constructions from theology to liturgical activation are peerless! When Danilov Monastery in Moscow was returned to the Church after decades of vandalism and degradation, it was Ksenia who was sought out to repaint its walls with the “Glory to God in All Things!” A pity to quibble over convenience and deal making with this master among us!

    Mary Lowell

  10. Nancy Says:

    Father, a few months ago I commented here asking for help in getting info about Orthodoxy. You were very encouraging and another commenter directed me to a priest in my area. Well, yesterday on the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos I was christmated by that priest and welcomed into Holy Orthodoxy. I just wanted to say thank you although a simple thank you doesn’t begin to express the gratitude in my heart for the gift of Orthodoxy.

  11. fatherstephen Says:

    Nancy,

    No comment could brighten my day better than yours! My greetings on the feast and to your priest. May God bless you and the whole of your parish family! And may your tribe increase…

  12. fatherstephen Says:

    Mary,

    Ksenia is truly a treasure, and probably a very rare one. I found in her the depth of Orthodox Tradition that properly belong to a Master iconographer, and one of the truly great hearts among those I have encountered in my journey. I think to myself and pray: may God grant her many years, and may I have the blessed opportunity to work with her again and to see much more of her work! I have been feeding off of the week even more since coming home and look forward to enjoying this rich feast God has set before me.

  13. Mary Lowell Says:

    Father Bless,

    I am grateful to have met the man behind the blog and his beautiful daugter, Clare. Thank you for leading us in prayer every morning and sharing in good company each night before we retired to wake again for the very hard work of birthing holy images in clay and wood (and gold).

    May we meet again soon. And we will, if God grant us this blessing.

    Your Friend,

    Mary

  14. Alyssa Sophia Says:

    Many Years, Nancy!

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