Opening a Byzantine Door to the Divine

Opening a Byzantine Door to the Divine;
New York Exhibit Highlights the Exalted Role of Iconographic Art in Eastern
Orthodox Culture

BY Bill Broadway, Washington Post Staff Writer

The Washington Post
April 10, 2004 Saturday

Many people know little of Eastern Orthodox Christian teachings yet
recognize the colorful human figures that adorn the walls, floors and
ceilings of Orthodox churches and peer hauntingly from painted blocks
of wood in museums and magazines.

Those images of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Apostles and saints are
meant to show the religious figures as they looked, or might have
looked, when they walked the Earth, and to bring the viewer into
communion with them. The hoped-for result is transcendence of time and
place to an encounter with spiritual truths.

“Icons in their purest form are a way to contemplate the divine,” said
Helen C. Evans, curator of a monumental show on Orthodox iconography
at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

“Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557)” presents more than 350 works
from the last years of Byzantine culture, including frescoes, coins,
jewelry, metalwork, manuscripts, textiles and mosaics. Many of them
never have been shown outside the churches and monasteries where they
have been housed for centuries as part of the communities’ liturgical
and contemplative life.

The exhibition’s opening two weeks ago was timely, given this year’s
coincidence of Easter celebrations on Eastern Orthodox and Western
calendars. Most Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter tomorrow, as do
Roman Catholics and Protestants. But Orthodox churches — more than a
dozen exist worldwide, including Greek, Russian, Armenian and Coptic
— calculate their liturgical calendar differently, often celebrating
Easter a week to a month later than Western Christians.

Among the exhibition’s vast offerings, a few images stand out as
instructive introductions to Orthodox liturgy and theology, especially
as they relate to Jesus’s Passion and Resurrection.

Western depictions of the Resurrection typically show Jesus rising
from the tomb, appearing before His disciples or ascending to
heaven. Orthodox paintings and mosaics most often show Jesus
descending to the netherworld to stomp on the gates of hell and
liberate Adam and Eve. Sometimes, for good measure, he bashes Satan in
the head with his cross.

Such images are based on the “harrowing of hell,” a non-biblical but
widely held Christian belief (East and West) that Jesus journeyed to
hell after his crucifixion but before his ascent to heaven. By
rescuing humanity’s parents, who have fallen in original sin, Jesus
demonstrates his victory over death and the salvation of mankind.

One of the show’s largest and most significant works is a 13th-century
wood-and-gold icon with the crucifixion on one side and the descent
into hell — what Orthodox Christians call the anastasis — on the
other, Evans said in a telephone interview. The 21/4-by-4-foot icon
never has been shown outside its home, the Holy Monastery of
St. Catherine in Egypt.

The 6th-century Greek Orthodox monastery is at the base of the
mountain that many believe to be Mount Sinai, where Moses saw the
burning bush and later received the Ten Commandments. It is the
world’s oldest continuously active monastery and one of the oldest
Christian pilgrimage sites. The monastery owns thousands of
manuscripts and icons, most donated over the centuries by various
pilgrims, including Crusaders, kings and popes.

The icon includes Latin as well as Greek inscriptions — a rarity on
Eastern Orthodox icons.

The Latin suggests that the icon might have been created by someone
from Rome, a Crusader perhaps, or fashioned at St. Catherine’s, Evans
said. Whatever the icon’s origin, the two languages suggest an
ecumenical accord at Sinai 200 years after the patriarchs in Rome and
Constantinople excommunicated each other and their realms began waging
wars over land and theology.

The icon is one of the earliest examples of use of the mandorla, a
motif in which spiky rays emanate from Jesus’s head, Evans said. It’s
the artist’s effort to depict the bright spiritual form that Jesus
took during the Transfiguration, an event described in the Gospels in
which Jesus meets with Moses and Elijah on a mountaintop. Orthodox
iconographers combine the Transfiguration with the descent into hell
to demonstrate the blinding light of salvation, Evans said. And this
particular icon could be tied to a mystical movement that some think
originated at the Sinai monastery.

The Hesychast movement, as it was called, held that a believer,
through controlled breathing and repetitive prayer — much like saying
a mantra during Buddhist meditation — could perceive the divine light
that shone on Jesus during the Transfiguration.

The practice was debated widely in the East and rejected by the West,
Evans said. The East, in turn, refused to accept a belief that later
became doctrine among Roman Catholics: that Mary was physically taken
into heaven after her death.

Orthodox theology doesn’t allow for what Catholics call the
Assumption. Instead, it states that Mary never died but rather fell
into a deep sleep and that Jesus took her soul to heaven. In a
typically Eastern representation of this event, the Dormition, another
icon from St. Catherine’s, shows Jesus standing behind Mary’s bier,
holding her soul in the form of a baby.

The Metropolitan has several examples, on loan from other churches or
monasteries, of what Evans calls “the great images of Easter.” These
large textiles, called epitaphia (epitaphios in the singular form),
are large, embroidered images of the dead Christ that are carried in
processionals on Holy Friday and placed on a carved representation of
the tomb. Most of them depict the incumbent body of Jesus on a stone
slab, but a 14th-century epitaphios in the exhibition shows Jesus
lying in a sea of stars surrounded by seraphim and other celestial

Also included in the exhibition is an example of the Mandylion, an
image of Jesus believed to have been miraculously impressed on a cloth
placed over the face of the crucified Jesus, created, like the Shroud
of Turin, “without aid of human hands,” the tradition goes.

That image appears as a wood icon, but it is said to replicate the
original cloth image sent by Jesus to the Armenian king of Edessa. In
keeping with Byzantine tradition, even copies of copies, if carefully
created, carry the same spiritual power as the original.

“Few will visit it here expecting to see the very form of the face of
God,” Annemarie Weyl Carr, professor of art history at Southern
Methodist University in Dallas, writes in the exhibition
catalogue. “But many will search it earnestly to see what was seen as
the face of God.”

“Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557)” continues through July 4 at
the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For an overview, including a virtual
tour of the Monastery of St. Catherine, go to or
call 212-535-7710.