A quiet man piously stands still with eyes cast before him, apparently fixed upon something slightly above his level. The simple tunic and shoes that adorn his body reveal that he lives and works in a monastery. He stands in a church which similarly remains quiet, most of the monks departed after the daily lection. Light streams through windows spotlighting faces of saints adorning the walls and arched ceiling. The monk remains gazing at a painting adorning a wooden panel on the wall before him. Pictured just above him on the panel, a stoic face with brown hair and a beard, right hand slightly raised and holding up three fingers. In his other hand he holds a book. The Greek characters painted to the right and left of the face reveal the image portraying Jesus Christ. The onlooking monk’s chest swells with a deep breath as a tear falls down his cheek. He, like many worshipers in his time, drew near to God through contemplation.
Charged with politics and a growing rift between churches in the east and west, the Medieval period of church history often brings up memories of immoral leadership and nasty battles. Our view of the period likely depends on our own stance on church and where we learned of its history. In spite of the gloomy picture that some of us hold of the church’s “dark ages,” the worship in Byzantine Orthodoxy at the time involved profoundly beautiful imagery and engaged all of the worshipers’ senses.
Physical pieces of art remain for us as glimpses into Byzantine Orthodox worship. The highly visual liturgy offered regular reminders of the stories of the scriptures and of the saints—walls, books, statues and sculptures, even boxes portrayed liturgical illustrations. Images held high importance since they represented the incarnation—Jesus taking on a physical form which they could picture and reflect upon. More than reminders, icons served as windows into the heavens for those worshipers who meditatively beheld the scene before their eyes. Worshipers steeped in the liturgy around them regularly beheld their savior.
John of Damascus, a great supporter of icons when speculation surrounded their presence in worship, explained that involving our senses in worship, particularly sight, impressed a worshiper’s mind and thus enriched its store houses of knowledge (Treatise 3.24, 1.11). For John, material images drew us near to God who made us material beings that image him. Gregory of Nazianzus who preceded the Damascene held to an anthropology in which the goal of life involved an internal participation with the divine. Man could move towards that goal through contemplation, as the image one beheld mingled with its divine archetype. These historic teachers believed that dwelling on images of the savior and other heroes bolstered a Christian’s understanding of and relation to God.
Contemplation, practiced with icons in Orthodox traditions, acts out the declaration Paul makes of Christians’ glorious opportunity to behold their God in Christ in 2 Corinthians 3: “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” Once separated from a holy God, those who are in Christ have an unhindered relationship with God. His Spirit in us lifts the veil that we might behold him. Even more, intentionally dwelling on the Triune God, forms us to a more accurate reflection of him to the world.
We have access to our God and opportunity to commune deeply with him. The Eastern Orthodox Church of the early second millenium sought intentional worship in their visuals. Unfortunately, our world, which so values productivity, creates an inhospitable environment for the space required for contemplation. Beholding requires time and attention. Perhaps the Byzantine church realized that reality by placing reminders that constantly caught the eye.
Even though most of our modern church decoration does not display the faces of saints and scenes from Christ’s life, windows to heaven hang all around us. David exclaimed in Psalm 19, “The heavens declare the glory of God.” Paul echoed him centuries later declaring that God makes his eternal power and divine nature known to all in creation. The works of God in the world around us give us a glimpse into his glory.
As those who beheld the icons knew, the disposition of the worshiper either draws their mind into deep contemplation or hinders divine communion. Our minds must be attune to the God behind the beautiful works. And dwelling on the glimpses of his glory we contemplate the wonder that he has removed the veil to commune with him. In beholding him, he forms us more into his image. The image that reflects the beauty of the greater archetype.
Cover image by Arseny Togulev.