Sometimes I am commissioned to paint an icon of a saint for whom nothing yet exists, or at least no satisfactory icon. This is usually a pre-schism Western saint. But more rarely, the subject is a new theme, a new emphasis or combination. This was the case when Dr Christine Nellist approached me to create an icon that embodied some of the Orthodox Church’s teaching about our relationship with animals. The icon was to be used as flagship for her newly founded organisation “Pan-Orthodox Concern for Animals” (http://www.panorthodoxconcernforanimals.org/) and to illustrate her pending book on the subject. This article tells the story of its genesis and explains its design.
The brief was for the icon to affirm the need to love all creation, but especially to treat our fellow animals with the respect and kindness due to all God’s creatures. It had to show that Christ came not just to redeem humankind from the fall, but also, through our repentance, to deliver the animal kingdom from our oppressive and cruel treatment of them. As Saint Paul wrote to the Romans:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God . . . because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God’. (Romans 8: 19, 21)
The icon you see illustrated is what we eventually created. It required both theological enquiry and research into past iconography, so I would like outline how these two came together.
The Bible and animals: the beginning, middle and end
The Bible narrative begins and ends with lots of animals. The creation account in Genesis teems with them. One whole day is dedicated to the creation of just the water creatures and the birds, and another to the creation of land animals and humankind. God liked what He made, declared it good, and blessed the creatures to multiply and fill the earth.
The last book of the Scriptures – Revelation – ends with a description of the New Jerusalem, the holy mountain coming down out of heaven from God. Although the Evangelist John himself does not include animals in his description of this New Jerusalem, the prophet Isaiah certainly does. In just three verses Isaiah names thirteen different animal species to be found on the Holy Mountain:
6The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
and the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall feed;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
9 They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:6-9)
Between this beginning and this end the Bible of course refers to animals many other times. But as a consequence of the fall our relationship with the animal kingdom is far from what is described of Eden and the New Jerusalem. Into the midst of this man-made mess comes Christ. The turning point of history is the incarnation of God in Christ. The focus of this has naturally been the redemption of the human race. But because we live in this world and we are supposed to be earth’s carers, this redemption implicitly involves our relationship with animals.
Unsurprisingly, the icon of Christ’s Nativity depicts animals: an ox and an ass in the manger, and sheep with their shepherds. These creatures play an important role in the icon’s depiction of the divine drama. Of all the created beings in the icon, it is the ox and the ass that sit closest to the Christ Child. These two animals are included not just because Christ was born in a manger, but also to illustrate Isaiah’s prophecy:
The ox knows its owner,
And the donkey its master’s crib;
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand. (Isaiah 1:3)
Both the icon and the Orthodox liturgical texts for the Nativity suggest that at the incarnation God began to restore paradise, and thus to heal the broken relationship between God, man and animals:
Bethlehem has opened Eden; come and let us see. We have found joy in secret: come, let us take possession of the paradise that is within the cave. There the unwatered root has appeared. (Ikos, Canon of Matins)
Some commentators say that the ox and the ass stand close to the Christ Child not just because they recognize their Creator, but also because they are warming the Christ Child with their breath! According to the creation account in Genesis, animals are helpmates for us, and here they are being just that.
It is surely significant that of all the Jewish people God chose shepherds to receive the revelation and to greet the new-born Child. A shepherd cares for his sheep, knows them all by name, and will even risk his life to protect them. It is perhaps this nurturing relationship with God’s lesser creatures that prepared the shepherds to receive the astounding news of Christ’s birth. God even invited them directly through angels, and not through a dumb and distant star as He did for the worldly wise Magi.
So, in one way or another, our destiny as humans seems linked to animals. God created us on the same day that He created the animals, so you could say that we are neighbours, and indeed, that we are related.
The icon’s design
In the Orthodox Church, icons are images of people or sacred events to be venerated. Icons are, in the fullest sense of the word, personal, and not just a cerebral illustration of an idea or a system. So Christine and I didn’t want the triptych to be merely a didactic tool. It had to be an icon of a person or sacred event that could be venerated in church. September 1st provided a liturgical celebration that is directly concerned with creation. This day was established by Patriarch Dimitrios I as an official commemoration of prayer for all creation. So this set the liturgical scene for such an icon. It could be legitimately used for veneration in church on that day.
There was also the feast of the Resurrection. Christine had originally suggested that the triptych could be a variation of the Resurrection icon, with Christ delivering not just people from the bonds of Hades but also animals. But this was problematic. It would have raised the thorny, and ultimately unanswerable, question of whether or not animals had eternal souls. It would have based the case for non-cruelty to animals on the answer, and therefore undermining it if the viewer believed animals to be soulless.
The argument had to be more secure: animals are to be cared for simply because God created them, soul or no soul. Full stop.
But we still wanted to show Christ actively liberating animals from cruelty. The Resurrection icon remained an obvious starting point, but the design had to be more subtle than simply adding animals to the dark abyss of Hades.
So the challenge remained how to express Christ’s redemption of animals from cruelty and oppression without the icon merely illustrating an idea – albeit a very important one. I decided to set our relationship with animals in the context of God’s intention for humankind by signifying the three principal “epochs” described above: Paradise, the incarnation, and the New Jerusalem. Why such a grand scope?
Paradise and the Incarnation
We write the story of history with our deeds. If we have ‘lost the plot’ in our relationship both with God and with the rest of creation it is because we have forgotten our story’s beginning, middle and end. “Where there is no vision, the people perish”, we read in Proverbs 29:18. In these three nodes of history God is the writer and the initiator. But it is we who write what happens in between. We can write our lives either contrary to or in alignment with God’s intention. To retell the full story in one image was of course impossible, but the icon could at least hint at these three points in the economy of salvation and thus help to set us back on the right plot.
How does the triptych express these key epochs in the divine-human story? The icon suggests Paradise by the inclusion of trees, sea, grass, bees, birds, fish, snake and lizard, all of which look healthy.
These creatures, and Saints Irenaeus and Isaac, face or move towards Christ, acknowledging Him as their Creator and Sustainer. By looking out at us, the dog draws us into the event, as though inviting us to partake of this liberation. This attitude of praise and thanksgiving lies at the heart of Edenic life, just as ingratitude lies at the heart of a hellish life.
Sometimes the Bible describes a blunder that proves to be a prophecy. Such is the case when Mary Magdalene mistook the risen Christ for a gardener.
He is in fact the archetypal gardener, the second Adam who nurtures creation, tilling and keeping it with love and reverence in a way that the first Adam failed to do. This triptych shows Christ in the midst of creation, like a second Adam in paradise. He blesses with it His right hand, and directs it with His left. He is the prophet, priest and king of creation.
What of the predicament of our current age? The icon depicts the tiger, cow and dog as emaciated, victims of human neglect. But it also shows Christ blessing and liberating them, the tiger and chicken from their cages and the dog from its chains. Christ has come to set not just humanity free, but all creation.
The quote on Saint Isaac the Syrian’s scroll suggests that oppression of animals is the result of lack of compassion, lack of virtue: “Oppression is eradicated by compassion and renunciation.” The compassion that makes us feel for our fellow humans is the same virtue that impels us to empathise with the suffering of a fellow animal. Although we humans are more than just animals, we are at least animals. In our physicality we are related to the animal kingdom. To mistreat them is by extension to mistreat ourselves.
All this is not to say that the icon is promoting vegetarianism. But it is asserting that cruelty to animals is contrary to God’s intention; that we are to care for them and respect them, even when our survival requires killing them for food. I was very impressed by a documentary I once saw that followed the life of some traditional African San bush people. The men were hunting a gazelle, the main source of food for their tribe. They had only spears, so the only way to kill it was to chase it on foot for many miles, until at last it had to stop and surrender, exhausted. Before killing it, the one hunter who had managed to endure the marathon up to this point spent time to give thanks to the animal for offering itself. There had been a struggle of equal strength, and this time the hunters had won. Other times they would lose. The bushman thus believed that he was not taking the gazelle’s life but receiving it. The gazelle was offering itself for the sake of his life and his family’s life.
Care for animals in our charge is a theme of the Gospel passages whose references are inscribed in the central panel:
Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger, and lead it away to water it?”
And he said to them, “Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well, will not immediately pull him out on a sabbath day?”
(Luke 14:5. NOTE: Other ancient authorities read an ass instead of a son)
Saint Irenaeus’ quote on the left wing continues this theme of Christian love and kindness towards all God’s creation: “Now, among the ‘all things’ our world must be embraced.” By itself this text is somewhat opaque. It makes more sense in its context, even in the somewhat antiquated 19th century translation found in the Ante-Nicene Fathers series:
…as John, the disciple of the Lord, declares regarding Him: ‘All things were made by Him, and without Him was nothing made’ [John 1;3]. Now, among the ‘all things’ our world must be embraced. It too, therefore, was made by His Word, as Scripture tells us in the book of Genesis that He made all things connected with our world by His Word.
(Against Heresies, Book 2, II:5,6) 
St Irenaeus is telling us that all things are made by God, from stone to animal to angel, and as such are to be honoured. He was countering a Gnostic heresy current in his time, which asserted that the material world was not created by God but by a demi-god, and that it entrapped the soul. Irenaeus refutes this by showing from the Scriptures that the universe is created by God, and is a means of union and communion with Him and not an impediment. Although it would be difficult today to find many people who adhered to Gnosticism in this raw sense, surely a Christian is not far from this heresy when he or she lives as though the animal kingdom were of no consequence to their spiritual life, apart from being a source of food.
One element of Christ’s Nativity that the Church’s liturgical texts emphasize is that the incarnation inspires all creation to offer Him thanks. The Incarnation initiates the beginning of a new creation. In this renewed paradisical life creatures receive life with thanksgiving, instead of grabbing it and turning from God as did Adam and Eve. Each thing and being offers thanks according to its nature. As a hymn of Vespers so beautifully puts it:
What shall we offer you, O Christ, because you have appeared on earth as a man for our sakes? For each of the creatures made by you offers you its thanks: the Angels their hymn; the heavens the Star; the Shepherds their wonder; the Magi their gifts; the earth the Cave; the desert the Manger; but we a Virgin Mother. God before the ages, have mercy on us.
(Great Vespers of Christmas. Translation by Archimandrite Ephraim Lash)
In the icon not only do the Edenic creatures face Christ, but also the liberated cow, dog, chicken and tiger. Christ frees them not just from physical oppression, but also so that they can attain their fullness as participants in the cosmic liturgy of praise.
Just as a sunflower turns its head throughout the day to follow the sun, so all creatures are created to live in adoration of their Creator, each according to their nature. Cruelty to animals therefore not only causes physical suffering to the victims but also introduces a tragic dissonance to this cosmic hymn. Such behaviour is a sin not only against the animals, but is also a failure of us humans to be conductors of the eucharistic choir.
When we separate our treatment of animals from our worship we are like the priest and the Levite in the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). When they saw the man beaten up by robbers, in their haste to worship in the temple they crossed to the other side of the road to avoid caring for him. I wonder if God accepted their worship when they reached the temple?
The last three Psalms of the Bible, collectively called the Praises or Lauds, are sung at the end of every Matins service. They are the culmination of all that has gone before and, together with the Doxology “Glory to God in the highest”, are the precursor to the Holy Liturgy or Eucharist that follows:
1Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord from the heavens,
praise him in the heights!…
7Praise the Lord from the earth,
you sea monsters and all deeps,
8 fire and hail, snow and frost,
stormy wind fulfilling his command!
9 Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
10 Beasts and all cattle,
creeping things and flying birds!
11 Kings of the earth and all peoples,
princes and all rulers of the earth!
12 Young men and maidens together,
old men and children! …..
(Psalm 148:1, 7-12)
This is not just a call for us humans to praise God, but also all creatures, and even the inanimate kingdom. Our destiny and calling is inexplicably tied up with all creation.
Christ’s Second Coming and the New Jerusalem
We have discussed how our triptych hints at Paradise and Christ’s incarnation and resurrection. What of His Second Coming and the New Jerusalem?
Roman mosaics offered a solution when I was looking for ideas. Rome is home to numerous apse mosaics dating from the first millennium. Some of them show Christ in the midst of brightly coloured clouds. Examples are found in the churches of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Santi Cosma e Damiano, Santa Constanza, Santa Prassede, and Santa Maria Trastevere.
What do these clouds represent? They are clouds of a sunrise, and thus indicate Christ’s Second Coming in glory:
…then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory… (Matthew 24:30)
Most of these apses also bear a cross at the apex. This is the “sign of the Son of Man” that will appear in the skies at Christ’s coming, a sign traditionally understood by the Orthodox Church to be the cross. The stars that surround our cross in the triptych represent the host of heavenly angels that will accompany Him.
Why should we include the theme of the future New Jerusalem in an icon about animals? Churches traditionally face east, towards the rising sun, towards Christ’s coming again in glory. Consciously or unconsciously, every individual and every culture lives the present in the light of their belief about the future. When driving a car, we tend to steer in the direction we are looking. Our actions tend to follow our gaze, follow our vision of the ideal.
John’s description of the New Jerusalem is highly symbolic, and is not intended to provide lots of detail to be taken literally. But the essence of what he is saying is that God will be pleased to dwell among us, because all His creatures will be living in harmony with one another. There will be no sin or cruelty, and therefore no death, crying or pain.
We do not know for certain what place animals will have in this community of the New Jerusalem, but if we are to take at face value Isaiah’s words quoted at the beginning of this article, there will be lots of them and we will all live in unity. If the destiny of human and beast is not to “hurt or destroy in all God’s holy mountain”, why not begin to live like this now, inasmuch as it is possible? Hopefully this little icon will help a few of us to begin.
 (Against Heresies, Book 2, II:5,6, translation in “Against Heresies, by Irenaeus, ed. Philip Schaff, Eerdmans, 1885. Page 85 in Woodstock, Ontario, 2017 edition.