20 Comments

  1. Paul B Cousineau

    I’ve recently been reading Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love by Elizabeth Johnson. This article is remarkably similar. Good things are happening on our Planet despite the apparent clouded darkness. Great article.

  2. Misha Pennington

    Very nice. I was skeptical at first. I am an animal lover but a convinced traditionalist as well. Glory to God.

  3. This is a beautiful work and I applaud the chosen topic! Hosea 2:18: “In that day I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the creatures that move along the ground. Bow and sword and battle I will abolish from the land, so that all may lie down in safety.” If God has made a covenant with the animals, no one will ever convince me they are soulless and incapable of eternity in Heaven.

    1. Thank you for reminding me of this passage from Hosea – perfect apt!

  4. Michael

    Sorry, I am not convinced. I can sympathize with the theme but not the extreme emotion-provoking presentation of the animals on the icon. I think the way their expressions are rendered will take a viewer far away from an attitude of veneration to one of anger.

    Designing this commission to “advertise” a new ministry seems slightly akin to having a point in mind for a sermon, then searching for verses to back up the point you’ve already decided to make.

    1. You make a valid point, but the history of iconography is chock-full of examples of patrons choosing subject matter to promote their political agenda. This includes the many of the beloved mosaics in Ravenna, which have overtly royalist themes and illustrations of contemporary court life. It may sound problematic, but it’s not that different from monasteries promoting their agenda by emphasizing pro-monastic figures like St. Gregory Palamas.

      Even when it comes to painting ordinary parish churches, I happen to know that artistic diversity emerges largely because priests request subject matter that promotes their theological ‘pet’ interests. I don’t see anything wrong with this, because otherwise, we’d just be painting everything exactly the same. It seems to me that developing new icon compositions that speak to contemporary concerns is one of the most natural ways for iconography to remain a living art. But as with any new icon, it will take time for the church to decide whether to accept this image as helpful, and paint more versions of it, or to leave it obscure and at the margin of the tradition.

    2. Hello Michael. Thank you for your response. A new icon like this is always going to be a work in progress, so frank reactions are very welcome. I agree with you, that the animals could have been rendered better. If I could paint the icon again I would do them less naturalistically – still being released from some form of bondage, but without the extreme emotion. Having said that, there are some examples of traditional icons where people are expressing very strong emotion, such as the Mother of God (and sometimes the other Marys) in the Crucifixion and in the Deposition.

      Although the newness of the theme does run the risk of making the icon appear as an advertisement, I have to disagree with your point about an icon being used to “back up” a theological assertion. Surely all the festal icons do just this, interpreting and elucidating a truth also expressed in the Church’s hymnography and writings? Such icons do not merely repeat, but, being a different medium from the word, can offer distinct insights on a sacred event, or at least, touch a different part of our being than can words.

  5. Alexander Stoykov

    Andrew Gould, I’ve long ago noticed that you can not make a difference between the icon as a sacred object and the wall painting that has no such qualities. You arbitrarily mingle topics that have no place in true icon painting.

    1. And what is your evidence that there actually exists such a difference? Where, in the historical record, can you find an argument that icons are sacred objects and that wall paintings are not? On both you will find paintings of saints, and on both you will find paintings of non-saints. Both are called hagiography by the Greeks. I have seen all sorts of strange things on antique panel icons that it is hard to imagine venerating (angels of the apocalypse, Holy Wisdom, the Magi, demons pulling monks off the Ladder of Divine Ascent). So who is to say that the tradition requires panel icons to depict only sacred subjects that one can venerate?

      Not that that’s specifically an issue with Aidan’s icon here. It is clearly conceived as a sacred object where the figure of Christ can be venerated. I’m just saying that despite the assertions of certain 20th-century iconologists, the historical record does not really support the idea that panel icons are held to a different standard of subject matter than wall painting.

    2. I agree with Andrew. On Mount Athos we would often venerate wall pantings of saints (those low enough to reach!). Although it is true that the emphasis of wall paintings is different, this does not render them as not sacred, and worthy of veneration. What makes an icon an icon is not the medium, place, or even style necessarily, but that it bears the name of the sacred person.

  6. Maria Overy

    In ecumenical spirit I recommend the poem ‘A Legend’s Carol’ by Francis Warner, inspired by a disagreement with C.S. Lewis over a passage in Plutarch where the death of Pan after the birth of Christ is discussed. I also recommend John Piper’s nativity window in Magdalen College Chapel. Both sprang to mind after reading this beautiful and thought-provoking piece.

  7. Mihai

    I really wonder if we do need such an icon.
    Especially the fact that its been commissioned by Constantinople makes me extremely weary about the spirit which animates it.

    Certainly, Christ’s action is cosmic, universal in scope and God’s providence watches over every single creature, there is no argument in that. You also have Ps. 35 where it says that God will save man and beast and also in Solomon’s Proverbs (chapter 11 or 12) it says that the righteous man has mercy for his cattle.
    So there is no argument in that.

    However, we live today in a context when man’s love for his fellow man is growing cold and he is trying to compensate this for an exaggerated love for animals. I see more and more people who are almost indifferent to human suffering, but devote themselves to animal suffering. This is just one more sign of the times and the disorder in which we live. We are incapable of loving each other so we try to compensate by loving animals in a pathological way.

    In this sense, I am very skeptical about this kind of theme. I don’t think that it is something we need.

    1. This is very reasonable concern. While this icon serves a unique purpose for the organization that commissioned it, I too would be concerned if it became a ‘mainstream’ icon seen in other contexts. If that happened, its popularity could indeed be seen as a symptom of the contemporary pathology you describe.

  8. Thank you, Mihai, for taking the time to reply. Putting aside whether or not the icon design itself is successful – I fully acknowledge its weaknesses – I don’t quite see the logic of your argument. First, what has Constantinople got to do with the subject at hand? Do you think only bad comes from this Patriarchate?

    Secondly, your point about compensation. Indeed, some animal activists do get their priorities wrong, hating humankind and loving animals. But this is precisely what the theology behind the icon is trying to counter: it tries to place care for animals in the context of love for Christ their creator, and away from sentimentality, political agendas, or mere cultural preferences. Whether or not the icons works is another point, but its design is distinct from the theology that underpins it.

    Our response to the problem of the love of man growing cold should not be to reduce care for all creatures, as though we have a limited amount of love. In fact, at least as children, we often learn proper behaviour towards people by first learning to treat the lesser creatures well. If a child learns that to kick cats is acceptable, they are surely more likely to mistreat humans? The only enduring basis for love of all creatures is that God created them. Saints such as St Paissius of Athos, with whom I spent time on a number of occasions, show us this by their gentleness towards all creatures – human and animals. The form of expression will vary depending on the creature, but the impulse is the same: to love God through love of his Creatures as well as through prayer and worship. Natural theology (perceiving God in all created things) is precursor to mystical theology.

  9. Gregory (William) Manning

    I read with great interest your article and learned a lot from your explication. I offer some thoughts on the project.
    Perhaps the triptych was not the better format. I have a vast collection of photographs of icons on my computer and I recalled having seen a contemporary icon from the creation narrative which covered the creation of the birds of the air and the beasts of the field. Indeed, representations of the animal kingdom are all over the image (you need more animals–lots more). This icon falls into a category of icons which I have been informed are properly called “didactic” or teaching icons and, as such, are not usually venerated. The well known icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent is such an icon. Even though a tiny image of Christ God is way up in the corner (the presence of divine personages being otherwise worthy of veneration) exception is made for teaching icons. Thus, the icon of the Ladder is not venerated, particularly since icons of St. John Climacus are readily available.
    There are, nevertheless, wonderful icons on single panels which illustrate not only a particular saint, centrally placed, but mini icons which surround the central image, which illustrate and teach about events in the saints life.
    I say all this because I suggest the triptych format is more likely identified with sacred personages and them only. Perhaps a better format would have been the panel where several “supporting” factors such as images of saints with scrolls which attest to the singular importance of the central creation event could be included.
    Having said all this, especially about the non-veneration of teaching icons, I can’t help but wonder how I might somehow “venerate” an event such as the creation which is undeniably sacred, coming as it does from the Lord of Creation and Him alone.
    Forgive me if I ask for a moment more of your time to address another issue which arose in the comments and that has to do with the relationships animal lover have with their pets.
    There are in fact people who have what are actually heretical views about the place of animals in God’s creation and this is revealed in their disparaging attitude towards humanity vis-a-vis the animal kingdom. Humanity is the crown of creation, not plants or animals, and it is to us that eternal life is offered. To assume that only a unloving God would deny immortality to a pet we loved is to assume that we know what the best outcome for our beloved pet would be and that if God does not agree there must be something wrong with Him. I submit to you that were you ever to discover what God’s plan was for your pet after it’s death you would be delighted with the outcome and yet ashamed that you didn’t trust God and instead tried to second-guess Him. Trust God. Be at peace. Everything will turn out better than you could have imagined. As Scripture tells us and as the above icon illustrates, the creation of the animal kingdom was the divine act of God. That He Himself called it “Good” is no small thing. Thank you very much for your time.

    1. Thank you, Gregory. I do take your point that some icons have a didactic emphasis, whereas most only represent the person to be venerated. I personally prefer to see didactic images kept more – though not exclusively – to the medium of wall painting, mosaic or illuminated manuscripts than to panel icons.

      But would you not say that it is a matter of emphasis rather than essence? One could surely still venerate Christ, Ephraim and Irenaeus in this icon, since we are ultimately venerating them as persons and not the image itself, be the icon didactic or otherwise in emphasis? The presence of the animals would not preclude this veneration, anymore than does the representation of the bound devil in the resurrection icon preclude us from venerating Christ in that icon. Or again, the horse and dragon in St George icons.

      I was somewhat hesitant to accept the task of designing an icon with such an obvious – and for the icon world – new didactic emphasis, but my love of a challenge got the better of me! If I painted it again I would integrate the animals better by painting them in the same, more “abstracted”, style as the figures. What draws our attention to them at present is the naturalistic way they are rendered as well as the novelty of their inclusion.

      I like your summary of the situation regarding the immortality of animals. Things that are not clearly revealed are best left up to God, and us not to speculate too much about them!

  10. Michael Lucas

    What a wonderful exchange of comments concerning this icon. If nothing else, it has prompted an examination of what an icon is or can be. The heart of the issue is a conceptual one. Let’s be honest, Mr. Hart was asked to enlist Orthodoxy in support of a social/political issue (the issue may be worthy, but, nonetheless, that’s what happened.) This already sets the whole work on shaky theological ground. The result is that Christ is present in a supporting role- conceptually. In other traditional icons presented, God is the main character. He orchestrates creation, and all the creatures around Him testify to His glory. Mr. Hart makes Christ the central figure, larger and powerful of gesture, yet, His timeless portrayal contrasts unfavorably with the very timely presented animals. The result is awkward. It is not the fault of the iconographer though. Forcing the eternal into the temporal for any agenda results in the awkward. Oddly enough, if a Latin Catholic artist presented this concept/ issue, they would have used St. Francis as a “stand-in” main character…..Mr. Hart is a great iconographer, but his task here is unenviable.

  11. Thank you, Mr Lucas. I agree that the animals are represented in too “timely” a way, by which I am guessing you mean too naturalistic, and this to a degree draws the eye down from Christ. I think however that this is also in part due to the novelty of their inclusion. I have noticed that one of the first things people not acquainted with icons tend to ask when they see the resurrection icon is: “Who is the man bound with chains at Christ’s feet?” But we Orthodox who are used to the icon and the devil’s inclusion don’t notice him so much, and concentrate on Christ.

    Regarding the theological content of the icon, I think that Dr Christine Nellist who commissioned the icon would disagree that it she was “enlisting Orthodoxy in support of a social/political issue”. As I understand it, her thesis, due to be published, is precisely an exploration of what the Church Fathers and the Scriptures say about how we should treat animals. She concluded that there is ample patristic evidence to support a theological basis for mankind not being cruel to animals.

    1. Michael Lucas

      One of the really unique things about the practice of iconography is that the artist must work within parameters. Some see this as constricting, but I believe it to be the perfect forum for creative problem solving. Your icon explores those parameters, those of both appearance and message. It is to your credit, Aidan, that you are open to the opinion of others about those parameters. You do not back away from critique and you assess your work honestly. Tradition is loyal to prototypes. Perhaps you created a prototype here. Time will judge. Thank you for responding to my comments.

  12. With respect for my teacher, I do have one comment to add.

    I question the inclusion of bible verse citations on an icon, and I suggest the inclusion of them in this icon may consciously or subconsciously be the reason some of the commentators above experienced an uneasy sense of distrust for the depiction (‘are there ulterior motives at work here’). If ever possible I would recommend all iconographers to spell out the excerpted words of any referenced text, not just give the book, chapter and verse.

    In the part of the world I live in (Texas, USA) and in other similar cultural contexts, many of us are familiar with being presented with bible citations on billboards, posters, apparel, pamphlets, athletic accessories, etc. In short, we are accustomed to being shown a bible verse citation in the context of advertising – this is our reference point. And this is often a distasteful use of the holy scriptures we have experienced. The holy words of our scriptures can in these contexts be used as weapons of political or social war, as weapons of shame, fear, or coercion in a campaign to proselytize. Contemporary iconographers must take great care that didactic icons do not drift towards proselytism.

    Scriptural references can have tremendous power to enrich iconographic content in very positive and profound ways, and I do not want to limit that at all. But I would recommend finding creative ways to work in all the desired words, or else leave them out, but not use citations.

    I ask your prayers and forgiveness,
    baker

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