Wednesday, July 22, 2015

On iconography, feminism, and faithfulness to Tradition

I recently came across this article, by a non-Orthodox person styling herself as "a rebellious iconographer".

My response is as follows:

If one is going to claim "no female saintly presence" for an icon, she would do well to choose icons that actually have no female saintly presence.  The Pentecostal icon she uses as her first example (Fig. 1) has a HUGE female saintly presence: the Mother of God herself is front and center.

In iconography, that position is huge, which even she admits:

The Apostles are depicted seated in a semi-circle, with no individual among them taking the central seat of authority.

She is correct that none of the Apostles occupies the central seat of authority, but I beg to differ with the assertion that "no individual" takes that seat in this icon.  It is occupied by the Mother of God, a "female saintly presence" if there ever was one.

Fig. 1
That icon is so clearly structured! I, as an Orthodox Christian looking at that icon, see the Mother of God first and foremost; only then do I notice that those surrounding her are the Twelve.  The emphasis here is very much a feminine saintly presence.

She dismisses (or perhaps just misses) this by saying,

[When] Mary got elevated to Virgin Mother of God she lost her place as a woman saint or female apostle.

Maybe in her tradition that's true, but not in Eastern Orthodoxy.  For us, rather than losing her place as a woman saint, Mary is shown to be the pinnacle of what it means to be a woman saint.  (Actually, I could even leave off the gender and say just as accurately that she is the fulfillment of what it means to be a saint, period, but since we're talking about gender, I'll leave it on.)

She is the ultimate female saint!  And she's front and center.  So her whole thesis is turned on its head.

(As for "female apostle" -- as far as I know, she never was that to start with, so its hard to say she "lost her place" as one.  We do have plenty of other female apostles -- many of them sent by her, even! (e.g. St. Nino of Georgia) -- but she was not herself of that Order.

Besides, if she's going to argue from exclusion, she should argue that that same icon gives a vast quantity of men short shrift as well, considering that there were at least 120 people in that room, and at least 70 of them were men, none of whom are portrayed.  But I digress.)

In her article next to this part (i.e., where she dismisses Mary), there is what used to be another icon of Pentecost, now mangled by Photoshop (Fig. 2).

This one includes the Mother of God in neither its mangled nor original (Fig. 3) form.  However, one cannot use her absence in this one to say that women are excluded in Eastern Orthodox iconography, because in the same Tradition, and just as popular (if not more so), we have the icon discussed above.  Clearly this one (without her) has a different pedagogical purpose and focus.

Fig. 2 - Mangled
Fig. 3 - Original

The blank space at the bottom of the original holds a depiction of the Cosmos personified.  I won't go into a whole meditation on this aspect of the icon here, but suffice it to say she's completely missed the point of the whole icon, which had nothing to do with male OR female, or the composition of the Church, etc.  She's taken it apart and put it back together as something completely different.  To borrow a line from Irenaus, she's turned the mosaic of the King into a mosaic of a fox.

(It's like taking the original Star Wars trilogy and replacing The Empire Strikes Back with Cinderella, and Return of the Jedi with Pride and Prejudice.  It's not even the same story, if such a "trilogy" can be called a story at all!)

She asserts,

Iconographers have continually taken liberties with image content as church teaching changed and their emphasis modified.

In the Eastern tradition, nothing could be farther from the truth, not only because church teaching hasn't changed (it is still "the Faith once delivered to the saints"), but also because, understanding that "the icons portray and teach with color what the Scriptures and the Fathers teach with words", to "take liberties with image content" in the way she is describing would be tantamount to heresy.  It's like taking liberties with the content of Scripture.  Have some people done so?  Yes.  Did they keep the Tradition by doing so?  No; rather, they departed from it.

She then gives an interpretation of the empty center seat, correctly noting that it is the Teacher's seat, but then positing that the icon invites us to sit in it.

Insofar as the center seat is depicted as empty, I guarantee you it is not because it meant for us to plop ourselves down in it.  That seat is "empty" because the Christ who still sits in it is invisibly present, as opposed to visibly.  So it is not actually empty; it is occupied by an invisible presence.

This is in fact a great temptation to the unlearned and unstable: to see the "emptiness" of the Teacher's seat and then, abandoning all humility, to assume that it is left empty for oneself to take.

But that is not the place of the one contemplating the icon, nor is her place "to stand outside looking in".  The icon's composition does not allow this.

Rather, if you are viewing the icon at all, the icon as originally written places you squarely in the circle of the Apostles, although at the bottom of it, farthest (compared to them) from the seat of the Teacher.

Your position at the event is to be seated on the part of the circle not depicted.   It's not absent because it doesn't exist; it's "absent" because that part of the circle extends through the window into our world, and the observer is seated on it.  So it's not absent at all.  It's just not on the other side of the window.

This openness of the circle already shows exactly what this author says we need to include: that the whole world is invited into the Kingdom, to sit with the Apostles and receive the Spirit.  It also shows, however, that there is order and hierarchy in the Kingdom. The Kingdom is no egalitarian miasma.

If even the seats at his right and left hands are not up for grabs, I think we would do well not to assume that the Teacher's own seat is available.  Did not He Himself teach us so?

When thou art bidden of any man to a wedding, sit not down in the highest room; lest a more honourable man than thou be bidden of him; and he that bade thee and him come and say to thee, 'Give this man place'; and thou begin with shame to take the lowest room. 
But when thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest room; that when he that bade thee cometh, he may say unto thee, 'Friend, go up higher': then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee. 
For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.

As a side note: if this is true for you and me, how much more so would the saintly and humble women whom she has shoehorned into the seats of the Twelve be appalled that she has done so?  They would be the first to censure her!

She concludes with the question:

Why not expand past women saints and female apostles and include an international gathering of great thinkers who control our world[?]

The original icon does include such great thinkers, and the entire set of people who have controlled and continue to control the world, in the person of Cosmos.  The original icon has much to teach about the relationship of the Spirit, the Church, and the world leaders.  But she has blacked that teaching out entirely and discarded it.

The Eastern Church has no need to "rethink" the Tradition, nor our depiction of it in color.  This author says, rightly, "Icon paintings have their power in showing the potential for human harmony and divine energy all in one instant."  But that power is not theirs to shape as they will.  They must show the Truth of things.

If an iconographer paints simply whatever she feels like, or tries to shape a narrative outside of the Tradition, she is not an iconographer at all.  Or worse, perhaps she is a false iconographer, showing false visions and portraying lies!

Iconographers, just the same as Preachers and Prophets, ought to take careful heed that they do nothing without true vision, lest the Lord say of them also,

I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran: I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied. ... Behold, I am against them that prophesy false dreams, and do tell them, and cause my people to err by their lies, and by their lightness; yet I sent them not, nor commanded them ... And I will bring an everlasting reproach upon you, and a perpetual shame, which shall not be forgotten.

How does one receive true vision, which one can then faithfully depict?  By entering the true Faith.  By receiving the Tradition (that is, the Spirit), and seeking always to enter ever more fully into it and remain faithful to it.  By not assuming that she can simply alter it to serve her own ideas (which are often, as in this case, nothing more than an expression of the zeitgeist), but rather by letting it alter her ideas, and flow through her as a fountain of living water.

If a woman wants more female saintly icons in the Byzantine tradition, I say to her: You are female; become a saint of the Byzantine tradition!  Then there will be more. :)

This is much easier said than done, of course.  But there's no time like the present to get started....


As a side note: there is another Byzantine icon of Pentecost that merges the two mentioned above (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4
This is, I think, the "master" icon, and the other two are meditations on various aspects of it, with different lessons in mind.  Or perhaps this is the combination of the two threads into one contemplation later.  I don't know.  All I know is that either way, this kind of shifting of emphasis and content is perfectly permissible within the Tradition, because there is no alteration -- simply meditation on different aspects.

What this author proposes, however, is not a meditation on the Tradition in order to apply it to the needs of our times, but rather a complete alteration of -- or rather, departure from -- it.


  1. Thank you for such a long analysis and deep understanding. Yes I am fledgling icon painter, arrogant and rebellious. I humbly ask your forgiveness. There is no BUT, there is only a stronger desire to say, Christ is hidden in us all and these kinds of discussions encourage our reflections of, in and through Him. Meditation potentailly open us to a more broard presence of the divine life within, peace be with you

  2. I do agree completely that Mary Is the finest example of Divine Female Presence. She is the only icon with a line drawn through her neck symbolizing her contemplative silence. Angles, Christ, Apostles and the rest of us have a wiggly line,, (smile)


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