THE BLESSING OF AN ICON OF CHRIST
at Belmont Abbey, Hereford.
The Blessing by Fr Brendan, assisted by Br Alex (the iconographer)
Fr Brendan is Welsh. Br Alex is Peruvian.
This address was given by Br Alex Echeandia at Belmont (on the right of the photo above). He is a monk of our monastery here in Pachacamac on the outskirts of Lima and has been studying Theology with the Dominicans at Blackfriars, Oxford, and Iconography under Aidan Hart, an Orthodox artist of icons. He will be rejoining us in Peru in September and will be ordained priest on October 18th, the feast of St Luke, patron saint of iconographers. Please pray for him.
Christ Pantocrátor of Belmont
Talk given at Belmont on Saturday 26th July 2014
This finished icon is one that Fr Dyfrig started. In fact I have used his drafts in order to produce what you see here in the Church. The drafts that Fr Dyfrig used are based on the Christ Pantocrator, Saviour and Giver of Life, of XIV century Greek origin, and which is placed now in the Museum of Macedonia, Yugoslavia. This turn was base, as another icon of Christ Pantocrator from Sinai.
Before I start to explain the meaning and symbolism contained in this icon, let start by saying what an icon is. Etymologically, an icon is translated from the Greek as “image”. Therefore, this icon of Christ is, per excellence, the icon of God, the Image of the Father. The reason why we make icons is because God became man. As Irenaeus said, the Word become one of us in order that we may become like Him. Therefore, images of Our Lady and the Saints find their prototype in Christ, the Image of God Invisible. We find here in the Abbey church a lot of images of Christ, saints and angels, quite a lot I may say. They are made from stone, glass, wood or other materials. The reason why we make these images is because of the Incarnation. Iconoclasts and other people who based their understanding in the Old Testament don’t consider the turning point of our faith, that God became man in Christ.
A sacred icon comes to people in three ways. First, as with any other work of art, the icon attracts your eyes by the beauty it offers. As Fyodor Dostoevsky said, beauty will conquer the world. It is towards beauty that our minds and hearts are attracted. We say that a piece of music or a work of art is beautiful. The eyes and ears are the most sensitive senses we have. Therefore, images need to offer something of beauty to attract our attention.
However, an icon is not simply a work of art. It offers a profound spiritual richness that only comes by contemplating it. As iconogrpahers we are called to be instrument of the Holy Spirit which is why we don’t put our names on top of the image represented. We are not the authors. We believe that it is Christ and His mother, and saints who come to us in order to be represented. I am sure you have heard of an icon functioning as a window through which the saint comes to the viewer. However, one may say that the icon works as a door through which we can encounter God, Our Lady and the Saints and they can encounter us. We can journey into the mystery by contemplating an icon. This is what the faithful, especially among the Eastern Churches, believe is happening. This is why an icon is always flat because it is in direct relation with the viewer.
The third way in which an icon is seen by the faithful is from a theological perspective. The First Council of the Church at Nicaea confirmed that Christ is the visible and perfect Image of the Father. However, during the following centuries the Church struggled against heresies related to Christ’s two natures, either denying the divine nature (Arians) or the human nature (monophysites). Finally at Chalcedon it was declared that Christ was fully human and fully divine, and He Himself embodied the union of two natures, human and divine. This icon of Christ, God-Man, is a graphic expression of the dogma of Chalcedon, for it represents the Divine Person incarnated, the Son of God became the Son of Man, Divine as the Father and human like us.
The icon of Christ the Pantocrator becomes a very important key to understand this relationship of Christ as fully human and fully divine. The danger of considering only one part of this relationship, leaving out the other part, was so understood during the iconoclastic period. The argument in favour of iconodules was based on the person of Jesus Christ, arguing that through the Incarnation images of the Son of God and His saints are possible in the Church.
As I said at the beginning of this talk, icons of Christ Pantocrator go back to the one in Sinai. In fact, the oldest example of this kind is the sixth century icon in the Monastery of St Catherine in the Sinai desert. The well-known Icon of “Christ of Sinai” was probably written at Constantinople, using the encaustic technique. This technique consisted in mixing wax with pigment and applying the mixture on the wooden panel already covered with gesso. The wax medium was replaced in later centuries by the yolk of eggs, a technique seen in icons nowadays. This encaustic technique came originally from Egypt. Examples can be seen in the portraits made for the mummies. One may go to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford or the National Gallery in London, and appreciate the images placed on top of the mammies with the portrayals which represented the person inside the sarcophagus. The same technique is used in the image of Christ Pantocrator at the museum of St Catherine´s Monastery, Sinai.
The word Pantocrator comes from a composed word Panto-crator. The word “panto” is the genitive of pantos (all), meaning “of all”, and “crator” (power, rule) is the participle present of “cratos” which means ruler, the one in power. It is also interpreted as the One who embraces the whole of humanity, the One who maintains all things.
The Icon of Christ Pantocrator we see here at the Abbey Church shows facial characteristics of the adult Jesus. It expresses the reality of the Incarnation of the Son of God, the True Image of the Father that The Gospel of John proclaims in the prologue. The image of God Invisible that become one of us. St Ireneus said, “The Son of God become the Son of Man, so that man might become son of God.” Jesus Christ is the Image of the Father revealed to us for our salvation. Therefore, the Image of Christ Pantocrator is the image per excellence that gives meaning to all images.
This icon, as with all the sacred icons, is embedded with theological symbolism. As said before, the viewer can simply admire it at the basic level of beauty that captures our attention. However, the symbolism of the icon goes deeper than that for it brings into closer relationship the one who contemplates it to the the person depicted, to Christ, Our Mother, and all the Saints. In this way, the icon acts as a door rather than a window. We can look through a window at those depicted but the relationship is, in a way, impersonal. However, if the icon is seen as a door, that one can go through as well as the saint can come to us, the relationship becomes more personal.
As we look at the icon we can see its powerful background which is of real gold. This half-length image of Christ is enveloped in light represented by the gold. Images of Christ in this form are founded in ninth century Psalters, particularly placed near the words: “Shine on us, Lord, the light of your face”. Moreover, one of the oldest Russian icons of this type (XII and XIII century) called the Saviour with Golden Hair in the Cathedral of the Dormition in Moscow, Christ is called King of Glory, as the inscription tells us. Therefore, gold is not defined by a particular colour, but contains all the colours as it acts by the reflection of the light. It recalls the divine light that shines through the icon and tells us that we are encountering the divine.
The image that is surrounded by gold is simple and almost symmetrical, the face is compact with a certain softness and appears brighter. Nevertheless, the wide-open, asymmetrical eyes gaze beyond the confines of place and time. Christ´s left eye is bigger than the other, and his left eyebrow is raised higher that the other. It offers the identity of God: justice and mercy. They are composed in a way that becomes harmonious, as the Psalm 85:10: “righteousness and peace kiss each other.” In this imposing image of Christ there is a close relationship with biblical reproaches and prophetic exhortations addressed in the Church by means of preaching and teaching. We hear God in the Scriptures: “Cease to do evil and learn to do good.” This biblical severity and directness is represented in Jesus’ left-side face. Christ is presented as King and Heavenly Judge. He indeed rules with justice. In fact, the big, open eyes give a theological message, he who created the world never sleeps, but rather watches over it and saves it. As the Psalm 12 says, the Lord will keep your going and coming now and for ever.
Icons try to answer the question of who Jesus is. As it is seen in the two sides of the face, Jesus Christ appears as the Revelation of God. Christ is seen as the merciful face of the Father. Christ said, “He that sees me, sees Him who sent me” (John 12:45). Jesus Pantocrator expresses the strength and authority of God. Christ the Judge is tempered by the Saviour’s merciful face. “You are the fairest of the children of men” (Psalm 45). In Christ, justice and mercy, truth and peace, are reconciled. This is the relation of a divine humanity. Christ is at once Lord of the universe and the prototype of a transfigured humanity. The iconographic type of Christ-Pantocrator expresses under the human features of the Incarnate Son, the Divine Majesty of the Creator and Redeemer, who presides over the destiny of the world.
That strength and majesty is also seen in the nose and neck. The long, narrow and straight nose underscores a firmness of mind and will. The small, closed mouth stands for silence and inner strength. The thick neck expresses the fullness of the breath of the Holy Spirit. The beard is a fine filigree shading the face. The well-marked lines of the eyebrows and moustache express a strong sense of pity and loving judgement of the world. It shows the transfigured flesh of Him who suffered for us. The thick, gathered hair frames the face, then falls in loose braids onto the left shoulder, suggesting a slight turn of the shoulders. His hair also recalls the tree strands which place in its centre the face of our Lord. As a tree it suggests paradise, and symbolises Jesus as the Tree of Life and the New Adam. The large detailed eyes, turned towards the onlooker, have an attentive and saddened look which seems to penetrate the depths of consciences. Christ is come into the world not to condemn, but to save it (John 3). The flesh tones, like in the Icon of Sinai, is a result of a perfect balance between naturalism and mystical transfiguration; it is, the richness of His humanity and divinity.
The halo bears the mark of the cross and the letters O, Ω, N (omicron, omega and nu) stand for the holy name revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai; “I am that I am”, “The Being”, “The One that is. Christ is God that comes to meet his people. Moreover, on the same gold the name of Jesus Christ abbreviated is place in Greek. The abridged name of Jesus Christ IC XC (above, on our icon) designates the person of the Incarnate Son. A name in an icon makes it a proper icon; it gives its identity. Therefore, it is obligatory for inscriptions of the name to appear on all icons of Christ, of the Mother of God, and all the saints.
Christ Pantocrator is shown holding the Gospel Book in his left hand. The Book of the Gospel symbolises the new law given to humankind, as well as the “Book of Life” mentioned in the Apocalypse (Rev 4). It is adorned with precious blue and red stones. Christ´s right hand is in a position of blessing the world. The fingers of the hand are gathered to symbolise Christ’s two natures. The ring finger and thumb are united to symbolize the two natures of Jesus Christ, which only Him has obtained. Jesus is truly human and truly divine, the heavenly world has met the human world in Jesus.
He wears a green cloak and a red tunic, aspects of Christ´s two natures, human and divine. As Pope Leo the great states in his text about God’s humanity and divinity: “If you want to know who you are, look not to what you have been, but to the image that God had I creating you. In Him there is all His godliness, and all our humanity.”
As we can see, the theme of Jesus´s identity goes through the whole icon and teaches the faithful about Jesus Christ, Son of God. Thus, the icon becomes first of all a door where God and His saints encounter His people by the beauty it offers and by the teaching about Divine Mystery. If we approach to icons with faith a bit of that mystery will be revealed to the one who contemplates it, in order approach to God, not simply with the mind and the theological teaching it offer, but more profoundly with the eye of the heart that transports the viewer into God Himself.
Finally, I want to thank for the expressions of charity and care given by those who contributed to this icons. I know many people gave a lot of gold leaves and other materials to finish the work that began time ago, from the drafts Fr Dyfrig had. It was very sad to see him depart from us bodily by his sudden death two years ago. We know now that he is very pleased by the acts of love everybody have shown to the point that today this icon has been blest. Now this icon of Christ Pantocrator of Belmont together with the other icon of Our Lady of Tenderness will be used to our prayer and a place of encounter with our Lord and God and all His Saints
The Blessing and Hallowing of the Christ Pantocrator Icon
Blessed is our God always, both now and ever, and unto ages of ages: All: Amen.
Deacon and Celebrant: Ἅγιος ὁ Θεός, Ἅγιος ἰσχυρός, Ἅγιος ἀθάνατος, ἐλέησον ἡμᾶς. (3) Glory to you, our God, glory to you. Heavenly King, Comforter, the Spirit of truth, who are present everywhere filling all things, Treasury of good things and Giver of life, come and
dwell in us. Cleanse us of every stain, and save our souls, gracious Lord.
Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us (3). Glory to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.
All holy Trinity, have mercy on us. Lord, forgive our sins. Master, pardon our transgressions. Holy One, visit and heal our infirmities for the sake of your name.
Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy. Glory to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen.
All: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but
deliver us from evil.
Priest: For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages.
All: Amen. Kyrie eleison. (3) O come, let us worship and fall down, let us kneel before the Lord who made us.
Priest: Good Father,Lover of the human race, we praise you for the great love shown us. In the sending of your Word. Born of the Blessed Virgin, He became our Saviour, our first born brother, like us in all things but sin.
You have given us Christ as the perfect example of holiness:
We see him as a child in the manger, yet acknowledge him as God almighty.
We see his face and discern the countenance of his goodness.
We hear him speak the words of life and are filled with Your wisdom.
We search the deepest reaches of his heart and our own hearts.
Burn with that fire of the Spirit which spread in order to renew the face of the earth.
We look on the Bridegroom of the Church, streaked in his own blood, but we revere that blood which washes our sins away.
The Church rejoices in the glory of his resurrection and shares in the promise it holds, the life that Animates our actions.
May Christ be a light to all who see this image in this place, may he draw all men and women to himself and be a place of rest on their journey.
May he be the gate that opens to all the City of Peace, for he lives there reigning with you and Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever.
Sprinkling cross fashion the Icon with Holy Water, he says:
Hallowed and blessed is this Icon of Christ Pantocrator, Ruler of All, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, through the sprinkling of holy water:
in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Immediately is sung the Troparion and Kontakion of Christ Pantocrator.
Blessing: God and Father, when your Son took flesh he assumed our human nature so that we can participate in your heavenly glory, may the Your Image, Our Lord Jesus Pantocrator, make us worthy to witness the revelations of your mysteries, and praying before this icon we can encounter You, Our Blessed Mother and all your saints, until we see
you face to face.“ R. Amen
Those who wish can reverence and kiss the holy Icon.
We sing the Phos Hilaron (Φῶς Ἱλαρόν, 3rd/4th Century hymn)
O gracious light. Lord Jesus Christ,
In you the Father's glory shone.
Immortal, holy, blest is he,
And blest are you his only Son.
Now sunset comes, but light shines forth,
The lamps are lit to pierce the night.
Praise Father, Son, and Spirit, God
Who dwells in the eternal light.
Worthy are you of endless praise,
O Son of God, life-giving Lord;
Wherefore you are, through all the earth
And in the highest heaven, adored.