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Thursday, 8 November 2012

history of #christianity in 15 #objects No 7: Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy

Presented by Dame Averil Cameron.
Warden of Keble College, Oxford until 2010 and previously taught at King's College London

in summary

- the icon is quite small - 12 inches by 15 inches - but is packed with meaning

- it is in the british museum and bought in 1988

- it is generally thought to have been painted around 1400 and is what is know as a feast icon

- so made for one of the liturgical celebrations of one of the feast days in the orthodox church.  its not immediately accessible or understandable as an icon

- like many byzantine icons it had writing on it to identify the figures (but this is now badly damaged) but a later copy from 1500 helps a bit

- so part of the word orthodoxy can just be made out on the right hand side of the icon

- but a byzantine would have known what it was about

- the icon looks back 5 centuries commemorating the end of the long struggle over religious images in byzantium which went on for 100 years ending in AD43 when images were finally vindicated

- that ending was - and is  - known as the triumph of orthodoxy and a new church feast to celebrate such was established (it is still celebrated on the 1st sunday of lent in orthodox churches)

- so as feast icon this object would have been brought out annually for the feast

- there are 2 layers (or ranges) of figures shown on it and the most important ones are the ones at the top.  the 9th century empress theodora and her son - the emperor michael the 3rd - shown as a small child next to his mother, 

- and the patriarch methodios - who presided over the official ending of iconoclasm (the attack on religious images in the 8th and 9th centuries)

- in the scene depicted on the icon the human figures are arranged around another famous icon (now lost for centuries) of the virgin - the mother of god - holding the child in a posture copied many other times in byzantine and italian art - and flanked by 2 angels (the virgin was often show as guarded by such) - and is known in greek as the hodegetria - she who points the way - the icon depicted in our icon was believed to have been brought to constantinople from jerusalem in the 5th century (and to have been painted originally by st. luke).  this icon has disappeared - but it was the most important one in constantinople (it was identified with the city)

- this is the icon the emporer michael the 8th followed on foot in 1261 when he entered constantinople and restored byzantine rule after 50 years of crusader occupation.  it was housed in a monastry named after it - the hodegetria - in later centuries we learn from foreign visitors that it was displayed publically on a weekly basis on tuesdays

- so this great lost icon is painted within our triumph of orthodoxy icon.  it is shown is a form (that we know from other sources) that it was displayed and venerated in and after the 13th century

- the other figures in our icon are all supporters of icons - some of whom had endured persecution or imprisonment or branding by the iconoclast emperors

- so its an icon the commemorates an event.

- so why was it produced at the end of the 14th century? (a time when byzantine orthodoxy had been vindicated after 3 church councils and debates between the western monk barlaam of calabria and gregory palamas  - the great orthodox saint - over palamas's teachings)

- these 14th century councils were held in the very same church in constantinople where the triumph of orthodoxy had been proclaimed in 843

- of course behind those 14th century debates lay the deeper division - enormously heightened by the bitter experience of the crusades - between the orthodox byzantines and the latin catholic west

- so this icon tells a story and it reasserts the claims of eastern orthodoxy over the west

- perhaps it doesn't have the immediate asthetic and spiritual appeal of so many orthodox icons - it needs to be decoded

- we often see icons in museums as though they are art objects but of course that is not how the byzantines saw them.  this icon would have been kissed and revered by every worshipper coming into the church for the liturgy on the sunday of orthodoxy (if you see orthodox christians greet icons now it is almost as if the icons like greeting members of a family) then you become aware that they are infinitely more than just pictures

- what was affirmed in 843 and reaffirmed around 1400 by this icon was that the divine had manifested itself to us in certain specific ways - that the martyrs and the saints pointed the way towards god whose will the angels helped carry out.  that the annunciation to mary, her pregnancy, the birth of christ, his miracles, his suffering with mary at the foot of the cross and hism ascension - were part of the divine economy which were part of god's plan for mankind - the truth of which was revealed in icons

- icons in the orthodox tradition are quite simply about truth.  they are not easy to understand for someone brought up in the western tradition, yet many people respond instinctively to byzantine icons as the byzantines did so many centuries ago

- complex and theological as this icon is, icons have a powerful appeal to religious people and to the unchurched alike - they really are windows to the soul and artifices of eternity

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