We all have longings. What would it mean to live and not have longings? “It seems to me,” writes George Eliot, “we can never give up longing and wishing while we are thoroughly alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger after them.” Yes, Eliot certainly has it right; we must hunger after them, these certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and if we cannot attain these certain things, why then, we must have images that somehow remind us of them.
So it must have been for Abgar, king of Edessa, who legend tells was afflicted with an incurable sickness, and so, having heard the fame of the power and miracles of Jesus, he wrote to him, acknowledging his divinity, craving his help, offering him asylum in his own residence, with the command that the messenger, an artist, paint a portrait of Jesus, if he would not to come. The tradition goes on to tell that Jesus wrote a letter declining to go, but promised that after his ascension, he would send one of his disciples, endowed with his power. In addition, he replied to the king’s letter by miraculously causing a perfect likeness of his countenance to be imprinted on the messenger’s paper. Abgar was later healed by this precious image. Anne Catherine Emmerich affirms the truth of this legend (calling Abgar “Abgarus”) in her vision as it is related in The Life of Jesus Christ (Tan Books and Publishers, 2004, Vol. II, p.123-25), in the following words:
The young man commissioned to bear the king’s letter to Jesus was an artist, and he had received commands to bring back Jesus’ portrait if He would not come Himself. I saw him vainly trying to reach Jesus. He pressed sometimes here, sometimes there through the crowd, both to hear the instruction and to paint Jesus’ likeness. Then Jesus bade one of the disciples to make room for the man that was going around people unable to push his way to the front, and He pointed out a platform nearby to which he should be conducted. The disciple brought the envoy forward, and placed him and his attendants where they could see and hear. They had with them gifts of woven stuffs, thin plates of gold, and very beautiful lambs.
The envoy, overjoyed at being able at last to see Jesus, at once produced his drawing materials, rested his tablet on his knee, regarded Jesus with great admiration and attention, and set to work. The tablet before him was white as if made of wax. He began by sketching with a pencil the outlines of Jesus’ head and beard. Then it looked as if he spread over his work a layer of wax in which to receive the impression of the sketch. After that he resumed his sketching, touched again and again with his pencil, again took the impression, and so continued, but without ever perfecting his work. As often as he glanced at Jesus, he seemed lost in amazement at the countenance he beheld, and was forced to begin anew. Luke did not paint in exactly this way. He used a brush also. The picture this man was producing appeared to me to be somewhat in relief; one could trace it by the touch.
Jesus continued His discourse a while longer, and then sent the disciple to say to the envoy that he might now approach and deliver his message. The envoy came down from the platform whereon he was sitting, followed by his attendants with the presents and lambs. His doublet was short, almost like those of the Three Kings, and he wore no mantle. The picture at which he had been working was hanging by a strap on his left arm. It was like a shield in the form of a heart. In the right hand he held the king’s letter. Casting himself on his knees before Jesus, he bowed low, as did also his attendants, and said: “Thy slave is the servant of Abgarus, King of Edessa. He is sick. He sends Thee this letter, and prays Thee to accept these gifts from him.” Then the slaves approached with the presents. Jesus replied to the envoy that the good intentions of his master were pleasing to Him, and He commanded the disciples to take the gifts and distribute them among the poorest of the assembled crowd. Then He unfolded the letter and read it. I do not remember all that was in it, but only that the king referred to Jesus’ power to raise the dead, and begged Him to come and cure him. The part of the letter containing the writing was stiff; the envelope pliable, as if of some kind of stuff, either leather or silk. I saw, too, that it was bound by a string.
When Jesus had read the letter, He turned the other side of the stiff part and, drawing from His robe a coarse pencil out of which He pushed something, He wrote several words in tolerably large characters, and then folded it again. After that He called for some water, bathed His face, pressed the soft stuff in which the letter had been folded to His sacred countenance, and returned it to the envoy. The latter applied it to the picture he had vainly tried to perfect, when behold! The likeness instantly became a facsimile of the original. The artist was filled with delight. He turned the picture, which was hanging by a strap, toward the spectators, cast himself at Jesus’ feet, arose, and took leave immediately. But some of his servants remained behind and followed Jesus who, after this instruction, crossed the Jordan to the second place of Baptism which John had abandoned. There these new followers were baptized.
I saw the envoy on his way home passing a night outside a city near which were long stone buildings like brick kilns. Very early the next morning some of the workmen hurried to the spot, because they had seen there a bright light like a fire. Something remarkable then took place in connection with the picture, and a great crowd of people gathered on the spot. The artist exhibited to them his picture, as well as the cloth with which Jesus had dried his face, and which, too, had received the imprint o f His features. Agbarus came some distance through his garden to to meet his envoy. He was indescribably touched at Jesus’ letter and sight of His picture. He immediately amended his life and dismissed the numerous concubines with whom he had sinned.
This letter, this image of the face of Jesus imprinted upon it, became according to Eastern Orthodox tradition the first icon (“image”), the prototype, as it were, of all subsequent icons. In this tradition, the image, this icon of the Holy Face, is known as the Holy Mandylion, a Byzantine Greek word not applied in any other context.
Today is the Feast Day of Saint John of Damascus, who was one of the great defenders of icons. In the early eighth century, iconoclasm, a movement bent on prohibiting the veneration of the icons, had gained some acceptance in the Byzantine court. In 726, ignoring the protests of Saint Germanus, the patriarch of Constantinople, Emperor Leo III issued his first edict against the veneration of images and their exhibition in public places. John of Damascus mounted a defense of holy images in three separate books, Apologetic Treatises against those Decrying the Holy Images, the first of which gained him an immediate reputation. His writings later played an important role during the Second Council of Nicaea which met to settle the icon dispute.
Our longings find their assuagement in images. Albert Camus, of all people, goes so far as to say that, through life, one’s “work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence [our] heart first opened.” So it must have been for King Abgar; so too it must have been for John of Damascus, finding through the “detours of art” their hearts’ desire in one great and simple image, i.e., that of the Christ Jesus – except that icons are not considered to be quite works of art, being, as they are held to be, trans-subjective images of eternity. If life really is, as pop artist Andy Warhol has claimed it is, “a series of images that change as they repeat themselves”, then surely the redemption of life, this unceasing flux of images, each image satisfying only very briefly the ravenous soul, must be found in some image of eternity, that divine state of rest within and beyond change, which would indeed satisfy the soul, which would once and for all fill “the hungry with good things, sending the rich empty away.”
In Genesis are the words, “Then God (elohim) said, ‘Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness’” (1:26). Made in the image of God, humanity through the fall lost its likeness to God, while retaining its image. In the Son of Man, the likeness is recovered, the changing phenomenal reality joined seamlessly to the unchanging eternal ideal: without the image, no likeness; without the likeness, no redemption. As Timothy Ware explains in his book The Orthodox Church:
The Iconoclasts, by repudiating all representations of God, failed to take full account of the Incarnation. They fell, as so many puritans have done, into a kind of dualism. Regarding matter as a defilement, they wanted a religion freed from all contact with what is material; for they thought that what is spiritual must be non-material. But this is to betray the Incarnation, by allowing no place to Christ’s humanity, to His body; it is to forget that our body as well as our soul must be saved and transfigured. The Iconoclast controversy is thus closely linked to the earlier disputes about Christ’s person. It was not merely a controversy about religious art, but about the Incarnation, about human salvation, about the salvation of the entire material cosmos. (Penguin, 1993, p. 33)
Icons in churches and homes are really, in the words of Saint John “opened books to remind us of God” (I John 1:1-4). We can say that an icon is a painted image of the Christ in the same way as Scripture is a written image of the Christ. This is why Timothy Ware writes: “He who lacks learning or leisure to study works of theology has only to enter [an Orthodox church] to see unfolded before him on the walls all the mysteries of the Christian religion. If a pagan asks you to show him your faith, said John of Damascus, take him into church and place before him the icons.” (Ibid)
What have we done in our reformations and revolutions, in our wholesale rejection of holy images? Having swept these images off the wall, having thoroughly smashed them, having called this violence human progress, do we know what we have done? In these days when countless unholy images of the human face sell us soap, deodorants, antidepressants, war on terror, water-boarding, full-body scanners, you name it; in these days when we are, as Robert Jay Lifton has said, “bombarded by all kinds of images and influences” and “we have to fend some of them off if we’re to take in any of them, or to carry through just our ordinary day’s work, or really deepen whatever we have to do or say”; in these days of endless unholy images, do we dare face the truth about our soul’s spiritual condition?
“If we are to change our world view,” said Vaclav Havel, “images have to change. The artist now has a very important job to do. He’s not a little peripheral figure entertaining rich people, he’s really needed.” Surely Havel is right, the artist has a very important job to do indeed, a job that has entirely to do with being like God – like God in creating that which reminds us of God’s image within us. For as Hermann Hesse points out, “There’s no reality except the one contained within us. That’s why so many people live an unreal life. They take images outside them for reality and never allow the world within them to assert itself.”
Today also happens to be the Feast of Saint Barbara, who legend says was condemned to live by her pagan, idolatrous father in a tower for resisting his demands that she marry. While he was away, she had three windows built into the bathhouse he was having constructed, doing this to explain the Holy Trinity, three windows into heaven, as it were. For this audacity, relates the legend, she was tortured and executed.
Do we dare face the truth about our soul’s spiritual condition, the truth about its idolatry? Henceforth let us forswear any more iconoclasm, and may the Spirit of God bless us in our placing those holy images back on the walls, back on the walls of our homes and on the walls of our churches; and may the Spirit of God bless us also as we reverently place again upon that inner wall of our spiritual darkness the image of the Good and Just, the Crucified and Risen, the Thrice Most Holy God of Love, Light and Life, our Redeemer, the Son of the Creator and the Revelator of the Sanctifier — as we place beside it the image of His Most Holy Mother, the Refuge of Sinners, the Comfort of the Afflicted, the Gate of Heaven, the Seat of Wisdom.
May the Spirit of God bless us, dear Reader, as we restore again to our soul these windows into Heaven.
Pax et Bonum,