Lazarus & Iconography

Given that Lazarus Saturday is fast approaching, and I am particularly fond of this story, I want to share a comparison I did a while back of a western painting of the story of Lazarus with an Orthodox icon of the same story. There are many very striking western representations of the story, but I find the baroque of Jean-Baptiste Jouvenet particularly engaging.

jean-baptiste_jouvenet_-_the_raising_of_lazarus_-_wga12033What is striking to me about this image is not only the use of light to draw the eye to key points, but realism blended with the surreal. The characters have a three-dimensionality and detail, that while not quite photographic, is starkly contrasted with Orthodox iconography. And yet, the realism seems incongruous with the unbelievability of the scene. The image portrays what seems to me to be extreme chaos. The chaos revolves around the central figure of Christ who seems to anchor reality in place.

What almost destroys the coherence of the image is Mary, Lazarus’ sister. Her bright white garments almost seem to glow brighter than Christ himself. My eye is naturally drawn first to Christ, but before locking in on Him, it is almost distracted by Mary enough to take a short detour. But Christ is deftly positioned by Jouvenet, according to the rules of composition, to be the center of balance of the image. The eye is naturally directed from Christ to Mary next. Mary, just as in Orthodox iconography, pleads with Christ, taking a central role at his feet.

The eye finally moves from Mary to Lazarus, whose portrayal is perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of this image. He is clouded in shadow, not having completely emerged from the cave. His expression, while difficult to discern, evokes a sense of astonishment mixed with awe. If the lighting were brighter, I could imagine tears.

The scene does seem to borrow a modicum of fashion influence from Jouvenet’s world and perhaps some European facial features, but I think this can be forgiven. We all tend to inject portions of our own experience back into our work. Additionally, one might wonder how a stone would fit over the mouth of this “cave,” but I think this too can be forgiven and chalked up to artistic license. Overall, this painting is quite remarkable and one that I would be proud to hang in my living room.

167996-pOn the right, you will find a fairly typical Orthodox icon representing the Biblical account of the resurrection of Lazarus.

Surprisingly, many of the features of this icon are found in the Jouvenet as well. Christ has a nimbus, Mary is pleading with him at his feet, and Lazarus is emerging from the cave. One might even note that Christ’s garments are very close in color. His toga is blue in both images, and while not bright red in the Jouvenet, his tunic is clearly of a reddish hue. Likewise, Mary’s garment is essentially white in both images. And of course, Lazarus’ grave clothes are white in both images.

What is most noticeably different between the images is the level of “passion” involved in the scene. Jouvenet draws you into the scene in an emotional way. Most of the key elements of the story are still there, it is the dynamism, emotional expressions, and the pure chaos that overwhelms the senses. The overwhelming difference between the two is how each makes you feel when you view it. The feeling I have when I view the Orthodox icon could almost be described as dispassionate.

Another key difference between the two images is the sense of noise. The icon removes nearly all extraneous information. All of the key elements of the story are portrayed in the image, but there is almost nothing extra. The story is fully told, but only the story. On the contrary, the Jouvenet creates an entire world full of things that quite possibly never existed. These features serve to convey a certain feeling and sense that that author wanted you to feel, but are not necessarily an accurate representation of the story. While beautiful, the baroque piece actually transmits a great deal of noise to the intellect of the viewer. The icon teaches us about the resurrection. The Jouvenet teaches us about our reaction to the resurrection. Because of this, the Orthodox icon is clearly better suited for pedagogical purposes and also for veneration. In venerating the Jouvenet, we would be venerating something more than the Biblical event. We would be venerating a creation of the mind of Jean-Baptiste Jouvenet. However, in venerating the icon, we much more closely venerate the Biblical event and only the Biblical event.

In conclusion, the Jouvenet is a beautiful work of art that can very much be appreciated by anyone who loves art. It does convey a sense of a real event in the life of Christ in a very beautiful and engaging way, albeit with a strangely emotive force. However, as a pedagogical tool or as a means of veneration, this beautiful painting is unsuitable. It cannot convey the story in its pure form. The Orthodox icon distills the image into its most fundamental aspects and conveys the meaning of the event to the intellect and the heart in a way that the Jouvenet does not. It reaches past the emotions into the soul of man.

The Hospitality of Abraham: Iconography


In our ongoing discussion of the Hospitality of Abraham, we have followed the story from the Old testament, through the New Testament, the writings of the Fathers, and the Liturgical witness. This final installment will take a brief look at the iconography and explore a few thoughts to help wrap up the discussion.

I have personally experienced an explanation of Rublev’s icon by several parish priests. Many of the aspects of the story in Genesis 18 are visible, including the famous oak tree at Mamre, which is seen near the top and just to the right of center, and Abraham’s ‘tabernacle’ or tent in the upper left of the icon. Food has been placed before the men by Abraham. The three men take on angelic form as is noted in Hebrews 13:2.

In addition, Saint Andrei Rublev has added some elements that cannot be directly discerned from the story in Genesis, but from later developments in Theology. For instance, the colors of the central figure’s garments closely match the typical colors that Christ wears in other icons. The green on the right-hand figure is reminiscent of the color we see most prominently at the feast of Pentecost, representing the Holy Spirit. Both of the rightmost figures are inclining their heads toward the leftmost figure, representing deference to the primus inter pares (i.e. the Father). The negative space between the two outermost figures approximates the shape of a chalice, while the central figure is inside this chalice. And a nearly perfect circle can be discerned in the outermost outlines of the three figures.

What has been left out is also of interest. Genesis 18:8 describes Abraham standing nearby under the oak tree and verse 10 describes Sarah standing in the doorway of her tent. Unlike earlier portrayals, Rublev chose to exclude some of these key features of the story so that the focus might center on the Holy Trinity. Even the colors of the angels are more vibrant than the colors of their surroundings.

Screen Shot 2017-03-17 at 2.37.06 PMThe Rublev icon is generally seen to be the ultimate evolution of the iconographic representation of the Old Testament Trinity. However, it appears that the iconographic tradition lagged behind the patristic tradition. Bunge claims that depictions of the story were from the beginning angelological1 and notes that we begin to encounter Christologically oriented depictions around the year 1000.2 The icon on the right shows such a Christological rendition, in which you can see the usual cross, indicating Christ, in the nimbus around the central figure. The tradition culminates in Rublev’s famous icon (c. 1410) in which we seem to have reverted to a purely angelological depiction, but find elements, however subtle, of the more advanced Trinitarian theology of the Nicene and post-Nicene fathers.


While knowledge of the evolution of the patristic understanding and iconographic tradition is edifying, the most important aspect of such a study is to obtain an understanding of what the church presently teaches us through an active participation in the life of the Church. The present teaching is the culmination of this progressive deepening process.

I believe that the first and foremost dimension of this teaching is the confluence of the Feast of Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, with the veneration of the icon of the Holy Trinity. The icon placed in the context of the birth of the church and the complete revelation of the Holy Trinity juxtaposes the type with the antetype. We see at once the Old Testament promise and its New Testament fulfillment. We see the beginning of the Old Testament Church juxtaposed with the birth of the New Testament Church. And we see a veiled image of God alongside a fuller revelation of the Holy Trinity. However, the most startling picture for me is Saint Cyril’s portrait of three persons walking and speaking in unison. The Trinity truly is One in essence and undivided.

1 Gabriel Bunge, “The Rublev Trinity,” trans. Andrew Louth, (Yonkers: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press 2007), p. 52.

2 Ibid, p. 48.

The Hospitality of Abraham: Intro

rublev_troitsaHaving wrapped up my diatribe on the Ark of the Covenant and its typology, I thought it might be worth a short series focusing on the typology attached to the story of Abraham’s hospitality. The typology follows a pattern similar to that of the Ark and might help to deepen our understanding of how typology develops within the Church.

What Orthodox person has not experienced Saint Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity? This icon is a depiction of the three visitors in the Genesis 18 story of Abraham’s hospitality, but to the nominal Orthodox person the icon itself may be the sole witness to Abraham’s encounter with God at Mamre. And yet, Saint Constantine considered the event to be so important that he ordered a temple to be erected near the famous oak tree at Mamre.1

While the icon may be the strongest witness experienced during the course of life in the church, a long patristic tradition witnesses to an image of God in the threefold visitation of Abraham. A prominent, though subtle, witness exists in the liturgical cycle of the church. The bulk of this short study will focus on the ‘Great Conversation’ of the Fathers, moving on to a short overview of the liturgical expression, and a brief analysis of Rublev’s icon and the related tradition.

Perhaps the earliest Christian understanding of Genesis 18 is that all three of the visitors in the story were angels. Saint Paul suggests this in his Letter to the Hebrews when he admonishes, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2 KJV).2

In the next post in this series we will follow a shift from this angelological understanding to a more Christocentric understanding.

1 Sozomen, ‘The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen,’ revised by Chester D. Hartranft, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, Volume 2 ( , ed. Philip Schaff, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Calvin College, Book 2, ch. 4.

2 Gabriel Bunge, “The Rublev Trinity,” trans. Andrew Louth, (Yonkers: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press 2007), p. 46.

Blessing the Waters

20170116_113258Given my general focus on typology on this blog, I thought it apropos to say something about the typology evident in the Orthodox feast of Holy Theophany (our parish’s patronal feast), or Christ’s baptism. Today our family made the trek with many others from our parish to the continental divide at Monarch Pass to participate in the blessing of the waters that traditionally follows the feast. It was rather cold and blustery, but a blessing that extends to both sides of the continent. The water blessing typically takes place on the day of the feast, but we delayed this particular event to make it easier for more to attend.

A glimpse of the magnitude interdependence between the two Testaments can be experienced through even a cursory examination of the feast of Holy Theophany, since so many Old Testament types foreshadow baptism. Saint Mark’s account of Christ’s baptism sets the stage for the blessing of the waters following the Divine Liturgy. Leading up to the blessing, prophecies from the book of Isaiah proclaim the coming of the Messianic age, repeatedly employing the imagery of water satiating the thirst of that which is dry, transforming deserts into oases.

Immediately before the enactment of the blessing, we encounter four Old Testament types prefiguring the baptism of our Lord.

You are our God, who drowned sin in the waters at the time of Noah.

You are our God, who in the sea, and at the hands of Moses, delivered the Hebrews from the bondage of Pharaoh.

You are our God who cleaved the rock in the wilderness, so that the waters gushed out, and the streams overflowed, and your thirsty people were satisfied.

You are our God who, with fire and water and at the hands of Elijah, delivered Israel from the errors of Baal.1

These verses awaken the memory of the previous night’s services (usually) incorporating Old Testament passages that illustrate some of these and other types in detail. For instance, excerpts from Exodus 14 portray the miraculous Israelite crossing of the sea and the devastating destruction of their Egyptian pursuers in the waters of the sea, clearly in agreement with Saint Gregory’s typology in The Life of Moses. The story of the Prophet Elias defeating the prophets of Baal is conveyed through the reading of 1 Kings 18:30-39.2

screen-shot-2017-01-16-at-3-00-54-pmDuring these evening services, the reality of Theophany is explicitly connected with the events described in these ancient Scriptures by the Apostle Paul:

Moreover, brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; And did all eat the same spiritual meat; And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ (1 Corinthians 10:14).

Recalling the day’s Liturgical Epistle reading of Titus 2:11-14, we learn of the consequences of Theophany. God came to earth so “that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.” It seems that the Old Testament foretells the event, the Gospel narrates the event itself, while the Epistle exposes the outcome.3

Finally, when the celebrant enacts the blessing upon the water, he immerses the Cross into the water three times (ok, ours was snow), evoking the reading of Exodus 15 from the previous evening telling the story of the waters of Marah. The wood that sweetened the waters of Marah clearly foreshadows the wood of the cross and the cleansing of the water in Christ’s baptism. But the act also typifies Christ’s baptism and unites the types and their antetype into a single physical action, immersing the participants in a direct experiential encounter with the reality.

The Church, in the troparion of the feast and in the icon of the feast, elucidates the ultimate revelation of Theophany. The Trinity, which we saw foreshadowed in Elijah’s threefold baptism of his sacrifice, is fully apprehended in both the icon and the Troparion, clearly portraying the Gospel event. The icon depicts the glory of the Father sending down the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove to Christ who stands in the Jordan, the river parted so many times by Christ himself. The troparion makes the understanding explicit:

When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan the worship of the Trinity was made manifest! For the voice of the Father bare witness to Thee, calling Thee his Beloved Son. And the Spirit, in the form of a dove, confirmed the truthfulness of his Word. O Christ our God, who hast revealed Thyself and hast enlightened the world, glory to Thee.4

In this feast Old Testament passages are used in multiple ways. We experience prophecy or promise, as in the Prophecies of Isaiah, pointing to the fulfillment in the Baptism of Christ and in our own baptisms in Christ. We also experience the antetype through a rich portrayal of Old Testament types, partly in the words of the blessing itself, but more fully in the prior evening’s services. Gospel passages portray the antetype itself and Epistle readings explicitly connect the types with their antetype in order to provide clarity. The Epistle readings also help to explain the consequences of Theophany. Finally, all are united experientially in the liturgical action of the blessing of the waters and in the depiction of the event in the Holy Icon.

The Gospel seems to be the vortex around which all other scriptures swirl. The event of Theophany impacts both the past and the future, sending ripples in all directions through the fabric of space-time. The experience of the feast itself is outside of time and we experience it through direct participation.

1 John Sanidopoulos, “The Theophany Sanctification Prayer of St. Sophronios of Jerusalem”, Mystagogy: The Weblog of John Sanidopoulos ( .

2 “Readings for Theophany – January 6”, Byzantine Catholic Church in America ( .

3 Fr. Thomas Hopko, “Epiphany”, in The Orthodox Faith: Volume II – Worship ( .

4 Ibid.

The Ark: Typological Development

Iconography in the Apse of Holy Theophany Church in Colorado Springs.

We are beginning to wrap up our ongoing discussion of how the Church views the Ark of the Covenant. We have covered many concrete examples and are now embarking on some analysis of what we have learned.

We have traced how the people of God have understood the ark from its very beginning to its contemporary expression within the Church. We have examined how the Ark was built and we followed its life in Israel up until its disappearance. Subsequently, we examined possible midrashic traditions latent in Scripture that typologically identify the Ark with the Holy Virgin. We examined so-called apocryphal literature that provides useful clues. We traced the great conversation of the Holy Fathers on this topic through the first seven centuries. And finally, we examined the expression of the Ark’s typology in the life of the Church: its iconography, services, and hymnology.

In this particular case study, and perhaps others, we find a distinct pattern. First, the subject of typological interest comes into existence. In our case, the Ark is explicitly “spec’d out” by God himself and is then constructed under the guidance of the Prophet Moses. The Ark gains a certain mystique throughout its developing life among the people of Israel, becoming a key emblem or meme in the mythos of the nation of Israel. Whether we are talking about a physical artifact such as the Ark or a story such as Abraham’s hospitality to his three visitors (a topic for an upcoming series of posts), the type follows this same path.

The next step is the Gospel. Saint Paul alludes to the application of forward looking typology to the Old Testament, saying, “For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect” (Hebrews 10:1). In our specific case, it is affirmed by Saint John Damascene as noted earlier. The Gospel becomes the lens that we use to interpret the ancient types, but the interpretation does not necessarily become clear immediately, as in our case.

Clearly, given the fact that accounts of the Gospel and other contemporaneous events were recorded significantly later, either an oral tradition or long lost documents carry the stories forward in time until they are written down. Interpretations may grow organically within this mix, as hypothesized by Laurentin and others, influencing the recording of Scripture and other writings.

We begin to truly see the application of typology surface in the writings of the Holy Fathers, where it develops through the centuries. As the present author might observe from a similar study of the typology attached to the story of the Hospitality of Abraham, a turning point in the application of the typology seems to sometimes occur during the third or fourth centuries. It is probably not coincidental that this was a time of great upheaval and development within the church, owing to the occurrence of many heresies and the refining of doctrinal articulation that was carried out by the great ecumenical councils. In our case we see a transition from a clearly Christocentric typology of the Ark to its identification with the Holy Virgin Mary (the shift seems to happen somewhere between Saint Dionysius and Saint Athanasius). While both typological traditions may have coexisted from very early times, the Church shifted emphasis from one to the other as its understanding deepened.

The title Theotokos is not truly rooted in Mariology, but in Christology. It does honor to the Theotokos by recognizing her role in the incarnation, but she is called the God Bearer not due to her own nature, but because of the nature of her son. The ecumenical councils sought to clarify the nature of Jesus Christ and this clarification shone light also upon the role of Mary, which may have influenced how the Church viewed the typology of Mary and of the Ark.

After the conciliar age, the typology seems to stabilize and we see it becoming part of Orthodox praxis in the services of the Church as described above. Iconography finally incorporates the typology and we not only hear it in the hymnology, but see it on the walls of the church. In the end, lex orandi, lex credendi: the law of praying is the law of believing.

Here we have discussed the implications of theological/typological development within the church. In our next post in this series, we will discussion the implications of the fully developed typology.

The Ark: Iconography

In our ongoing discussion of how the Church treats the Ark of the Covenant, we have covered a lot of ground. We have examined the Old and New Testaments, apocryphal works, the writings of the Holy Fathers, and Liturgical treatment of the Ark. In this installment, we will discuss how the Ark is portrayed in the iconography of the Church. This will be the final installment in which we explore concrete examples. Subsequent posts will focus on a discussion of the impact of what we have learned.


screen-shot-2017-01-04-at-9-36-39-amIconography depicting the Ark almost universally incorporates an emblem of the Theotokos upon the Ark itself. In the 16th century icon of the exaltation of the Ark by Master Theophane of Crete above, you see a circular emblem depicting the Theotokos both on the end of the Ark and at the end of the table upon which the Ark rests. You can see a closeup of the emblem on the Ark at right.

In the icon below depicting Uzzah dying, you can again see the emblem of the Theotokos on the end of the Ark. Uzzah is lying on the ground off to the side of the Ark after he incorrectly touched the Ark. To the left, King David dances before the Ark.


In a much clearer illustration of the typology, the French icon by Agnes Glichitch of David dancing before the ark on the right portrays the Theotokos very prominentldaviddansant-08y over the center of the Ark.

In the apse above the altar of Holy Theophany Orthodox Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado (my home parish), is an icon of the Most Holy Theotokos depicted in her role as Ark. Portrayed in the photo below, you can see the angels on either side, just as they were in the Mosaic Ark, along with the Mother of God in the center. Just as in Moses’ time God’s presence rested on the mercy seat above the Ark, His presence sits upon His mother. The icon is located immediately above the high place in the sanctuary just as the Old Testament Ark resided in the most holy place of the temple.



screen-shot-2017-01-04-at-9-55-12-amThe photo on the right from the Stanislaus Kostka Roman Catholic Church in Chicago quite stunningly and very unambiguously illustrates this typology, representing the divine presence as the radiant circle in the heart of the virgin, just as she bore and bears the Word of God within her. This circle is where the Holy Eucharist is reserved.

In our next installment in this series, we will discuss the development of the typology of the Ark of the Covenant from its beginning to today and the implications of how it has developed.