Saturday, September 26, 2009

Old Testament Righteous: Liturgical Feasts and References, Icons and Mosaics, and the Importance of Biblical Typology

One of the many elements of the Eastern Church which I have always had fond regard for is the prominence that we find there for the righteous figures of the Old Testament.

Within the Byzantine liturgical calendar for instance, a number of Old Testament prophets and righteous have particular feast days in which these holy men and women are commemorated. For example: Abraham (Oct. 9), Moses (Sept. 4), Malachi (Jan. 3), Zechariah (Feb. 8), Job (May 6), Amos (June 15), Isaiah (May 9), Hannah (July 23), to name a few. Also to be found within the Byzantine Hours are a number of canticles, such as the "Song of Moses", "the Prayer of Isaiah", the "Song of the Three Holy Children" and so on.

Of course, within the Latin West, this tradition is also not absent -- even if perhaps not as prevalent as it is within the Christian East. For example, the calendar of the usus antiquior commemorates the Seven Holy Maccabees on August 1st, and within the Carmeilte liturgical tradition, St. Elias (Elijah) is commemorated as a feast day of importance on July 20th. Also worth mentioning is the fact that in the litany of the saints we invoke "Omnes sancti Patriárchae et Prophetae" (All ye Holy Patriarchs and Prophets) and within the Roman Canon, Abel, Abraham and Melchisedech are mentioned: "Deign to look with propitious and serene countenance on them, and to accept them, as you deigned to consider acceptable the gifts of your just servant Abel, and the sacrifice of our Patriarch Abraham, and what your high priest Melchizedek offered you, a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim."

Returning again to the Eastern churches, this presence of Old Testament figures extends beyond the calendar and into the iconographic tradition, inclusive of specific places for these icons within the context of iconographic order of their churches. Constantine Cavarnos of the Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies speaks to the point:

In the circular zone [of the dome] around the figure of Christ Pantocrator is depicted -- if space allows -- a choir of Angels. Often, between them are painted the Theotokos on the east side, and Saint John the Baptist on the west.

Below this zone, in the spaces between the windows of the drum of the dome, are shown the Prophets, through whom, as the Creed says, God spoke to men: Moses, David, Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and others. The number of Prophets depicted varies according to space available. In some churches, there is one Prophet between each set of two windows; in others, two or three...

If the circular base of the drum of the dome is suitable, various Righteous personages of the Old Testament are represented in medallions (busts enclosed in circles) -- for example, Abel, Abraham, Noah.

Guide to Byzantine Iconography, vol. 1, p. 81

An example of this can be seen in a photo I only recently showed:

Within the sanctuary of Byzantine churches, one might also find Old Testament narrative scenes depicted on the walls. Those depicted are those which are classified as "types" of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, or Sacrifice of the Mass/Divine Liturgy. A good example of such typology would be the narrative of the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his own son.

The Sacrifice of Abraham

Finally, icons of the Old Testament prophets might also be depicted within the narthex of Byzantine churches, or on the iconostasis.

Here are some examples of such icons.

St. Elias (Elijah)


Moses and the Burning Bush

Jonah and the Whale

The Prophet Isaiah

King David


While not given as structured a presence as we yet see in the Christian East today, within the West we can also find examples, particularly historical examples from the middle ages and before, of Old Testament types and figures being depicted. Here, for example, is the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham depicted in San Vitale in Ravenna:

Another example that is furnished within San Vitale is that of the story of Moses:

"Now Moses fed the sheep of Jethro his father in law, the priest of Median: and he drove the flock to the inner most parts of the desert, and came to the mountains of God, Horeb. And the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he saw that the bush was on fire and was not burnt. And Moses said: I will go and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. And when the Lord saw that he went forward to see, he called to him out of the midst of the bush, and said: Moses, Moses. And he answered: Here I am. And he said: Come not nigh hither, put off the shoes from thy feet: for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground." (Exodus 3:1-5)

The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome contains a number of mosaics of Old Testament scenes as well.

The Fall of Jericho

Here too we see a reference to the story of Jonah and the whale depicted on this mediaeval ambo in the duomo of Ravello:

The story of Jonah is a prefigurement of Christ and His death and resurrection: "Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him [Jesus], saying: Master, we would see a sign from thee. Who answering said to them: An evil and adulterous generation seeketh a sign: and a sign shall not be given it, but the sign of Jonah the prophet. For as Jonah was in the whale's belly three days and three nights: so shall the Son of man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights." (Matt. 12:38-40)

Other examples are also to be found elsewhere.

* * *

Evidently some might still ask why this emphasis on the Old Testament? After all, are we not in the time of the new covenant? Yes, but here too I might suggest that we must adopt a spirit and understanding that is rooted in continuity rather than rupture; a spirit which understands that in Christ and the New Covenant, we see the fulfillment of the Old; that there is a relationship which connects the two. To paraphrase St. Augustine, in the Old Testament the New is concealed; in the New Testament, the Old is revealed.

The mention of "types" came above in the context of the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, and in relation to Jonah. Types or prefigurements from the Old Testament are something that we find commented on in both the New Testament itself and in the writings of various Fathers of the Church. The use of typology can be extraordinarily powerful in helping us to understand the liturgy of the Mass for example, Christ as the sacrificial Lamb, Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant who bears the Word made Flesh and so on. In fact, I would suggest that our lack of familiarity with these things today may well be a contributive factor to some of the reductionisms that we tend to be witness to and which our Holy Father has spoken of in the past.

Familiarity with the stories and figures of the Old Testament, and a corresponding awareness of their typological significance, can be important in illuminating a fuller and proper understanding of the deposit of Faith. Fr. Aidan Nichols notes that "[a] grasp of the great lines of Scripture, both Old and New Testament, is vital to a Christian culture..." and suggests that typology "enables a unitary reading of the Bible, Old and New Testament alike, and a reading, moreover, which chimes with that found in the Church's liturgical feasts and texts." (For more on this, see the link to the interview where these statements are made below.)

In view of this much needed area of consideration, it is my hope that at some point we shall embark on a series of considerations of these typologies as they relate to the sacred liturgy specifically. But for those of you who are interested in exploring typology further on your own, you might like to reference a recent work by Fr. Aidan Nichols, Lovely Like Jerusalem, where he embarked on a consideration of typological themes. (Read an interview with Ignatius Insight which he gave on the subject of this book.)

As a Byzantine Catholic cleric friend so aptly put it while I was conferring with him about the subject of this article, "Scripture, liturgical texts and icons work together in a coherent manner to bear witness to the Word made flesh, who is God among us."

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