Monday, April 11, 2011

The Icon of New Martyr Elizabeth: Postscript

Some commentators on last week's article, written by Aidan Hart, raised a number of good points that I thought were worthy of further consideration.

The first related to the question of whether New Martyr Elizabeth ever wore the combination of dark and white robes. Aidan explained in his article his reasoning that she was a nun who cared for the sick in hospital. So to point to this he used a combination of both black (to show that she was a nun) and white, for her work in caring for the sick in hospital (when she wore a white habit). I feel that the argument could be made that this justifies his use of the combination, regardless of whether she actually wore it in practice. Appearances in icons are always changed in order to reveal truth. This is same the principle by which the painter changes the proportions of the features of the face to conform to the iconographic prototype and communicate a theological point. Regardless of whether or not this argument is persuasive, it is a discussion we don't need in this particular case because it turns out that in fact she did wear this combination of colours. I have attached a photograph.

The second point relates to the use of black in icons and particular whether or not a nun's habit would be painted in black. As our reader pointed out, black is generally associated with evil and suffering and the suggested was made that the in the tradition a nun would not be painted in black (even though in reality they wore black) because symbolic message is conflicting. My understanding is that the representation of evil or suffering, in the right context has its place and I was taught that it is used in both Eastern and Western forms. In regard to monks' and nuns' habits in particular: again it is not common but they have been painted in black, incorporating the same symbolism of the actual robes. (It symbolises death to the world and indicates that the religious has rejected the possible temptations of the worldly life.) There are a few examples in the iconographic tradition where monks are shown wearing black robes. For example, there is a 14th century Byzantine illuminated manuscript at Lincoln College in Oxford (although I have no photos of this). More recently two of the great figures who helped re-establish the purity of the iconographic tradition in the 20th century both portrayed monks in black robes. For example, both Photius Kontoglou and Leonid Ouspensky painted St Nectarius of Aegina wearing black robes. The icon below is of one by Ouspensky.

Here is another example of the original subject, sent in by a reader in England.

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