Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Liturgical Art as Prophecy and Priesthood: Sacred Art and the Restoration of Human Dignity (Part 1)

By Aidan Hart

This is the first part of the presentation given by Aidan, my old friend and former painting teacher, at the Scala Foundation conference in Princeton, New Jersey on Saturday, April 22nd. The second part will be posted later this week.

Through this talk he traces the development of culture through the right worship of God. In order to make this argument he establishes and anthropology of man as body, soul and spirit who, through grace, partakes of the divine nature. He talks of how important sacred art is in this dynamic and closes by makes concrete suggestions as to how such artists might be trained. I would like to give a shout-out for the liturgical art school that Aidan has established in Chichester, England. The teachers are Aidan, who is Orthodox, and two other Masters who were his apprentices, Martin Earle, who is Catholic and James Blackstone, who is Anglican. They are accepting apprentices from the USA and the UK and if anyone wishes to make a donation to help an apprentice then please contact me and I will put you in touch with Aidan or you can go to aidanharticons.com .
All icons shown are painted by Aidan Hart, unless indicated otherwise.
Aidan writes:

Our subject this morning is Liturgical Art as Prophecy and Priesthood: Sacred Art and the Restoration of Human Dignity. I have chosen this title because we act as we see, and, I believe, worship and its art can profoundly affect how we see ourselves and all creation.

Our relationship with others and with the world at large corresponds with our vision of who we think we are, and who we think others are. Do I view other people as my competitors? As my enemies? Do I see them merely as a means of my individual happiness? Do I consider them merely as members of a crowd of humanity, nameless numbers among millions? Or do I see all others as living icons of God, potential saints, amazing and unique beings, small gods, sons and daughters of the Most High?

Behind destructive actions are footprints, which if followed back will always lead us to their source, which is false vision and ignorance. False worldviews need to be replaced with true ones. The Holy Liturgy and all its sacred arts, when healthy, can transform the way we see the world. Discovering what holy images to live by has been called the art of iconopeia.

So if we want change, we must first change the way we see. More particularly, if we want a flourishing culture, then we must begin with our worship, with our ‘cult’. What we offer God within the walls of our worshipping community is what we will try to live out beyond the walls of our worship.

The prophet Ezekiel had a vision of the temple, and in this vision a river flowed from below the altar, and wherever this river flowed Ezekiel saw that it brought life. Whatever a culture worships will, like a river, spread throughout the land either life, or if polluted water, spread corruption.

Relationships and whole cultures fail because they do not realize the unimaginable dignity and high calling of the human person. A saint acts with great love and reverence towards all God’s creatures because he or she sees all others as sons and daughters of the King of Glory. Every person is created a prince and princess of the Most High, destined, if they wish it, to become ‘partakers of the divine nature’, as the Apostle Peter writes. If we regard the people sitting next to us as they truly are, as living icons of God, then we will treat them with profound respect.

The importance of getting this vision right is one reason why the art of worship is so important. If the liturgical art of our microcosm does not accord with God’s intention for all life, then life beyond the church walls will be disoriented. Without vision the people perish, as the prophet warns.

Worship on earth is an icon of, and participation in, the worship of heaven: As the Our Father prayer puts it: ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’. Since our idea of heaven is the ideal towards which we strive in our daily lives, we had better get our worship right, or we are in trouble. Some scholars have, for example, traced our current ecological crisis back to a faulty theology of matter and to the iconoclastic world view inherent in some Protestant teaching and worship. (2). A worship that denies the capacity of the material world to express God’s love for mankind, and for mankind to express its love for God, will inevitably affect how those worshippers treat the material world beyond the walls of their church. Beauty, worship and truth are close cousins. In Greek, the word for dogma, worship and glory is the same— doxa (δόξα).

So this morning I would like us to explore in a little more detail what this great dignity and calling of the human person consists of, through considering both the written and the visual tradition of the Church. In particular, we shall consider two sources: the written witness of a great second-century saint, Irenaeus of Lyon, and the visual witness of the Orthodox Church’s liturgical art, which is the tradition within which I work—although over half of my commissions come from Catholic and Episcopalian churches and individuals.

We shall first consider who we are, then what this means, and finally, how we can express this calling through the ministries and prophet and priest.


1. The witness of St Irenaeus of Lyon

St Irenaeus wrote much about the nature and calling of the human person. In Irenaeus we have a reliable witness to Christ’s teaching. Being born around AD 130, we have a man in close lineage with the apostles themselves. He had heard sermons by no less than Polycarp, a disciple of the Apostle John. Irenaeus also united in himself the eastern and western arms of the Church. He was a Greek, born in Smyrna of present-day Turkey, and later became a priest and then bishop in Lyon in Southern France, where he remained until his death around 202.

Irenaeus affirmed that all people are icons of God, regardless of the right or wrong use of their free will. He also asserted that we were created with a task, which is to grow into the divine likeness through a synergy of the right use of our free will and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Adam and Eve were created pure, but not perfect and mature. They had a task before them. To be deified and transfigured is therefore humankind’s natural supernatural calling. Our task is nothing less than to become gods by grace. As Irenaeus write in his work ‘Against Heresies’:
Man has first to come into being, then to progress, and by progressing come to manhood, and having reached manhood to increase, and thus increasing to persevere, and by persevering be glorified, and thus see his Lord. For it is God’s intention that he should be seen: and the vision of God is the acquisition of immortality; and immortality brings man near to God.(3)
Elsewhere he wrote even more succinctly:
Our Lord Jesus Christ, the word of God, of his boundless love, became what we are that he might make us what he himself is. (4)
In what way then is the human person made in God’s image and likeness? A Gnostic teaching current in the time of St Irenaeus asserted that the material world and man’s body was the result of the fall. St Irenaeus countered this by asserting that the human person is in God’s image not because of his spirit alone, nor his soul alone, but as a union of body, soul and spirit. The whole person, including the body, is in the image of God, not just a part of him or her. While some Church Fathers do relate the divine image only to the spirit of man and not also to his body, Irenaeus is emphatic that it is a composite union that the human person is in the divine image. It is the whole person, and not just a part of the person, that is in the divine image. Irenaeus writes:
Soul and spirit can be constituents of man; but they certainly cannot be the whole man. The complete man is a mixture and union, consisting of a soul which takes to itself the Spirit of the Father, to which is united the flesh which was fashioned in the image of God...men are spiritual not by the abolition of the flesh...there would then be the spirit of man, or the Spirit of God, not a spiritual man. But when the spirit is mingled with soul and united with created matter, then through the outpouring of the Spirit the complete man is produced; this is man in the image and likeness of God. A man with soul only, lacking Spirit, is ‘psychic’; such a man is carnal, unfinished, incomplete; he has, in his created body, the image of God, but he has not acquired the likeness to God through the Spirit.(5)
Three things can be highlighted from this and the earlier two passages. Firstly, a key passage in the quote we have just read is: ‘Through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit the complete man is produced.’ Man’s deified state, granted through mutual love and the gift of the Holy Spirit, is man’s calling and his fulfilment. To be a complete human is to become more than merely human; it is to become a bearer of the Holy Spirit, a Pentecostal, to be deified, to become gods by grace. So, contrary to the humanist Renaissance motto, God and not man is the measure of all things.

Man becomes his true self when he looks away from himself, ‘forgetful of himself’, to contemplate his divine prototype. Elsewhere Irenaeus writes:
Where the Spirit of the Father is, there is the living man…flesh possessed by the Spirit, forgetful of itself, assuming the quality of the Spirit, made conformable to the Word of God…(6)
Secondly, if Irenaeus were to highlight any particular aspect of the human person that makes them capable of such a high calling, it would be their freedom; freedom either to love and worship God or, tragically, to worship something other than God. Freedom is the prerequisite of love. He writes that to be glorified man must ‘persevere, and by persevering be glorified, and thus see his Lord’. Perseverance is an act of free will.

Thirdly, Irenaeus asserts that man’s materiality is an integral part of his destiny to grow into the divine likeness of God. He states that ‘the complete man is a mixture and union’ of body, soul and spirit. He even goes further when he writes of ‘the flesh which is fashioned in the image of God’. How can the flesh be in God’s image, when God is bodiless, beyond all limitation or measure?

There are two reasons. First, Irenaeus believed, like many subsequent Church fathers, that the Incarnation would have occurred even had not man fallen into sin. If this is the case, then the human body is in God’s image by being created according to the image of the incarnate Christ, even though man’s creation preceded God’s incarnation. Christ the incarnate Logos is the prototype of all humans. The one crucial difference is that Christ is God by nature and human by grace, while the deified man or woman is human by nature and divine by grace.

Second, we can say that the human body is made in God’s image because its physical faculties— such as sight and hearing and touch—all correspond to a higher and incorporeal reality in God: God sees us, God hears us, God touches us by his Holy Spirit. Divine seeing preceded human seeing.

All that we have said means that the saints—transfigured and deified humans—are God’s intended norm for human existence and not the exception. Every person is born a prince or princess, and if they progress in virtues, they will eventually reach their coronation and be anointed as gods by adoption. They will become kings and queens, co-heirs with Christ to rule under the Holy Spirit.

We need to pause and try to digest how great this estate is, how splendid and magnificent are the faculties given to us and to those around us.

Perhaps we sin not so much because we think too highly of ourselves, but because we don’t think highly enough of ourselves, because we are ignorant of just how exalted a being God has created us.

The very fact that some people misuse these faculties to wreck destruction on others is itself testament to the powers granted to mankind, whether to use or abuse according to each person’s free will. Beholding the human person with the eyes of the Holy Spirit, we can declare, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet;
What a piece of work is a man! how Noble in Reason? how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable in Action, how like an Angel in apprehension, how like a God? (7)
All the woes of this world ultimately come, I believe, from failing to grasp the true greatness and destiny of the human person, both for ourselves and for all others. Because every fibre of the human person is created for this estate, if we refuse it—or find it too good to believe—we will still crave fulfilment, and therefore look for it in lesser ways. Thence come wars, factions, crime, unkindness, consumerism, selfishness, ugliness, and brutalism— aesthetic, spiritual and psychological. In short, all the woes of the fallen world.

But if we believe in and embrace this high dignity and calling, given to us by the beneficent God, then we shall live with thanksgiving and gratitude to our Maker. We shall show profound respect for all other humans as living icons of Christ. We shall honour all creation as an expression of God’s love for us.

Thus are made cultures that are worshipping communities, cultures worthy of that word, for ‘cult’ means to worship.

Traditional icon (not painted by Aidan Hart)
2. The witness of liturgy

We come now to the witness of traditional worship to help answer the question of who we are. As a member of the Orthodox Church, I shall here concentrate on its particular form of liturgical worship. This is an enormously rich seam to mine, impossible to do justice in a few minutes. So I shall outline just three elements here.

a) Community and Trinity

To be made in God’s image means that we are made in the image of the Holy Trinity. God is a communion of the three divine persons, or hypostasis to use the Greek theological term. Human life as God intended it and worship as God intended it, is therefore communal. We are made in God’s image not primarily as individuals, but as members of a community. This is one reason why the walls and ceilings of a fully-fledged Orthodox church are covered in frescoes or mosaics. These icons of the saints and angels affirm that worshippers gather not only with those on earth but also with those in heaven. There is one single Church, one worshipping community, a unity in diversity. In this way the tyranny of time and death is overcome. St Irenaeus is no longer a person of the past, sundered from me by the scissors of death, but a living being gathered with me around the throne of God.

(b) Matter and mystery

Traditional worship uses matter crafted by human hands to express the mystery of God dwelling among his people. Here we have icons, furnishings, incense, bread and wine, metalwork—a whole orchestra of crafted works united in a symphony of man’s praise of God, and of God’s revelation to man.

Here, human mastery of the cosmos is used not to dominate it but to transfigure it, to make it more articulate in the worship of God. Thus, there is no longer a division between mankind and the cosmos (what the secular world has wrongly dubbed ‘nature’). In patristic teaching the cosmos is seen as an extension of the human body, one being necessary for the other.

Our ecological crisis began not with technology but in the heart of man, when he separated himself from the rest of creation—and calling the latter ‘nature’—and then excluding the Most High as irrelevant. Summarizing the wonderful book by Paulo Mar Gregorios, The Human Presence, John Kunnathu writes:

Mastery of nature for oneself is the Adamic sin of refusing our mediating position between God and nature. The mastery of nature must be held within the mystery of worship. Otherwise we lose both mastery and mystery. We may give nature as our extended body into the hands of the loving God in Eucharistic self-offering.


(c) Revelation and creativity

Although human creativity is inevitably involved in the fashioning and enactment of liturgy, authentic liturgy comes from revelation and not from human invention. We see this union of revelation and originality in Scripture. The Hebrew cycle of feast and fasts, and the design of its Tent of Meeting was revealed to Moses upon Mount Sinai. In the New Testament, the Apostle John is granted a vision of the worshipping heaven, and we see his description of heavenly worship reflected in the Church’s worship on earth. Artistic creativity is therefore a fruit, and not the origin of liturgy. Variety comes from people adapting expressions of timeless truths to particular places.

A society will flourish inasmuch as it has, and is then guided by, a rich liturgical life. I stayed for a while on the traditional Greek islands of Sifnos and Evia, and longer still on the peninsula of Mount Athos. In these places I observed how daily life was profoundly affected by the liturgical year. What one ate was informed by the Church’s cycle of fasting and feasting. Festal processions around the streets, bearing icons, made the village an extension of the church. Each home has its own icon corner, with candles, incense, prayer books, thus making the family home a little church. Cars and buses have icons. Roads in the open countryside have roadside icon shrines, often with their lamps lit. All these things were created uniquely by individual people, but all manifest the same reality.
Mt Athos
(1) A talk given at the 2023 Scala conference at Princeton University, on 21st April, 2023.

(2) See for example Paulos Mar Gregorios, The Human Presence: Ecological Spirituality and the Age of the Spirit (WCC, 1977), Philip Sherrard’s The Rape of Man and Nature (Ipswich: Golgonooza Press, 1987), and his Human Image: World Image: The Death and Resurrection of Sacred Cosmology (Ipswich: Golgonooza Press, 1992; reprinted Limni (Greece): Denise Harvey, 2004).

(3) St Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses IV, xxxviii, 3, Translation by H. Bettenson in The Early Christian Fathers (OUP: Oxford, 1969), p.68.

(4) Ibid. v. praef. (Bettenson, p. 77).

(5) Ibid. v.vi.1 (Bettenson, p. 71).

(6) Ibid. V.ix.2-3 (Bettenson p.85)

(7) Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2

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