I've been reading a wonderful, eye-opening book by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo called the Ikon As Scripture. Noting my recent interest in iconography, our priest passed it on to me calling it his "new favorite" book and I can see why. I'm a little more than half way through it but I've already come across some pretty profound insights and so I thought I'd share them as I go. The most striking was the labeling of one my fondest childhood Sunday School room images as the "Antichrist". Recognize this picture? I think it hung on the wall of every Sunday school room I ever entered and served as thought fodder for those moments when staring at the walls suddenly seemed much more interesting than singing one more round of Jesus Loves Me complete with hand gestures. Archbishop Lazar labels it in his book " 'New Age' Cult Style Christ. A type of Antichrist" He goes on to explain that in this picture, "which [is] very popular at this time, we see, not the God-man, Jesus Christ, but a California cult leader. He is sensuous, sexual, beguiling - a combination of Robert Redford and Charles Manson. [This] portrayal represents everything that Christ is not, and nothing that He is. They are simply pictures of an antichrist - a pretender in the place of Jesus Christ." Holy Cow, he's right!! There is not much of the divine to be discerned from this image. It is wholly a human portrayal with nothing of the Divine within it. Archbishop Lazar is quick to point out that if Christ is ever portrayed as anything less than Human AND Divine, then the portrayal is heretical. It tells us a lie about the identity of Jesus Christ. He must never be portrayed as Divine without His human qualities or as human without His Divinity....chew on that one a while....
On a completely different note, I was also fascinated by his explanation of reverse perspective in iconography. I suppose this is elementary to anyone vaguely familiar with icons but to the novice it was a wonderful new discovery. Basically speaking, rather than the picture on the icon beginning at the flat surface of the icon and ending somewhere in the distant background, the perspective is reversed so that the image begins in the back of the icon and actually ends somewhere outside the flat surface within the personal space of the viewer. For example, in this icon of the raising of Lazarus, I become a rather distant observer of Lazarus' exodus from his rotting tomb. However, in this one I am included as a guest at the far side of the table at the Passover meal with Christ.
Here I am placed alongside Judas as he gives Christ the kiss of betrayal (and thus the Orthodox fast on Wednesdays to show their connection to that kiss through the sickness of sin as exemplified by Judas right before and after the Passover meal) and, probably the one that moved me the most was realizing that in this icon, I become one of the mourners, the reverse perspective of the icon placing me practically on top of Christ's prone body and as one with the women who mourned his death. If you're having trouble figuring this out, try following the lines of the background structures. They will usually point you in the right direction.
Another point that struck me thus far (and JT as well when I explained it to him the other day) is the placement of the Theotokos and the Christ icons on either side of the Royal Door of the iconostasis. Again, this may be an elementary understanding of any Orthodox practitioner but it was all new to me. Archbishop Lazar pointed out that the Theotokos, marking the beginning of our understanding of Christ's humanity and salvation on the left and the Christ icon on the right marking His second coming and establishment of His kingdom leaves the Now in the center of the Royal Door. Each time the priest comes between the 2 icons he is marking our faith as it stands in the now. The Theotokos represents the Alpha and the Christ icon represents the Omega - the Beginning and the End - so that all that happens for the sake of the church militant gathered for the Liturgy is the working out of our salvation in the Now. Just think about that next time you're at Divine Liturgy (assuming my layman's explanation of it makes any sense whatsoever).
The last point I wanted to share was regarding this icon which should look familiar to anyone who has stepped foot in an Orthodox church as it is generally found on the East wall overlooking the altar. The Theotokos of the sign is an icon which was originally found painted on the walls of the catacombs (thus the curved East wall over the altar) and overlooking the tombs of the saints. The altar for the eucharistic celebration within the catacombs would be set up under the watchful eye of the Theotokos and on top of a burial site of a martyr or Christian deceased. Thus, in the "modern" churches, the Theotokos overlooks the altar on which is placed the antimension, a cloth with the relic of a martyr sewn into it. I was struck by the connection, once again, between the modern celebration of the Liturgy and its ancient roots in the early Christian practices.
I'm sure there will be more insights as I finish this book (hoping to get through it before Pascha). I'm finding it a great way to explore Orthodox traditions and learn more about the Divine Liturgy.