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.

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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 (http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2011/01/theophany-sanctification-prayer-of-st.html) .

2 “Readings for Theophany – January 6”, Byzantine Catholic Church in America (http://www.byzcath.org/etc/Theophany_Readings.pdf) .

3 Fr. Thomas Hopko, “Epiphany”, in The Orthodox Faith: Volume II – Worship (http://oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith/worship/the-church-year/epiphany) .

4 Ibid.

Archimandrite Ephrem’s Translations

Archimandrite Ephrem (Lash) produced some very useful translations of liturgical and patristic texts. After his repose, his translations disappeared due to hosting issues. I found Archimandrite Ephrem’s contributions to be very useful in my studies and I hate to see such fine work disappear from the world. So I managed to scrounge up a copy of his website and am making his work available once again.

Because of the fact that what I was able to obtain is a collection of HTML files generated by Microsoft Frontpage, I have written a Python script to convert much of his work to Markdown. This is a very simple and easy to use format that Github displays nicely. The script does a pretty good job, but I’m sure there are spots where it does the wrong thing. If you notice something wrong with one of the files, or just have suggestions as to how best to format this work, I am happy to receive comments in this post or pull requests to fix the script.

Archimandrite Ephrem’s texts are available via Github here.