Dom Alex Echeandía, OSB: "This blog reflects on what many people ask about God and His image. In a way, it focuses on questions like: How should art depict the relationship between man and God? How can art best express eternal values? Can you, and should you, portray the face of Christ? For many centuries these were some of the questions which taxed the minds of the greatest artists of Western Christianity. For Eastern Christianity, the sacred icons make that connection between God and man in Christ, the perfect and ideal Image of God: Imago Dei."

Chora, Istambul

Chora is beautiful and transport us to an ancient time of the Byzantine art and religiosity. The wonderful and stunning frescoes and mosaics here make us to taste from this historic place a glimpse of the heavenly world. The various Mother. Mary and Jesus Christ paintings are gorgeous and really give the sense of true art and reverence.

The Chora Museum (Turkish Kariye Müzesi, Kariye Camii, or Kariye Kilisesi — the Chora Museum, Mosque or Church) is considered to be one of the most beautiful examples of a Byzantine church. The church is situated in the western, Edirnekapı district of Istanbul. In the 16th century, the church was converted into a mosque by the Ottoman rulers, and it became a secularised museum in 1948. The interior of the building is covered with fine mosaics and frescoes.

History of Chora Church
The Chora Church was originally built outside the walls of Constantinople, to the south of the Golden Horn. Literally translated, the church’s full name was the Church of the Holy Saviour in the Country: although “The Church of the Holy Redeemer in the Fields” would be a more natural rendering of the name in English. (Greek κκλησία του γιου Σωτρος ν τ Χώρ, hē Ekklēsia tou Hagiou Sōtēros en tē Chōra). The last part of that name, Chora, referring to its location originally outside of the walls, became the shortened name of the church. The original church on this site was built in the early 5th century, and stood outside of the 4th century walls of Constantine the Great. However, when Theodosius II built his formidable land walls in 413–414, the church became incorporated within the city’s defences, but retained the name Chora. The name must have carried symbolic meaning, as the mosaics in the narthex describe Christ as the Land of the Living ( Χώρα των ζώντων, hē Chōra tōn zōntōn) and Mary, the Mother of Jesus, as the Container of the Uncontainable ( Χώρα του χώρητου, hē Chōra tou Achōrētou).

The majority of the fabric of the current building dates from 1077–1081, when Maria Dukaina, the mother-in-law of Alexius I Comnenus, rebuilt the Chora Church as an inscribed cross or quincunx: a popular architectural style of the time. Early in the 12th century, the church suffered a partial collapse, perhaps due to an earthquake. The church was rebuilt by Isaac Comnenus, Alexius’s third son. However, it was only after the third phase of building, two centuries after, that the church as it stands today was completed. The powerful Byzantine statesman Theodore Metochites endowed the church with much of its fine mosaics and frescos. Theodore’s impressive decoration of the interior was carried out between 1315 and 1321. The mosaic-work is the finest example of the Palaeologian Renaissance. The artists remain unknown. In 1328, Theodore was sent into exile by the usurper Andronicus III Palaeologus. However, he was allowed to return to the city two years later, and lived out the last two years of his life as a monk in his Chora Church.

During the last siege of Constantinople in 1453, the Icon of the Theotokos Hodegetria, considered the protector of the City, was brought to Chora in order to assist the defenders against the assault of the Ottomans.

Around fifty years after the fall of the city to the Ottomans, Atık Ali Paşa, the Grand Vizier of Sultan Bayezid II, ordered the Chora Church to be converted into a mosque — Kariye Camii. Due to the prohibition against iconic images in Islam, the mosaics and frescoes were covered behind a layer of plaster. This and frequent earthquakes in the region have taken their toll on the artwork.

In 1948, Thomas Whittemore and Paul A. Underwood, from the Byzantine Institute of America and the Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine Studies, sponsored a programme of restoration. From that time on, the building ceased to be a functioning mosque. In 1958, it was opened to the public as a museum — Kariye Müzesi.

Interior of Chora Church
The Chora Church is not as large as some of the other Byzantine churches of Istanbul (it covers 742.5 m²), but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in the beauty of its interior. The building divides into three main areas: the entrance hall or narthex, the main body of the church or naos, and the side chapel or parecclesion. The building has six domes: two in the esonarthex, one in the parecclesion and three in the naos.aa

The Deisis, Supplication, Mother of God.

The Deisis, Supplication, Mother of God. Walk through the door of the Chora Monastery Museum and you step back in time. One-thousand-four-hundred-seventy-three years, to be exact, when Chora was one the many beautiful churches that adorned Constantinople, the jewel in Byzantium’s crown.
When it was built, Chora was outside the Walls of Constantine, and so, today, is a bit off the beaten path — away from the long tourist magnets that are Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace.

“Chora,” in Greek, means “rural,” or “in the country,” and the monastery kept that name after it was incorporated within the enlarged Theodosian Walls.

But the name “Chora,” also alludes to another, everlasting, realm: “I Chóra Ton Zónton,” The World of The Living,” proclaims an icon of Christ above the nave door. It’s one of the few mosaics that did not sustain damage during Fourth Crusade 1204 sack of Constantinople.

Evidence of this destruction — and that caused by the passage of 14 centuries — is seen in the bare walls and domes that once were filled with priceless mosaics.

Next to Christ Pantocrator.” (“He Who Holds All,” The Lord of the Universe.) That’s Theódoros Metochites, the man who restored Chora after the Latin invasion.

“Metochitis, a Byzantine poet, scientist, and minister of the treasury, kneels before the enthroned Christ, holding in his hands the restored Chora church.”

Icon of Christ of Chalke, the Bronze Gate of the Great Palace

The greatest church in Christendom before St. Peter’s was constructed in Rome 1,000 years later, Hagia Sophia is the very symbol of Byzantium and occupies a special place in the Greek Orthodox heart.

But you don’t have to be Greek to appreciate its beauty and history — as Atatürk, the Father of modern Turkey, did in 1935 when he proclaimed Hagia Sophia a museum. Hagia Sophia’s Deisis (Supplication) mosaic, qualifies it as a World Heritage Site.

The Mother of God, a Chora dome mosaic

The virgin, clad in a blue chiton, reclines on a purple cushion by a cave housing the manger. The ox and the ass look on as divine light bathes the Child.

To the left of the cave appear angels, and to the right another angelic messenger gives the Good News to the shepherds residing in the fields.

The Nativity is just one of the beautiful scenes from the lives of Christ and the Virgin found in Chora. You could teach a whole Bible class just by walking around and pointing at the mosaics in this beautiful church: besides The Nativity, there are, The Presentation of the Virgin to the Temple, The Annunciation, The Flight into Egypt, The Miracle at Cana, Christ Healing the Leper, The Samaritan Woman at the Well, Christ Healing the Blind Man, Christ Healing the Paralytic, The Temptation of Christ, The Resurrection, treasures all.
The mosaic just below the dome of The Genealogy of Christ, a depiction of the Virgin Mary with Christ of the Chalke, especially moving. Named for an icon of Christ that hung above the Chalke, the “Bronze” Gate, the main ceremonial gate to the Great Palace. Reminiscent of the more famous Hagia Sophia Deisis Christ, this is the face of a benevolent God.

With Avar armies at the gates, those prayers were answered, and Patriarch and people gathered in Hagia Sophia to offer thanksgiving to the Mother of God for The City’s deliverance. (The City, I Polis, as Constantinople was known, is found in the name of Turkey’s largest city and artistic and cultural capital: Is Tin Polin, To The City — Istanbul.)

In thanksgiving was written a beautiful long hymn, Ti Ypermáho, “To the Invincible General.” After a millenium-and-a-half it is still being sung in Orthodox churches for five consecutive Friday evenings before Easter Sunday. An Orthodx hymn that accompanies our Chora video, who’s beloved melody is dear to my soul. Hearing it now brings back Constantinople’s fateful history and The City’s special place in the Greek psyche. A hymn that I find myself humming in front of the Chora mosaic icon of the Mother of God:

Ti Ypermáho Stragigó ta nikitíria,
Os lytrothisa ton dinón efharistíria,
Anagráfo Soi i Pólis sou Theotóke.
All’ os éhousa to krátos aprosmáhiton,
Ek pantíon me kindínon elefthéroson.
Ína krázo soi; Hére Nífi Anímfefte.

“To Thee, Invincible General, I ascribe the victory/Having been delivered from suffering, Your City offers thanksgiving/to You O Mother of God./And having your might unassailable/Free us from all dangers/So we may cry unto you/Hail O Bride Unwedded.”

In the end, there could be no deliverance — 5,000 defenders besieged by 350,000 Ottomans — The City — and Byzantium — fell.

From Cora Museum
Source: here

Sunday XX, Year A

Homily Sunday XX, Year A                                                Belmont, 17th August 2014 
by Don Alex Echeandía

“Woman, you have great faith. Let your wish be granted”

We find in Jewish history a long tradition of exclusivity. The people of Israel were called to preserve the purity of their faith in the One God in the midst of many other nations with their gods. However, the Old Testament in certain passages, expresses the desire that other people, other nations, be drawn into God´s plan. Today’s first reading, taken from the third part of the Book of Isaiah, shows how God calls foreigners to his holy mountain and makes them joyful in the house of prayer he has established for all people. Thus, certain passages of Scripture reflect a universal understanding of God´s salvation.

This two-part vision is also found in the New Testament. The early followers of Christ hesitated as to whether their mission was to include the non-circumcised, the gentiles. The Church, in the figures of Peter and Paul realised that the call of Jesus to make disciples was addressed not only to the Jews but also to the gentiles.

Why do we call our faith ‘Catholic’? The word “Catholic” comes from the Greek kata (meaning 'according to') and olos (meaning 'the whole'). It means according to the totality. This composite Greek word tells us about the universal view of Christ´s message and effect. The Catholic faith is then for all the people.

In today´s gospel, Jesus at first seems to take the prevailing narrow view of salvation. As we just read, the Canaanite woman asked for the healing of her daughter and Jesus´ disciples asked him to respond, maybe by the simple fact that she was shouting after them. The woman's cry is one of profound faith in Jesus. Her request is simple. Her daughter is possessed by a demon. We can hardly begin to imagine just what this woman and her daughter must have suffered. This poor woman believes that Jesus can free her daughter from that terrible affliction. In her sincere and humble faith, Jesus said, “I was sent to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” It seems a bit exclusivist one may say. However, Jesus had a more profound purpose. This turned out to be a strategy in order to let his followers be aware that that woman was capable of a faith greater than theirs.

What Jesus is doing is to offer this gift of faith to others. He pushed that woman in order that she might think more deeply and respond with her mind and heart to the challenge. She was indeed called to walk by faith. Peter was asked to walk on water; she was asked to move forward in her faith so that she may respond to Jesus´ call from something which was apparently seen as a rejection.
She got it. She was able to disclose God´s gift.  As St Paul in Romans today said, “God never takes back his gifts or revokes his choice.” He kept his promises to the people of Israel, but extended his gifts to others, to everyone.

Our Catholic faith by its name and nature calls us to embrace everyone in Christ. Jesus said, "Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me." We are called to accept our neighbour as God´s gift to us, as God himself. As this Canaanite woman in the Gospel we are also challenged in our faith by God in order to grow, as the mustard seed. We sometimes may feel rejected, or forgotten by God by the situations in which we live. But we must remember that it is in this situation we find ourselves in that God pushes us forward. Our minds and hearts can be working together so we may ask Jesus, even for the scraps left for the dogs, even a bit of his mercy and love. 

Remember that the scraps left to the dogs in this passage are connected with the passage of the multiplication of bread. Twelve full baskets of scraps were left. Scraps of God´s love and mercy for his people. So at this Mass let us pray that God may multiply our little faith and that we all may realise that He who called us always keeps his promise, the promise to love us and to be with us always to the end of time for all eternity.

Wall paintings revealed at St Anthony's Monastery

The British Art Historian Andrew Graham-Dixon presented a three-part television series for BBC, called Art for Eternity. (link on the right column of this blog) He offered a critic on this marvellous brilliant Coptic Art as revealed by recent discoveries. This Coptic Art created in the medium of fresco of the thirteen century reveals the expressive sense of divine mystery. Here two articles.


The recent restoration work at St. Anthony’s Monastery has revealed the extraordinarily beautiful wall paintings at the oldest church in the monastery, the Church of St. Anthony, which is believed to have dated from the times of the St. Antony (ca. 251–356). The great restoration work was undertaken by a joint Coptic/Italian/USA effort, and was carried out between 1995 and 1999. The result of the restoration was astonishing – it revealed master pieces by a Coptic painter from the thirteenth century. I have spoken about the wall paintings and their restoration in previous article, to which the reader can refer.

As Jill Kamil says, “the result of professional cleaning, conservation and restoration is breathtaking. All appear as though painted yesterday”. But one has to focus less on the restoration itself than on the art work which has been revealed by it. The brilliance and genius of such work has raised the stature of Coptic art to higher levels, and added to our understanding of the thriving Coptic culture in the thirteenth century.    The British art historian and critic describes it as “some of the most profoundly moving works of Christian art ever created.” “[The] cycle of  frescoes [revealed by the restoration] is like nothing else in the Christian art tradition: stark but simple images of monks, priests and martyrs, with wide and staring eyes; a Madonna and Child painted in a style of such almost abstracted power and force that it resembles nothing so much as a late Picasso (who himself looked back to the art of earlier periods for inspiration, but could never have known this particular image); a depiction of the Vision of Ezekiel that might evoke comparisons with the sharp, dream-like paintings of the Dada and Surreal movements of the early twentieth century.”

The Coptic master work of art has been celebrated – it is a shame, however, that the Coptic artist who created that work is little known, and rarely mentioned by art critics and historians. This article is written specifically to bring to my readers the name of that brilliant Coptic painter, which my previous articles failed to reveal. The name of the Coptic artist is retained on the walls in an inscription – it was Theodore. Sadly we don’t know his full name, or his biography. One would hope that the beautiful work at St. Antony’s Monastery would carry his name – “Theodore’s Frescos at the Monastery of St. Antony”. This way his name can be kept in the mind of Copts and lovers of Coptic and Christian art.

The inscription on the wall also reveals that the wall paintings were made by Theodore and his team in the years 1232-1233 AD.This is towards the end of the long nineteen years of patriarchate vacancy after the death of John VIII (1189 – 1216) and Cyril III (1235 – 1243). The reigning Muslim king at the time was Al-Malik Al-Kamil (1218 – 1238). These are days of trouble and division within the Coptic nation, as they were divided on the election of the next patriarch, but, paradoxically, it was a period also of extraordinary flourishing in Coptic culture in many ways.

A work on such a scale that takes almost two years in a desert monastery could not have been undertaken without sponsorship from Coptic archons (prominent, rich and influential Copts). We are fortunate that the inscription found on the walls retained the identity of the archons that funded the work – we know them as simply “the sons of Ghâlib”; yet some of the many humble Coptic heroes who left us nothing to remember them except the work they sponsored and a simple name.

Andrew Graham-Dixon, Coptic Art, Monastery of St. Antony
source: here

JANUARY 11, 2012
Source: here

Christ Pantocrator, or the Apocalypse; recently revealed wall painting 
at the Monastery of saint Antony, Egypt

The brilliance and genius of Coptic art and the Coptic artists have been hidden for centuries. The Copts, who are the direct descendants of the Pharaohs, once revitalised by Christianity, created some of the most beautiful art of humanity. This was despite the fact that the Copts never had a state of their own or a secure aristocracy that could sponsor art – rather, they experienced untold persecution and oppression by the Romans, Chalcedonian Byzantines and lastly the Muslims. The Islamic persecution, never remitting except during short periods of history, was particularly severe and systematic during the reign of the Fatimid Caliph, al-Hakim (997-1021) and the Mamlukes (1250-1517) who launched in the 14th century a nation-wide series of campaigns of destruction of Coptic churches, manuscripts, works of art and culture.   What was left us, or executed after the 13th century, was passed by some unsympathetic critics as great art “only in a very few cases.” But does that represent Coptic art or the Coptic artistic talent and genius?

Thank Providence that modern renovation and restoration work in Coptic churches and monasteries across Egypt have revealed old works of art that lied hidden by layers of plaster or accumulating soot and dust. We are able now to look at Coptic work produced in the early Christian centuries and up to the 13th century, and evaluate it; and what a new understanding of brilliance and genius of Coptic art it has brought us.

Andrew Graham-Dixon, the brilliant British art historian and critic

Perhaps there is no live art historian or critic in the world who matches the British Andrew Graham-Dixon. It was great, certainly Coptia’s good luck, when he showed some interest in Coptic art in 2006. The result was Art for Eternity, a three-part television series for BBC4, which was first broadcast on 20 Aug 2007. The journey of the series – which runs, broadly speaking, from the third century AD to the early years of the fourteenth century – included a study of early Christian art in Roman, Byzantine, Coptic and early Renaissance tradition. Speaking about it, he says: “Above all, I hope to show that the achievements of Christian art during its first thousand years and more are still capable of speaking to anyone, of whatever faith (or even of no faith). This is an art that communicates a religious message, certainly, but it also speaks to the most fundamental and universal human emotions: the fear of death; the love of a mother for her child; the agony of seeing those who are loved subjected to the violence of war and persecution. It might have its eyes set on another world, beyond time and space, yet it also remains rooted in the perpetual facts of human existence. I really believe that it is – in both senses of the phrase – an art for eternity.”
About his encounter with Coptic art, he writes on his website:
One of the principal aims of the series is to explore some of the least visited corners of early Christian art, and for me one of the greatest revelations came when I travelled to Egypt to look at the art of the Christian Copts. This was a tradition with which I was previously unfamiliar – and about which precious little has been written – yet which includes some of the most profoundly moving works of Christian art ever created. It is a tradition that survives only in fragments, many preserved in Cairo’s Museum of Coptic Art. This is where the earliest examples of the Coptic style – withdrawn, solemn but tremendously vivid images of Christ and his Apostles, the Virgin Mary and the saints, dating back to the fifth and sixth centuries – may be found. But the real treasure, the culminating masterpiece of this much vandalised and fragmented art tradition, is to be found in the wild and mountainous landscape of the south eastern desert. Travelling there, I visited the ancient monastery of St Anthony – the first Christian monastery ever established – and was quite simply stunned by the painted decorations of its great church. Only recently discovered and restored, after centuries of neglect, this cycle of frescoes is like nothing else in the Christian art tradition: stark but simple images of monks, priests and martyrs, with wide and staring eyes; a Madonna and Child painted in a style of such almost abstracted power and force that it resembles nothing so much as a late Picasso (who himself looked back to the art of earlier periods for inspiration, but could never have known this particular image); a depiction of the Vision of Ezekiel that might evoke comparisons with the sharp, dream-like paintings of the Dada and Surreal movements of the early twentieth century.
One of the most fascinating things about the art of the Copts is that it was created by a Christian community that has never enjoyed any great worldly power, that has suffered persecution throughout its history. It stands, in this sense, at the very opposite end of the spectrum to the glittering mosaics of Christian Rome or Byzantium. Coptic art, an art created in the humbler medium of fresco, its colours those of earth and stone, is an art rooted in a very different sense of poverty and humility – and a strong sense of the vanity of the things of this world.

Graham-Dixon visits the Hanging Church (El Muallaqa) and the Coptic Museum, both in Old Cairo (Coptic Cairo), the Red Monastery (Monastery of St. Pishay) outside Sohag in Upper Egypt, and the Monastery of Saint Antony at the Red Sea in the Eastern Desert of Egypt. While other European visitors to Egypt were mostly visiting Egypt to explore Pharaonic Egypt, Graham-Dixon went, as he tells us, “in search of different kind of treasures, the great masterpieces of art – the early Christian paintings obscured by centuries of neglect but which have recently been discovered here. And they are truly are amongst the artistic wonders of the world.”

Graham-Dixon starts his journey by visiting Old Cairo in the feast of St. George. The occasion reminded him of South Italy; and he was not just struck by the depth of the faith of the Copts but also by the friendliness and the festivity of the event. Rather than lamenting and wailing the martyrdom of St. George, the Copts were ululating at his festival in an expression of joy, almost “persecution joy”. For a nation that has lived almost all its Christian history under persecution, martyrdom must represented triumph of the spirit over the forces of oppression and fear.

He then visits the Hanging Church and Coptic Museum. There he was struck with the intense spirituality of the Copts. At the Museum he talks about the “pride of the place” – the Psalms of David in the Coptic language; a manuscript from the fourth century, which is the earliest and complete manuscript of the Psalms. “It is a battered book, as if it was an object that survived from a fire. It is a symbol of not only how Coptic Christians treasure relics of early Coptic Christianity but also a symbol for more – of Coptic art tradition as a whole because it is a battered tradition; a tradition that had to live through persecution, through migration of populations. It is amazing that anything survived at all.

[The reader is strongly advised to watch the two videos I have posted belowto appreciate the high quality of Graham-Dixon’s documentary]

To the Copts just as precious as the word is the image. There were there some of wall paintings from the six century, with very vivid faces. These are “master pieces”. “Tremendously vivid, Picasso would have called it primitive power.” The Madonna suckling the Infant Christ “has got something of Picasso about it”. “Perhaps the most striking thing about Coptic art is the way the artist represents these eyes – these extraordinary staring eyes. There is something peculiarly transfixing about that gaze. It is not a gaze that is addressing you – it looks through you; fixed on the idea and image not of this life but the life to come.”

Coptic art tradition, Graham-Dixon says, is essentially mysterious. So much of it has been lost during centuries of persecution and destruction which makes tracing its origins particularly difficult, but “The earliest origins of Coptic art lie in the funerary art of Ancient Egypt; which, with its own cult of afterlife, suggests why Christianity found fertile ground here. There is a direct connection between the art of Ancient Egypt and the art of Coptic Egypt.” In Room 14 of the Egyptian Museum, in Cairo, he finds another link – the Fayum Mummy Portraits, which are almost Greek, and date from the first and third centuries. They must have influenced the vivid Coptic depiction of Christ and his Apostles. In this nexus Coptic art is also connected to the ancient Greek painting tradition.

But reading about it is not like watching and seeing it. I strongly advise all of you to watch these two videos that talks about Coptic art in Art of Eternity. Each is roughly 15 minutes long. Here is the first part:
First video
Covers Graham-Dixon’s visits to Old Cairo, where he attended the Feast of St. George celebration and visited the Hanging Church and the Coptic Museum, and then to the Egyptian Museum

Graham-Dixon then goes to visit two Coptic monasteries, the Red Monastery in Sohag and the Monastery of Saint Antony at the Red Sea. As he says, Coptic monasticism influenced not just Christianity but also world’s art and culture.

The Red Monastery in Sohag dates back to the six century. There he meets Professor Petsy Bolman (Elizabeth Bolman), from the Temple University in Philadelphia, USA, and Director of the White and Red Monasteries Project in Egypt. She was responsible for supervising the restoration and renovation of the Red Monastery. There a new world of beautiful Coptic art had been revealed. Bolman says about the fantastic art work that her project has revealed, “It has enormous force. There is something magnificent about this expanse of paint from floor to ceiling.” There was no disagreement that Sohag’s Red Monastery was “one of the miracles of early Christian art”. Graham-Dixon was struck by the explosion of colour in the wall paintings; the vivid colour of late antiquity. As he says, “It is a work of art created by masters of their art the equal of any in the Byzantine Christian Empire.” Bolman mentions the outline, strong colour, fraternity, intense gaze of the figures, and explains that the Coptic artists were “not interested at all in creating a window into space on this surface. We tend to think that great art is that which takes a flat surface and gives it a feeling of illusion of the natural world around us. Here we see none of that whatsoever – not because they couldn’t do it but because they didn’t want to do it.”

At the Monastery of Saint Antony, Graham-Dixon meets the charismatic Coptic monk,Abuna Maximus, who was responsible for restoration and renovation of the monastery’s architecture and wall paintings. And there also a wonderful world of Coptic art had recently been revealed. Graham-Dixon says, “I have heard the results were impressive but nothing prepared me for the experience itself.” As Fr. Maximus shows him round, he remarks, “The style is nothing like I have ever seen before in these unique and utterly fascinating thirteen century wall paintings.” Fr. Maximus points to the Ancient Egyptian motif in the pictures; and they both find a connection in them between Ancient Egypt and Coptic Egypt. It is not only the ecstatic connection but the sense of line, the symmetry, the design and interest in math and geometry.
“Like some of the faces,” Graham-Dixon says, “were painted by Picasso”. The Madonna, particularly (with everything in it being circular) draws his attention. “This is not primitive (art). This is very sophisticated use of symbolism, very subtle, very clever art.” And he adds, “And also, she is so full of joy,” unlike the Madonna figures in the West where she is depicted sad as she laments the death of her Son. Fr. Maximus explains, “She is happy because she is the Mother of the Saviour.”

But Fr. Maximus saved the best until last, and the two went to the Chapel of the Four Living Creatures where a depiction of the Apocalypse was. There the fantastic colours and intense spiritual feeling dominated. “It was a work of genius; a masterpiece of mystic surrealism.” “Even the sun and the moon have faces like a modern children story book.” That was a masterpiece that reminded him of religious surrealism – “fantasy paintings of the 20th century; total freedom”.

At the end Graham-Dixon concludes, “Coptic painting, little known but full of its fiercely expressive sense of divine mystery, seems to me to be a microcosm of an entire world of early Christian art. This was a vital tradition capable of assuming radically different shapes and forms at different times and different places, yet always connected to a central core – the life of Christ and the teachings of the Apostles.”

But again, reading about it is not like watching or seeing it:
Second video
Explores the recent discoveries at the Red Monastery in Sohag and the Monastery of Saint Antony at the Red Sea.

Homily on Sunday XVIII, Year A, 2014, by Dom Alex Echeandía

Homily on Sunday XVIII, Year A                              
Belmont, 03rd August 2014
by Dom Alex Echeandia   

 “Jesus took pity on them and healed the sick”

You may have heard that God cares for everyone and sustains everything, and indeed it is true. God opens wide His hands and grant our desires. However, sometimes it can seem that God does not care at all. We hear in the news how innocent people, including children, are dying in Gaza. Where is God in all of that?, one may say. God’s care for us becomes puzzling to our understanding. It is true that our understanding is limited, but God’s love is not.

Our disappointment with God lacks an understanding of God’s ways. In these situations God is even closer than ever. God suffers with those who suffer and experiences need with those in need. It is what Jesus tells us about the last judgement: “I was hungry, thirsty, naked, in prison and without a home.” God is very close to those who suffer. As Saint Paul tells us today, that nothing can come between us and the love of Christ.

God really does care and suffer with our struggles. It is expressed in today’s gospel. God’s care for us is shown in a miracle, a miracle by which we may learn about such love of God that He offers. However, we are not only shown what God is and does.  The Scriptures also teach us about ourselves. Jesus as Teacher not only shows us his mercy and love. He does not only teach us about Himself. He also teaches us about ourselves. We sometimes misbehave with God and our neighbour by way of selfishness, desires for power and comfort.

Let us see what happened in that desolate place by the sea. There were thousands of hungry people who were fed miraculously by God.  It shows how God cares. Miracles essentially are there to show God’s action and to bring us closer to God. A miracle teaches us to care.

This morning as we sit in church many people in Gaza are suffering without a place to go. They don’t even know if they will be alive the following morning. It is when the Gospel makes sense in our lives to teach us how to care. When Jesus was informed by the disciples about the lack of food, Jesus’ first reaction was: “You give them something to eat”; “you look after them”, “you provide what your neighbour needs most.” We can easily look away. However, God calls us to look again and offer our gifts to others, even a greeting or a smile. Small efforts towards others will indeed be multiplied by God to the point of producing so much that others may collect the remaining food- up to twelve baskets! Love must be shared; that love that comes from God and is expressed in so many different ways.

Christ as the good teacher and shepherd shows us the way to be a Christian in the world. Our desire for comfort tempts us to see God in our own image rather than us in His. We prefer to keep God within us and within our home, indoors for nobody else. It is an easier thing to do rather than going with Him outdoors in order to offer our loaves of bread and fish, even the most insignificant thing we have however valuable.

Out of our selfishness, God invites us to prefer the way of koinonia, a communion that lets God approach others through us. We are free to follow Him because Christ is a shepherd on the hill and not simply a keeper of creatures in zoos. As in Paradise, God walked with Adam and Eve in the garden. He also wants now to walk with you and each of us in the company of our neighbour. And in order to be guided by our Lord, let us feed our lives from the True Bread, from Jesus’ own Body and Blood, as we celebrate the Banquet of Love, the Holy Eucharist, so that His love may expand in us in this earthly life.

Christ Pantocrator Icon at Belmont Abbey

Talk given at Belmont on Saturday 26th July 2014

This finished icon is one that Fr Dyfrig started. In fact I have used his drafts in order to produce what you see here in the Church. The drafts that Fr Dyfrig used are based on the Christ Pantocrator, Saviour and Giver of Life, of XIV century Greek origin, and which is placed now in the Museum of Macedonia, Yugoslavia.  This turn was base, as another icon of Christ Pantocrator from Sinai.

Before I start to explain the meaning and symbolism contained in this icon, let start by saying what an icon is. Etymologically, an icon is translated from the Greek as “image”. Therefore, this icon of Christ is, per excellence, the icon of God, the Image of the Father. The reason why we make icons is because God became man. As Irenaeus said, the Word become one of us in order that we may become like Him. Therefore, images of Our Lady and the Saints find their prototype in Christ, the Image of God Invisible. We find here in the Abbey church a lot of images of Christ, saints and angels, quite a lot I may say. They are made from stone, glass, wood or other materials. The reason why we make these images is because of the Incarnation. Iconoclasts and other people who based their understanding in the Old Testament don’t consider the turning point of our faith, that God became man in Christ.

A sacred icon comes to people in three ways. First, as with any other work of art, the icon attracts your eyes by the beauty it offers. As Fyodor Dostoevsky said, beauty will conquer the world. It is towards beauty that our minds and hearts are attracted. We say that a piece of music or a work of art is beautiful. The eyes and ears are the most sensitive senses we have. Therefore, images need to offer something of beauty to attract our attention.

However, an icon is not simply a work of art. It offers a profound spiritual richness that only comes by contemplating it. As iconogrpahers we are called to be instrument of the Holy Spirit which is why we don’t put our names on top of the image represented. We are not the authors. We believe that it is Christ and His mother, and saints who come to us in order to be represented. I am sure you have heard of an icon functioning as a window through which the saint comes to the viewer. However, one may say that the icon works as a door through which we can encounter God, Our Lady and the Saints and they can encounter us. We can journey into the mystery by contemplating an icon. This is what the faithful, especially among the Eastern Churches, believe is happening. This is why an icon is always flat because it is in direct relation with the viewer.  

The third way in which an icon is seen by the faithful is from a theological perspective. The First Council of the Church at Nicaea confirmed that Christ is the visible and perfect Image of the Father. However, during the following centuries the Church struggled against heresies related to Christ’s two natures, either denying the divine nature (Arians) or the human nature (monophysites). Finally at Chalcedon it was declared that Christ was fully human and fully divine, and He Himself embodied the union of two natures, human and divine. This icon of Christ, God-Man, is a graphic expression of the dogma of Chalcedon, for it represents the Divine Person incarnated, the Son of God became the Son of Man, Divine as the Father and human like us.

The icon of Christ the Pantocrator becomes a very important key to understand this relationship of Christ as fully human and fully divine. The danger of considering only one part of this relationship, leaving out the other part, was so understood during the iconoclastic period. The argument in favour of iconodules was based on the person of Jesus Christ, arguing that through the Incarnation images of the Son of God and His saints are possible in the Church.

As I said at the beginning of this talk, icons of Christ Pantocrator go back to the one in Sinai. In fact, the oldest example of this kind is the sixth century icon in the Monastery of St Catherine in the Sinai desert. The well-known Icon of “Christ of Sinai” was probably written at Constantinople, using the encaustic technique. This technique consisted in mixing wax with pigment and applying the mixture on the wooden panel already covered with gesso. The wax medium was replaced in later centuries by the yolk of eggs, a technique seen in icons nowadays. This encaustic technique came originally from Egypt. Examples can be seen in the portraits made for the mummies. One may go to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford or the National Gallery in London, and appreciate the images placed on top of the mammies with the portrayals which represented the person inside the sarcophagus. The same technique is used in the image of Christ Pantocrator at the museum of St Catherine´s Monastery, Sinai.

The word Pantocrator comes from a composed word Panto-crator. The word “panto” is the genitive of pantos (all), meaning “of all”, and “crator” (power, rule) is the participle present of “cratos” which means ruler, the one in power. It is also interpreted as the One who embraces the whole of humanity, the One who maintains all things.

The Icon of Christ Pantocrator we see here at the Abbey Church shows facial characteristics of the adult Jesus. It expresses the reality of the Incarnation of the Son of God, the True Image of the Father that The Gospel of John proclaims in the prologue. The image of God Invisible that become one of us. St Ireneus said, “The Son of God become the Son of Man, so that man might become son of God.” Jesus Christ is the Image of the Father revealed to us for our salvation. Therefore, the Image of Christ Pantocrator is the image per excellence that gives meaning to all images.

This icon, as with all the sacred icons, is embedded with theological symbolism. As said before, the viewer can simply admire it at the basic level of beauty that captures our attention. However, the symbolism of the icon goes deeper than that for it brings into closer relationship the one who contemplates it to the the person depicted, to Christ, Our Mother, and all the Saints. In this way, the icon acts as a door rather than a window. We can look through a window at those depicted but the relationship is, in a way, impersonal. However, if the icon is seen as a door, that one can go through as well as the saint can come to us, the relationship becomes more personal.

As we look at the icon we can see its powerful background which is  of real gold. This half-length image of Christ is enveloped in light represented by the gold. Images of Christ in this form are founded in ninth century Psalters, particularly placed near the words: “Shine on us, Lord, the light of your face”. Moreover, one of the oldest Russian icons of this type (XII and XIII century) called the Saviour with Golden Hair in the Cathedral of the Dormition in Moscow, Christ is called King of Glory, as the inscription tells us. Therefore, gold is not defined by a particular colour, but contains all the colours as it acts by the reflection of the light. It recalls the divine light that shines through the icon and tells us that we are encountering the divine.

The image that is surrounded by gold is simple and almost symmetrical, the face is compact with a certain softness and appears brighter. Nevertheless, the wide-open, asymmetrical eyes gaze beyond the confines of place and time. Christ´s left eye is bigger than the other, and his left eyebrow is raised higher that the other. It offers the identity of God: justice and mercy. They are composed in a way that becomes harmonious, as the Psalm 85:10: “righteousness and peace kiss each other.”  In this imposing image of Christ there is a close relationship with biblical reproaches and prophetic exhortations addressed in the Church by means of preaching and teaching. We hear God in the Scriptures: “Cease to do evil and learn to do good.” This biblical severity and directness is represented in Jesus’ left-side face. Christ is presented as King and Heavenly Judge. He indeed rules with justice. In fact, the big, open eyes give a theological message, he who created the world never sleeps, but rather watches over it and saves it.  As the Psalm 12 says, the Lord will keep your going and coming now and for ever.

Icons try to answer the question of who Jesus is. As it is seen in the two sides of the face, Jesus Christ appears as the Revelation of God. Christ is seen as the merciful face of the Father. Christ said, “He that sees me, sees Him who sent me” (John 12:45). Jesus Pantocrator expresses the strength and authority of God. Christ the Judge is tempered by the Saviour’s merciful face. “You are the fairest of the children of men” (Psalm 45). In Christ, justice and mercy, truth and peace, are reconciled. This is the relation of a divine humanity.  Christ is at once Lord of the universe and the prototype of a transfigured humanity. The iconographic type of Christ-Pantocrator expresses under the human features of the Incarnate Son, the Divine Majesty of the Creator and Redeemer, who presides over the destiny of the world.

That strength and majesty is also seen in the nose and neck. The long, narrow and straight nose underscores a firmness of mind and will. The small, closed mouth stands for silence and inner strength. The thick neck expresses the fullness of the breath of the Holy Spirit. The beard is a fine filigree shading the face. The well-marked lines of the eyebrows and moustache express a strong sense of pity and loving judgement of the world. It shows the transfigured flesh of Him who suffered for us. The thick, gathered hair frames the face, then falls in loose braids onto the left shoulder, suggesting a slight turn of the shoulders. His hair also recalls the tree strands which place in its centre the face of our Lord. As a tree it suggests paradise, and symbolises Jesus as the Tree of Life and the New Adam. The large detailed eyes, turned towards the onlooker, have an attentive and saddened look which seems to penetrate the depths of consciences. Christ is come into the world not to condemn, but to save it (John 3). The flesh tones, like in the Icon of Sinai, is a result of a perfect balance between naturalism and mystical transfiguration; it is, the richness of His humanity and divinity. 

The halo bears the mark of the cross and the letters O, Ω, N (omicron, omega and nu) stand for the holy name revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai; “I am that I am”, “The Being”, “The One that is. Christ is God that comes to meet his people. Moreover, on the same gold the name of Jesus Christ abbreviated is place in Greek. The abridged name of Jesus Christ IC XC (above, on our icon) designates the person of the Incarnate Son. A name in an icon makes it a proper icon; it gives its identity.  Therefore, it is obligatory for inscriptions of the name to appear on all icons of Christ, of the Mother of God, and all the saints.

Christ Pantocrator is shown holding the Gospel Book in his left hand. The Book of the Gospel symbolises the new law given to humankind, as well as the “Book of Life” mentioned in the Apocalypse (Rev 4). It is adorned with precious blue and red stones. Christ´s right hand is in a position of blessing the world. The fingers of the hand are gathered to symbolise Christ’s two natures.  The ring finger and thumb are united to symbolize the two natures of Jesus Christ, which only Him has obtained. Jesus is truly human and truly divine, the heavenly world has met the human world in Jesus.

He wears a green cloak and a red tunic, aspects of Christ´s two natures, human and divine. As Pope Leo the great states in his text about God’s humanity and divinity: “If you want to know who you are, look not to what you have been, but to the image that God had I creating you. In Him there is all His godliness, and all our humanity.”

As we can see, the theme of Jesus´s identity goes through the whole icon and teaches the faithful about Jesus Christ, Son of God. Thus, the icon becomes first of all a door where God and His saints encounter His people by the beauty it offers and by the teaching about Divine Mystery. If we approach to icons with faith a bit of that mystery will be revealed to the one who contemplates it, in order approach to God, not simply with the mind and the theological teaching it offer, but more profoundly with the eye of the heart that transports the viewer into God Himself.

Finally, I want to thank for the expressions of charity and care given by those who contributed to this icons. I know many people gave a lot of gold leaves and other materials to finish the work that began time ago, from the drafts Fr Dyfrig had. It was very sad to see him depart from us bodily by his sudden death two years ago. We know now that he is very pleased by the acts of love everybody have shown to the point that today this icon has been blest. Now this icon of Christ Pantocrator of Belmont together with the other icon of Our Lady of Tenderness will be used to our prayer and a place of encounter with our Lord and God and all His Saints.