Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The Virgin of Vladimir: seven glances


Behold the handmaid of the Lord! 

There are paintings you can look at for a time, until at last you have finished with them. The Virgin of Vladimir is not that kind of picture. You could look at it all your life, and you'd still only be getting started – or rather, you'd be getting even further away from sounding out its mystery. To look at an icon is to "fast with your eyes" (St Dorotheus). 

Though the face of the Virgin at first absorbs all our attention, the small insistent face of the child is, in fact, older and wiser and more – how else to put it? – more eternal. This small face constitutes the real centre of the icon and the real source of its radiance. Reflecting his light, the Virgin shimmers. Her infinitely sad, infinitely strong face is pulled towards the commanding gravity of this centre.

Yet observe the child's face, turned upwards and pressed so eagerly against the face of the mother. Look at his expression. Is it not something strangely close to – worship? Indeed, if I met someone who did not know what it meant to worship, I could hardly do better than to point to this picture, to this child's face, and to say: "It looks like that."

On the one hand, there is a real religious danger here: the danger of allowing Christ's mother to become an independent centre of religious devotion. But on the other hand, there is something profoundly true and correct in the representation of this child's "worship" of his mother. For no other word comes close to evoking the extent of Christ's devotion to humanity. To speak of Christ's "love" is too hackneyed and half-hearted. When we talk of love, we tend to think of delirious teenagers locked in the obsessiveness of romance, or of a man seducing a woman into his bed, or maybe of an old married couple, contented and at peace. But we would perhaps be closer to the truth if we imagined Christ's devotion to humanity as analogous to the piercing clarity and conviction with which the fundamentalist offers his life to god before going out into the busy street and detonating himself.

I do not mean that Christ is devoted to God in this way, but to us. His single-minded preoccupation with humanity is a kind of madness, a lucid intoxication. To unworthy humanity he ascribes all imaginable worth. As though he valued us – literally, worshipped us – above all other things, even his own life, even the life of God. 

The disturbing political and ideological role of the Virgin of Vladimir in Russian history is completely bound up with what is so pure and so instructive in it: namely, its veneration of the bond between this Child and his Mother. Look at the mother's invincibly tender clasping of her son, and you will understand the Russian people's invincible conviction of an absolute and unbreakable bond to the sacred motherland. For the Vladimir icon is a representation not only of Christ and the Theotokos but also of a transcendent bond between the Russian people and their Mother Russia. 

It is this that makes it possible to comprehend the otherwise quite bewildering way that "Russia" routinely appears in Orthodox theological writing not only as a legitimate contextual issue but as a proper doctrinal topic in its own right. The iconographer was, of course, reflecting this preexisting habit of mind, this tendency to elevate Russian belonging to a transcendent status; but it must still be said that the Vladimir icon – the most venerated image in all of Russia – has burned that conviction on to the Russian imagination for nearly a thousand years. You need only look at the icon to understand why nationalistic sentiment is so closely bound up with the hidden core of Russian religious life; why the history of modern Russian thought is essentially the story of the Slavophiles; and why, for a non-Slavic person, a complete and thoroughgoing conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church proves all but impossible.

The theological intuition underlying the whole tradition of Russian iconography is that there are, really and essentially, only two human faces: the face of Christ, and the face of his Mother. All other human persons have their own peculiar distinctiveness, their own particular faces, to the extent that they participate in these forms. For the Orthodox, it is not Adam and Eve who are the prototypes of humanity, but the New Adam and the New Eve – so that the fundamental human relationship is not that of man and woman (Karl Barth) or husband and wife (John Paul II), but of mother and child. The single form of Virgin and Child is the prototype of every human form: "The divine image in humankind is disclosed and realised … as the image of two: of Christ and of his Mother" (Sergius Bulgakov). 

The truth of this came home to me as I was writing these quiet reflections the other night. My wife and children were away for the weekend, so I had gone out alone to a jazz bar, to hear some music and try a bit of writing. It was approaching midnight, and I was drinking my beer and scratching away with my fountain pen in a crumpled notebook, with a postcard-sized copy of the Vladimir icon propped up on the table in front of me. A pretty girl came over and wanted to know what I was writing. "Are you a music reviewer," she asked. But I had to admit that I was writing about a twelfth-century religious painting. She asked about the picture, and listened to my explanation with keen interest. Then she leaned close to me – quite close – and began to seduce me. I was flattered, but also saddened as I looked into the sad eyes of the Virgin of Vladimir. As though the human body could become an instrument of promiscuity – something freely offered to a stranger in a bar – only by a careless defacement of Her face, Her holy form. "Her face is beautiful," said the girl in the bar as she peered through the haze at the icon on the table, casually brushing my arm. "Like a sculpture." 

When she said that, I loved her and saw that her own face, too, was lovely as a work of art. And so I blessed her with my eyes and walked out in the rain and went home, alone, thinking of how the lines of the girl's face had seemed – just for a second, beneath the smoke and shadows and dim lights – like a lovely, sad quotation of the holy face of the Virgin, radiant though fallen.

"There is only one face in the whole world that is absolutely beautiful: the face of Christ" (Dostoevsky).


Subscribe by email

Contact us

Although we're not always able to reply, please feel free to email the authors of this blog.

Faith and Theology © 2008. Template by Dicas Blogger.