Tuesday 25 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).


Diana C Hereld said...

"Radiant thought fallen..."

What an insight. Beautiful post and critique, thank you Ben.

Fred K said...

lovely reflection!

David F said...

I really enjoyed this, but need to ask why the distinction between Christ's devotion to humanity and God's devotion to humanity in point 4? I believe that if Christ's devotion to God is shown in devotion to humanity reflecting God's devotion to humanity, this makes us reassess devotion, worship and ministry in interesting ways....

Pamela said...

In reference to point 6:

"Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns."
Charlotte Bronte

SJ said...

Beautiful - thank you!

Lancelot said...

Dang that was good. And honest.

"Lucid intoxication" sums it up for me. I appreciate your delicate blend, the dance between the sacred and the hominid.

Fat said...

There is such a knowing sadness in the eyes of the Madonna in this icon.
"Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart"

dannya54 said...

In the forward to “The Uncreated Light...” by Soirunn Nes, D.B.Hart wrote: “...to gaze at the Icon in the correct attitude of devotion and momentarily removed from all profane concerns, is to acquire the proper orientation of our vision, thought, desire, and will: the face of God, the splendor of the Kingdom.....” (...yadda yadda, you know how DBH goes on). Anyway, I much prefer your story about the gaze, lust, betrayal and adultery; really it’s a bookish, White, Englishman’s version of “Black Snake Moan!” Reverend R. L.: “Ima tell you something and its just gonna be between you and me. I think folks carry on about heaven too much, like its some kind of all you can eat buffet up in the clouds and folks just do as they told so they can eat what they want behind some pearly gates. Theres sinning in my heart, theres evil in the world but when I got no one, I talk to God. I ask for strength, I ask for forgiveness, not peace at the end of my days when I got no more life to live or no more good to do but today...” Rae: “Why you old men gotta talk so much? You gotta talk yourself into fu%&#king me? Like little boys. Its okay. I’m grown.” However, the song, “Black Snake Moan.” by Blind Lemon Jefferson is not about what many assume. According to Jefferson, it was about his fear of blackness and snakes, about fearing the ‘unseen.‘ Of course to the blind Jefferson, most all his fears were unseen, strictly speaking; and his songs were like musical Icons, a way to ‘properly orient’ his imagination to the splendor and terror of the invisible world. Great story, Obliged.

P.S. It was after beholding this icon in 1981 that I became an Icon painter (or, ‘writer’ as the Orthodox say).

dannya54 said...

ps you can see such icons @ obliged, Daniel.

tortoise said...

Your point 3: provocative, incendiary, dangerous thoughts there, Ben. Bravo.

Rick said...

You're such a theoblogical badass, Ben.

Ben Myers said...

Of course, this post doesn't quite capture the full story about the girl in the bar. For instance, the part where I texted my wife with the message: "I think this girl is trying to seduce me. Help!!" Or the part where she texted me back: "Maybe you should go home and get some sleep then? Preferably alone!"

Anon said...

Thanks. What a lovely post!

Anon said...

Thanks. What a lovely post!

Ken M. said...

I agree with you that the face of Christ, with it's lighter tones is the true center of the icon. His face truly is more "mature" and "eternal" than the face of Mary. Nicely done. I appreciate the insight.

Thom said...

This is such a beautiful meditation, Ben. Thank you for writing it. I can't help but think that the girl's actions were but a way of longing for the eternal, to which you were pointing in your description. I also very much appreciate your use of the word "love" in your concluding lines. Call it a redemption of the male gaze. Call it a gentle restoration of feminine beauty into the context for which it was created (for the glory of God). As loosely as we throw around the word "love", we are actually quite stingy with its true meaning. We do not admit that we love our coworker, our friend, our neighbor, our enemy. But love, rightly ordered (Augustine) means that we are free to bestow that beautiful word upon our fellow human beings with a generous and heavy brush. I had something similar to this happen when I was in New York for a conference some years ago. Full of adrenaline--it was my first time in the city--I found an open Starbucks and sat down at a window to neatly copy out my hasty scrawl while the memory was fresh. A woman sat down next to me. And, in the course of time, she asked me what I was doing. I told her, going into detail about some of the ideas from the conference--it was about social and Internet marketing. Finally she said, "Do you know what I do?" "No," I said. She was a prostitute. I had no idea what to do at that moment. But then I recalled Jesus. And so I looked at her, not as a man might look at someone willing to be an object, but with a look of love, as one human being might love another in the Spirit of kindness and compassion, and I said, "What else do you do?" She smiled and said, "I love fashion and I'm trying to launch an internet fashion store." And we talked about marketing strategy for two hours. Finally she left, and so did I. As in your story, it was raining. I went back to my hotel asking what had just happened, questioning how I wound up in that conversation, and wondering if I'd had the holy privilege of participating just a bit in the Kingdom work of God in the world.

Ben Myers said...

Oh thanks, Thom - a beautiful story. I love your description of "the redemption of the male gaze" - that's exactly right.

Roger Flyer said...


Johannes Anti-Climacus said...

The anthropology here is really lovely; the theology is lacking, though. One wonders how your account might mesh with a basic distinction between Adamic and Cainite humanity (speaking of the inner man, of course).

For instance: how does the distinction of two outer faces, Christ (New Adam) and Miriam (New Eve), relate to a more basic distinction of the two inner faces, Adam and Cain?


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