Holy Week and Easter is without a doubt a very eventful time in the Liturgical year and particularly rich in images. Our journey through the events of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection is a time of prayerful focus and intense contemplation. Before taking you on a journey through the Orthodox Church’s Holy Week, accompanied by icons, I would like to explore very briefly what icons are.
Orthodox Christian churches are usually filled with images painted on the walls or wooden panels. Additionally, we place icons of the feast or saints commemorated on a given day in the centre of the church. Biblical events (or holy people) are brought vividly before our eyes. However, an icon does not represent an eyewitness reconstruction of events, neither is it a photographic record of what a particular saint looked like. Looking at an icon, we become aware that what we are gazing at is not of this world. We may be struck by both the icon’s familiarity and its other-worldliness. Instead of the blue sky there is gold. Landscapes, buildings as well as people are stylised. There is a very unusual perspective and proportions. The world in icons seems to be ruled by different laws to those of our world, as we know it. We say that icons show the world seen with the eye of the heart.
What function do icons have? Icons are, in a sense, documents. What they document, however, is not the bare facts of the stories handed down to us. Icons are rather, a poetic expression of the way the Church has preserved and interpreted those stories. Icons are never a product of an individual artist’s creativity but of collective memory of the worshipping community. They are a visual artistic expression of the invisible Tradition.
Icons draw us into the midst of the events they show. They enhance our understanding of the event and of its place in the history of our salvation. Often described as “doors into eternity” they open up a way for us into another dimension, into the mystery of that which is depicted. It is not the role of the icon to stir up emotions but to help us reflect more deeply. Good icons are sober, even understated, do not dwell on graphic detail but rather explore deep meanings, drawing us gently into God’s Kingdom.
The greatest truths are best told simply. As an icon painter I am well aware that in icons less is more. The skill of an iconographer is not in being able to paint elaborate details, facial expressions or gestures, and certainly not in rich ornamentation. Those things are superfluous. The challenge is to show our subject as seen with the eye of the heart so that the viewer also sees it with the eye of the heart. An icon is to be a place of prayerful encounter.
Icons in our churches are an active and necessary ingredient of the Liturgy. Hymns, music, reading, processions, censing and other liturgical action together with images give shape to the Liturgy. What you see is the same as what you hear. All these elements correspond to each other and together give expression to our worship.
Now I would like to look briefly at some of the icons of Holy Week. During the first three days of Holy Week in the Orthodox Church the image in the middle of the church is that of Christ the Bridegroom. We sing: Thy bridal chamber I see adorned, O my Saviour and I have no wedding garment that I may enter. O Giver of Light enlighten the vesture of my soul and save me. This is the time when, following His royal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus prepares to fulfil His purpose. Jesus was referred to as the Bridegroom at the very outset of His ministry by St John the Baptist (Jn 3;29). The marital union of Christ and His Church – the Bride, can only be complete when, out of love for her the Bridegroom dies for his Bride. Our salvation can only be accomplished through His sacrificial love. In the icon of the Bridegroom Jesus is shown dressed in “a red robe of mockery”, crowned with thorns and holding a reed in His hand. He is willing and ready to give Himself up completely.
On Wednesday evening (in Orthodox liturgical practice the day starts in the evening so Wednesday evening is already Thursday) we commemorate the Washing of the Disciples’ Feet and then the Mystical Supper when the sacrament of Holy Communion is instituted in remembrance of the Lord. Corresponding icons are placed in the middle of the Church.
The climax of Holy Week comes when Jesus is crucified and dies on the cross. In this photograph of my small icon of the Crucifixion (see below) three figures can be seen – Jesus on the cross, at the foot of which stand His Mother Mary and the Apostle John. The crucifixion took place on Golgotha, a hill outside the walls of Jerusalem, known as the Place of the Skull. According to Tradition that was where Adam, the first man was buried. In the icon there is a skull in the cave in the rock at the foot of the cross. This is the skull of Adam, who also represents the whole of humanity. A scarlet trickle of blood from the feet of Christ (the New Adam) washes over the skull, pointing to the fact that Christ’s death was on behalf of all of us.
In spite of this being an event of humiliation, suffering, death and grief this image does not dwell on the violence and agony. Christ is not seen as a victim but rather at peace and fully in control. While His suffering and death are undeniable, His death is seen as victorious. At the top of the cross instead of the title “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” inscribed by Pilate, are the words “The King of Glory”. According to the wisdom of God that turns the wisdom of this world on its head, it was in death that Christ’s glory was most fully manifested (see Jn 12;23 & 1Cor 1;18).
On Friday night the epitaphion (shroud), embroidered with the image of Christ Entombed is carried in procession. Old Testament prophecies of the Resurrection are sung.
Holy Saturday icon – The Descent into Hell is a symbolic icon and shows what is effected by the death of God, rather than what happened to Christ after His death on the Cross. Symbolically, Christ descends into hell, into the place of death. The realm of death, shown as the black pit, is destroyed when the Author of Life enters it. Adam and Eve, representing the entire humanity are lifted by Christ out of their graves.
Easter Sunday – the icon of the Myrrh-Bearing Women (see below) refers to the Gospel accounts of the women who before dawn went to the tomb of Christ to anoint his body and found the tomb empty. An angel sitting on the stone that had rolled away from the entrance to the tomb told the women that Christ had been raised from the dead. The women in the icon are carrying flasks of oil for anointing Jesus’ body and seem startled and afraid, but in the end, as we know, they accept the news from the angel. The angel is pointing to the empty tomb and the burial shroud in it.
Christ is risen from the dead trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!
Many of my friends commented, and it is also my own experience, that when we reach Easter, side by side with the joy of the Resurrection there is that bittersweet feeling that we will have to wait another year to experience this extraordinary and profound beauty of Holy Week. But the Resurrection is with us every Sunday.