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The Principles of Hagiography

The Icon of the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ

by fr. Constantine Strategopoulos

Source:   http://www.floga.gr/50/04/2005-6/05_2005120204.asp 

The following text is the transcript of the fifth lesson on the Theology of Orthodox icons by the workshop for icon-making, delivered on Friday, December 2th, 2005, by father Constantine Strategopoulos, vicar of the Church of the Dormition of the Holy Metropolis of Glyfada, Attica, Greece.



Today we shall analyze the icon of the Lord's Baptism. The events that took place are depicted according to the description in the Gospel.  The Baptism of Christ was an introductory act - by Christ - prior to His public opus.  Christ was baptized in public. Christ did not need to be baptized.

Theologically speaking, there are two reasons for Baptism. Firstly, it is for the elimination of sins committed up until the day of Baptism.  And secondly, to be released of the consequences of the original sin.  Baptism does two things: it rids you of sins you have committed and it releases you from the original sin.  On sins, you might say that an infant hasn't committed any; well, I can't say if it did or didn't; even an eruption of tears by a child could be for an egotistic reason. However, there certainly is the release from the consequences of the original sin.  Notice here, that it depends on how you view this matter. No-one is responsible for the sins of Adam and Eve. We are not to blame. Then you may ask why should we be released from something that we didn't do. Pay attention here:  If I, as an irresponsible being, were to toss poisonous gas into this room and you all became sick in your lungs, it would not be your fault - it would be my madness that did it.  Therefore, someone has to protect you from the consequences of that "original" mistake that I made (by spraying toxic gas into this room), before you'd need to think about it.

Original sin was NOT JUST a personal thing that Adam and Eve committed.  That sin upset everything; all of Creation - even man's relationship with nature, with animals... with everything.  Everything was upset. And even though whoever is born, is born as not responsible (for that original sin), we are nevertheless born in a turbulent and sinful atmosphere.

And the Church - precisely - strives, just as you strive to save a child that has blamelessly found itself in a polluted environment and protect it, so the Church wants to rid and protect mankind of the consequences of that existing original sin.  In other words, it is not about the logic of what I did or didn't do.  That is the reason you see us baptizing our children at a young age - it is precisely to protect them from those consequences.  Because, as unbaptized beings, they will be participating in a disturbed world; and that would be like living in a place where your child becomes sick and telling it that it has to wait until it is fifteen so it can decide if it wants to be cured or not.  But then it will be too late.  What about the many other things we do in our lives?  For example, we give our child milk and we clothe it so it can go to school.  Do we ask it? No, we don't.  It can decide later, when it has acquired a rationalizing mind, to say it doesn't want that.  Likewise with the child's freedom - if it has been baptized - entails the ability to state that "I don't wish to be a Christian".  That is its personal, free choice. Baptism doesn't hinder the child in any way, with regard to its personal freedom.  Anyway, I am saying all this in order for you to become familiar with the theology of Baptism.

Now, Christ was baptized, but without either of the two aforementioned manifestations. There was no case of needing to be rid of original sin, nor was there the notion of Him having any sin.  He was sinless. Christ conceded to being baptized, in order to condescend to all things human and to demonstrate what we should do. Without needing to, He was baptized. That is why John the Baptist wondered, and asked Him: "But, am I to baptize YOU?"  And Christ replied "Leave it, for the time being. Things have to be done differently; we must fulfil every justice." (Matth.3:15) The words "every justice" signifies "everything humble".  To us, "justice" does not mean to demand justice.  We are the ones who place justice in the world.  Extreme justice is the extreme humility that a man can reach. "Just" is the one who is humble - not the one who seeks to be justified.

So, we have this Icon of the Baptism, where we observe the revealing of the Holy Trinity.  In the water is Christ of course. We have the descent of the Holy Spirit, which comes in the form of a dove. And above them can be heard the voice of the Father.  We never depict the Father. The voice of the Father is heard. We therefore have here the revelation of the Holy Trinity.

I will stress something that I have said in the past. The Holy Spirit is "like a dove". Be careful here. Christ is not "like a man" - He is in fact a Man. The word "like" has a different meaning, and the word "as" has another meaning. I function AS a doctor, if I am a doctor. I function LIKE a doctor means I am emulating a doctor. The Gospel says "like" a dove (Matth.3:16). This does not imply that the Holy Spirit became incarnate, became "dove-like" inside the dove. Christ however - the Divine Nature of Christ did in fact become incarnate within a man.  Pay attention to this fact. We have one Person, in two natures (One Christ in two natures - 4th Ecumenical Synod). Be careful here: NOT one person WITH two natures.  NOT WITH TWO NATURES.  It is one Person, in which the two natures participate. In a mystical way.  Two natures participate, but there is only one person, in which those two natures participate.

Christ assumes something in His Person. What does He assume?  His Divine Nature assumes human nature in order to heal it. That is the reason He assumes it.  According to Gregory the Theologian, whatever is not assumed cannot be healed.  That is why the Church's work is to always assume therapeutically.  Whatever is not assumed cannot be cured. Christ, therefore, is the incarnate Son and Logos of God. He is the one Person in two natures.

We have the revealing of the Holy Spirit, which appears like a dove. And there is a symbolism to this dove. Remember how a dove came to Noah, bringing him the message that the waters had receded.  The symbolism goes back to the Old Testament.

Christ enters the water and sanctifies all of Creation. Christ here can be portrayed naked - entirely naked. Elsewhere, they portray Him with a cloth around His waist. In our iconography, we aren't afraid, nor do we have any hesitation to portray nudity. We aren't moralists in matters like these.  What is important, is what kind of nude you are portraying. Even in everyday life, how can you be naked in front of everyone? One can of course say "I'm free. I have no problem. I can be naked." But what is the position of our Church?  What kind of nakedness does our Church depict?  It depicts ascetic nakedness. Ascetic nudity. You see, that kind of nudity is not provocative. All those furrows on Christ's body denote an ascetic body.  Our Church does not engrave any provocative lines. They are solemn lines.  Nudity, therefore, to us is not shameful.  Adam and Eve were naked and "were not ashamed". It is not a problem for us.  A clothed body can be surpassed by nakedness, if ascesis is involved.  In other words, if someone were to say to me "I want to be a nudist" I will say to him "I have no objection, as a spiritual father";  I won't say "oh, you're a nudist therefore you're a sinner".  Because then he will say "Saint Mary of Egypt and Saint Onuphrios lived naked in the desert."  Certainly. Then you too should try forty-five years of repentance and tears in the desert, and then go naked, become a nudist. I will have no objection. But that is an entirely other approach. Therefore, I won't scold and say "oooh, naked"...etc..  I will suggest becoming ascetic like Saint Onuphrios and like Saint Mary of Eygpt, shed tears etc., and if you become a nudist, I will have no objection whatsoever.  See? This is another approach...  Sometimes we scold in a moralistic manner, for things that we ourselves project.

Saint Mary of Egypt                                                 Saint Onuphrios

In this icon, Christ is depicted as naked. Christ enters the water, and, according to the standards of our baptism, the one being baptized must immerse himself three times in the water - in the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The triple immersion denotes the assumption of overall creation. That is how our children are baptized. Our tradition requires that our children be baptized with three immersions. We must not place the child in the font and merely wet its head a little.  Roman Catholics do not observe the triple immersion. Anyway, the Roman Catholic baptism is not valid. That is why canonically, we must re-baptize Roman Catholics. Because to say the least, their baptism is not the canonical one.  Their baptism involves sprinkling, whereas Tradition tells us that Christ Himself entered the water three times - a triple immersion.  These are very specific things and no-one should tamper with them.

Next to Christ is Saint John the Baptist, who is baptizing Him. He has placed his right hand upon the Lord's head and the other hand is outstretched - which signifies acceptance: that is, he has accepted the event.  An acceptance of the event and a gesture of prayer at the same time. Also an act of motion, of touching Christ.  Every mystery is performed though material means, and through touch.  You know how a priest will read a blessing, put on his stole, and place his hand over your head.  Everything is done through fleshly contact.  Christ Himself had touched the sick man when He healed him.  When the hemorrhaging woman touched Him, He said "Someone has touched me" (Luke 8:46) - Someone has touched me... this is a fleshly assumption here...  As you can also see, the Baptist is depicted with his legs apart, in motion. This denotes the fact that he was sent forth to do his work.

The angels however, in this ministry of theirs in the Baptism, are liturgical spirits. They were not sent to simply serve; they have a liturgical function: they minister to Christ. Their legs are together, standing at attention. So, the Baptist is an envoy in the icon as we can see... An envoy, which is why he is portrayed with his legs apart - because he is moving towards Christ. He has a service to render - a ministry. Now observe the angels. We need to know certain basic points. We can see the bands on the angels - we have learnt earlier what they signify - but notice also that their feet are together; they are "closed" by way of ministering, of a position of ministering or officiating. At the same time, their hands are covered as you can see. If they did have any ministering to attend to - a specific mission, like the Baptist had - their hands would have been uncovered. But here they are covered.  And as we have said before, this is reminiscent of the liturgical vestment called "phelonion". It is worn by the priest during the Liturgy and it covers his arms, because he is not doing an act of his own. He is doing the work of Christ.

At the bottom of the icon there are two little people, which also have a symbolic meaning. They symbolize the Jordan River and the Red Sea.  You see, in the Holy Bible even lifeless objects are "impersonated". «The Jordan turned back». (Psalm 113). It turned back. As though it moved of its own accord, if it had a will. That is what the two figures symbolize. They take on a personality. That is why we depict the two basic expressive media of water, which have a place in the Holy Bible. We have the Red Sea and the Jordan - the two waters. The Red Sea is a pre-symbolism of the Jordan. And even though they are both lifeless subjects, their normal flow is changed: The Red Sea waters parted, and Moses with the Hebrews crossed over. In this case, the flow of the Jordan changed, when it received Christ in its waters.

Then there are the rocks. We will quite often see rocks in our hagiography. The expressive rocks. These rocks are strange; they are never depicted as gentle, rolling hills etc... they are abnormal or uneven in comparison to human normalcy. As you can see in the icon, this here is a mountain. The Baptist's stature is very nearly the same as the mountain's; you see, balances are changed. The perspective in the icon is also changed. We are more concerned with the persons. Creation bows before the Creator. (That mountain could have been Mount Sinai, with Moses depicted atop the mountain appearing taller than Mount Sinai, which is 2240 metres high!) But the mountains are sloping downwards slightly, in other words they have bent over, in a position of solemn prayer. All of nature has subjected itself to this Event, and that is why you see this slanting. It is as though they are bowing their heads - just like the angels, whose heads are also in a reverent position.

There is a certain "oddity" here, which I have found in the iconography of Theophanes the Cretan; he occasionally portrays in profile. I could never interpret the reason he did this. We never accept profiles in our icons. Theophanes however inserts a few profiles here and there. But they continue to be a puzzle to me...  Such a great hagiographer, doing such a thing? I don't know why... Anyway, the profile was never embodied in the space of our hagiography.

In the icon one can also find little trees and a few other symbolisms also. For example, an axe leaning against a tree, as mentioned in the Holy Bible. It is waiting for the tree to grow. Will it bear fruits? Or will it remain barren? If it doesn't bear fruits, it will be chopped down.  If it bears fruits, it will be saved.  So, along comes the Baptist with his "two-edged sword" - that sharp, cutting instrument - in other words, his sermon and his cutting words, against which we must weigh ourselves.

That was in brief the Icon of the Baptism.

If there is something you would like to ask, you may do so.


Question: The Holy Spirit appeared "like" a dove. Was it like a real dove? Or was it something like a flash of light in the shape of a dove?

Answer: No, it was like a real dove. Like a dove. But that doesn't mean the Holy Spirit became incarnated in the dove.  It appeared at that moment, symbolically. 

Question:  Do angels always have the same kind of garment, of that past era?

Answer: Yes, that is how they are portrayed; It is not a material garment. Angels are enrobed with the Light... "Whosoever is baptized in Christ, has donned Christ..." (Galat.3:27) It is a garment of light.  They are clothed with light.  And it is in this manner that we approach this detail.

Question: Does each era portray Angels with its own form of attire? For example with Roman uniforms?

Answer: No. We always portray them with luminous robes. What you mention is a much later trait, and it basically has to do with local folklore which gradually permeated hagiography.  Especially during the Turkish occupation, many such human-centered elements came into use.  For example, military appearances etc.. That is not proper. We do not portray our Saints (such as Saint George and Demetrius) laden down with military attire. Nor do we put them on a horse slaying a dragon. None of these. These are saints that have put on the breastplate of faith, and the helmet of trust in God. Paul the Apostle says so: «A breastplate of faith and love and a helmet of hope for salvation» (1Thess.5:8). These are the things we portray in iconography; not the soldier's weapons. The Saint has transformed them and has thus acquired other "weapons" - the weapons of faith - and that is what we depict. All the other folklore details are inappropriate. And tens of such images also passed into hagiography, through mimicking western icons, but also - exceptionally - through perceptions during the time of the Turkish occupation, when we had those expectations of prophecies (the "Red Apple-tree") and other such things.

Question: Were there people present during the Baptism of Christ? Because there aren't any people portrayed in the icon.

Answer: Yes, there were. People were always swarming around the Baptist. Hundreds of people. And you should note here that Christ's first disciples were John's disciples. So, we could say that they "transferred" later on: Saint John the Baptist told them that they must now follow Jesus.  Therefore yes, there were other people when Christ went to be baptized.  And that is a sure fact, it is not just a possibility. There most definitely were prospective disciples of Christ among the crowd. Then the Baptist also told them: «He must be magnified, and I must decrease» (John 3:30). Therefore there had been witnesses present - future disciples - who recorded the Gospel. As simple as that. But, what we haven't seen, we do not describe.


Source:   http://www.floga.gr/50/04/2005-6/05_2005120204.asp




Translation:  K.N.

Δημιουργία αρχείου: 8-2-2011.

Τελευταία ενημέρωση: 8-2-2011.