Orthodox -- Unification Dialogue -- Constantine N. Tsirpanlis Editor 1981

Man's Nature and Destiny: The Orthodox Christian Teaching As Conveyed By Icons and Hymns -- Constantine Cavarnos

Icons have been characterized as "theology in color."1 They are, indeed, a theology, a teaching about God. But they are also an anthropology, a teaching about man. And further, they are an angelology, a teaching about angels. Many icons depict Christ, the God-Man, either alone or with others, such as the All-Holy Virgin, the Disciples, and so on. These icons obviously have important theological significance, as affirming the Incarnation of the Second Hypostasis or Person of the Holy Trinity, His Nativity, Baptism, Transfiguration, miracles and other events of His life on earth. And certain icons represent theophanies of the other Persons of the Holy Trinity: the Father and the Holy Spirit. In addition to such theological icons, there are icons that have important anthropological content. They depict Prophets, Apostles, Martyrs, Hierarchs, Holy Ascetics, and Righteous as well as men and women who are not Saints. Finally, there are icons in which angels are depicted.

What I said about icons is also true of hymnody. Some hymns may be characterized as theology; others, as anthropology; and others, as angelology. That is, some hymns speak of God, of His attributes, they laud, thank or supplicate Him. Other hymns speak of men, most often of Saints, sometimes of sinners, such as the Pharisee and the prodigal son: they praise the Saints, exhort us to follow their example, and counsel us to avoid the ways of sinners. Finally, some hymns speak of angels. They extol the holy angels, and urge us to beware of the evil ones, of Satan and his followers.

In this paper, I shall confine myself to a discussion of icons that teach us about man's nature and destiny, and of hymns which express in substance the same truths as such icons.

The capacity of iconography to convey teaching about man's nature and destiny is inherently much more limited than that of hymnography. But what iconography can convey by means of form and color is of great significance and value for any age, and especially for ours, which is vision-dominated.2 This is because icons express important truths in a very vivid manner, producing a deep impression upon the soul. The use of icons when combined with that of the sublime hymns of the Church, which express the same truths in poetic language, enhanced by the melodies of sacred music, becomes doubly effective. Icons and hymns help one not only to apprehend these truths intellectually, but also to feel them in one's heart, in the emotional center of one's being. Or if one knows them already, they serve to remind one of them in an effective manner.

The icons I shall speak of belong to the Byzantine tradition of iconography. They are icons done by pious Orthodox Christian painters who "regarded their work as awesome, like the dogmas of the true Faith, and worked with humility and piety on models that had been handed down to them by earlier iconographers, avoiding all inopportunity and inappropriate changes."3 Unlike Western painters of religious themes, who, from the time of the Italian Renaissance on have sought to express their "personality," their "I," and to give an illusion of material reality, the painters of these icons have sought instead to express the objective, universal or ecumenical truths of Divine revelation, and to do so in as clear, precise, simple and spiritual a manner as possible.

One of the ideas about man taught by icons and hymns is that man is a dual being, constituted of soul and body. This duality of man is frequently noted in hymnody. In iconography it cannot be indicated in a direct manner, except in cases of death, where there is shown, on the one hand, the dead body, and on the other hand the soul, in the form of a swaddled infant. Let me cite some instances where the soul is so depicted. The most official icon in which we see this is the icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos, the All-Holy Virgin Mary. This is painted in large dimensions above the main entrance to the nave, in the inner wall. The Theotokos is depicted lying on a bed, dead. At the head and foot of the bed stand bowed, with sorrowful faces, the Apostles and Hierarchs. Between them seated is Christ surrounded by light in the form of a mandorla, flanked by angels. He holds the soul of His Mother in the form of a swaddled infant. The soul is represented as an infant in order to indicate that death is entry to a new mode of life.4

This depiction is given poetic form in the following troparion, which is chanted towards the end of the Great Canon of Entreaty to the Theotokos:

O Apostles who have come here, to the region of Gethsemane, from the ends of the earth, bury my body; and Thou, O my Son and God receive my spirit.

The departing soul is represented as a swaddled child in other icons, too, such as the following three which pertain to Saint Antony the Great: "The Saint Sees the Soul of Ammoun," "The Dormition of the Saint," and "The Burial of the Saint." In the first, the iconographer, following the account given by Saint Athanasios in his biography of Saint Antony, shows the latter standing on a mountain and beholding the soul of the hermit Abba Ammoun, who lived thirteen days' journey from him, held by angels ascending into Heaven.5

This event is described in one of the hymns that are chanted in honor of Saint Antony on January 17, when his memory is celebrated:

Having indwelling in thee the all-seeing and blessed God, teaching and illuminating thee, and making thee wise, He deemed thee worthy, O blessed one, of seeing the ascent of pure and blessed souls to Heaven.6

In the other two icons, the soul of Saint Antony himself is shown, being borne up to Heaven by holy angels.

Although in itself incorporeal, the soul is represented as having the form of a human body, because this is how the souls of the departed have been seen by Saint Antony and other Holy Fathers, and this is how the soul sees itself and the spirits of others after separation from the body.7 But the occasions for representing the soul in this manner are few. Generally, the soul is represented indirectly, through the body, by means of symbolism that utilizes especially the face, above all, the eyes, which have been termed the mirror of the soul.8

This symbolism has been pointed out very notably by Saint John Damascene and Saint Theodore the Studite, who wrote discourses in defense of holy icons, criticizing iconoclasm. They stress that the very essence of the icon is to express by visible means the invisible, the spiritual -- things that cannot be seen except by the mind. They teach that icons are anagogic in nature, that is, such as to lead up to the mental, spiritual realm. Hence, while icons depict at once both bodies and souls, they place the emphasis on the souls. This is effected -- with few exceptions -- by covering up the body with clothes, leaving only the face, hands and feet exposed. Thus, our attention is drawn away from the great mass of the body to the part of it which is most expressive of the state of the soul: the face. The rest of the body, particularly the hands, are used to express, through certain attitudes and gestures, various spiritual qualities and dispositions.

The presence of the soul and its state are expressed most effectively by the eyes. For this reason they are depicted disproportionately large, thereby more expressive. As a rule, both eyes are shown, and thus the maximum expressiveness is attained from this feature. Profile representations are rare and are not used in the depiction of Saints. The eyes are shown open, except of course in the case of the dead, where they are closed. The alert, wide-open eyes of Christian Saints, seen in traditional icons, stand in sharp contrast to the heavy and sealed eyes one notes in images of Buddhist figures. This fact has been interpreted by Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) as showing that the Buddhist "is looking with peculiar intentness inwards, whereas the Christian is staring with frantic intentness outwards."9 Chesterton's remark shows a basic misinterpretation of the symbolism of the traditional icons. The Buddhist images depict the appearance of the body when the Buddhist meditates, while the traditional Orthodox icon shows the state of the soul as a state of heightened consciousness and prayer. The wide-open, alert eyes, in an icon depicting a Saint or an angel, are a symbolical indication of this state of the soul, particularly its highest faculty, nous, the contemplative intellect, which is termed by the Fathers "the eye of the soul." In the Orthodox Saint, this faculty is in a state of extreme wakefulness, engaged in concentrated prayer.10

Also symbolic of the state of the soul are the thin nose, small mouth, and elongated fingers which one observes in Byzantine and old Russian icons. These are so depicted in order to indicate that the soul has been refined and purified through a life of spiritual discipline, of spiritual practices. Saint Symeon the New Theologian (eleventh century) calls this refinement of the soul, "the beautiful transformation" (he kale alloiosis).11 It is a complete change, involving all the powers or senses of the psyche: the contemplative intellect, discursive reason, the heart, conscience, the will and the imagination.

This transformation of the whole soul is indicated by extending the symbolism, so far as possible, to the depiction of the whole body. Thus, the hands and arms are depicted making gestures of reverence and prayer, the body is shown bowed gently towards Christ in a reverential attitude, or kneeling on the floor, in a position of deep humility and prayer. In the icon called Glykophilousa, which means the sweetly kissing Mother, where love is particularly expressed, not only the face but also the whole head and the hands of the Theotokos and the Christ Child are represented in such a way as to suggest this spiritual quality. Similarly, in icons showing martyrdom, not only faces, but also the movements of the body of the martyrs effectively express absence of fear, freedom from hatred and vindictiveness, and unshakable faith in God.

From what has been said, it is clear that (a) in the traditional Orthodox icon the reality of the soul as an existence distinct from the body is affirmed, and (b) its primacy over the body is similarly affirmed. The Saints whose icons we venerate died long ago; their bodies have disintegrated. The prototypes whom we honor by means of icons, and for whose intercession for us with God we seek through prayer, are the souls of the Saints, which are immortal and now dwell in the spiritual world.

In hymnody, the emphasis on the soul is even more evident. Thus, the proportion of hymns which are prayers for the therapy of the body from some disease or infirmity or for its purification from its characteristic passions is far smaller than that of hymns which are prayers for the therapy of the soul, the purification of it from vices, from negative thoughts and feelings, deliverance from demonic influence and for its perfection or salvation.

Iconography also calls attention to man's relatedness to God and man's relatedness to other human beings. Man's true relatedness to God is exhibited as consisting in reverence and love, in worship and in partaking of Divine grace. Reverence and love for God are shown by a characteristic bowing of the head towards the God-Man Christ and by a lifting up of the hands in an attitude of prayer, while participation in Divine grace is shown by a conspicuous halo around the head. The best depiction of this relatedness is the icon known as Deesis, which means prayer. In this icon, Christ is shown, either standing or seated on a throne, flanked on His right side by the Theotokos and on His left by John the Baptist, in the attitude just described and with halos. Man's proper relatedness to his fellowmen is exhibited by depicting men in company with facial expressions, bodily postures and gestures which show mutual respect, concord, and love. That man's social nature is not destroyed by the true monastic life is attested by certain icons which portray the death of famous Ascetics, such as Saint Antony and Saint Ephraim the Syrian. At the repose of Saint Antony are shown two of his disciples weeping, while at that of Saint Ephraim there are shown a multitude of ascetics and anchorites who have come from remote parts of the desert to pay their final respects to the Saint and bury his body.12

Parallels to iconographic depictions which call attention to man's relatedness to God and to his fellows appear constantly in hymnography. In all the hymns, as in all the icons of the Church, there is clearly indicated or implied some reference to God and to man's relation to Him. Parallels to icons that bring to our attention man's social nature are frequent in hymnography. One of the most striking attestations to the latter aspect of man, in a most beautiful and truly ecumenical form, is found in the first stanza of Saint John Damascene's Easter Day Canon. Although a monk who lived far from the world, Damascene addresses himself to the Christians in all lands, calling on them to celebrate Easter with the greatest spiritual exultation. He says in this stanza:

It is the Day of the Resurrection, O peoples Let us become resplendent; Pascha of the Lord, Pascha; for Christ our God hath passed us, who sing the hymn of victory, from death unto life, and from earth unto Heaven.

The next point that needs to be discussed is that man is not presented in icons and hymnody always at the level of the Saint. According to Orthodox teaching, there are three levels of men. There are (a) carnal (sarkikoi) men, (b) natural (physikoi) men, and (c) spiritual (pneumatikoi) men. This distinction goes back to Saint Paul the Apostle, who uses the three terms. It appears also in the writings of the Greek Church Fathers. The meaning of these terms in the New Testament and in Patristic writings is clear. Carnal man, who is the lowest level of man, is one who is not guided by reason and conscience, but is dominated by the bodily senses and the passions. Saint Paul says: "Whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal?"13 Natural man is described in Jude 1:19 as a man "not having Spirit." This does not suffice to set him apart from carnal man, for the latter does not have Spirit either. Something that Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:14 (KJV) helps further clarify the term. Paul remarks that "the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned."14 From this it is evident that the natural man is one who is guided by unillumined human reason, by mere logical thought, which dismisses as foolishness revealed Christian teachings that transcend logical thought and whose truth can be perceived only by a mind that has been illumined by Divine grace. Spiritual man represents a level higher than natural man. The spiritual man has received the Spirit and is inspired and guided by Divine grace.

Theophylaktos (c. 1030-c. 1126), one of the Eastern Church Fathers, distinguishes these three levels as follows: "The carnal man is he who does not live according to the laws of nature, but is in an evil state, one contrary to nature. The natural man is he who lives according to nature, governed by human thoughts, neither doing evil contrary to nature, nor, on the other hand, rising to gifts that are above nature, above human opinions."15

Spiritual men serve as models for natural men, with respect to character and way of life, just as Christ, in turn, serves as the model for spiritual men. Thus Saint Paul says: "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ."16 Christ is absolutely perfect man, as well as God, and hence He is the ultimate archetype for men in their endeavor to attain spiritual perfection.

In icons, Christ is distinguished by having a cross inscribed in the halo that surrounds His head. Spiritual men, Saints, are distinguished from carnal and natural men by means of a halo without a cross. A Saint is represented not only with a halo but also facing forward, so that the entire face, or at least three quarters of it, shows. For, as Saint Macarios the Egyptian (300-390) says, "A soul which has been illumined by the Divine glory becomes all light and all face, and stands altogether face forward."17 Carnal men, such as Judas, and natural men, such as the Apostles prior to Pentecost, when they became recipients of Divine grace, are shown without halos, and sometimes in profile. Judas, a most conspicuous example of carnal man in iconography, is not only depicted without a halo, but in one instance, in the representation of Christ offering Holy Communion to His disciples -- in the mural named "Take ye, eat, this is my body; drink of this all of you, this is my blood" -- he is represented with a black circle around his head. Moreover, in the same icon, instead of facing forward, his head is turned back. In icons of the Mystical Supper and the Betrayal, Judas is shown in profile.

Although thus distinguished from spiritual men, individuals of the two lower levels -- carnal and natural men -- are not depicted with ugly features. Even Judas, the unrepentant crucified thief, the torturers and executioners of the Holy Martyrs, are not shown with repulsive features. The features of Judas are no less comely than those of the Holy Apostles.19 In this way icons teach us that men are carnal or natural not because of bad heredity, but as a result of their own moral choice and spiritual sloth.

It should be noted also that carnal men are not depicted with a vicious expression for several reasons. One of these is that the spirit of forbearance and love which characterizes true Christianity makes the Christian see the element of goodness, the possibility of repentance and regeneration, even in the very wicked. Another reason is the contagiousness of passions such as anger, vindictiveness, gluttony and lust when outwardly expressed, and the deliberate effort on the part of the iconographer to avoid infecting the beholder with them. Finally, there is an element of theatricality in emphasizing such emotions in the figures depicted, and theatricality is quite alien to traditional Orthodox iconography20 This art is wholly directed to emphasizing goodness, spirituality and holiness. It seeks to impress upon the beholder these qualities, and to incite him to cultivate them instead of their opposites.

Now let us examine in a little more detail how each of these levels of men is represented. I have spoken about the depiction of Judas as an outstanding example of carnal man. Other examples also taken from Scripture are the rich man, the proud Pharisee, and the prodigal son before he repented. The rich man, of the parable about the rich man and Lazarus, is represented seated at a table, enjoying plentiful food and drink. He is good-looking and well-dressed. Lazarus stands with ragged clothes, legs full of sores and stretches out his hand for alms. We are shown here a rich man who is addicted to the pleasures of the palate and lacks sensitivity to the poor, the suffering, the hungry. The story is completed by a depiction of the two men at death, the soul of the rich man being received by demons, that of Lazarus by holy angels; and elsewhere by a representation of the rich man suffering in Hades and Lazarus happy in Paradise. This icon is an incitement to the beholder to renounce the carnal level, to strive to rise above it to the spiritual. The portrayal of the proud Pharisee and the humble publican, like that of the rich man and Lazarus, follows closely the Gospel account. Neither the Pharisee nor the publican has a halo; but they obviously do not belong to the same level. The Pharisee, being proud and self-satisfied in his pride, is chained to the carnal level, while the publican, although a sinner being repentant and full of humility, has already advanced beyond the carnal level to the natural. The iconographer represents the Pharisee standing with his head turned up proudly, and the publican prostrate on the floor, with head lowered and hands stretched out, imploring God to have mercy upon him.

The story of the Pharisee and the publican is dwelt upon at length at the beginning of the Triodion -- the liturgical book that is used during the Great Lent and the two weeks that precede it. There are here several pages of hymns under the heading of "The Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee." In substance all of these hymns are condemnations of the "passion" or vice of pride and an incitement to cultivate the virtue of humility. They tell us that pride leads to perdition; humility, to salvation. Characteristic is the following hymn, which is chanted during the Orthros (Matins) of the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee:

Having used the way of humility as a ladder, the Publican was lifted heavenward, while the wretched Pharisee, having been raised by the unsound lightness of boastfulness, came down to the springboard to Hades.

The prodigal son is shown at two different stages: that of the carnal man and that of the natural man. In the first stage he is depicted eating carobs together with the swine. In the second, he is shown repentant, with tears in his eyes, embracing his affectionate and forgiving father.

This story, too, is dwelt upon at great length in the Triodion, in the pages that follow the hymns which deal with the publican and the Pharisee. It is used as a lesson in repentance and renunciation of the luxurious, sensual mode of life. The following troparion gives the gist of this group of hymns:

I yielded most wretchedly to the pleasures of the body, was altogether enslaved to the awakeners of the passions, and became alienated from Thee, O lover of man; and now I cry out, like the Prodigal Son: I have sinned, O Christ, do not overlook me, Thou Who alone art merciful.

The most remarkable group of men of the second level, that of natural man, are the Apostles before Pentecost. As I noted earlier, in traditional icons, the Apostles are represented without halos in all the incidents that took place before Pentecost, such as the Transfiguration, the Entry into Jerusalem, the Raising of Lazarus, the Mystical Supper, the Betrayal, the Touching of Thomas, and the Ascension. An exception is the Apostle John at the Crucifixion and the Removal of Christ from the Cross. During the entire period of their association with Christ, the Apostles remained at the level of natural man, incapable of really understanding many things that Christ said. It was only at Pentecost, when they were "endued with power from on high."21 that they were filled with spiritual wisdom and understanding. Indicating this fact, one of the hymns that are chanted at the Great Vespers before Sunday of Holy Pentecost says:

The Holy Spirit provideth everything; it bursts forth with prophecies, it perfects priests, it taught wisdom to the illiterate, it rendered fishermen theologians...22

The icon of Pentecost is painted in accordance with the account given in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. They are represented gathered in a room. Over the head of each Apostle is a tongue of fire, and round their heads is a halo. The Apostles have become, and henceforth will be, spiritual men.

When an Apostle is depicted alone, as in the small icons that typically occupy the upper part of the iconostasis of Greek churches, he is always represented with a halo, as a Saint. Such icons represent the Apostles from Pentecost on.

Among the other spiritual men depicted in icons are the old Hebrew Prophets, the Evangelists, Martyrs, Hierarchs, Ascetic Saints, and the Righteous. Among the Martyrs, Ascetic Saints, and Righteous are many women. Foremost among the women Saints is the Theotokos.

With regard to the halo, it should be remarked that this indicates a state of sanctification of both soul and body. Although it serves as a sure means of indicating that a particular figure depicted is a Saint, the halo is more than a symbol: it also shows the light that has often been seen surrounding Saints in their lifetime. One often comes across accounts of such light in lives of Saints. Among the best known examples are the descriptions in the lives of Saint Symeon the New Theologian and Saint Seraphim of Sarov. According to the exponents of the mystical theology of the Orthodox Church, this light is an uncreated "energy" of God, it is the same light which Christ's Disciples saw enveloping Him on Mount Tabor. A Saint, in becoming united with God, "becomes illumined-by his uncreated light, thus assuming the likeness of the radiant body of Christ."23

Such illumination is often spoken of in Orthodox hymnody. As an example, I cite the following brief hymns from the Parakletike or Great Octeochos:

By the Holy Spirit every soul is endowed with life; and purified, it becomes radiant and rises mystically to the triadic Monad.24

Sharing, O victorious martyrs, in the sufferings of the Master, ye also partake of His Divine brightness, becoming Divine by participation.25

Both iconography and hymnody seek to help us rise to the spiritual level to attain theosis (deification), that is, union with God, becoming partakers of God's glory and blessedness. In general, our transformation into spiritual men, our attainment of theosis, is displayed by these arts as being a process that goes through stages. Only in the case of the repentant crucified thief is this change shown to be effected almost instantaneously. In the Crucifixion of Christ which includes representations of the repentant and the unrepentant thieves, the repentant thief is shown with a halo.26 This representation of him follows closely the Gospel story, which tells us that the repentant thief said to Jesus: "Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom." And Jesus said unto him: "Verily I say unto thee, today thou shalt be with me in Paradise."27 The story about the repentant thief told in the Gospel and depicted in the icon of the Crucifixion, is related in poetic form by the following troparion, which is chanted at the Vespers of Great Thursday, when the Passion of Christ is commemorated:

Through the tree, Adam became an outcast from Paradise; through the tree of the Cross, the thief found a dwelling in Paradise. The one by tasting, transgressed the command of his Creator; the other, by being crucified with Him, confessed the hidden God. Remember us also, O Savior, in Thy Kingdom.

Such a transformation, leading at once to salvation, is an exception. The rule, taught by iconography and hymnody, is that the passage of a man from the carnal level to the natural, and from this to the spiritual, is gradual and arduous, like climbing a tall, steep ladder, where with sustained effort one moves up step by step from the lower to the higher rungs. It is known that in the Old Testament there is an account of a dream of Jacob, in which he saw a ladder rising from the earth to Heaven, with angels ascending and descending it.28 Saint John Climacos, one of the great masters of the spiritual life who flourished in the sixth century, taking the idea of this ladder, wrote a book entitled Ladder (Klimax). In this book he describes how the Christian, in particular the monk, may rise to the highest level of spiritual perfection by thirty steps, representing the overcoming of various vices and the acquisition of various virtues. Iconographers have given pictorial expression to Climacos' Ladder, painting it on the walls of the narthex of churches and of the refectories of monasteries.29

The ladder of iconography rises from earth to Heaven. At the left is shown a monastery and outside its gate Saint John Climacos, who with his right hand points at the ladder for the monks who stand behind him, while in his left hand he holds a scroll on which is written: "Ascend, ascend, brethren." At the top of the ladder is depicted Christ, emerging from Heaven, which is represented by a vault. He blesses, or holds the hand of, a monk who has climbed to the upper part of the ladder. Below are other monks at different stages of ascent. Some stand firmly on the rungs. Others barely retain their hold, as they are drawn by demons to the left of the ladder. One monk has fallen off the ladder and is being swallowed by a great dragon below, named "All-devouring Hades." Near the right side of the ladder are portrayed angels of the Lord, helping and encouraging the monks. This icon has the inscription: "The Soul-Saving Ladder." At the bottom of the icon is written: "Advance in the virtues, as on rungs, lifting up the mind by means of active contemplations."

The statement on the scroll held by Climacos, mentioned earlier, is taken from the hortatory epitome of his book. The epitome consists of two paragraphs, of which the first says:

"Ascend, brethren, ascend eagerly, and be resolved in your hearts to ascend and hear Him Who says: 'Come and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord and to the house of our God, who makes our feet like those of the deer, and sets us on high places, that we may be victorious with His song.' "

The second paragraph begins thus: "Run, I beseech you, with Him Who said: 'Let us hasten until we attain to the unity of faith and of the knowledge of God, to mature manhood, to the measure and stature of the fullness of Christ,

In discussing the ninth step of his Ladder, Saint John makes this very illuminating remark: "The holy virtues are like Jacob's ladder. For the virtues, leading from one to another, bear him who chooses them up to Heaven." And later, he observes: "No one can climb a ladder in one stride." Commenting on this statement, Saint Symeon the New Theologian says: "Those who want to climb these steps do not begin from above and come down, but go from below above. And they climb the first rung of the ladder, then the second, then the third, and so on... In this way one can rise from the earth and ascend to Heaven."30

Saint Symeon adds this encouraging remark concerning the Ladder. "God does not allow those who strive towards Him with all their zeal to fall completely off this ladder, but seeing them exhausted, helps and supports them, stretching out the hand of His power and leading them to Himself. Thus He helps them, both openly and secretly, with and without their knowledge, until, having climbed the ladder, they approach Him and, totally uniting with Him [whether in bodies or without bodies I do not know] they enjoy unspeakable blessings."

The idea of a ladder of divine ascent appears often in hymnody, especially in the Triodion. Thus, one of the hymns of the Triodion, chanted in the Apodeipnon (After-Supper Service) of the First Monday of the Great Lent, says:

The ladder which was seen long ago by the great Patriarch (Jacob) is a pattern, O my soul, of active mounting, of spiritual ascent. If therefore thou dost wish to live, renew thyself by means of active virtue, knowledge, and contemplation.

Similar brief hymns speaking of a ladder of spiritual ascent are to be found in the Triodion and other liturgical books. The story told by the icon of "The Soul-Saving Ladder" says much more than these hymns, and in a more vivid manner. The hymns, however, have the value of adding intellectual content to the image of the ladder by speaking of the soul, of knowledge, of contemplation and the like, and of impressing these notions upon the rational faculty and the heart by means of beautiful diction, rhythm, and melody. (In the translation, much of the beauty of the Greek diction is unavoidably lost.)

Let us turn now to three closely related topics: (a) the immortality of the soul, (b) its state after death, and (c) the Second Coming of Christ. With this discussion I shall bring my talk to an end.

That the human soul does not perish with the death of the body, but survives it, and is immortal, is taught both by iconography and by hymnody. We have already noted that in the icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos and in icons of Saint Antony the Great the soul is represented as something distinct from the body, symbolically as an infant. The soul of the Theotokos is shown held by Christ; that of Saint Antony, borne up to Heaven by angels. That the soul is immortal is also conveyed by another already referred to icon, the depiction of the rich man and Lazarus in the beyond, and by the icons of the Transfiguration and the Resurrection of Christ. In the first, following the Gospel story, the iconographer depicts the rich man in Hades, in torment, and Lazarus, together with Abraham, in Paradise, a place full of light, with beautiful sights, where life is unending. In the icon of the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah, who had died centuries before, are depicted as living persons, bowing reverently to Christ, Elijah conversing with Christ and Moses holding the tablets of the Decalogue. In the icon of the Resurrection of Christ, known as the Descent into Hades, Christ is shown in Hades in the presence of Adam and Eve, Saint John the Baptist, and Prophets and Righteous of the Old Covenant, notably David, Solomon and Abel, all represented as living human beings. The most vivid affirmation of immortality in iconography is contained in the depiction of the Second Coming of Christ, of which I shall speak a little later.

The immortality of the soul is asserted in countless hymns of the Orthodox Church. An Apolytikion which is chanted in honor of numerous Saints, with one or two words changed to adapt it to the particular Saint, says:

In thee, O Father, there was preserved the condition of 'being in the likeness;' for having taken up the Cross, thou didst follow Christ, and by thine acts didst teach the despising of the body, for it is transitory, and care of the soul, because it is a thing immortal. Wherefore, thy spirit, O holy Romanos, rejoices with the Angels.31

The following hymn, which is chanted at the Orthros of the Sunday of All Saints, tells us that the spirits of all the departed Saints are now dwelling in Paradise:

Let there be praise, by means of sacred melodies, to the Apostles and the Prophets, to the Teachers and the Holy Ascetics, to all the Righteous and the Holy Martyrs, and to the women who contended as martyrs or led with ardor a life of askesis -- to all the throngs of Saints and the orders of the Righteous -- as heirs of the Kingdom Above, as dwellers of Paradise.32

The nature of the place of the souls after death, according to the teaching conveyed by Orthodox iconography and hymnody, is already evident: the souls of Saints, of the righteous in general, go to the supersensible Paradise, to Heaven, and live in joy and Divine glory, united with God, whereas the souls of the unrighteous go to Hades, abide in a state of pain and suffering, separated from God.

But this is not the complete account about the afterlife. Following Holy Scripture, the Church teaches that there will be a Second Coming of Christ, at which time there will be a resurrection of the bodies of all the departed souls, and then a universal judgment. In Matthew, chapter 25, we read: "When the Son of man shall come in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then shall He sit upon the throne of His glory. And before Him shall be gathered all nations: and He shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats. And He shall set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left... Then shall He say unto them on the left hand: Depart from me ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels... And these shall go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into life eternal."33 In John, chapter 5, we find these statements made, like the preceding, by Christ: "The hour is coming, in which all that are in the graves shall hear His voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation."34 This Gospel teaching has been summed up by the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Synod, which met at Nicea (325 A.D.), in the following statement that appears at the end of the Creed: "I await the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come." According to the Orthodox teaching, after the Resurrection and Judgment, the righteous will live forever, invested with transformed, spiritual bodies, in a state of even fuller blessedness than before, while the unrighteous will live forever, with similar bodies, in pain and gloom.35 The first state is called Paradise (Paradeisos, Ouranos); the second, Hell (Kolasis).

The teaching about the Second Coming of Christ is depicted very vividly in the narthex of churches, on the interior side of the western wall, and also in the refectory of monasteries, on the wall near the entrance. The icon is a synthesis, depicting diverse scenes and innumerable figures, giving expression to many passages in the New and the Old Testaments. Hence, it cannot be described in a few words. The great twentieth century iconographer Photios Kontoglou devotes over three pages of his book Ekphrasis to a description of it.36 An earlier iconographer, Dionysios of Fourna (1670-c. 1745), devotes even more space to it in his Explanation of the Art of Painting,37 My account will be much briefer than theirs.

At the center of the composition is shown Christ, in a circular glory and seated on a throne, attended by many angels. To His right is the Theotokos, and to His left John the Forerunner, bowed in prayer. Christ blesses with both hands, and on His chest is an open Book of the Gospels, with the following statement: "Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world."38 Above Him is written: "Jesus Christ, the glory and joy of the Saints." Represented going to meet Him are choirs of Saints: Apostles, Prophets, Martyrs, Ascetics, and so on. Both men and women Saints are shown. Below this scene is portrayed an angel, flying and sounding a trumpet,39 and the earth and the sea giving up their dead,40 who are seized by clouds. Some of these, the righteous, go up to meet the angel, while the others go to the place of condemnation. Here there are written relevant statements taken from Isaiah, Joel, and David. From Daniel is taken this statement: "Many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt."41

Elsewhere in the composition is depicted Christ on a high throne, again in glory and attended by hosts of angels. He is flanked on either side by the Theotokos and John the Baptist, who stand in an attitude of prayer, and the Twelve Apostles, who are seated on thrones. Above Christ is written: "Jesus Christ, the Righteous Judge." To the right of the Apostles stand all the other Saints in groups, and to the left the unrepentant sinners. Here there are written the following statements from the Book of Revelation: "And the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works;"42 and "whosoever was not found in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire."43 Below this scene are shown various places of hell, such as the "outer darkness," "the worm that dieth not," "the fire that is not quenched," and so on.44 Paradise is symbolized by a bright and radiant region, with lush foliage and the like. In it are seen the Theotokos, surrounded by angels, and the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Also portrayed in the Second Coming is the parable of the five wise and the five foolish virgins. The wise virgins are shown in Paradise, the foolish virgins outside.

Another theme depicted is the Preparation of the Lord's Throne. On this lie the Book of the Gospels and the symbols of the Passion of Christ. On either side of the Throne are Adam and Eve kneeling in prayer.

Finally, the composition includes "the Weighing of Souls" (He Psychostasia), or "the Scales of Justice" (Ho Zygos tes Dikaiosynes). In small churches, where space is limited, the composition was not executed in its entirety: the iconographer painted only some of these scenes.

The representation of the Second Coming of Christ by means of iconography was a popular theme during the Byzantine period. According to the eminent archaeologist Constantine Kalokyris, "the subject can be traced as far back as the fourth century, and is well developed in the eleventh century churches of Daphni and Hosios Loukas, and in the fourteenth century and later in the churches of Mystra and Athos."45 But this icon has fallen into disuse in our time, as the mystical, spiritual outlook of Christianity of the early centuries of the Christian era and of the medieval period has been replaced by the naturalistic, materialistic, secularist outlook of science, industrialization and mechanization, and the concern with final things, with eschatology, has been replaced by the concern with means of bodily comfort and pleasure. Even meditation today tends to be cultivated as a means to physical well-being, rather than as a practice conducive to the improvement and salvation of the soul, as it was in the past. During the Byzantine period (A.D. 330-1453) and the period that followed it, down to the early part of the nineteenth century, the Second Coming of Christ was not only painted on the walls of churches and refectories, but was also an object of meditation. It was used as a means of cleansing the imagination of soul-corrupting images and giving man a serious orientation in life.46 Today, apart from the surviving representations of the Second Coming in some old churches, Orthodox Christians are reminded of the teaching of the Church on this subject by its hymnody, especially during Great Lent and All Souls' Day. One of the hymns which is chanted at the Orthros on Sundays during the period of Great Lent and the two weeks that precede it says:

Reflecting upon the multitude of sins which I, the wretch, have committed, I tremble at the thought of the dreadful Day of the Judgment; but hoping in the mercy of Thy compassion, I cry out to Thee like David: Have mercy upon me, O my God, according to Thy great mercy.

Similar to this is the following hymn that appears in the Great Octoechos, and is chanted at the Orthros of Monday and Tuesday of the First Mode:

Thy Tribunal is dreadful, Thy Judgment just, my deeds terrible; but being Merciful, save me beforehand, and deliver me from Hell; deliver me, O Master, from the portion of the Goats, and deem me worthy of standing on Thy right side, O most righteous Judge.

The fullest description of the Second Coming by means of liturgical poetry is given by a group of five hymns that are contained in the Triodion and are chanted on the eve before the Sunday of Apokreo, which is a week before the beginning of Great Lent. These convey many of the features of the Second Coming depicted in the iconography of it, and seek to evoke an authentic state of repentance.

Although intended to remind Christians vividly, by means of Scriptural symbolism, of their destiny in eternity, the depiction of the Second Coming of Christ in iconography and hymnody by no means seeks to arouse alarm and certainly should not have the effect of leading sinners to despair. For there is no suggestion that some men are arbitrarily predestined by God to eternal hell, either in the iconography and hymnography of the Second Coming, or elsewhere in the teaching of the Orthodox Church. Nor is Christ depicted as a bad judge who will judge unfairly. On the contrary, He is presented as a righteous and compassionate one. No man need despair, regardless of how sinful a life he may have led, provided he repents.

Two main points are stressed so far as sinners are concerned: true repentance and the cultivation of the virtues. The message conveyed in this regard can be put briefly in these words: Repent, and hasten to fill the lamp of your soul with the oil of the virtues, before it is too late. You know the way; it is like a ladder. Listen to the voice which says: "Ascend, ascend, my brethren the soul-saving ladder, which leads to blessedness, to theosis, to union with God."


1. This expression has been used as the title of a book by Eugene N. Trubetskoi, Icons: Theology in Color. New York, 1973. Cf. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art, New York, 1956, p. 51: "Religious art is simply a visual theology."

2. Note e.g. the place which is occupied in the lives of people today by television, the cinema, photography, visual aids in teaching.

3. See my book Orthodox Iconography, Belmont, Mass., 1977, 1980, p. 36.

4. Cf. Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, Boston, 1955. p. 29.

5. See Photios Kontoglou, Ekphrasis tes Orthodoxou Eikonographias ("Explanation of Orthodox Iconography") Vol. 1, Athens, 1960, p. 386.

6. Contained in the January Menaion.

7. In The City of God, Bk. XXI, ch. 10, Saint Augustine says: "Though a man be in spirit only, not in body, yet he sees himself so like to his own body that he cannot discern any difference."

8. Cf. E. Trubetskoi: "The expression of the eyes is the trait of the human face in which spiritual life most intensely concentrates" (Icons: Theology in Color, p. 22).

9. Gilbert K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, London, 1909, p. 241.

10. Cf. L. Ouspensky, op. cit., p. 29: The state of the saints depicted "is usually a state of prayer."

11. Dionysios Zagoraios, trans.. Ton Hosiou Symeon tou Neou Theologou ta Heuriskomena ("The Extant Works of Saint Symeon the New Theologian"), Syros. 1886, Part i, p. 113.

12. Cf. Photios Kontoglou, Ekphrasis, Vol. 1, pp. 387, 384.

13. 1 Cor. 3:3 (KJV); cf. Rom. 8:5-7.

14. See Philokalia, Vol. 4, Athens, 1961, pp. 58-59.

15. Quoted by Nicodemos the Hagiorite in Kepos Chariton ("Garden of Graces"), Volos, 1958, p. 199. Cf. his Exomologetarion ("Manual of Confession"), Part 1. Ch. 1.

16. 1 Cor. 11:1.

17. Fifty Spiritual Homilies, I.

18. See Kontoglou, Ekphrasis, Vol. I, pp. 128, 172, 212.

19. Ibid., p. 411.

20. Ibid.

21. Luke 24:49 (KJV). Cf. Acts 2:1-4.

22. Contained in the liturgical book called the Pentecostarion.

23. L. Ouspensky, op. cit., p. 36.

24. Parakletike, Venice, 1851, p. 139.

25. Ibid., p. 249.

26. Cf. Kontoglou, op. cit., Vol. 1, p. 176.

27. Luke 23:42-43 (KJV).

28. Gen. 28:12.

29. Dionysios of Foima, Hermeneia tes Zographikes Technes ("Explanation of the Art of Painting"), Petroupolis (Petrograd), 1909, pp. 220-221; Kontoglou, Ekphrasis, Vol. l, p. 400.

30. The Extant Works of Saint Symeon the New Theologian, Part I, p. 368.

31. See the Great Horologion.

32. This hymn is contained in the Pentecostarion.

33. Matt. 25:31-33, 41, 46 (KJV).

34. John 5:28-29 (KJV).

35. See e.g. Symeon, Archbishop of Thessaloniki, Ta Hapanta ("The Collected Works"), Thessaloniki, 1960, pp. 38-39, 346-348.

36. Pp. 362-364.

37. Pp. 240-242, 287-288.

38. Matt. 25:34 (KJV).

39. Mt. 24:31.

40. Cf. Rev. 20:13.

41. Dan. 12:2 (KJV).

42. Rev. 20:12 (KJV).

43. Rev. 20:15 (KJV).

44. Cf. Mk. 9:44.

45. C. Kalokyris, The Byzantine Wall-Paintings of Crete, New York, 1973, p. 119.

46. Cf. Saint Nicodemos the Hagiorite, Symbouleutikon Encheiridion ("Handbook of Counsel"), 2nd ed., Athens, 1885, p. 107. 

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