The Cosmic Meaning of Icon

Pentecost is a feast that encompasses all creation. After the Liturgy, there is a Vespers at which the genuflect prayers are recited. They are cosmic in nature: they encompass all that is visible and invisible, the living and the dead, the heaven and the earth.

Heavenly Jerusalem, mosaic by A.D. Kornoukhov, 1996-98. Vatican

Traditionally, a Russian church is decorated with greens and flowers. The floor is covered with grass. Nature is a non-manmade temple that comes into the manmade temple and everything praises the Creator. 

People have honored the Creator in His works since ancient times, and there are many hymns that glorify God for His creation in the Holy Scriptures. Psalm 104 is a veritable treasure when it comes to understanding God’s kindness, beauty, and benevolence.  The three young men, thrown into the furnace of fire for their faith and saved by the Lord through an angel, composed a truly cosmic hymn of praise to God, in which all creation brings praise to the Lord. 

The icon is also cosmic as it portrays the whole creation. According to the Christian understanding, along with the Fall of man, the whole world around him, which had originally been created in beauty and harmony, was also afflicted. Since the icon represents the transfigured man, the background on the icon is the transfigured world.

Genesis. Creation of the world. Mosaic of San Marco Cathedral, Venice (13 c)

Despite the fact that the icon is anthropocentric, there are still some frescoes and mosaics, where the focus of the image is nature and space. One example is the mosaics of San Marco Cathedral in Venice (13th century), which depict six days of creation within a giant circle divided into many segments. One of the segments shows the sun and moon with human faces inside a circle symbolizing the starry sky; four angel-like creatures symbolize the four days of creation. Another segment features Adam naming animals: horses, lions, wolves (or dogs), bears, camels, leopards and hedgehogs lined up in front of him in pairs. All of the segments depict the Creator as a young man without a beard, with a crossed halo and a cross in his hands: this corresponds to the Christian interpretation of the Old Testament theophanies as apparitions of the Son of God.

The Miracle of Florus and Laurus (a Novgorod icon, late 15 c)

If you pay attention to the way the icons depict animals, you can see that their traits are delicate and refined. The expressions of their eyes are often similar to those of human eyes. 

Arian Baptistery, Ravenna (5-6 cc)

Many murals, mosaics, and ancient icons depict nature as if it were alive.  Some Old Russian icons of Pentecost show a man in the king’s crown at the bottom, in a dark niche, marked with an inscription that reads “Cosmos”.

read also Who Is This Old Man on the Pentecost Icon?

Adam Gives Names to Animals, Fresco of the Monastery of Saint Nicholas Anapafsas at Meteora

A mosaic at a baptistery in Ravenna portrays the Jordan as an old man with long hair and a branch in his hand. There are two small humanoid creatures often depicted in the water on ancient icons of the Baptism of the Lord: the male symbolizes the Jordan, the female symbolizes the sea (which is an iconographic allusion to Psalm 114:3, The sea saw it and fled, the Jordan was driven back). They testify that iconographers perceived nature as a living organism, capable of accommodating the grace of God and responding to the presence of God.

We see on icons the earth and the sky, trees and grass, the sun and the moon, birds and fish, animals and reptiles, but all of these are subject to a single design and constitute a single temple in which God reigns. E. Trubetskoy writes about such icons as May Every Breath Praise the Lord, Praise Ye the Name of the Lord, and All Creation Rejoices in Thee, that you can see all the creatures under the sky, united in glorification: running animals, singing birds, and even fish swimming in water. All these icons invariably depict the architectural design, to which the whole creation conforms, as a cathedral: Angels are drawn to it, saints gather inside it, paradisiacal vegetation curls around it, and animals flock at its bottom or around it.

King Cosmos with Twelve Scrolls. A fragment of the Pentecost icon

Hagiographic literature and icons often feature stories in which animals come to a saint’s place of residence and make friends with saints. Take, for example, the hagiography of Davit Gareji or Seraphim of Sarov. (read also Animals Smell Paradise). Holiness transforms not only man, but also the entire world around him. Holiness restores the order of relationships between man and nature, which existed in the primordial world and was lost through the Fall.

The Greek word cosmos means beauty, kindness, nobleness. Dionysius the Areopagite in his treatise On Divine Names defines Beauty as one of God’s names. According to Dionysius, God is the perfect Beauty, “because He communicates His own goodness to all beings; and because He is the Reason for the well-being and elegance of all and exudes His luminous radiance to all, making them beautiful; and it is because He attracts everyone to Himself that He is called Beauty”. 

About the author

Daria Chechko
A philologist; an author and designer of St. Elisabeth Convent's website.

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