Icons and Wall-paintings
|Wall-paintings in the Church of Raasted| |Icons - the Image of God|
Wall-paintings in the Church of Raasted.
The church is built between 1125 and 1150. The exact dating is made on the basis of the wall-paintings. The material used for building the church is limestone and granite.Limestone is a rare building material here in Denmark. Most churches from this period are made by granite, - cut out into fine square blocks from the raw stone by the stone-cutter using his hammer and chisel.
The church is built in the Roman stile (from 900 to 1250). Notice the fine circular arches going round the church all the way round - just beneath the roof eaves. They continue into the porch and show us that this part has been added to the church at a later time. We do not know when, but once upon a time in the Middleage. The same is the case with the tower. The original building only consisted of the nave and the choir or the chancel.
I think you noticed two steps down, when entering the church. The floor has been lowered som years ago and you see the original level 800 years ago.
And if you imagine the room without the pulpit, the organ and the rowes of benches you will have the room as it looked about 1125.
The altar, which is the original one, is made by limestone blocks and has been ornamented by a Golden-Altar. A wood frontal with carvings - situations from the Holy Story - covered with goldplates. And a retabel - formed as an arch standing on the steps of the altar-table. We have three fragments of the Golden-altar kept at the National Museum.
It is the wall-paintings that has made the church worldfamous. It is not the finest single paintings preserved from the period, - but it is the cyclus in its entirety that is exceptional and unique. There is no equal to our cyclus of paintings north of the Alpes.
The choir is separated by the axis of the church - beginning in the altar, symbolizing both the Manger of Christmas and the Sepulchre of the Easter, - ending in the top of the triumphal arch with The Lamb of God (The Lamb and Flag) as a sign of Christs victory - triumph - over sin and death.
|Only two motives from the Old Testament are found in the church (fig. 4 and 5). One to the North of the Lamb of God:
Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Eve giving the apple to Adam - The Fall of Men. And the second to the South: The
Fratricide, Cain killing Abel - illustrating the words from the Holy Scripture:
"The wage paid by sin is death, - but the present given by God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord".
And the rest of the picture cyclus tells the story of "the present given by God in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Beginning in the northern part of the choir with paintings from the childhood of Christ. The events of Christmas. The incarnation, - God becoming man sharing our life.
The Annunciation of the Virgin Mary.
The visitation. Holy Virgin visiting Elisabeth, the mother of st. John the Baptist.
The birth of Jesus. Note especially Joseph sitting in the corner speculating about things happening to his fiancee.
The adoration of the Magi. Note the small scroll of the Gospel, Jesus is holding in his hand.
The visit of the Magi to king Herode at Jerusalem. Note the star guiding the Magis has been replaced by an angel.
The slaughter of the Innocents. The last painting of the Christmas-cyclus. The innocent kids had to die so that Jesus might survive. This painting corresponds with the first painting of the Southern side of the church, the Easter side.
The Crucifixion. The Calvary or Golgatha. Another innocent, Christ, dying in order that all mankind may survive, - "through his wounds we are all healed".
The women visiting the sepulchre, - "He is not here, he is risen."
The apostles, St. Peter and St. John coming to the sepulchre. They want to see with their own eyes, what the women have told them.
Probably the two disciples on the way to Emmaus, - realizing that Christ is risen, - "Then he broke the bread and their eyes were opened and they recognised him."
The last painting is the most famous of all the paintings in the church: Christ descending to Hell. This motive is found only here from that early time all over Northern Europe.
In the "Kalkmaleriregistranten" (The Danish National Museum) you can see 20 photographs from the Church of Råsted.
and type in the name Råsted.
All these paintings are gathered in two paintings confronting the congregation sitting in the church.
The Christmas-side in the picture of the Holy Mother of God with the child on her nap. The painting is vanished, damaged by a stove, that stood here for the heating af the church.
The Easter-side in the painting of St. Michael, the Dragonkiller (fig. 10), - the most beloved symbol of Christs victory over darkness, sin and death.
Above these two paintings we see Christ, sitting on his throne, giving the keys to St. Peter and the Holy Scripture to St. Paul, - saying:
"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore, make disciples of all nations. Baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit - and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you. And know, that I am with you always, yes, to the end of time."
In 1990 these words are spoken to the congregation assambling in this church. So it has been and so it will be in the future - to the end of time, - and that is the real genius of the unknown artist. He did not finish his work, - the last link of his work will always be the congregation assambling here - listening to his word.
If you want a single word to unite the content of the wall-paintings, - you may call it a creed.
Not a usual creed in words and phrases, - but a painted creed made up by lines and coulors - addressing not to your intellect, but to your heart.
"I do not paint an icon of the invisible God, but I paint an icon of the flesh of God. The Son of God, who has been seen." - Because
"The Word became flesh,
He lived among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory that he has from his Father as only Son of the Father"
This quotation from the Gospel of St. John tells the biblical
story of the Incarnation - God becoming flesh, becoming man. The story about the
creator of the world, who makes himself known as the Saviour and Redeemer of the
In Christ Creation and Redemption are bound inseparably together.
Man as an Icon.
It all took place for the sake of fallen man, - who himself is created as an icon. In the words of Genesis:
"Let us make man in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves"
The very word "icon" is used in the Septuagint translation:
"A@4¯FTµ,< –<2DTB@< 6"Jz ,Æ6Ò<" ²µ,J©D"<"
It is the high destination of man: to be created as an icon of the living God and to the likeness of Him. But that icon became weakened and faded away through the Fall of Man.
That is why Christ became flesh, came to earth as our brother - as the real icon of man - as man had been in God's vision in the morning of creation.
"Christ is the brightness of God's glory and the express image of God's person" - as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews puts it.
He came to restore and to recapture man as an icon of the
living God - to restore the "image of God" in man.
Created/Non-created. Here we are at the crucial point in the context of icons: Christ is God from God, light from light, and he came down and became man - born from the holy Virgin Mary - that means,
that our human flesh, our human body, the created substance was found worthy of carrying the uncreated divine reality. In him God and man, heaven and earth, dust and spirit meet and unite.
The Church very well knows, that the triune God lives in
"inaccessible light, whom no human being has seen or is able to see"
As it clearly is said in the quotation from St. John of Damascus, which we put as headline for these reflections:
"I do not paint an icon of the invisible God, but I paint an icon of the flesh of God. The Son of God, who has been seen."
Consequently we do not paint neither the divine nor the human nature of Christ, - but "Him, who has been seen," the living person - Christ - the incarnated God, who walked on earth.
From the raw material of the created - wood, colours and
forms - the icon reproduces a reality, which cannot be put in words - the
reality of eternity and of God. The created substance can be the robe of God.
The earthly elements become carriers of the heavenly reality.
It has been claimed that the veneration of icons was a form of idolatry, a form of worshipping the created and not the creator Again we shall quote St. John of Damascus:
"it is not the substance, which we honour, but the creator of the substance, who for our salvation came down from heaven and became flesh."
It is the eternal, heavenly reality, which we faintly see through the icon and which we honour. That is the reason why the icon has been called: "A window into the invisible world."
The icon is - like the liturgy in its entirety - the place of
meeting, where the visible is made transparent by the invisible. The place where
the world to come meets the present. Like in Christ: true man and true God.
Here we have to mention a technical peculiarity: the reverse perspective, where the lines do not meet somewhere in the far distance, but turns the other way round and meet just in the breast of the spectator. Trying to open the door to this other reality. Trying to make us partakers in the events depicted in the icon. The universe of the icon is the New Man in Christ - "created in him on God's principles" - and the new creation, the redeemed world. Our concrete reality - made transparent from the world to come.
That is the reason for the great part, which "light" plays in the world of icons. The light, which - if anywhere - is present on mount Tabor. The mount of the Transfiguration and glorification of our Lord - just before his Passion.
The anticipation of His coming glory. The anticipation of Christ in the kingdom of God:
"there in their present he was transfigured: his face shone like the sun and his clothes became as dazzling as light"
Awesome is that light - even though it only is an anticipation of the light to come - adjusted to man's capability. At the icon we see St. John, St. James and St. Peter take the flight and covering their faces. And at the same time it is really a token of the future, where man is going to share in the glory of the kingdom.
Three quotations from the Liturgy tell us, what is happening:
"You were transfigured, o Christ, and you made the nature of man, which was darkened in Adam, shine like a flash of lightning"
"You put on Adam, o Christ, and changing the nature that in former times was darkened, you have filled it anew with glory and made it in the likeness of God."
"O Christ, you form with invisible hands the man in your picture."
Tradition demands that the icon-painter has to begin his work with the icon of Transfiguration. It does not mean that he first of all has to paint this pattern of icons, as we could call it, - but it means that he must do his work in the sight of the true man, the second Adam, - with his heart and his prayers turned to Christ and the light that in him shines in the darkness.
Christ and Christ alone.
Up to now we have spoken only about Christ - and it is justly: Christ and Christ alone is the subject and the matter of the icon - even when it is not Christ himself, who is the theme of the icon - but witnesses of Christ, the Saints of the Church - because the painting then symbolically reproduces the image in which man was created and recreated - man in his likeness to God. Not an idealization of man, - but man in his concrete reality - made transparent from inside. We can take the Russian word for saint - prepodobnik. It means: One, who is like. Like whom? Like Christ. A man who has made his own mind more and more the mind of Christ.
As St Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians:
"And all of us, with our unveiled faces like mirrors reflecting the glory of the lord, are being transformed into the image that we reflect in brighter and brighter glory; this is the working of the Lord who is the Spirit."
The Holy Trinity.
Rublev is the most famous Russian iconpainter. He painted short before his death in 1430 an Icon of the Holy Trinity to the monastery Troize-Sergiewa-Lawra, which the holy Sergei of Radonezh had founded not very far from Moscow. That icon was something quite special and got the surname: The Icon of Icons - the model for all later representations of the Holy Trinity and the model for iconography altogether.
This icon delineates a transcendent reality, which only the eye of the soul can see, - but nevertheless a reality, which can materialize in the created world - and make it transparent. The forms, colours and light intensity belong to our world - but is a window to the Kingdom of God. The created light refers to the uncreated light. There are different levels in the icon, a depth behind the bright immediate surface, the buttom of which you never will reach.
Immediately it tells the story of the three angels visiting Abraham at Mamre, which we read in genesis ch. 18. An illustration we could call it, - but an insufficient illustration. Where is Abraham? Where is Sarah and all the details, which are in the story? They would have been there in a Western representation. They are found in many Eastern icons, too, - but as Western influence - and then the icon is not an icon any longer, but a religious illustration, a religious picture.
The text of the Liturgy gives us some help:
"Blessed are thou Abraham, you saw them and received God - both one and three"
The interest changes from the exterior to the more essential,
which the icon has to say about the liturgical/sacramental reality and the
opening to that reality. The tent of Abraham changes to a vision of the heavenly
Jerusalem. The oaks of Mamre become the Tree of Life. The table - the altar,
where the fatted calf becomes the sacrificed lamb in the cup of the eucharist. The concrete landscape disappears into an indication of the
The earthly heaviness is suspended in a movement onwards. A lightness and a movement, which are underlined in the shape of the three angels, whose bodies are 14 times the length of their heads. The normal is only seven times. Behind these two levels we can sense a third level, which is brings us near to the hidden and inaccessible centre of the inner life of the triune God - the source of both creation and redemption. The three persons are in intensive dialogue and we can guess the matter they are discussing:
"For this is how God loved the world:
He gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him may not perish
but have eternal life."
Sublime peace radiates from the whole, but at the same time the dynamic and the movement are physically present - beginning in the left foot of the angel sitting to the right, following the bow in the head, going further to the central angel and falling to peace in the angel to the left.
Much more could be said about the Holy Trinity by Rublev - and very different points of views have been put forward. But only one further question we shall ask to night: Who are the three persons. Who is Christ? We do not know. Many suggestions have been made,- but we do not know who is who. The important matter is the unity among the three. The most important thing in the picture is the bread or the lamb at the table, which is the incarnated Christ in the Eucharist - and over that cup the three are watching in total mutual harmony.
Notice: The table itself has the form of a cup - and if we draw a circle among the three faces and extend the lines of the table, we get an even bigger cup.
The iconostasis - the icon-wall between nave and choir - is the most alien, when entering an Orthodox Church. This wall with its painted creed. All the highlights of the Holy Story - from the very beginning to the end of ages.
In the context we will only underline, that here - too - Christ is the heart of the iconostasis.
In the patriarchal row we have the Holy Trinity by Rublev - the hidden Christ of the Old Testament.
In the second row - the Prophet's row - is the strange icon of the Holy Mother - znamenie - "the Sign", where the child is situated in a medallion at the chest of the mother. The Christ hoped for and foretold by the prophets.
In the "Deesis"-row we meet Christ between the Holy Virgin and St. John the Forerunner.
Christ is the heart of the iconostasis - and his light makes all the persons and the wall itself transparent and gives us a ray from the world to come.