The Heart of the Black Madonna

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Divine Sophia in Byzantine Art

This post is an abbreviated form, from a lecture that I first gave at The Christian Community in Spring Valley for Advent of 2016, and later expanded it for the retreat in historic Ohrid, in the Republic of Macedonia in August of 2018. If you would like to receive all the papers and recordings from the conference The Christ Impulse in the Balkans, you can have the PDF format and the MP3 recordings for a one time $50 donation to Patreon. 
I hope you enjoy this, I certainly enjoyed doing the research and visiting many of the ancient Christian structures and artifacts of this stunning, profound period of history, that I have come to see as the era of The Black Madonna.
Often the word “Byzantine” invokes the quality of backward or ignorant. While Byzantine Art dominated much of the civilized world, and was a highly developed genre, it is often overlooked in the history of art. I would also add that it is misunderstood. In order to comprehend Byzantine art, we must delve deeply into the mystical Christian Orthodox religious traditions, as well as comprehending what is meant by the Divine Sophia. We will start with the passages of John’s Gospel that set the tone for our discussion.

The Prologue of the Gospel of John

The Word Became Flesh
John 1: 1 - 14
 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe.  He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

 In the first few verses of this infamous passage, (which in many ways is at the center of not only the Christ Impulse in Human evolution, but also in Byzantine art,) the Word is presented numerous times. In the original Greek translation is the word Logos

The Word, the Logos, is also Christ. The Word/Logos was with God, Christ with God, and the Word was God Christ was God. This concept which is the essence of the Incarnation is key to understanding, to conceptualizing Byzantine art.

 In him was life and the life was the light of all mankind. This verse points to Creation by The Logos

And the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it,  this verse points to The Fall of the Human Being ,  but also points to how the Human Being is becoming

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.
 The word for living, dwelt, dwelling is Eskanosen - οίκημα in Greek which means tent, flesh, and dwelt. This word Eskanosen refers to the Old Testament where Moses saw the Tent where he would meet with God.

Exodus 13: 7 – 11

Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the “tent of meeting.” Anyone inquiring of the Lord would go to the tent of meeting outside the camp. And whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people rose and stood at the entrances to their tents, watching Moses until he entered the tent. As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the Lord spoke with Moses. Whenever the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance to the tent, they all stood and worshiped, each at the entrance to their tent. The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.

Eskanosen also refers to the Hebrew Shekinah and is spoken of in the Apocalypse and connected to the New Jerusalem. This is shown though the imagery of “Glory” as the radiating light from the innermost center of God.

Nativity with Donor (dressed in black on the right) 15th Century , Roger van der Weyden

I want to draw your attention to the concept of the “Donor Painting” This is a genre of art we see in many Medieval paintings, throughout Churches and represented in Icons where the donor or patron of the work of art is depicted in the picture, often to the side kneeling. I liken this in one aspect to a Medieval form of a selfie, a “celebrity” selfie, in the true sense of the word,  where the person is depicted with a spiritual being, the donor is showing their association with the being. We will see quite a bit of this, specifically in the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople.

The Virgin and Child with Emperor John II Komenos and the Empress Irene, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

The Emperor Justinian (left) The Virgin and Child and the Emperor Constantine
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

The donor paintings and relics are objects thought to contain divinity, and range in substance from bones to clothing and other items associated with Biblical events. Consider St. Helen of the Cross, her name comes from her discovery of the “true cross of Jesus Christ” and this relic was the object over which wars were fought. Eventually Saladin confiscated it and it has apparently disappeared in the mists of history. Many churches, the Vatican and royal treasures boast having bits of the cross in their collections, usually displayed in ornate reliquaries and jewelry.

Reliquary of the True Cross, Byzantine 12th Century

In both of these examples, the donor painting and the reliquary, it is an interesting statement on how humans relate to Divinity through the material.

In the realm of sacred image, art and objects, the main theme is one of trying to make the invisible, visible. In another way these objects are understood is humans trying to possess or associate with the Divine.

Let us compare and contrast this practice of “trying to possess or associate with the Divine” when considering the Divine Sophia.

As we considered in the beginning of our exploration of Byzantine art and Sophia, Steiner’s statement on art is profound in its implications;

“Art is the creation of organs through which
the gods are able to speak to humanity.”

One of the most descriptive of the Sophianic verses in the Old Testament is found in Proverbs 8:22-28

“The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works,
 before his deeds of old;
 I was formed long ages ago,
at the very beginning, when the world came to be.

When there were no watery depths, I was given birth,
when there were no springs overflowing with water;

before the mountains were settled in place,
before the hills, I was given birth,

before he made the world or its fields
or any of the dust of the earth.

I was there when he set the heavens in place,
when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep,

when he established the clouds above
and fixed securely the fountains of the deep,

when he gave the sea its boundary
so the waters would not overstep his command
and when he marked out the foundations of the earth.

Then I was constantly at his side.

I was filled with delight day after day,
rejoicing always in his presence,

rejoicing in his whole world
and delighting in mankind.

 We learn through this passage, that Sophia was present at the dawn of creation. In fact, it is really because of her that creation could take form. Sophia, also known as Divine Wisdom, is the matrix of creation, the dark matter that is the container for creation. Sophia was created so the Logos had a structure in which to manifest.

If the Sophia is the first creation of Divinity so the Logos could manifest, we can see that Sophia in the context of Steiner’s quote on art, she is also involved in the arts. Sophia is the container for the cosmic artist, the basis for artistic creation, since the arts are inspired by the spiritual world and manifest themselves through the matter (Sophia) of sculpture, painting and the gestures of music, movement and speech.

While all arts throughout the ages encompass this Sophianic impulse, in no other artistic genre is it expressed more consciously and purposefully than through Byzantine art.

The gesture of the Incarnation is one of intimacy, the intimacy that Divinity desired with Humanity. What sets Christianity apart from other spiritual practises and concepts is the notion that Divinity came to Humanity to be with humanity, to experience death as humanity experienced it in order to understand the human condition. Divinity came and inhabited the human vessel Jesus of Nazareth.

Before Golgotha, the Spiritual World had no concept of death, afterwords there was a deep understanding of what humanity was enduring and transforming through subsequent lives. Christ experienced a human life and death. After Golgotha, there was not only sympathy towards humanity, there was compassion because of the shared experience.

If you ever have the occasion to attend Orthodox services, especially in Orthodox nations such as Russia, Greece, Bulgaria and such, what strikes one is the apparent casualness of the services. The liturgy takes hours, but people come and go throughout the service. They stand in front of an Icon, cross themselves, kiss it, light a candle and go on about their day. To someone like myself who relishes the silence and reverence of ritual, specifically the Act of Consecration of Man, it can be jarring to say the least. But on the other hand, there is this approach to Divinity, the closeness to the Spiritual World through the arts creating the intimacy with Divinity that is witnessed in these settings.

More than any other empire in history, Byzantium is best understood through its art. Byzantine art is to be experienced, not just viewed, but experienced. In fact, Byzantium and Constantinople experienced revolution and violence in reaction to the official Church and governmental practises towards art. The Iconoclastic debates and practises sent people to their deaths. The Byzantines were willing to die over their access to art. Several Ecumenical counsels were commenced because of art, and the Seventh Council restored the images to the public and institutional realms. What is of note was that an Empress brought this about, the Empress Irene. In the Orthodox Liturgical Year, there is a Sunday dedicated to the restoration of Images, usually the second Sunday in October. One can see Icons celebrating this event.

The Seventh Ecumenical Council, 17th century, Novodevichy Convent, Moscow

At the heart of Byzantine theology is the embracing of the Mystery that God became Man, articulated thought John’s Prologue, “The Word became Flesh and dwelt among us.” By becoming human, God makes humans Divine, “Ye shall become Gods” Ps 82:6, John 10:34-35. Through the Incarnation, humans and all of creation are in a state of constant “deification.” The justification for the restoration of image and Icons in the Church was given by John of Damascus. If God had become human, then God became visible.

St. John of Damascus, Defender of Icons, 2013 by Theophilia available through Deviant Art

“When God is seen in the flesh, we have seen God. I worship the Creator of matter, who for my sake became matter, and accepted to dwell in matter”

Russian Icon, Virgin and Child

The very existence of religious art is a statement of the fundamental faith of the church: Because God truly became man, this allows humanity, the visible, and all of matter can become Divine. At the Seventh Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 787, the permission to have Icons was not only granted, it was commanded to be part of everyday private and liturgical life. Christians from this time forward were in essence commanded to make, use and venerate Icons. To deny Icons in this setting, would be to deny God.

Our Lady of Czestochowa, Modern reproduction

Byzantine art is best understood through the Icon. The word “Icon” means image. Through the Icon, the invisible is made visible, the Icon shows how Divinity is working in our lives. Byzantine art and architecture is seen as a portal to Divinity. Through the Icon and religious architecture there is a reverse perspective. The viewer is the vanishing point, drawn into the image, in relationship to the image. Starting in the Renaissance, the viewer was observing the image, detached and apart. The difference is striking and shows fundamentally contrasting approaches to art and image.

Photo from the Blog "Musings of an Orthodox Brit"

Byzantine art is a mutual experience. In Byzantium, people viewed, touched and kissed Icons and in turn the images spoke to them. In Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic traditions, the sacrament of confession is done in front of an Icon, as the Icon is seen as the conduit between the earthly and the spiritual. People prayed THROUGH the Icon, not TO the Icon. Icons were seen as active forces in Byzantine society, seen as protectors and healers brought out and paraded about during festivals and also during times of crisis. The belief in the active power of image is what lies at the heart of Byzantine art and what makes it so different from art produced anywhere else in the world during the first Christian millennium.

Icons were (and are) works of Theology, seeking to demonstrate religious truths and ideas about Christianity. As works of art, Byzantine Icons and mosaics appeared alive to those who viewed them. Byzantine viewers expected an intimate engagement with the art around them, enabling them to live in and through the images. Mosaics adorned entire walls and ceilings of the churches and cathedrals throughout the empire, making “super-sized” Icons if you will, using material wealth to express immaterial values. Gold and silver are present everywhere.

At the heart of Byzantine art was the central paradox of Christianity: the dual nature of Christ as human and divine. How do you depict a man who is also a God? The process of making Icons gives us a glimpse of this as well as the concept of Incarnation.

Modern Icon Workshop, Russia

Each layer is accompanied by a specific prayer, meditation and mood of soul. The creation of the Icon through artistic activity and meditation, replicates the entire specter of creation, from Genesis, to the ultimate Incarnation of not only Christ, but of Humanity. The Icon starts with specially prepared wood with a layer of clay on the surface to be decorated. The clay is a symbolic remembrance that Humanity was made from the “dust of the earth.” Each subsequent layer of paint has a specific prayer associated with it corresponding with the different aspects of creation. As the colors are applied prayerfully in layers, the final layer on the Icon is application of the gold leaf. Mosaics and fresco's in Churches are also created in similar manners, with specially prepared glass tiles, often out of made out of Gold.

Gold is the signature of Byzantine Iconography, Mosaics and Architecture.


In Freidrich Benesch’s book Apocalypse the Transformation of Earth, his chapter on Gold may give us an insight into the inspiration for this signature of Byzantine artistic expression. In the section “Building Elements of Heavenly Jerusalem,” Benesch describes Gold as the; sevenfold unity in the “I.” He points out “from beginning to end, gold shines from the Apocalypse” Everything named and described in the Apocalypse regarding the Heavenly Jerusalem involves gold. Again, besides the inferences of majesty and beauty, what was this image of the golden Heavenly Jerusalem implying?

The Apocalypse is the book of the New Testament that articulates how humanity will be preparing for the ultimate union with the Christ. “Behold I stand at the door and knock,” is the invitation and promise that for those who are prepared for a conscious freely chosen union with the great world ego of the Christ. The Apocalypse explores how this union will evolve through the letters and the subsequent discussion of the initiation experiences throughout the past, present and future. The New Jerusalem speaks of the structure that needs to be built in order to be able to meet the Christ, and while each one of the stones of the Heavenly Jerusalem have deep significance, it is the gold in all of its aspects that is the most important in our discussion.

Gold is a metal, and metals have very special qualities. They are gifts from the planetary spheres. Benesch goes on to explain “What manifests in the mineral realm as metals is an extraordinarily genuine soul aspect. These soul qualities are like unambiguously noble forces of soul…….the shine of gold which is born by the strongest “I” being.”

Gold, as we know, comes from the sun, and has a great affinity for the heart. Gold is the most precious of metals because of its purity, and this is the connection between gold and the human “I.” Benesch states “From this perspective, our gaze is directed to the Gospel according to Saint John, in which the divine “I” of the Christ being appears in the human being Jesus in such manner that the “I” of God pervades and fills the human mind and soul, and acquires the capacity to undergo a sevenfold expression of its nature. This actual mystery of the “I” becomes evident in the seven times the “I AM” is spoken by Christ according to St John’s Gospel”

The virtue of Gold is it’s “I” being. It can be hammered, stretched, leafed, cut, melted and it always displays the ability to remain itself and return to itself. Gold illustrates that through every trial, tribulation and cycle of death and rebirth, the “I” of each of us is intact.

If we consider Gold to be the “I” force, we can see this microcosmic reenactment of the Incarnation of the Cosmic Ego “I” of the Christ as well as our current process of human evolution and incarnation. We can see this in terms of gold’s placement on Icons and in mosaics of the Byzantine tradition. The Icon starts as clay and is finished in gold, the human started “from the dust of the earth” and culminates in the “I am” that Christ affords us through his deed on Golgotha. The Gold of the Icon exhibits the deification of the Human that is at the essence of Christian Orthodox mystery tradition. God became human, therefore the human will become God. The final layer of the Icon, the Gold leaf is the symbol of the deification of the human and of all of matter.

The presence of Gold throughout the Byzantine Iconography and churches, for me speaks to the incarnation of the “I” both cosmically through the Christ, as well as individually through our continued evolution and efforts. It also speaks to the deification of humanity, of matter, the embracing and illustration of the central theme presented in John’s Prologue as well as the heart of Mystical Orthodox Christian tradition, that God became human and human will become God. This sublime example of Byzantine architecture is one of the most profound examples of the interplay between the Sophia and the Logos. While the name Hagia Sophia is considered Holy Wisdom, it is fascinating to me if we overlay this with the concept of the Divine Sophia as a container of the Logos. The architecture is a spectacular exhibit of matter containing Divinity, of a matrix for Divinity to manifest, the ultimate structure for the deification of matter through golden shimmering awe inspiring art.

The  Byzantine churches, the focus on the interplay of darkness and light, housing the Christ, gold, icons, intimate relationship with Divinity, and expressing the gradual Incarnation of the Human Being. We can see the Sophianic impulse and symbolism, as the art and architecture throughout contain and give the matrix form for Divinity. What these structures also have done was to create the forms for the first Christian epoch, as well as future epochs.

Steiner tells us the next epoch will be the Slavic Epoch. He speaks of the Palladium, the statue of Athena of Wisdom, that fell from the heavens to Greece, later moved to Rome, then to Constantinople by Constantine. Steiner goes on to tell us that the Palladium will eventually move to Russia. (The Sun Mystery in the Course of Human History: The Palladium, November 6th, 1921, Dornach) The next Epoch will be the age of Sophia, the age of Philadelphia of love, of the purification of the etheric sheath of humanity. It will be a culture that truly will endeavor to contain the Logos, the Christ just as Sophia does at this point.

When emissaries from the Rus were looking for a unifying religion, they were sent to Rome, Constantinople and a Muslim land to see how different peoples practiced their faith. They chose the Byzantine rite because of its immense beauty. It was said by one of the emissaries, that they truly felt the presence of God in the dazzling beauty of the art and liturgy of the Cathedral of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, that they did not experience in the other rites. It is left to our imaginations and inspiration what the next epoch will be in terms of art and the Christ Impulse.

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

If the Divine Sophia is the matrix for the manifestation of the Logos, we can see how the Divine Sophia expresses herself in these artistic images which are symbolic of the container for the Word, the Incarnated Christ. From the dazzling golden images of the Hagia Sophia to the most humble of village churches throughout the region, one theme is consistent; through iconography, fresco's and structure, the viewer is invited in and witnesses the deification of matter, of the individual through the intimate exchange between the viewer and the image.
Through image, these ancient expressions of Christian art invited the participant, the viewer to behold the container of Divinity, these expressions symbolized Heaven on Earth, brought the invisible to visibility through splendor and stimulation of all the senses. One can see how the heart and mind would be opened during such an experience, and one’s imagination would be filled with what is possible. The cosmos was streaming into the vessel, incarnating into the Sophianic matrix, and for those who can listen, who can see, the experience of Divinity was within reach, accessible, intimate and available.

Let us reflect on these images from the first Christian millennium and be grateful and carry them, transform them into our current age and the ages beyond. Let us incorporate our past and present in both our inner hearts and souls as well as in our communities and the arts to create the forms for the future of the Christ impulse on Earth. 

As we are also containers of Divinity, in the process of being deified, how can we through our thoughts, words and deeds, through our artistic strivings, help birth the Christ within our own beings as well as create a community to receive him?

The Black Madonna of Montserrat, Catalonia, Spain