The Heart of the Black Madonna

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Museum of Icons

Elusea Kikoska Prelip Icon Gallery

Each day I have been here in Prilep, I am treated to another cultural treasure of Macedonia. While the world is familiar with the incredible Christian treasures of the Vatican, Spain, Italy and France, what few appreciate is that the Slavic people, particularly those of the Southern nations actually made the flourishing of Western Christianity and it’s art possible. With the advent of Islam in the 7th Century and the spreading of political Arabism that followed, the first line of attack happened in Eastern Europe. The Ottoman Turks occupied for some areas up to 600 years.

The Balkans lands were some of the first areas of evangelization by the Apostle Paul beyond the Palestinian territories. Today, you can read books and see maps of where Paul journeyed, where we see Ephesus, modern day Turkey and Macedonia. He visited these lands before his sojourn into Rome. One of the letters in the Revelation is also addressed by John to Macedonia.

I had the pleasure on my last extensive trip to Macedonia to go to the area where the Apostle Paul had a mission. It was a beautiful green meadow on the shore of a lake Palruci near Givgelia. 

There were signs everywhere, and I was told that there had been a monastery on the grounds dating from the fourth century, but the Bulgarians had decimated the ancient structure during one of the many wars fought on this land. Currently a combination of private and public efforts were trying to raise money to build a new church on the area, modeled after the original one, but as with many things to do with culture and history, we will have to wait for a while as other financial needs take precedence.

Site of Future Church commemorating the Apostle Paul's Journey in Macedonia

As my cousin takes her job as my personal tour guide for Prilep very seriously, and arranges daily excursions for me to local points of interest. I had the extreme honor of having a private tour of the local Museum of the Icon, or as the locals call it here, The Gallery of the Icon. We drove to the site, which happened to be across from the main church where my grandmother had been baptized. From the outside, one would hardly know what the building that housed the museum contained. The sign was small with missing letters, and externally the structure resembled a warehouse. The curator, who was waiting for us, greeted us with offers of thick Macedonian coffee and then let us into the main exhibition room.

Breathtaking hardly describes what was hidden inside this obscure building. An entire religious history of the Macedonian people sat quietly inside the hall. I had been visiting other shrines and monasteries surrounding Prilep, and a trend I had noticed was that the eyes of many of the frescos had been worn away. I attributed this to years of exposure to the elements. There was a large Icon of Christ in the museum collection that also had his eyes worn away. The curator told me that this was done by the Ottoman Turkish invaders, who actually feared the icon and felt that if the eyes were removed, then the power the icon had could be diminished. The curator went on to tell me that during the past century, over 100,000 religious books, Bibles and icons had been purposefully destroyed by the Greeks, Serbs and Bulgarians. I found this astonishing, since they are all Orthodox Christian nations. When I asked why, the curator smiled, answered while my cousin translated, “They wanted to destroy the soul of the Macedonian people, but we are not so weak, the essence of who we are survives.”

I am always moved by the severe cruelty of which humans are capable, particularly in the realm of faith. No religion is innocent of oppressing another religion, even within the same doctrine. It seems that part of warfare includes behaviors specifically designed to devastate the souls of the opponents. What can the inspiration for this be? As I gazed on the Icons dating from the 12th century, knowing the turbulent history of the Macedonians, I started to think of the development of Christianity.

On another journey to China, I passed the time in the Airport waiting for my tour group to arrive reading about the history of the Christ Impulse in Russia. When the Czar at the time when Christianity was introduced to Russia felt there needed to be a unifying religion for the nation, he sent emissaries to visit Rome, Greece and Bulgaria. The emissaries experienced the rituals and teachings of Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Islam. The Russians chose Orthodoxy, because they felt the Iconography, music and contemplative nature of the ritual was the most beautiful when compared with Islam and Catholicism, the rest as they say is history. Orthodox Christianity is a very sentient religion; all the senses are awakened in the liturgy; music, icons, incense, the communion and the sacred kiss of the Icons. What I have noticed here is that the genuflecting includes the touching of the ground. For me this seems to be a recognition of the bringing of the Spirit through the human into the Earth, but that is just me, I have yet to ask someone why they do this.

As I walked through the Prilep Icon museum, the guide points out the particulars in each of the Icons, while my language skills are rudimentary at best; I find I understand conversations when I know something about the topic. As he describes the well-known attributes and narratives of Bible stories painted on these old Icons, and histories of the Saints, I understand most of what he is saying. What I particularly appreciate is how Mary is identified, as the “Bogoroditza” or God Birther. 

As my studies into the Black Madonna and significance of art as a revelation of the Spiritual World revealed, I marvel at this Macedonian term I have never heard before. I think of The Virgin of Guadalupe with her black sash around her waist indicating she is pregnant, and the flower over her womb, a glyph for the “Son of God.” My mind starts to whirl and reel with the significance and relatedness across continents and oceans of the spiritual symbolism  in Christian Art. My studies revealed The Madonna is the image and symbol of the highest capacity and perfection of the Human. My exploration into the significance of the Black Madonna indicated to me the symbolism of these works of Art; the message is we are to use our wills to birth the Christ within. Maybe my Macedonian roots have helped me with this insight, as they get right to the point and call Mary what she actually is, of what we are actually capable. We are to be God Birthers.

Maybe this is why humans inspired by evil destroy one another’s religious art. If you cloud another’s consciousness of what they are capable of, bringing the Kingdom of God to earth through your thoughts, feelings and deeds, if you take away the consciousness of the freedom this brings, then you can oppress completely. 

I think of the spate of Church burnings in the American South against African American congregations. I think of the bombing of the Birmingham Alabama church that killed four young girls. I think of the attempt of Communism throughout Eastern Europe that outlawed Christianity, and how my cousins in Bulgaria had to be baptized in a dark basement in the middle of the night for fear they would loose their jobs and benefits. I think of the insane self styled preacher from the Westboro Church who publically proclaims his desire to burn the Koran (which by the way a brave skateboarder whizzed by him and snatched the Koran before the preacher could torch it) And then I contemplate the growing cynicism and ignorance of the Christ by the young, the new evangelistic zeal of atheism. I received a post yesterday on my Facebook page from a dear young friend of mine; a proud atheist, and the picture showed a hospital nursery filled with babies in bassinets. The meme read, “All children are born atheists.” I thought to myself, how completely wrong, since babies are so close to the Spiritual world from which they came, and they are filled with Christ for the first three years of their lives until the "I" comes in and other things distract from our true nature.

Violence takes many forms, not all of them involving physical contact. What strikes me deeply is that by oppressing another’s faith and symbols of their true nature, the perpetrator is actually denying the existence of God. This denial is not only towards the victim, but also towards the self. The familiar “What would Jesus Do” is absent when you try to block another’s soul, their essence, their relationship with their source of life. This of course is futile, and always emboldens the oppressed. The Islamic nations seem resigned to extensive physical violence, but if one mocks their Prophet or disrespects their book, then it is a rallying cry to rise up. In the case of the Macedonians, the destruction of their churches and Icons only seemed to strengthen their resolve and dedication, but also in the things that are truly lasting. While sacred, Icons are simply paint on wood, but what they symbolize, the relationship between humanity and the divine, this is everlasting and can not be severed, even when the human dismisses the connection. Yet another great insight from my ancestors.

The original Christians who were severely and violently persecuted by Rome were thought to be crazy by their pagan neighbors. The persecutions were instigated mainly to draw attention away from the failures of the Roman government who was faltering under debt from extensive foreign wars (sound familiar?) The local governors protested the persecutions to Rome, mainly because the Christians were model citizens, they paid their taxes, were quiet and law abiding, and they also were very useful in that they cared for the poor and infirmed, really cleaning up the streets of the less fortunate and relieving the government of that responsibility. Rome was insistent, instituting laws requiring public sacrifice to Roman gods and Caesar. The Christians refused, and decades of violent repercussions followed. The Pagans constantly questioned them, why would you endure such torture, just sacrifice in public and be done with it? Why indeed?

The persecution of the Christians under communism is well known. I marvel that after only 23 years of the fall of the Soviet Union, the youth seem so disinterested in religion; some are even hostile to the practice. While in Russia the Church has taken on suppressive political practices, I do not see this here in Macedonia. When I consider the extent to which foreign invaders tried to destroy the Church here, I am taken aback as to how lightly the struggle for Christianity has been taken by the youth. And yet the people have endured, the beautiful Icons remain, and the Churches and Monasteries are open. My cousin told me that the Monasteries are where the young go to get off of recreational drugs. These reformed addicts tend to stay very close to the Church and serve her well. Maybe the rise and hollow lie of materialism has to be numbed with drugs, which are also a lie, and the wound can only be healed with intimacy and rituals of the Christ.

I come to an Icon with the face of a Black Christ on a cloak. Part of the local Christian Saint Lore, a holy man had no time to visit a sick parishioner. He took off his cloak, rubbed his face on it and gave it to the petitioner, who promptly delivered the cloak to the sick believer. He rubbed his face on the cloak and was instantly healed, after which the face of the Black Christ appeared upon the material. I asked the curator why the face was Black, was it intentionally painted Black or was this color due to age? The curator smiled and replied, “Christ was a Palestinian, he was naturally dark, and this is what he looked like.” Simple, direct, truthful, and full of faith. Maybe this is what happens when you watch your people’s cultural heart be decimated so many times. The curator smiled and said that many people have tried to destroy the soul of the Macedonian people but they are still here.

This obscure museum in a residential neighborhood has no parking lot, nothing to identify it unless you are looking. And yet, it has the largest and most valuable collection of Icons in all the Balkans. A Stark metaphor for the Christ actually, you only see him if you are looking. In Anthroposophy, we are taught that the Slavs held the line so to speak, at great cost, from the invading Turks, so that the Christ Impulse could flourish in Western Europe. The monasteries in Eastern Europe were the cradle of culture, seemingly standing still for centuries under Ottoman rule, and then Communist oppression. They are free now, testaments to the hope and endurance that Christ experienced and offers to us. The eyes of the Apostles and of Christ may be erased from past invasions, but the spirit remains, strengthened through centuries of unbelievable trials.

 Anthroposophy also teaches that the next cultural epoch will be Slavic centered. I think of this when I encounter my friends and family here, the future is here, forming. In some ways I see them taking the best of both worlds and melding it into a unique culture. I often feel this way myself, I have a Slavic heart and soul, but a western mind and will, I feel part of everywhere and yet I feel I belong no where, most of what inspires me is obscure and actually ahead of it’s time.

The challenge is for us all, to use our hearts, minds and souls, our thoughts, will and feelings to be as the Icons beckon us to be; God Birthers. Our next challenge is to recognize in our neighbor, the Christ that is trying to emerge, and to celebrate and honor this in the other. How different our world would be if we saw each of us as birther’s of God.

We were led out of the museum, the alarm was set, coffee was again offered, and we drove away from this incredible treasure of culture, of heart and soul, here in the rural Pelagonia tobacco growing center of Macedonia.

For more information on the tradition of Macedonian Religious Art

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