Gospel Desk

A Deisis

Advised by Andrew Gould, I have set the parameters for the iconography of the Twelve Believers.

The Twelve Believers project is a celebration of those whom Christ celebrates, the fruit of a deep engagement with the Gospels for the building up of faith in our own day. As I have begun working with artists to create new icons of the Twelve Believers, I have quickly reached the limits of my competence. I am not fluent enough to properly guide the artistic aspect of the project on my own.

What is more, while it is a fairly straightforward and ordinary project to populate a room in one’s private home with icons, the iconography for the Twelve Believers project has a public role to play in establishing an identity for this group of saints within the life of the Church. The artistic challenge and opportunity is, as one potential collaborator put it, “making every single image function together with the ‘team’ of other images.” If done well, this “will give a feeling of ensemble and create a stunning impression” of the group as a whole, aiding their reception as such within the Church.

Therefore, I am happy to announce that Andrew Gould, principal designer at New World Byzantine and founding editor of the Orthodox Arts Journal, has agreed to join the Twelve Believers project as my artistic advisor. Under God, Andrew’s guidance will greatly improve the outcome of the iconographic aspect of the project.

Iconographic Parameters

The primary conclusion from my initial conversations with Andrew is that the icons of the Twelve Believers are to be structured as a deisis, that is, a representation of Christ in Glory at the Second Coming, with the Mother of God and John the Baptist in supplication on his right hand and his left. For example, here is a deisis from Federico José Xamist, one of the iconographers working with the Twelve Believers project. The deisis tier of a traditional iconostasis, particularly a Russian one, proceeds outwards with Archangels Gabriel and Michael, Saints Peter and Paul, etc. For us instead it will be the Twelve Believers arrayed down the sides of the chapel, as follows:

Christ
Virgin Mary St. John the Baptist
St. Mary of Bethany St. Justa
St. Peter St. Veronica
St. Nathanael The Sinful Woman
The Wise Scribe St. Dismas
St. Zacchaeus The Samaritan Leper
The Centurion St. Bartimaeus

Each portrait icon of the Twelve is to be 18 by 24 inches, framed alike, gaze outward, head inclined toward Christ. Each will vary from its neighbors in style while remaining equal in artistic mastery, each uniquely evoking the attraction we ought to feel for these reflections of the image of God. For, in Andrew’s words:

Icons reveal the beauty of the Kingdom of Heaven to our physical senses, inspiring our love of God and His saints by means of eros. Upon seeing a great icon, one may feel wounded in the heart by erotic love, and may want to skip across the room and kiss it, and never part from that beauty.

The icons at the front will be the largest and most visually sumptuous, with burnished water gilding and jewel tones, perhaps all on one panel, perhaps on separate panels of equal height, perhaps hinged in a triptych.

In this context, the Twelve Believers join the Virgin and the Forerunner in supplication to Christ on our behalf, and we join with this cloud of witnesses in prayer and worship. Christ holds the text (whether in a book or scroll), “Well done, good and faithful servants.” Of course, Christ himself is the Faithful Servant, himself explicitly and directly praised by God at his Baptism and again at his Transfiguration. Likewise, Virgin Mary is praised by Archangel Gabriel, and John is praised by Christ before the people. Their specific words (or acts) of faith and God’s specific words of praise are inscribed or represented in a manner suitable to each composition:

  1. Christ
    Not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42)
    This is my beloved Son.” (Matthew 17:5)
  2. Virgin Mary
    Be it done to me according to thy word.” (Luke 1:38)
    Blessed art thou among women.” (Luke 1:28)
  3. John
    I must decrease.” (John 3:30)
    Yes, and more than a prophet.” (Matthew 11:9)
  4. St. Justa
    Even the dogs eat the crumbs.
    Woman, great is your faith!
  5. St. Veronica
    If I just touch his garment ...
    Daughter, be of good cheer!
  6. The Sinful Woman
    (“Standing behind at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and she wiped them with the hair of her head, kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.”)
    For you loved much.
  7. St. Dismas
    Remember me when you come into your Kingdom.
    Today you will be with me in Paradise.
  8. The Samaritan Leper
    (“One of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, glorifying God with a loud voice. He fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks, and he was a Samaritan.”)
    None glorified God except this stranger.
  9. St. Bartimaeus
    Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” and/or …
    Rabboni, that I may see again.
    Receive your sight.
  10. The Centurion
    I am not worthy for you to come under my roof.” and/or …
    Just say the word, and my servant will be healed.
    Not even in Israel have I found such faith.
  11. St. Zacchaeus
    Half of my goods I give to the poor.
    You also are a son of Abraham.
  12. The Wise Scribe
    To love God and neighbor is more important than all offerings and sacrifices.
    You are not far from the Kingdom of God.
  13. St. Nathanael
    An Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!
  14. St. Peter
    You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.
    Blessed are you, Simon bar Jonah.
  15. St. Mary of Bethany
    (“Mary, therefore, took a pound of ointment of pure nard, very precious, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.”) and/or …
    ("She had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word.")
    She has chosen the good portion.

Many individual details will need to be decided as the project unfolds. As these details are discovered, the above framework will ensure that we unite the creativity and individuality of each artist into a coherent whole. Thanks be to God!

Assembling the Team

The next step is to finish forming the team of thirteen iconographers, understanding that some changes to the roster may occur here and there as the project unfolds in the coming years.

It is important to assemble the full team up front in order to ensure a stylistic balance, and also for more pragmatic reasons. On the one hand, many artists have years-long waiting lists. On the other hand, the intended use for these icons goes beyond their private display. I have commercial intentions. As one friend describes it:

This project would make a great book, with the icon for each, description of the biblical material about them, the traditions in the church about them, and reflections/meditations on their examples of faith (sort of a follow up to Hebrews 11).

While it would be crass to reduce the Twelve Believers to its commercial aspect, it would also be short-sighted to ignore the question of properly licensing these works of art for such uses.

Which is to say, there is much to be done. Lord, have mercy!

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