Icons of the British and Anglo-Saxon Saints by Andrew Louth
20 Jul 2019.
Icons of the British and Anglo-Saxon Saints
Father Andrew Louth
Icons as found and venerated in the Orthodox Church are the continuation of an ancient tradition of the Church. For most of the first millennium, although there were already differences emerging between the Greek East and the Latin West, Christians throughout the world had far more in common than anything that separated them. This is especially true of religious art, where confident distinctions between East and West are hard to maintain. It may even be that there were direct contacts between the British Isles and the Eastern Mediterranean, and if so, these would have been established first of all through trade. This would explain, if explanation is needed, the presence of the Fathers of the Egyptian Desert, Saints Antony and Paul, on the Ruthwell Cross, and the striking likeness to be found between early Coptic and Anglo-Saxon depictions of the Mother of God. These links also lend some credence to the legends about the visit to these islands of Joseph of Arimathaea and the bringing of the Gospel to Britain by St Aristoboulos, one of the Seventy Apostles. Whatever the truth of any of this, the British and Anglo-Saxon Christians would have used and been familiar with religious art in the form that we now call icons – in common with the rest of Western Christianity of the first millennium.
What is it that characterizes this form of religious art, eventually lost in the West, but preserved in the Orthodox East? First of all, though icons are works often of great artistic merit, they are primarily works of devotion, their place is in the worship of the Christian Church, both public and private. Orthodox Churches are not bare spaces, but full of images – icons – of Christ, the Mother of God and the Saints. The space of the church is thronged by the presence of the Saints. In the church building we are not alone, but surrounded by the host of heaven, both angels and saints. This is made evident by depictions of the saints, which is still the case in Orthodox churches, as it was in churches in the medieval West, not just in the first millennium, but right up to the end of the Middle Ages. The bare walls and pillars of Gothic churches and cathedrals, inspiring in its way as it may be, was not the intention of the original builders and architects. Traces of the original pigments used to paint the stone can still be recovered, and it is evident that a cathedral like Durham would have been a riot of quite bright colours in the Middle Ages, and among these colours would have been depictions of angels and saints, of Christ and his Mother, of biblical events. Some of these medieval wall painting in English have been restored in recent decades: in the Galilee Chapel of Durham Cathedral one can now see what is most likely a depiction of St Cuthbert, and many other smaller churches, not least in the North East of England, can manifest such remnants of a glorious past. Such icons were often of Christ and the Mother of God and of the Saints, but equally often they depicted events taken from the Bible – the creation of Adam and Eve and their Fall and expulsion from Paradise, the Nativity of Christ, and his Passion and Resurrection; there is a remarkable sequence of such wall-paintings in the North East of England in the church of St Agnes, next to the ruins of Easby Abbey, not far from Richmond. From what survives it seems that there was considerable freedom in the selection of such depictions, in contrast to the East, where, after the Iconoclast controversy of the eighth and ninth centuries, the pattern of paintings in Orthodox churches soon conformed to a fairly settled pattern.
The Iconoclast controversy that raged in the Byzantine Empire from 726 until 843 – with a brief respite from 787, when the Seventh Ecumenical Council at Nicaea declared in favour of icons, until the reintroduction of iconoclasm by the Emperor Leo V in 815 – had relatively little impact in the Western part of Christendom. This was not because icons were unimportant in the West, but rather because they were relatively uncontroversial, though Byzantine iconoclasm did inspire some reservations about icons in the West. The Iconoclast controversy led to profound reflection among Byzantine Christians on the theology of the icon, with a renewed realization of the importance of the material within the Christian tradition, and the value of the icon in underscoring the fundamental importance of the Incarnation. It also led to clarification on how the icon functions as a window on to heaven, as some of the supporters of the icons put it – a window, not so much in the sense of an opening casement, but rather found in the face, the gaze that meets ours as we contemplate an icon, a gaze that establishes a relationship and draws us through prayer into a world transfigured by the deifying presence of the risen Christ. Although there was little such speculation in the West, the very presence of icons made real this sense of a world transfigured by the divine light, and thus opening on to Paradise.
It therefore makes perfect sense to revive the tradition of icons of the saints of Britain. As Orthodoxy has grown in England, the English – and the Scots, the Irish and the Welsh – have come to appreciate more deeply the saints who flourished in these lands, before Christendom was divided by the Great Schism. They are saints who recognizably belong to the same tradition that has continued in Orthodoxy to the present day. They – and our veneration of them – are important, for they help us to realize that Orthodoxy is not something foreign to the West – Greek, Russian or Romanian – but rather something that has simply been obscured by the sad history of a divided Christendom. It is entirely appropriate that the Ruthwell Cross, erected by Christians amongst whom lived great saints like St Aidan and St Cuthbert, should depict St Antony of Egypt and St Paul of Thebes. But the veneration of British and Anglo-Saxon Saints is not something that is confined to the British Isles. As their stories have become known, their veneration has begun to spread throughout the traditional world of Orthodoxy. Earlier this year, the Holy Synod in Moscow added to the universal calendar of the Russian Orthodox Church a number of British and Anglo-Saxon saints, and noted a large number of saints who are locally venerated. The saints added to the universal calendar were: the Holy Protomartyr Alban of Britain, St Patrick, Enlightener of Ireland, St David, Bishop of Menevia, St Augustine and St Theodore, both Archbishops of Canterbury,
St Aidan and St Cuthbert, both Bishops of Lindisfarne, St Columba of Iona and St Hilda of Whitby. Other saints especially mentioned included two St Edwards – the King and Martyr, and the Confessor – Saint Bede of Jarrow, the devout and learned monk, without whose labours in recording the early history of Christianity in these islands many of the saints just mentioned would be little more than names, and the holy abbess Bridget of Kildare in Ireland.
The submission to the Holy Synod included troparia (apolytikia) and kontakia for the saints, for example this troparion for St Cuthbert:
What tongue can speak calmly of the gifts of God?
What eye has seen the joys of Paradise?
These shall only be possible when we leave behind our earthly bodies,
and are received into the heavens by the Lord Himself.
Yet see how He now honours an earthly body with the greater glories to come!
You made your power to flow from the beloved bones of Cuthbert, O Lord,
filling your Church with the radiance of Paradise,
preserving your holy one as you preserved Jonas,
the Israelites, and the Three Holy Children of old!
Raise us again, by his prayers,
for the sake of your Son,
at the sounding of the final trumpet!
St. Arsenios of Cappadocia (+1924), the spiritual father of the holy elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain said: ‘Britain will only become Orthodox when she once again begins to venerate her saints’. May this exhibition deepen the veneration of our own Saints, and hasten the fulfilment of the prophecy of St Arsenios!
Text (c) Fr Andrew Louth. 2008. In conjunction with the exhibition Island Of Saints. Andrew Louth is an emeritus professor of patristic and Byzantine studies in the Department of Theology and Religion of Durham University. Louth has been at Durham University since 1996. Previously he taught at Oxford University (mostly patristics) and at Goldsmiths College in Byzantine and early Medieval history. He is a fellow of the British Academy and was a member of the British Academy Council from 2011 to 2014. He was President of the Ecclesiastical History Society (2009–10).
Featured images from above: St Cuthbert by Tatiana Kolibaba (c); Archangel Michael icon by Svetlana Stashkova (c); icons of Kazanskaya Mother of God, St Hilde; St Edward by Tatiana Kolibaba (c)