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Thursday, November 05, 2009

Questionable Gifts

The dome of Christ the Saviour Cathedral, Moscow

We have all been given presents that we wouldn't usually have bought for ourselves. Sometimes these are things that we love but the existence of which would never have occurred to us. At other times, they are things that perhaps don't find favour with our own personal tastes. In the latter case, there are usually ways of avoiding embarrassment and hurt feelings. It is usually no hardship to put an item on display among others when the benefactor visits, only for it to be quietly put away later, or to read at least part of a book and later comment on it.

What do you do, though, if the gift is an item that is actually offensive to all that you hold to be decent or true? What if it is a wall-plaque that expresses political ideas that you find reprehensible? Or perhaps an icon that expresses heresy? Could you, in good consience, display somethig like that in your home or place it in your icon corner among holy things?

The interior of the dome of Christ the Saviour is a notorious example of iconography that is doctrinally questionable, (to be restrained). Although this type of iconography expresses a clear contradiction of scriptural and patristic teaching, and has been condemned by a local council of the Russian Church (for it was in Russia that it began to spread, and was not a universal problem), and although recent years have seen such icons being corrected, when Christ the Saviour Cathedral was rebuilt in 2000, what is supposed to be God the Father was represented in the icon in its dome, just as it had been in the original cathedral. It is no secret that Russia went through some very difficult times, to say the least, during the last century. It seems that the rebuilding of Christ the Saviour was more than just the building of a church. It was a powerful symbol of the triumph of the Russian Christian identity over the godless authority that had tried to subdue it, and so was intended as an encouragement to the Russian people. Therefore, it was built as an exact replica of the cathedral that had previously stood on that site, and questions of the Orthodoxy of the decor seem to have taken second place.

Worthy a cause though this was, I must admit that this approach doesn't sit well with me, and I wonder what others think of the transference of this to the decor of private homes, the contents of icon corners, and so forth. Is there a distinction to be drawn between temporarily tolerating such things at home in order to avoid hurting a person's feelings and displaying them as permanent fixtures in public places of worship? My inclination is to say that, yes, there is a difference, and that, depending on what it is, I may be willing to lay my own concerns aside in order to spare the feelings of a well-intentioned giver. Having said that, if given a copy of the icon in that dome, or another similar to it, I'm not sure that I could bring myself to give the appearance of venerating it.

Any thoughts?


Daniel (New Life) said...

Yes Michael, I can readily identify with your sentiments. I once had in my icon corner an Ethiopian version of the one which depicts the Father and the Son both seated and in the act of placing a crown on the head of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I think the original is Medieval (you may know it). Point is, as beautiful as it was, when I learned of the incorrect theology it expressed, I removed the icon from my corner forthwith. I have since avoided this kind of representation. Another questionable one, to which I have already drawn your attention some time ago (which I mention now for the benefit of others who might read this), is the icon depicting Joachim and Anna, the parents of the Theotokos, embracing in front of a couch. Unfortunately, it appears on a certain 2009 icon calendar (I know, I bought one). Thanks again for some light on the path. Peace

Michael said...

Thank you, as well, for pointing out the trouble with that icon in the first place, Daniel. I geuinely wasn't aware when I posted it and welcomed the gentle correction.