Art and Faith

Monday, 5 November 2007

Do Not Murder!

Do Not Murder!

Post-Soviet Russian poster



This poster makes a crucial distinction. The Decalogue does not say, “Thou shalt not kill”. Rather, it commands us, “Thou shalt not murder”. Unfortunately, this distinction is lost in most English translations. Therefore, the current noise in some circles that the Church condemns warfare per se isn’t founded in fact. If we look at the actual practise of the Church as compared to recent pronouncements by such groups as the “Orthodox Peace Fellowship”, we see that far from being pacifistic, the Church has blessed Christian warriors many times during its history. The forces of the Christian Roman Empire (mistakenly called the Byzantine Empire in most sources) bore the cross upon their shields, and the host was blessed many times not only by priests and bishops, but also, by patriarchs. Throughout their history, the forces of both Christian Rome and Russia carried the icon of Christ upon their banners into battle, and such usage wasn’t considered sacrilegious at the time, nor is it a profanation of the sacred today. Indeed, there were many times when the sword defended the faith. Do remember the example of the boyar Dmitri Pozharsky and the blacksmith Kuzma Minin in leading the Orthodox host in defence of faith and motherland in the early seventeenth century. If they’d been pacifistic, Russia would be a Catholic country today. Indeed, the monks of the St Sergius-Trinity Lavra actively helped defend their monastery against the Poles, and none of them were excommunicated for doing so.

Earlier, in the fourteenth century, we have the example of the heroic schemamonks Peresvet and Oslyabya at the Battle of Kulikovo against the Golden Horde. I’ll not comment on them at present, for there are stirring artworks featuring them, and that would be the proper time to cover them in depth. Before departing for the field of battle, Grand Prince St Dmitri Donskoi went to receive the blessing of St Sergius of Radonezh, the greatest elder of the time. He wasn’t refused. There are icons depicting this, and St Dmitri is shown in full armour, bearing his weapons. Of course, there is also the fact that the Church glorified St Dmitri as being amongst the choir of saints. I’ve seen photographs of Patriarch Sergei Stagorodsky blessing the troops of the Dmitri Donskoi Tank Brigade. There are also photos of religious processions at the front, priests receiving decorations for bravery in battle with the partisans, and of Patriarch Sergei calling on the people to resist the invader. The Church was NOT pacifistic. If Russians had been pacifistic, the Nazis would be ruling Russia as a colony today.


Pavel Svedomsky. A Fool-in-Christ. no date (circa late 19th century)

Filed under: early modern,fine art,Orthodox,Russian — 01varvara @ 00.00

A Fool-in-Christ (Pavel Svedomsky, no date, circa late 19th century)

The iurodivets (“fool-in-Christ”) is perhaps the most misunderstood category in the Orthodox lexicon. A Fool is not insane, although many modern secular and religiously liberal sorts think such (unfortunately, some are Orthodox, generally found amongst seminary professors and modernist clergy). The Fool is eminently sane, as he sacrifices everything, home, possessions, family, and even outward sanity for the sake of his salvation. This is a standing indictment of all who have compromised their faith in exchange for worldly preferment (especially the office-seekers and bureaucrats amongst the clergy).

The Fool accepts everything without demur. The Fool prays for all, including (and especially) those who torment and mock him for his radical commitment to Christ and His teachings. There are those who denigrate the Fool even after his death, as we see in the modern intellectuals who sneer at great warriors of prayer such as St Basil the Blessed of Moscow. Even so, the saint prays for his detractors now that he is glorified, just as he prayed for his mockers when he was here on the earth. It does not matter to the sainted Fool that the intelligentsia and their odd-sod hangers-on call him insane and mentally unbalanced. He still prays for all of us. St Ksenia, St Andrew, St Basil, and St Aleksei the Man of God suffered indignity and slander whilst they were alive. They returned good for evil. Why should they change because they are now before the Throne of God?

Look at the figure pictured in the painting. He is barefoot, in rags, all in the teeth of the Russian winter. His look is not focused on this world; instead, it concentrates on the world to come. This is why those who are possessed by the passion of greed and avarice hate him so. He stands as a mute contradiction of all of their desires and verities. No doubt, the fool has been driven from door to door with blows and curses. Some housewives begrudgingly threw him a scrap of food. Some householders set the dogs upon him. Yet, he still prays for all, for he knows that to return the hatred he receives from his tormentors shall indict him on the Last Day. He is radically alone, with no human companionship. However, what do we see in his hand? It is his most precious possession, an icon of the Mother of God.

With his pilgrim’s staff in his other hand, he is not merely wandering about in confusion. He is purposefully on his way to a given earthly destination. Is he going to see an elder in some distant skete, or, is he heading for the comforting modest home of the family of a saintly parish batiushka? I believe that for every person who cursed the Fool, there was another who took pity on him. Of course, most people, as always, were inert. They neither cursed nor blessed the Fool. Yet, the Fool prays for them as well. He sees their weakness and fear, and he weeps and wails before the Mother of God for their deliverance from the grip of apathy. In this, the Fool teaches us a lesson. In Orthodoxy, we do not have the same emphasis on individual salvation as do some of the Western confessions. We stand or fall TOGETHER. The Fool knows this instinctively. If he fails to pray for a single soul (yes, even a Hitler or Stalin!), we are all diminished and fall short of the standard of Heaven. No, this does not mean that earthly malefactors receive a “get-out-of-jail-free” card. They can (and should) face earthly justice. Yet, the Fool’s prayers can lift them into Heaven at the last.

We may stand with the Fools or pontificate with the professors. Truly, after all, is it such a hard choice…

V Shcherban. Sprouts of Life

Filed under: fine art,Russian,Soviet period — 01varvara @ 00.00

Sprouts of Life (V. Shcherban, 1967)

This is a painting dense with meaning. Firstly, what is the date? The blast strips on the window and the blackout curtain are a sure sign that the action portrayed is taking place during the Second Great Patriotic War (World War II on the Russian Front).

Where is it? We can tell that she is in an urban apartment, in a large city. My guess is that she is in Leningrad (present-day St Petersburg). Why? Note her emaciated and gaunt condition. The city had undergone a 900-day siege in which many thousands of its people had died of starvation. Unfortunately, the intent of the Fascists was to destroy the city and obliterate its citizens, for in the eyes of the Nazis, they were only Slavic untermenschtum (“subhumanity”). The ring encircling the city had only been broken in early 1944. Also, see the candle on the table, which means that the electricity is at best sporadic, if not non-existent.

Now, is the woman single or married? No way to tell, but, she is certainly pregnant and starting to show. There is a ball of yarn on the table, and she is knitting baby clothing. Without a doubt, her husband or fiancé is at the front. Obviously, he had leave at one time or another in the near past, and they were able to get together in privacy. Perhaps, he was one of the soldiers who helped to break the siege of the city. No doubt, he shared his meagre rations, which must have seemed a feast to her after the privations of the preceding two years. There were times when a person could hold their daily bread ration in the palm of one hand.

One can surmise that he is not dead, so, the first sprout of life is the prospect of a new life after the war, with her new child and reunited with her man. However, note the emptiness of the apartment. Everything has been sold to procure what little food was available during the horrors of the siege. She has almost nothing left; she must start afresh. Nevertheless, a second sprout of life is that the city itself is coming back to life after almost being strangled to death by the Nazis. The people of “Piter” may have lost everything they owned, many had lost many (or all) of their loved ones, but, their life sprouts afresh, yet again.

A third sprout of life is that it is the springtime, and the earth is coming back to life after the harsh Russian winter. There is still snow visible on the roofs of the houses, yet, there are pussywillows in a jar on the windowsill. This is a sure sign of early spring.

Where did she get the pussywillows? That is a hint of the fourth sprout of life, the revival of faith in a land where there had been unrelenting atheist persecution for some twenty-five years. You see, it is the custom in the Orthodox Church in Russia to give pussywillow branches in place of palms on Palm Sunday. She had probably gone to liturgy and had carefully taken her branches back home and placed them in an old jar, for all her other vases and bowls had been broken or sold.

The faith still lives! She cannot hang an icon in the room, for that might draw the attention of a malicious neighbour (for the gulag was an ever-present reality). Yet, she can place her precious branches on the windowsill to remind her of the new life in the earth, the new life in the city, the new life growing within her, and the new life in faith that can be tentatively expressed. No doubt, it is Holy Week. That is, Easter is coming… yes, a resurrection, in more ways than one.

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