‘The Father is Love which crucifies; the Son is Love crucified; and the Holy Spirit is the invincible power of the Cross,’ writes Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow.[i] A statement that provokes the unprepared reader with the cruelty of the Father’s mission, of Fatherhood, of fatherhood in general, and relates it in an identical way to one of the most frequently painted scenes from the Old Testament: Abraham’s Sacrifice. But while Abraham is tested because of his love and faith towards God, because of whom is God the Father tested, and why does he not stay his own hand if he stayed Abraham’s hand and if this is one of the prophecies concerning the coming of Christ, of which he himself says, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil’ (Mt 5:17)? Or else, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness’ (Mt 3:15).
These questions, along with others – for example, the conical shape of the sacrificial fire and the angel-cocoon, which comes to announce the replacement of the pillar of fire and the knife with the Rising Light (Abraham’s Sacrifice, Strupets) – provide the framework for this subject.
The Crucifixion of Christ is its centre – what in fact is the cross, what is Love crucified? Isn’t it the shadow of a bird in a forest, which always runs before it? Or the open arms of a mother before an onrushing child, of the beloved who has been waiting for her lover? Isn’t it ultimately, but not in last place, the arm you put around a friend’s shoulder, the outstretched arm in bed on which your little son rests his head, falling into a deep sleep?
And if this is Love crucified – the furthest extension of an embrace with which Christ wished to comprehend the whole world, and the Father the whole Christ – then the Crucifixion has less to do with the knife, or cruelty, than with tenderness, agape and life. The cross represents the unending love of Christ the God-man towards his people, of God the Father towards his Son and his people. The Father does not stay his hand, so that the fire of the burning bush can be turned into an Easter candle, love can be humbled, there can be Light to illuminate the whole of creation through a hole in heaven.
Exactly this love was foreseen by the painter of Boboshevo Monastery drawing the Saviour’s body in a figure of eight with the all-pervasive light of a lamp that shines in the darkness (Crucifixion of Christ, Boboshevo). In God, there is no evil. Even when he curses, he in fact blesses. So in the fresco Cursing the Fig Tree (Seslavtsi), light pours from his hand to resurrect the tree’s empty womb. Giving off reflections like a sun path on water. Guiding light.
Healing the Sick, Seslavtsi / Washing the Feet, Alino / Arrest of Christ / Flagellation, Iliyantsi / Nailing to the Cross, Alino / Strupets / Laying in the Tomb, Berende
We see Christ-Light in the fresco Healing the Sick (Seslavtsi), surrounded by the weak, lame and blind, where he blesses with a right hand that is three-dimensional like the Holy Trinity. From his seated body, his painful grimace, his clothes, we get the feeling of transparency, as if he has already overcome the world’s resistance. We see him in the fresco Washing the Feet (Alino), his eyes overflowing blue, immersed like the Seven Rila Lakes, like the Charioteer of Delphi, seemingly turned both outwards and inwards. We see him in the fresco Arrest of Christ (Iliyantsi), where, pressed by the crowd, he brings dawn to the darkness, like a snowy night or the aurora borealis. We see him in the fresco Flagellation of Christ (Iliyantsi), already a pillar of light, streaming, but also passing through him. A prophetic scene before that of the Descent into Hell. The same light we find in the Nativity, the Baptism and the Transfiguration. We see him in the dazzling look of the fresco Nailing of Christ to the Cross (Alino), in the infirmity-kenosis that accompanies his gesture and expression (Strupets), because what else is the outer manifestation of inner strength if not descent on light? We see him in the bright whiteness of the fresco Laying of Christ in the Tomb (Berende), where his wrapped body resembles a chrysalis like the one in the manger in depictions of the Nativity. And in the fresco Descent into Hell (Seslavtsi) we see how the bottom left part of his garment forms a heart – his heart, a gift to us, his children (the clothes resurrect with the body, just as the bleeding woman touches the fringe of his cloak and is healed, or after baptism we put on a new outfit).
In all frescoes of the Descent into Hell, the Saviour has taken Adam and Eve, or only Adam, with the gesture of a mother who holds her child, not hand in hand, but, afraid of losing them, with their hand in her grip. In the same way in which the Virgin Mary probably held Christ before he went up to the temple. Christ’s fatherhood is linked to the Virgin’s motherhood and the Father’s fatherhood. ‘To the Father’s fatherhood without a mother on the divine level corresponds the Theotokos’ motherhood without a father on the human level, and this motherhood is a figure of the maternal virginity of the Church,’ writes Paul Evdokimov.[ii] Just as Christ pulled away in order to enter the temple, so he pulls Adam and Eve away for the kingdom of heaven. Not by chance does the cross in his other hand (in some frescoes, he holds a scroll or shows the wounds in his hands) have more than one transverse beam, like Jacob’s ladder to heaven.
The light in murals is most frequently conveyed by the transparency of the image (light white is transparency!) or by white and grey tones (often found in frescoes of the Baptism, the Temptation of Christ and the Assumption). The light that appears in different scenes of Christ’s earthly life shows us the path of salvation. Like the Christmas Star, it leads us towards the Saviour’s manger and towards resurrection. In Bulgarian iconography, the light pours out in scenes of healing, washing the feet, Christ’s torments, because ‘no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ (Jn 15:13). This is the light Bulgarian painters have revealed – of taking away pain, of service, of accepting pain. Precisely this transformation from the pain of the multitude to the pain of the One, of the passing of pain from people to the Son of Man, is called service. It is service that illuminates us, through which the frescoes are heaped, one on top of another, in order to draw the form of God’s Name.
Christ is the Christmas Star. He is born Light; on his earthly path as the God-man, he carries light, he reveals it to us so he can infuse us with it. He is an emanation of the Trinity’s light – hypostatic, divine-human, deified – the highest expression of which is his Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. On his human path, Christ repeats the path of the Christmas Star. Pre-eternal and life-giving source of Light, he brings it down to earth for us, just as God appeared in the Old Testament as a cloud and a pillar of fire. Christ’s light is the guiding star of the New Testament. The pillar of fire and the cloud with all the semiotics of their purpose – for righteousness and the knife – have become the blessed light of Christmas Eve, which completely fulfils the Saviour’s words ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’ (Mt 9:13). All-enlightening, holy mercy.
In his ‘Apology’, Tertullian describes the soul as ‘by nature Christian’.[iii] The twelfth-century Indian poet-mystic Akka Mahadevi includes in her poems a refrain dedicated to God-Light: ‘O lord white as jasmine.’[iv] In his animated film Howl’s Moving Castle, Hayao Miyazaki offers us one of the most beautiful metaphors for light: a young Howl catches a falling star, which he then swallows, only to take it out a few seconds later as a small fire – his heart. The light that is humble, pre-eternal fire and fertilizes our hearts with a soul. The soul that, dedicated to God, is fire, the same fire with which the Saviour came to baptize us, of which he says, ‘For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’ (Mt 6:21).
The humble, bluish light of a candle gathered around the wick of an old body, over which the burning fire of the Resurrection shines and is passed from hand to hand.
This essay is taken from the book Bulgarian Frescoes: Feast of the Root,
with text by Tsvetanka Elenkova and photographs and translation by Jonathan Dunne;
English and French editions of this book are forthcoming.
[i] Quoted in Paul Evdokimov, The Art of the Icon, location 859.
[ii] Paul Evdokimov, The Art of the Icon, location 4106.
[iii] Tertullian, ‘Apology’, tr. S. Thelwall, XVII.6, https://ccel.org/ccel/tertullian/apology/anf03.iv.iii.xvii.html.
[iv] A. K. Ramanujan (tr.), Speaking of Siva (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973), p. 111-42.