The School for Deacons Icon

The Holy Ablution

Presented to the School for Deacons at the Eucharist and Community dinner, December 13, 2003, and blessed by the Rt. Reverend William E. Swing, Bishop of the Diocese of California.

About the Icon of the Holy Ablution

This particular icon design is from a Russian icon dating from the 17th or 18th centuries. It is painted in egg tempera on a solid wood board coated with layers of smoothed gesso.

Its title, “The Holy Ablution” was taken from an old sourcebook for iconography called The Painter’s Manual of Dionysius of Fourna. Traditionally, an icon must always be inscribed with the scene that it portrays. Often the names of the saints appearing in the scene are also included, but since there are 13 figures present, I included only the traditional Greek inscriptions for Jesus: one in his halo (“HO ON”, or “the One Who Is” [Ex 3:14]), and “IC XC”, abbreviations for “IESOUS CHRISTOS” above his head.

It depicts the scene in the gospel of John (13:1-11) when Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, just before his arrest. The indoor setting of the scene is symbolically indicated only by the vermillion drapery swagged between the two buildings, which serve as frames for the action. On a deeper level, this curtain is intended to remind us of the “veil of the Temple”, which will be torn in half on the next afternoon (Mt 27:51).

Jesus, clad only in his dark red tunic (the color symbolizing his humanity), is shown, an ordinary towel around his waist, as he dries the feet of Peter, who wears a gold ochre colored mantle, and points in a muddled fashion to his head and his feet (Jn 13:9). I am not certain of the identities of the rest of the disciples, but I presume that Peter’s brother Andrew is sitting next to him (traditionally shown with rather heavy, thick hair), talking with Nathaniel: since they were all old friends and disciples of John the Baptist they might have liked to sit together.

In the lower right-hand corner huddle two figures, having an intense discussion as they untie their sandals. I am convinced that they are the other two brothers among the disciples, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, nicknamed the “sons of thunder” for reasons that one can only guess at. Together with Peter, they were closest to Jesus. In iconography, John usually is shown as a beardless youth, and wears brilliant red, symbolizing the intensity of his gospel writings. I like to imagine that as they sit there whispering to each other, several days after their mother has rather shamelessly asked Jesus to allow her boys to sit on either side of his throne in the kingdom, they are planning another try!

The pose and expression of the man sitting in the back, next to a pinched little slot of a door leading into blackness, suggests to me that he must be Judas. Not only is he facing in the opposite direction from Christ, he is also interacting with none of the others. Having his feet washed by this man he has never understood must have been the last straw as far as he was concerned; in a minute or two he will slip out that door into the night.

In icons representing Christ in his divine nature his figure is shown surrounded by a “mandorla”, usually (though not invariably) in concentric shading circles of intense blues, from a clear cerulean shade to darkest indigo, intended to convey the “deep and dazzling darkness” of God. An example is the Transfiguration on the mountain when the “uncreated light” of God so suffused him that his disciples were nearly blinded. The Greek mystic known as “pseudo-Dionysius”, paradoxically describes this intensity of the Divine Presence as “luminous darkness”. (For two icons of the Transfiguration , try these links: http://www.auburn.edu/academic/liberal_arts/foreign/russian/icons/transf..., and http://www.ateliersaintandre.net/en/pages/gallery/enicon14.html).

The shape and spaciousness of the door framing the figure of Christ as he performs this mundane, even (in human terms) demeaning service for his friends suggested to me that these glorious colors might serve the same symbolic purpose here that they do in the Transfiguration icons: they give us a glimpse of the staggering beauty, glory, generosity and depth of the Divine Nature manifest as Jesus humbly establishes God’s kingdom in love and service.

Lucia R. Dugliss

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