In my last article on the dog-headed icon of St-Christopher, I promised to take the reader on an encounter with the Saint. In order to do this, we must travel quite far from our main subject of iconography, but this is necessary to understand such a peculiar Saint. Hopefully, the reader who approaches the edge and even enters the water with me will emerge with a clearer vision of St-Christopher and why he is worth our attention.
The shape of the world.
As I already mentioned, the key to the strangeness of St-Christopher lies in truly grasping the strict analogy between individual Man and the entire Cosmos. Saint-Maximos reminds us that Man is Microcosm, that he contains within him all of creation by being the center of creation, the place where all of creation converges. Man as center, as mediator between heaven and earth, has two horizons, one leading inward and upward to the Angelic realms and finally to the Uncreated, and one leading outward and downwards towards the rest of creation and ultimately reaching primordial Chaos. Man even participates in the very existence of the Cosmos by the act of “naming”. This is seen in Genesis when Adam names the animals, acting, let’s face it, as a kind of “demiurge” in regards to creation. Man mirrors on a more limited scale by his own logos what the Logos did in being the Father’s means of Creation. The Divine Logos is the source of actual being: “let there be…”. Man’s logos is the source of specificity: “this is a…”.
Through the Fall, man was “decentred” from his own heart, the result of which is also to be chased from the cosmic center, the Holy of Holies, the garden where the tree of life is. In this state, the two horizons I mentioned, one leading towards God, and one leading towards Chaos are changed into limits, boundaries. Before the fall it is said Man was clothed in glory, and similarly he had access to the glories of God. The fall “hardened” those glories, transformed them into limits. There are two limits appearing to man, one limit on each “horizon”. The inward limit is the cherub with a flaming sword preventing the entry into paradise, and the outward limit is that layer of skin, that limit of corporality or animality blocking our complete dissolution into the chaos of death. Although wherever one stands, one can only perceive one limit on each horizon, there are many of these boundaries, many veils of the heart, many garments of skin. We should understand them as akin to layers of an onion, as rungs on the ladder of Divine Ascent, levels in the Hierarchy described by the Aeropagite. The clearest image is in the Old Testament Tabernacle, having a cherub on its inner most veil of linen, then a series of thicker “wilder” coverings, a wool veil, a ram’s skin dyed red, and then what is possibly the skin of a porpoise or at least a fully wild animal (see Exodus 36) .
The structure I have just described is the ontological shape of things: the shape of man, of a church, a temple, a city, a civilization, and even the cosmos itself. It is bathing in this type symbolism that ancient civilizations developed their cosmology, the idea that “their” center, their “omphalos”, was surrounded by progressively more chaotic, foreign, even monstrous peoples and creatures until one reached a limit, those Caspian Gates in the North, beyond which was an almost “un-named” darkness and chaos. There was also that other limit- a more inner set of “veils”, leading finally to a far away land of the blessed, a paradise, an Eden. In a Church these two limits are the iconostasis which veils the altar, and the western limit of the church where the main door is. By now one will not be surprised to know that in some Greek traditions, the icon of St-Christopher is placed above the western exit door so that it is in a way the last icon seen before going out into the chaotic world. This is of course a similar symbolism as that of gargoyles placed on the outer walls of Western churches.
The shape of the Limit.
The limit, edge or buffer between two things, as a manifestation of the garments of skin, comes to us as death and darkening. This marginal space can also appear as a hybrid, mixture, an in-between which mingles elements together. Hybridity, like a bridge touching both sides of a river, is the natural shape of an in between place. It is also something that inevitably happens with the unknown as it presents itself to us. When we encounter something unusual to us, it is for us a relative chaos, we could say that it has not yet been properly “named” in the sense of Adam naming the animals, it is not in unity with our logos. Whatever this foreign thing presenting itself to us, it will attempt to appear within the categories we know, yet this will cause monstrosity, mixture between two categories or else too much or too little of something. This unknown can in extreme cases, lacking for us its own possibility to exist, present itself as an inversion of a category we know. All the monsters and fantastical races of Ancient times have one of these forms, giants, mermaids, unicorns, Amazons, even the dragon in traditional iconography appears as a hybrid: a snake or a lizard, with wings and often some hairy parts.
The contact with the foreign as a social manifestation of chaos and death is akin to our own individual passions which are also caused by our mortality, and these two levels will inevitably overlap with each other, one being the outward or inward sign of the other. Chaos is a lack of order, a lack of logos, a question that begs to be answered. Just as a passion, it appears as hunger, as a lack that tortures us until it is satisfied. And so there is a certain danger when we encounter the relative chaos which lurks at the limit of what we are, both in individual or social terms. The danger is an overwhelming desire to “fill the void”, to impetuously know that which we face. This desire to know is the same as Eve’s desire for the fruit of knowledge, a desire to eat, to take in. It is an urge to immediately “participate” in that chaos, to consume it and often to lose ourselves in it, not through the reasonable mediation of logos but through a mingling at the edge. If one lets oneself be tempted by chaos, one will project into what is unknown those things which lie at our own edge, our secret passions, either our want and desire, or our fear and hatred. There is no difference between these two extremes in spiritual terms. In the end, both the Cannibal Barbarian Savage and the Noble Savage united with Nature are two sides of the same coin, two ways of projecting our passions into the foreign1.
The structure of the relation of centre to periphery, of logos to chaos explains some of the stranger aspects in the Orthodox tradition. When I read of people’s problem with St-Christopher and the way he presents himself to us, I often wonder whether these people have at all read the lives of the saints. In monastic writings, especially in the desert Fathers we will see this structure being played out again and again. In the life of St-Anthony itself, we find the beginning of the pattern. St-Anthony encounters Satan as an Ethiopian boy, and this will continue to be a characteristic of monastic writing all through the middle ages, where demons, being tightly linked to the saint’s passions, will appear as Ethiopians. The Ethiopian, just as in the conversion story in Acts, becomes the image of the limit, though here we see the negative aspects of death, the dangerous side of the garments of skin acting as vehicle for the demonic. Such stories of Ethiopians have led many people to interpret these monastic stories as a kind of proto-racism, though this is a very anachronistic and simplistic interpretation. For those who have followed my constant discussions on the garments of skin and the double movement of periphery, a far more subtle and profound image will appear.
Indeed there are other stories of Ethiopians in tradition. For example, in the story of St-Arsenius, having decided to leave the desert, we read that : “Near the river a certain Ethiopian slave-girl approached and touched his sheepskin, and the old man rebuked her. Therefore the slave-girl said to him, ‘If you are a monk, go to the desert.’ The old man, struck by compunction at this word, said to himself, ‘Arsenius, if you are a monk, go to the desert.2” The reader will no longer be surprised to find the “water crossing” structure expounded in my last article. All the symbols are there: It happens at a river, the monk’s “garment of skin” is touched by the Ethiopian girl, and although at first the saint is terrified and rebukes her, he finds in her the means to return to the desert, to cross back over the river as Elisha did. So in this story, the Ethiopian appears as the positive side of periphery, as the Ark by which the saint is saved from his temptations. In the life of st-Moses the Black, we also find this same structure. His story has him being foiled by a dog in committing a robbery and later swimming across a river to slaughter the sheep of the dog’s owner. He then hides with monks where he becomes a Christian and later a saint. Notice the dog, the river, the dead animals and the crossing over which leads to salvation. Over and over the same story occurs as the edge can be an image of death as limit or death as crossing over.
Saint Anthony does not only encounter the demonic as an Ethiopian boy, he also finds the limit as hybrid. In the desert he faces a Satyr and a Centaur, two animal-human hybrids linked even in Greco-Roman thinking with lust, passion and the edge3.
At this point I will give a clear example from recent history to avoid the danger that what I am saying might seem like esoteric speculation. At the end of the nineteenth century, through the imperialist expansion of Western powers, much “tribal” art began to appear on the European horizon. Greeted as “curiosities”, these images, which had been yanked from their traditional context appeared as objects of speculation and fantasy. Many people would experience surprise and some disgust facing these images, as the features, like pointy teeth, scarifications, geometric abstraction were extremely foreign to Western sensibilities.
Many artists, though, saw in these masks and statuettes an image of wild creativity, of visual freedom and sexual passions let loose. The Dadaist artists would prance around half naked wearing masks and beating drums, making incongruous sounds in a kind of emotive and sexual frenzy which they thought imitated tribal culture. Artists who were bent on destroying the artistic order of things began including these masks into their paintings, the German Expressionists especially, but also people like Picasso, who put African masks on his prostitutes in the infamous “Demoiselles d’Avignon”. The foreign, in this case, was used as a vehicle for projecting all that was on the edge of their civilization, a tool to destroy the rules of visual coherence. These images by early modern artists were used in a way that can only be called “demonic”. But having lived in Africa for 7 years I can say that contrary to being “wildly creative”, these objects are extremely typological and their forms are copied and handed down from generation to generation. Also, in an African view, these objects are mostly used as “identity forming”, as ways to preserve current social structures and practices, including social sexual norms and taboos, not as ways to destroy them, which is what Europeans used them for. It was the “foreign” nature of these images, the fact that they appeared detached from anything they knew which brought people to project into them whatever they had in their own “dark corners”4.
In order to balance out my last point, it is important to specify that hybridity and darkness do not just appear at the outer edge, but they also appear at the inner limit, as the veil covering the glory of God. The Cherubim forming the mercy seat on the Ark, the Cherubim stitched into the veil of the holy of holies, the Cherub spinning the flaming sword at the gate of Paradise, that cherub which appears to Ezekiel as he approaches the glory of God are all described as a hybrid with four animal faces: the man, the ox, the lion and the eagle.
They are described as having four wings to cover themselves and the legs of an ox. The cherub has been linked by many to the Babylonian Kerub which plays a similar function as the sphinx, both of which guarded holy places.
In iconography, the Cherubic structure appears in the tetramorph and is attached to the limit, the “corners” of Christ’s glory while being associated with the “hardening”, the exteriorisation of the Logos into the four Gospels. But even the more “personal” angels, like st-Michael or st-Gabriel who though they have human faces, also appear as hybrid with their bird-wings. And just as the cherub with a sword, or as st-Christopher the warrior saint, the original iconography of Archangels is to show them as soldiers. Our perception of angels has been much softened since the Renaissance, giving in to the pastel floating blonds of New Age sensibilities. But even the most holy Theotokos was at first terrified at her contact with the Archangel.
Experiencing the limit in our own culture
The experience of what is foreign as a relative chaos is one all of us have had to differing degrees. If one hears a language close to our own, if an English speaker hears German or Latin for example, one will be able to make out some of the meaning. If an English speaker hears Russian, that person will not understand anything but will be possibly be able to perceive structure, words, tone. But if one hears Vietnamese, one might find it difficult to even make out any structure, any tone and there are some sounds an English speaker will not even be able to perceive as they are “too far” from one’s horizon of hearing. It is noise to us. Such an experience is the most cited origin of the word “barbarian”, that is how the language of foreigners appeared to the Greco-Roman world as animal noises, a kind of barking: Bar-Bar-Bar-Bar. The dog-headed man is a visual version of this perception. The problem for us today is that because of mass media and image culture, we have “seen it all” and so the extreme visual experience of the foreign is difficult to have, but maybe all of us have had at least a somewhat milder version of this. Most people have experienced talking with someone and thinking that person a stranger, and then for some reason one discovers that the person is someone we know. Suddenly our perception of their face changes before our very eyes, what was a random face becomes the face of our acquaintance, so much that we would find it difficult to remember how we saw the very same face before our little revelation5. Although there is no scientific category or formula that could capture the difference between that face I did not know and the face I know, it would be very dishonest to say that either of my experiences was “wrong”. The scientific “data”, the cold clinical description of a face, if that description actually even exists, cannot help to differentiate between what is foreign and what is familiar. The foreign and familiar are unquantifiable and entirely within the realm of human experience. And It is precisely human experience, not a kind of clinical and alienated dissection of the world, which is the basis of all Christian symbolism. To deny this is to put much into jeopardy. To deny this is to make incoherent the very “heaven” where Christ ascended, for certainly he did not go float up there where the space station hangs.
I believe in the case of the icon of St-Christopher we have a visual representation of this experience of the foreign. It is the encounter with a face that is so far from our capacity to perceive familiarity that it presents itself as monstrous and hybrid. If one looks at the stories of Dog-Headed men or other monstrous races, travellers encounter them in every limit, even as this limit moves further east, west and north. If Alexander in his Romance encounters the cynocephali in Asia minor, King Arthur encounters them in Scotland, Charlemagne as Vikings from Scandinavia, and Marco Polo and other travellers would also encounter them further out, and finally even Columbus himself will think he finds them in the Americas. The limit always appears as monstrous. This is just how human beings interact with the world, and whether you fear and hate that monster, or whether you desire and idealize it, it is monstrous none the less. St-Christopher is to us the “farthest” person, the person which we can barely see because of our own limited horizon. He is also for us our own limit, our garments skin, to which we should not deny the danger and monstrosity, but which has the potential of being christophoros, just as that farthest of persons has the same potential, for it was Christ’s last words to us that he would be with us until the ends of the earth. And in the end, as Gentiles, it is we who are this original “foreigner’, for as so St-Paul insists: “ And you who were once strangers and enemies in mind, doing evil deeds, he has reconciled in his fleshy body so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him. »6
Well, I was hoping to get to the end of all this within two posts, but despite all that has been said, it still seems I have not fully answered the big objection to St-Christopher: how in our scientific age, as fully rational and objective people, we no longer have these monstrous races in the dark corners of our maps. Well, it seems we might have to look at those maps again, because from the corner of my eye, I think I saw some strange things moving about there! I have also left open a strange question of how both the cherub and the monster at the edge of the world seem to share common traits. This can be a dangerous question to leave open, so we need one final part of this series, where we will talk of cannibalism, foreign women and little green men. Hopefully it will be the strangest post I will ever have to write fo the OAJ. After that, we can get back to liturgical art.
1 This structure of extremes in perception of the foreigner is often said to originate in the 17th century with the strong resurgence of slavery opposed by the other extreme of Rousseau’s Noble Savage, but even in Roman times Tacitus’ Germania uses Germanic people as a foil to Roman identity.
2 Quoted in David Brakke, Demons and the Making of The Monk: Spiritual Combat in Early Christianity, Harvard University Press, 2006. P.171
3 A clear example appears in the story of the centaur Nessus from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Heracles asked the centaur Nessus to cross his wife to the other side of a river. But in this version of the limit and water crossing, the hybrid centaur tricks Heracles and makes off with his wife. There is often a trick in the water crossing story. This is related to the very double nature of the garments of skin, the ultimate “trick” being Christ’s trampling down death by death. In the story of St-Christopher, this trick is played by Christ on St-Christopher in not revealing who he is until the end of the crossing. In the Exodus crossing of the Jordan, we must not forget that it was two spies who crossed. In the story of Odysseus and the Cyclops, Odysseus tricks the Cyclops in believing his name is “nobody”, and only reveals his real name when he has escaped by holding unto the underside (skins) of sheep.
4 My point is not to give either a detailed critique or defence of African religions, but it is rather to show how the monastic experience of the edge as foreigner is one which is still valid today. I used African art because I know it well and because of the Ethiopian reference in monastic writings, but one can see the same pattern in contemporary obsessions with Buddhism, where a lack of knowledge will permit people to project into Buddhism all their fantasies and ideals. This is even something those of us who converted to Orthodoxy should be aware of, that is how the original “exotic” appeal of Orthodoxy can in the end become a barrier to true communion for those coming from outside.
5 My wife and I lived in Africa for 7 years. Though I grew up in North America, where people of African descent are a normal part of life, my wife grew up in Slovakia where she had almost never seen an African person until she moved to North America. Because the encounter with Africans had for so long been beyond my wife’s horizon, while in Africa she always had difficulty recognizing people and differentiating people’s faces. This was not something she was deliberately doing as it caused her much difficulty in her daily life.
6 1 Col 1:22