Sometimes I am commissioned to paint an icon of a saint for whom nothing yet exists, or at least no satisfactory icon. This is usually a pre-schism Western saint. But more rarely, the subject is a new theme, a new emphasis or combination. This was the case when Dr Christine Nellist approached me to create an icon that embodied some of the Orthodox Church’s teaching about our relationship with animals. The icon was to be used as flagship for her newly founded organisation “Pan-Orthodox Concern for Animals” and to illustrate her pending book on the subject. This article tells the story of its genesis and explains its design.
The brief was for the icon to affirm the need to love all creation, but especially to treat our fellow animals with the respect and kindness due to all God’s creatures. It had to show that Christ came not just to redeem humankind from the fall, but also, through our repentance, to deliver the animal kingdom from our oppressive and cruel treatment of them. As Saint Paul wrote to the Romans:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God . . . because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God’. (Romans 8: 19, 21)
The icon you see illustrated is what we eventually created. It required both theological enquiry and research into past iconography, so I would like outline how these two came together.
The Bible and animals: the beginning, middle and end
The Bible narrative begins and ends with lots of animals. The creation account in Genesis teems with them. One whole day is dedicated to the creation of just the water creatures and the birds, and another to the creation of land animals and humankind. God liked what He made, declared it good, and blessed the creatures to multiply and fill the earth.
The last book of the Scriptures – Revelation – ends with a description of the New Jerusalem, the holy mountain coming down out of heaven from God. Although the Evangelist John himself does not include animals in his description of this New Jerusalem, the prophet Isaiah certainly does. In just three verses Isaiah names thirteen different animal species to be found on the Holy Mountain:
6The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
and the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall feed;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
9 They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:6-9)
Between this beginning and this end the Bible of course refers to animals many other times. But as a consequence of the fall our relationship with the animal kingdom is far from what is described of Eden and the New Jerusalem. Into the midst of this man-made mess comes Christ. The turning point of history is the incarnation of God in Christ. The focus of this has naturally been the redemption of the human race. But because we live in this world and we are supposed to be earth’s carers, this redemption implicitly involves our relationship with animals.
Unsurprisingly, the icon of Christ’s Nativity depicts animals: an ox and an ass in the manger, and sheep with their shepherds. These creatures play an important role in the icon’s depiction of the divine drama. Of all the created beings in the icon, it is the ox and the ass that sit closest to the Christ Child. These two animals are included not just because Christ was born in a manger, but also to illustrate Isaiah’s prophecy:
The ox knows its owner,
And the donkey its master’s crib;
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand. (Isaiah 1:3)
Both the icon and the Orthodox liturgical texts for the Nativity suggest that at the incarnation God began to restore paradise, and thus to heal the broken relationship between God, man and animals:
Bethlehem has opened Eden; come and let us see. We have found joy in secret: come, let us take possession of the paradise that is within the cave. There the unwatered root has appeared. (Ikos, Canon of Matins)
Some commentators say that the ox and the ass stand close to the Christ Child not just because they recognize their Creator, but also because they are warming the Christ Child with their breath! According to the creation account in Genesis, animals are helpmates for us, and here they are being just that.
It is surely significant that of all the Jewish people God chose shepherds to receive the revelation and to greet the new-born Child. A shepherd cares for his sheep, knows them all by name, and will even risk his life to protect them. It is perhaps this nurturing relationship with God’s lesser creatures that prepared the shepherds to receive the astounding news of Christ’s birth. God even invited them directly through angels, and not through a dumb and distant star as He did for the worldly wise Magi.
So, in one way or another, our destiny as humans seems linked to animals. God created us on the same day that He created the animals, so you could say that we are neighbours, and indeed, that we are related.
The icon’s design
In the Orthodox Church, icons are images of people or sacred events to be venerated. Icons are, in the fullest sense of the word, personal, and not just a cerebral illustration of an idea or a system. So Christine and I didn’t want the triptych to be merely a didactic tool. It had to be an icon of a person or sacred event that could be venerated in church. September 1st provided a liturgical celebration that is directly concerned with creation. This day was established by Patriarch Dimitrios I as an official commemoration of prayer for all creation. So this set the liturgical scene for such an icon. It could be legitimately used for veneration in church on that day.
There was also the feast of the Resurrection. Christine had originally suggested that the triptych could be a variation of the Resurrection icon, with Christ delivering not just people from the bonds of Hades but also animals. But this was problematic. It would have raised the thorny, and ultimately unanswerable, question of whether or not animals had eternal souls. It would have based the case for non-cruelty to animals on the answer, and therefore undermining it if the viewer believed animals to be soulless.
The argument had to be more secure: animals are to be cared for simply because God created them, soul or no soul. Full stop.
But we still wanted to show Christ actively liberating animals from cruelty. The Resurrection icon remained an obvious starting point, but the design had to be more subtle than simply adding animals to the dark abyss of Hades.
So the challenge remained how to express Christ’s redemption of animals from cruelty and oppression without the icon merely illustrating an idea – albeit a very important one. I decided to set our relationship with animals in the context of God’s intention for humankind by signifying the three principal “epochs” described above: Paradise, the incarnation, and the New Jerusalem. Why such a grand scope?
[Continue reading this article on Orthodox Arts Journal.]
Excerpt published in collaboration with the author.
Aidan Hart has worked as a professional iconographer since 1983, when he became a member of the Orthodox Church at the age of 26. From 1988 to 2000 he tested his vocation as a monk on Mount Athos and in the UK. His monastic experience has influenced his work profoundly. He is now married with two children.
Orthodoxy in Dialogue seeks to promote the free exchange of ideas by offering a wide range of perspectives on an unlimited variety of topics. Our decision to publish implies neither our agreement nor disagreement with an author, in whole or in part.
Thou hast ascended in glory, O Christ our God,
granting joy to Thy disciples by the promise of the Holy Spirit.
Through the blessing they were assured
that Thou art the Son of God,
the Redeemer of the world!