myth and poetry

mythopoetry Scholar


Matter & Beauty
Mythopoetry Scholar Ezine

The Aesthetics and Poetics of Matter
In Eastern Christian Worship
-Elizabeth Terzian

The flickering flame of an oil lamp leaps in colorful beats, casting illumination upon the icons of Christ and the saints, thus inviting worshippers to reflect on the mystery of the divine light.  The oil lamp, gantegh in Armenian, is the image that embodies the mystery of the union of matter and spirit for the eastern Christian. The flickering flame of the vigil lamp lit in front of an icon symbolizes the union of the divine and human, as represented by the oil and water that sustain the light.  It is the place of encounter between Creator and creature made possible by the aesthetic moment when beauty appears as the revelation of the Holy Spirit in matter.

Ganteghs are hung by three chains.  According to Father Saraydarian, these three chains represent “the will, love, and omniscience of God, expressed through the light.”1 The lamp unifies all of these attributes and the flame symbolizes the presence of the Holy Trinity. Thus, the image of the vigil light is a metaphor for the union of the divine and the human. The image of the flame evokes ascent.  It is an anagogical evocation in the Dionysian sense. High on the top, fire turns to light. St Symeon the New Theologian confirms the power of this image with great conviction of faith: “Make no mistake! God is fire. He came as fire and has cast fire on the earth…in those in whom it had been kindled, it rises to heaven with a great flame.”2

The mystery of light transcends all categories of human reason and intellect. This symbolic image is grounded in a dual tradition of Neoplatonic speculation and Pseudo-Dionysian mystagogy; both claim the existence of a universal hierarchical order in which the realm of the senses is a reflection of the realm of the spirit.  The contemplation of visible images therefore allows the spirit to ascend towards the divine, and by employing symbols in the material world it can aspire to the heavenly hierarchy.3 The Neoplatonic and Dionysian process of contemplation follows the imagery of the flame. It is anagogical, ascending from the level of sense perception to the level of spiritual contemplation.4 

God’s Incarnation through Christ is the theophany of the great mystery of mysteries. He continues to reveal Himself through the sacraments called appropriately “mysteries” in the Orthodox Church, and through those sanctified objects that are perceived by our physical senses. They can be seen, smelled, tasted, and kissed. “The Divinity is accessible through matter,” writes G. P. Fedotov, “which is not merely coarse materialism as most Protestants think; there is a world of higher emotions tied up with this bodily adoration: awe, contrition, tenderness, gratitude, joy, the consciousness of one’s unworthiness, and the unmerited grace of God.”5 For Orthodox Christians, matter is not a neutral substance; it is a vessel and an agent of the spirit: “the sound in a Byzantine hymn, the gestures in a liturgy, the bricks in a church, the cubes in a mosaic are matter made articulate in the Divine "praise." In the world of matter they have become echoes of harmonies in the world of mind.”6

Divine Beauty is a power, an energy that permeates all parts of being, observes Bychkov in his analysis of the twentieth-century Russian theologian Pavel Florensky’s ideas .7Beauty in Florensky’s thought, is the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in matter. His contemporary Sergei Bulgakov summarizes clearly the sanctifying power which the Holy Spirit has over the human soul, as well as all of nature. He confirms the teachings of Orthodoxy that emphasize “the destiny of nature” as “allied to that of man.”8 The sanctification of the elements of nature is expressed through the blessing of the Church of all creation: “It blesses the flowers, the plants, the branches …. brought to the Church for the Feast of the Holy Trinity, the fruits brought for that of the Transfiguration; certain foods are blessed during the night of Easter.”9 This tradition is in accordance with the Bible. Deuteronomy speaks of the offering of the first fruits: “You shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you and . . . you shall go to the priest . . . and say to him, ‘so now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.’” 10 In the Armenian Church, a ceremony of the blessing of the grapes takes place on the occasion of The Assumption, or as it is called in the Orthodox Church, The Dormition of the Holy Mother of God. The blessing of the grapes and their distribution to the faithful is an act of thanksgiving.

Humanity’s calling is to participate in God’s creative action by holding together the worlds of the mineral, vegetal, and animal for which it assumes responsibility, points out Davy.11 For the Armenian Church Fathers, “the earth includes in itself the four elements of the world:  fire, air, water, dust.  Earth symbolizes humility, as Abraham says: ‘I am but dust and ashes.’ Therefore, while the image of God in us makes us haughty, the sight of earth humbles us.”12 It is the gaze of the soul that is turned downwards, looking within its own depths for divine light rather than upwards searching for an exterior light.  This introverted gaze is a reflection of one’s humility in the vast darkness of the black soil, and is represented by the mute, eloquent posture of the three women in Millet’s painting, The Gleaners.
In The Gleaners, two peasant women bend toward the earth, reaching with their right hand, while the third stands as if bowing in prayer.  Together, the women and the earth form one coherent and dignified presence.  The sacredness of the divinity is present within in the humanity and earthiness of the depicted scene.  Similarly, Russian literature abounds in literary icons in which matter is sanctified.  One example is that of Marya in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, analyzed by Dennis Slattery, in the gestures of “bowing down, kissing the earth, and watering it with tears” as “the fullest act of humility . . . and the anticipation of redemption.”13 Slattery expresses this sacred bond between humanity and the earth quite beautifully when he writes that to be attached to the earth, to be part of the soil, is to accept the limits of being human; it is also to have the capacity to love and be responsible for all men, for they are of the earth, which, we are promised, will itself be transformed in the fullness of time.14 In this context, Slattery’s comparison of the earth to an icon stresses the spirituality of matter: “the action of bowing and kissing the earth is a practice strongly rooted in the devotional life of the people.”15 Icons, as well as other sacred objects, are also kissed and venerated.  Fedotov, in similar fashion, conveys vividly the soulful attachment of the Russian people to earth: “In Mother Earth, who remains the core of Russian religion, converge the most secret and deep religious feelings of the folk. Beneath the beautiful veil of grass and flowers, the people venerate with awe the black moist depths, the source of all fertilizing powers, the nourishing breast of nature, and their own lasting place” (1:12). It is no surprise then that the land of the Russians is called Holy Russia. For the Russian soul, “sacred matter rather than spirit is the object of veneration.”16 Sensuality is what characterizes its mysticism.

In Orthodox patristic tradition, the material world is venerated “as an epiphany of God.”17 Answering the iconoclastic position on the issue of the sacredness of matter, St John of Damascus argues that matter is not bad, because God created it.18 Ouspensky affirms that not only does Christianity not dematerialize matter, it goes so far as to be resolutely materialistic.19 This is in direct line with the Areopagite’s thought.  In The Celestial Hierarchy, Dionysius writes, “Matter, after all, owes its subsistence to absolute beauty and keeps throughout its earthly ranks, some echo of intelligible beauty. Using matter, one may be lifted up to the immaterial archetypes.”20 Matter appears as a vehicle for the incorporeal. How, then, could matter be evil? In The Divine Names, Dionysius affirms that matter is part of the created universe. It shares its beauty and form. Therefore, it cannot be evil.21 Hence, the sacredness of matter in Eastern Christianity is justified. Father Nikitas Stithatos argues that mankind and the material world are innately good. Stithatos writes that the material world is “intrinsically good and beautiful, and forms a sacrament of God’s presence, a means of ascent to the divine realm: ‘Recognize the delightfulness of the Lord from the beauty of creation … in purity ascending to the divine.’”22

The expression of a higher beauty through material things is termed “mystical realism.”23 This entails the recognition of an empirical reality behind which stands the reality of a higher order. The material imagination excavates from the depth of the soul the symbols which are the innate gemstones of sacredness. Like archetypes, they rise from the depth of divine mystery. The material imagination weaves the tapestry of spiritual experience with the same colorful threads with which the mineral, vegetal, and animal world is spun, encrusting upon it the symbolic gems that shine through.  This “mystical realism” is a mythopoetic vision that can only be expressed in a sacred language. For instance, the basic materials of an icon stand for the entire physical world as the latter participates fully in the making of an icon. Ouspensky notes that “this includes representatives, so to speak, of the vegetable, mineral and animal worlds.  The most fundamental of these materials (water, chalk, pigments, egg…) are taken in their natural form, merely purified and prepared, and by the work of his hands man brings them to serve God.”24 As it says in First Chronicles, “All things are thine, and of thine own have we given thee” (29:14), nature is a living incarnation of God whose existence is a gift to humanity.  The icon then is sacred as well as elemental. Everything reflects the presence of the divine: The earth, mineral, vegetal and animal worlds are represented in the icon in order to demonstrate the participation of this world in the deification of man.25

The creation of an icon is then an organic poesis and it mirrors the creation of the world. In this context “organic” is understood in such a way that requires us to acknowledge its two different meanings. The first meaning suggests a whole entity made up of interrelated parts.  The icon is made of the mineral, vegetal, animal worlds, and is embellished by the human hand and guided by the divine one.  The second meaning refers to that which has the characteristics of, or is derived from living organisms.  This last meaning refers to those materials that are extracted from the vegetal as well as the animal world.

The origins of icon painting go back as far as ancient Egypt.  Scholarly research has discovered that icon painting has deep roots in ancient Egyptian mummy painting. Ancient Egyptians used cypress wood for the cypress tree symbolized “eternal aliveness and incorruption.”26 In Persia, the immortal cypress dwelled near the abode of the dead and its verticality pointed directly to the higher realm of spirit. In Russia, the panel of the icon was made of dried lime or oak.  The lime or linden has a soft wood and heart-shaped leaves.  In ancient lore, the oak was considered to be the progenitor of mankind.  The ageless oracular wisdom of the ancient Greek forefathers was thus encoded in the body of the Byzantine icon.  In northern Russia, spruce or pine was used, both of which, as evergreens, are associated with immortality. The wood panel of the icon as a vessel for the image of the incarnated Logos evokes the cradle and the coffin. It contains the mysteries of birth and death, and it contains the antinomies of living and dying within its fibers. The primer or gesso consisted of thin coats of white chalk pigment suspended in fish-glue. 27 On Mount Athos, the monks painted on walls using two layers of lime plaster, the first consisting of lime and chopped straw, the second of lime mixed with tow or flax or cotton, a very ancient practice used in plastering the palace of Knossos in Minoan Crete.28

The colors were prepared from mineral and vegetal pigments. The availability of such pigments greatly influenced the medium used by various cultures. For instance, Armenian artists used a vivid color palette made of rich mineral pigments, whereas Byzantine iconographers depended mainly on more delicate organic pigments.29 One of the most characteristic colors used by Armenian artists was red lake, a magenta-red pigment prepared from the secretion of an insect from India, the laccifer or lacca. The color White was formed using chalk, a soft, porous and very fine sedimentary limestone similar to the kind used by the Byzantines; a process which brings to mind the birth of Aphrodite for the delicate fine texture of chalk recalls the frail quality of beauty emerging from the depths of primordial waters. Gypsum is used, mixed with water and animal glue, to make Gesso. Among the mineral pigments used within the Cilician kingdom of Armenia, a few are ancient, such as cinnabar and orpiment. Cinnabar derives from the Persian zinjifrah, meaning dragon’s blood, and it is usually found near hot springs, or in the sedimentary rocks located within volcanic tuffs.  It is a hexagonal mineral varying between vermilion and brownish red, from a transparent glow to an opaque luster. Orpiment is a bright yellow mineral pigment present in the Lake Van region in Armenia, as well as in Asia Minor. Found in hot spring and argillaceous rocks, it has a characteristically resinous luster and a pearly prismatic glow. Its lemon-yellow to brownish or reddish hue is a gift of the earth in her playful moves through degrees of transparency. It creates iconic moods, from majestic glowing mountains and rocks transfigured by light, to the sadness attributed to Christ’s death on the cross.  Natural ultramarine, a blue pigment extracted from a semiprecious stone, the lapis lazuli derives its name from the Persian lazhward, meaning blue. The blue color is caused by sulfur, which is an essential part of its composition. Lapis lazuli has a translucent, vitreous luster and its blue color symbolizes air and sky.

The icon painting technique of gluing linen on the board and gessoing it is the preparation of the iconic body from natural elements.  The panel of the icon is its naked body, a sacred body made of wood which is the union of cellulose and lignin from which it lends its flexibility and strength. After the panel is prepared, a piece of linen is placed either across the panel to be painted, or else over the borders and joints. Linen is made of the fibers of flax, a slender annual plant with delicate blue flowers and narrow leaves. In consistence with the analogy of the cradle and the coffin, the gesso and the linen glued to the board symbolize the swaddling cloths of a newborn and the white shroud of a dead body.
The next step in the creation of an icon consists in drawing the image in charcoal onto the gessoed panel. To make a copy of an icon, the eighteenth-century iconographer Dionysius of Fourna suggests the use of garlic juice mixed with a color pigment, and peziri, a drying oil that was most likely derived from linseeds.30 To make charcoal for drawing, Dionysius uses pieces of wood from hazel, myrtle and probably willow trees. A special preparation requires them to be placed in a pot, covered with a cloth, then with clay, and heated in an oven until the pieces give off flames. Then the pot is taken out, and covered with ashes and dry earth.31  The process of gilding involves the use of a liquor called raki, which is poured onto the carving. As Dionysius explains, Raki is an alcoholic liquor made from mastic and aniseed that is made in Greece and the Near East. It is used here as a mordant to fix the gold leaf.32

Just as the mineral and vegetal worlds contribute to the creation of an icon, so does the world of animals. In icon painting, the most prominent animal medium is egg tempera, using yolk as the binding element of paint, just as fish-glue is used as an adhesive the primer.  Egg was a popular material used in classical times as well as in the medieval era. Brushes used for icon painting are often made of hair from badgers’ tails.33 Brushes used for the purpose of mural painting, however, are made using the hair from an ass’s mane. Brushes for the use of broad under painting are made from hog’s hair.34 Glue is made from the limed skins extracted from the feet or the ears of oxen, buffaloes or ewes.35 To make gold headings, Dionysius of Fourna suggests taking out the slime of a snail and putting it into an oyster shell as a vessel; then mixing it with a little alum, gold, and gum Arabic. For the purposes of writing in gold, a Squirrel-hair brush is used. Thus, the use of animal products in the creation of an icon functions as a mysterious poesis that works in depth through each organ, cell, and individual characteristic each animal has to offer.

An icon becomes sanctified when it is anointed with holy oil referred to as myron.  The term myron is Greek for “sweet oil.” In the Armenian sacramental tradition, it is derived from “pure olive oil,” as well as “the essence of forty-eight kinds of flowers, roots and incenses,” writes Father Saraydarian 36 The Holy Myron symbolizes the Holy Spirit. The rite of consecration of the icon involves the Holy Spirit in the epiclesis during which the Holy Spirit descends and sanctifies the icon confirming the resemblance of the icon with its prototype. Thus, the icons of the saints are filled by the grace of the Holy Spirit. In the ceremony of the Blessing of the Water, the Armenian feast of Theophany, the Holy Myron is poured into the water as a remembrance of the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove on the newly-baptized Jesus.  At the conclusion of the ceremony of the baptism of Christ, the faithful are “invited to take some of the anointed water; they may consume a portion of this water to symbolize their own immersion into the water of our Lord’s baptism.” These are, as Father Manoogian believes, “glorious opportunities for the faithful to enter into the Feast and experience its mystery and grace.”37

According to Florensky, a true understanding of the Church requires an understanding of the Liturgy and its deep symbolism.38 During the Divine Liturgy, when the Gospel is read, two acolytes hold candles on each side of the Holy Bible. This symbolizes the idea that the truth of the Gospel is light because Christ is the “light of the world.”39 In this context, the candle is used as an escort of honor to the Gospel representing Christ.40Also, during requiem services, small candles are distributed to the entire congregation, as a symbol of the departed ones, whose memory is alive within the hearts and minds of the believers, as Christ, the light of the world, is alive.

The Divine Liturgy is an icon of the Heavenly Kingdom.  Seen as such, it is a transfiguration of the world below. The beauty of the ceremony is a reflection of the beauty of the Kingdom. “As above so below,” the dictum says.  Through the liturgy, the gates of perception open up between the celestial and the earthly, the divine and the human. The liturgy is an eschatological embodiment that binds the corporeal with the spiritual, the world above with the world below. It is an ontological enactment that involves the entire being—both body and soul. All five bodily senses participate in the divine worship: not only sight and hearing; taste when receiving the Eucharist; touch during anointment, and the kissing the holy icons, the Cross, the Gospels; and smell through the aromatic substances in the holy myron, and the burning of incense.41 Being is wholeness and the liturgy is the external manifestation of its beauty.

In conclusion, beauty is crucial to Orthodox Christianity because, as Florensky explains: “The Holy Spirit reveals itself in the ability to see the beauty of creation.”42 Similarly, Bulgakov speaks of the action of the Holy Spirit: “It extends to the whole world of physical nature, sanctifying and transfiguring it from within.”43 Therefore, the entire material world participates in the beauty of the divine, in vision, action, and sanctity.


1 The Symbolism of the Ecclesiastical Vestments and Vessels of the Armenian Apostolic Church, p.15.

2 Quoted in Krivocheine, In the Light of Christ, p.257.

3  Grierson, “The Death of Eternity,” in Gates of Mystery: The Art of Holy Russia, p.19.

4 Rorem, Pseudo-Dionysius, p.186.

5 Fedotov, The Russian Religious Mind, vol.I, p.33-34.

6 Mathew, Byzantine Aesthetics, p.24.

7 “Russian Aesthetics: Religious Aesthetics,” in Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, vol.4 p.200.

8 Bulgakov, Sophia: The Divine Wisdom, p.136.

9 Bulgakov, p.137.

10 26:2-3,10.

11  Davy, La Lumière dans le Christianisme, p.61-62.

12 Ashjian, Armenian Church Patristic and Other Essays, p.23.

13 “The Icon and the Sprit of Comedy,” 202. Also see Slattery’s “Idols and Icons: Comic Transformation in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed.” Dostoevsky Studies 6 (1985): 35-50.

14 Ibid. p.217.

15 Ibid. p.197.

16 Fedotov, p.20.

17 Cassedy, “P.A.Florensky and the Celebration of Matter,” p.98.

18 Cassedy discusses St. John of Damascus on matter: 98-9. Also see St. John of Damascus’ work On The Divine Image.

19 Ouspensky, Théologie de l’icȏne, p.462 note 45.

20 Dionysius the Areopagite, The Celestial Hierarchy, p.151-2.

21 Dionysius the Areopagite, The Divine Names, p.92.

22 “Introductory Note,” The Philokalia, 4:78.

23 Zenkovsky, A History of Russian Philosophy vol.1, p.27.

24 Ouspensky, The Meaning of Icons, 55.

25 Ouspensly, Theologie de L’icȏne, 169-170.

26 Florensky, Iconostasis, 162.

27 Maltseva, “The Technique of Old Russian Painting,” in Gates of Mystery. p.314.

28 Laurie, Greek and Roman Methods of Painting, pages 108-109.

29 Mathews and Wieck, Treasures in Heaven, p.50.

30 Dionysius of Fourna, The Painter’s Manual, p.5.

31 Ibid.

32 Hetherington, The Painter’s Manual of Dionysius of Fourna, p.93.

33 Dionysius of Fourna, p.7.

34 Ibid. p.12.

35 Ibid. p.5.

36 For a complete list of flowers, oils, and plants used to prepare the Holy Myron, see p. 31.

37 Manoogian, Four Ceremonies of the Armenian Apostolic Church, p.66.

38 Slesinsky, Father Paul Florensky: A Profile,” p.78.

39  Saraydarian, p.29.

40 Davy, p.45.

41 Ware, “My Helper and my Enemy: the Body in Greek Christianity,” in Religion and the Body, p.104.

42 The Pillar and Ground of Truth, p.226.

43 Sophia: The Wisdom of God, p.110.

...................******* ******* *******Mythopoetry Scholar Ezine******* ******* *******

Elizabeth Terzian PhDAuthor Bio
Elizabeth Terzian PhD
completed her doctoral program in Mythological Studies through Pacifica Graduate Institute and wrote a dissertation entitled “The Aesthetics and Poetics of Light in Eastern Christian Iconography—A Mythopoetic Perspective.” She has a Master’s Degree in Dance History from the University of California at Irvine. Her studies at several universities and institutes in France and Lebanon included training in classical ballet and piano. She has taught at Loyola Marymount University, the University of California at Irvine, and the University of California, Los Angeles. Her areas of specialization include: Christian Traditions; Myth and Philosophy; and Hermeneutics. Currently, Elizabeth teaches Myth and Philosophy; Christian Traditions at Pacifica. She authored her first poetry volume, Sweet & Sour: For The Free Spirit in 2009.

Sweet & Sour

Return To Table of Content
mythopoetics mythopoesis
click here for copyright statement