Praying with icons
“The Leisure Corner” through our social media continues throughout Lent as we take a closer look at different icons with David Clayton from Pontifex University.
Below are the 7 weeks of reflections and meditations inspired by David Clayton’s knowledge of iconography. If you missed our interview with David, watch it here.
If you would like to share the fruit of your prayer with us, please message us! We love hearing from you.
This week I am considering the period between the crucifixion and Resurrection when Christ, the second Adam born of the Virgin Mary, the second Eve descended into hell and brought salvation to the souls held captive there since the beginning of the world including the first Adam and the first Eve our parents. The phrase the Harrowing of Hell is a poetic description used in English in the Romanesque and Gothic periods.
This image, a dramatic and evocative composition, is a miniature from the Winchester Psalter most likely commissioned by Henry of Blois, brother of Stephen, King of England, and Bishop of Winchester, England, from 1129 until his death in 1171. Using the Romanesque style, which is in accordance with the iconographic style, the artist relies on the flow and varying breadth of line skillfully to describe form using tonal change and color with restraint so that we are aware of the vellum substrate. This helps to retain a sense of flatness and lack of depth in the image which evokes the heavenly domain which is outside time and space. Notice again how the satanic serpent is shown in profile, not in full-face in accordance with the convention that the devil is faceless or partially faced to indicate deceit.
I am always struck by the fact that Adam and Eve got a second chance! Even the people responsible for all the suffering and sin in the world could be forgiven. Through God’s mercy, we can join them in paradise and each of us will become Christ, a flower in the new Garden of Eden, blooming through Christ in the Spirit.
The term ‘miniature’ is used here as a generic term for all medieval illumination and originally does not refer to its size but rather to a color commonly used. One of the main pigments used to build up the foundational establishment of line and tone was ‘red lead’, a lead oxide called in Latin, minium. Because illuminations are generally smaller than the art that would be used in churches, it gradually became a general term for any manuscript illumination, then the term was applied to all small-scale art. Finally, in English, it became a descriptor for any object of a small size.
The depiction of the opening to hell as a serpent’s gaping jaws is part of the Hellmouth tradition that flourished in England from Anglo-Saxon times. Here is the Winchester Psalter’s depiction of an angel locking the door to hell indicating the impassibility of passage from hell to Heaven.
On a personal note, as I was writing this I recalled a family holiday in North Wales when I was 5 years old. We visited Hell’s Mouth, Porth Neigwl on the Llyn Peninsula in North Wales (and place names that are easier to write than pronounce), which was a 4-mile sandy beach with prominent headlands at either end. On the map it’s shape mimics the gaping mouth of a dragon and was named for this and the dangerous currents and choppy waters in the bay in which sailors and more recently swimmers have died. I was always forbidden to swim in the sea there by my parents whenever we visited.