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Pentecost Icons are about the descent of Holy Spirit, why so few women in Byzantine icons?

Updated: Jul 3, 2020

The institution of Divine Spirit coming to all of humanity, acting through the Church, to sanctify the world. I want to use the Pentecost Icons to illustrate a new approach to contemporary icon painting in general. It is not my intention to corrupt the meaning behind icons as windows to the divine. I am asking, why so few women represented in Byzantine icons?

In some Pentecost Icons we find the Apostle Paul, even though at that time he had not yet converted on the road to Damascus. This is a hint that the icon may not be a purely historical picture. Sometimes, the evangelists Luke and Mark are also shown, despite also not having been present in the upper chamber at Pentecost.  There are a vast Number of icons which fail to include a female saintly presence even though we know they were there.

The gathering is a representation of the NEW Church.

I find it hard to believe that these men were hiding in the upper room with no women. Or that these men were the first and only ones to be blessed by the holy spirit. Icons are intended to be windows for reflection and insight into the divine mind. I can easily imagine all the men wrapped in a blaze of divine light celebrating gaily in the upper room. Perhaps there is more to the meaning and message.

The Apostles are depicted seated in a semi-circle, with no individual among them taking the central seat of authority representing a new age of unity and harmony. A representation of harmony we are in great need of realizing today. The twelve seated postures are an assortment of individuality, no two figures strike the same pose. This is intentional and connotes another aspect of the icons message: there is the one Spirit – one Body – yet each member is given particular gifts.

This is indeed great theology and deep iconographal language but again I ask, why so few women in Byzantine icons? If Icons images have been adjusted in the past why not include today a variety of female participants, his would help to express to a more integrated gender audience where the world and church body is changing.

An Example of how women in Pentecost Icons got written out.

Often Narrative icons are designed intentionally in a semi circle so the observers sense their own inclusion in the revelation. ( others include Holy Trinity, Ascension, Last Supper, Transfiguration) Originally Pentecost icons placed the Virgin Mary at the center, arms outstretched in the position of prayer. I figure women have been standing before icons for centuries naturally imagining themselves being included. Mary at the center make the imagining slightly easier. Removing her from the icons changes it in several ways.

Earlier Pentecost icons show Mary the Mother of God occupying the “Teacher’s Seat”. Surviving icons of this sort originated in the west. The Theotokos’ presence in the center may have become problematic theologically speaking. She became the ultimate exemplar of mystical silence. Ironically the Holy Spirit acts within people as a voice to teach, and manifest Christ’s teachings in the world. Mary was shown in the “teacher’s seat” yet the church silenced her. She or Mary Magdalena could have been included as appropriate disciples along with the twelve. Somehow they both lost their female voice in Byzantine icons.

The “Teacher’s Seat” appears to be empty, potentially inviting those fully conscious to sit and share their revelations of the divine cosmic spirit.

Narrative icons of the Eastern Church stress the underlying eschatological meaning. Eschatology depicts where one age comes to an end and a new age begins. This ushers in a new way of living, thinking, or being. For Christians, Pentecost icons points to new life lived in the spirit. The narrative details focus on the descent of a transforming Spirit. As I already mentioned, icons are not limited to a historical snapshot of an event rather try thinking of them as an image which teaches eschatology, then we can open ourselves to wiser and more inclusive interpretations. This revelation of Christ consciousness was never intended to be limited to a few but instead freely given to those who seek it.

Painting Women into Narrative Icon

We are told in Acts of the Apostles Mary

was present at Pentecost. Mary got elevated to Virgin Mother of God she lost her place as a  woman saint or female apostle and in Pentecost Icons . I guess you can’t be everything.

Iconographers have continually taken liberties with image content  as church teaching changed and their emphasis modified.  Having said that, it may be time to redesign the story to include women. If new icons are to be written and still teach, it would be prudent to depict women inspired by the Spirit as ongoing historical revelation.

If you find it uncomfortable to imagine any woman disciple seated in the center as the teacher let her be moved to one of the side seats along with Mary Magdelena, Sarah, Miriam, Phebe, Rebeca and other little known women saints. In this photoshoped image I have included only two women saints , Mother Teresa of Calcuta and Saint Pareskivi to show what I mean.

The importance of the icons remembering from the beginning of time, the same single ray of light has descended on every man, woman and child. That light has never been only for 12 men or women. Now, more than ever we need the “tongues of fire” and the voices of women to announce the good news, that we are all loved by God.

We are in the Empty Seat

Jesus, the man who walked with us would have sat at the center in the “Teachers Seat”, now we know Him as invisible Spirit. Jesus bore witness to the concept ‘what has been lost physically can now be known fully through Spirit as comforter, advocate, and guide’. Jesus the man opened the door for our understanding, to live and experience a cosmic essence given to each of us. The Apostles are gathered with open space for you and me, at the teaches seat or as witness to the event (the one who stands outside looking in at the icon). The promise of wisdom and grace brought to us by the Spirit is realized at Pentecost, and is still being revealed today.

As liturgical art, icon paintings open doors into a transfigured world and into an experience of sacred time. An icon compresses events into one image and folds time into a holy moment in order to communicate inner meaning outside of normal. Icon paintings have their power in showing the potential for human harmony and divine energy all in one instant.

Therefore, the painted Icon of Pentecost, showing Women Saints and Women Apostles gathered with men, all sustained and bathed in an invisible Christ essence brings us one step closer to knowing we are complete in and connected to God.

Ladies of the brush we must get to work.

On a final note: When I went to photoshop the icon with women disciples to illustrate my point, I was shocked to find only two female saints whose icons suitable from my own collection of icon paintings. When I went to google byzantine women in icons and orthodox female icons I was further shocked to see how limited it is. I did find a calendar for printable icons of women saints, one for each day of the year(35% were the Virgin Mary). But I cannot stress enough how obvious it has become;

There are so few women in Byzantine icons, fewer women saints and fewer women icon painters painting them.

For that matter why not expand past women saints and female apostles and include an international gathering of great thinkers who control our world. Include those who come from all walks of life. Did they not also receive the Divine spirit of Wisdom and Grace to help transform our world?

Pentecost icons, Icons explained, Feast day icons, Women and Iconography, Fine Art America, Catholic iconography, Mary Jane Miller, byzantine style iconography, sacred art, devotional art, iconography, modern catholic, religious art, egg tempera

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