Cracks in Heaven and Earth: Orthodox Iconography of the Nativity, Baptism, and Transfiguration

In this post I'd like to make a couple of observations regarding the Orthodox iconography of Christ's baptism, the Nativity, and the Transfiguration. Specifically, beyond points of interest in each icon there are common artistic and theological motifs that run through all of Orthodox iconography.

Let's first look at the iconography of Christ's baptism, the first two icons in this post (and just double-click on the images for closer looks). John the Baptist stands on the a bank, blessing Jesus. In the second baptism icon we can see the tree with the ax at the root that we've noted before in John's icons. On the opposite bank are angels waiting to receive Jesus out of the water. If you look close you'll notice that their hands are covered as a sign of respect and adoration for what they are about to receive and touch.

Above Jesus there is a dark crack in the heavens and a dove descending, emerging out of this crack.

Jesus is laying in the Jordan as if it were a grave, a watery tomb. He's often dressed in a way similar to how he is depicted in crucifiction and burial portayals. The Jordan itself is a crack spliting two mountian peaks.

The point of interest for me is this motif of cracks in heaven and earth that is a recurring theme in much of the iconography of Jesus' life.

Jesus cracks Heaven and Earth.

We have already seen this cracking motif in the icons of the Harrowing of Hell, where the earth is cracked open to release those held under Sin's captivity. Further, in the iconography of the Crucifixion we saw the cross cracking open the earth to expose the bones of Adam allowing the saving blood of Christ to cover them. And now we see the cracking motif in the baptism of Christ iconography. The cleansing waters of baptism are seen as filling and washing the wounds of human existence.

This cracking motif is also seen, curiously, in the Nativity icons. The Nativity icons are very busy, in my opinion. Lot's of stuff going on. But the point I'd like to draw your attention to is how Mary sets the baby Jesus in a crack in the earth. This crack is clearly symbolic of hell as some icons portray demons in the crack. The image is clear: This infant is going to be the One who will enter hell and crack it open. This is a clear foreshadowing of the Harrowing of Hell icons. The following two icons are of the Nativity:

The second motif of the baptism icons is the cracking of heaven. The Orthodox call the feast celebrating the baptism of Jesus Theophany. A theophany is a divine appearance or revelation. At Christ's baptism the gospels tell of a theophany, a dove decending and a Voice from Heaven declaring "This is my beloved son, in whom I am well-pleased."

This theophany cracks open heaven as seen in the dark area at the top of the baptism icons. The dove sits in the crack.

Obviously, the grand theophany in the gospel accounts is the Transfiguration of Jesus where God again claims Jesus as his Son. In the transfiguration icons Jesus is standing on top of the mountian. Moses and Elijah are to his right and left. Peter, James, and John are depicted as either bowing in worship or scattered and throw down in the face of the revelation.

Jesus appears to be coming out of a dark crack, now much larger than the one depicted for the baptism.

As Rowan Williams writes, "The dark background against which Jesus is shown is something you will see in other icons as a way of representing the depths of heavenly reality. In the transfiguration, what the disciples see is, as you might say, Jesus' humanity 'opening up' to its inner dimensions. It is rather like the Hindu story of the infant Krishna, told by his mother to open his mouth to see if he has been eating mud; she looks in, and sees the whole universe in the dark interior of his throat. So the disciples look at Jesus, and see him as coming out from an immeasurable depth; behind or within him, infinity open up, 'dwelling of the light', to borrow the haunting phrase from Job 38.19. Mark 1.38 reports Jesus as saying that he has 'come out' so that he can proclaim the good news; and John's Gospel too uses the language of coming out from the depths of the Father (John 16.27-30). Belief in Jesus is seeing him as the gateway to an endless journey into God's love. The often-noted fact that icons show the lines of perspective reversed, so that they converge on your eye, not on a vanishing point in the distance within the picture, is a way of telling us that, once again, what is true of Jesus lies at the heart of all this style of paining: we are being taught to look through into the deep wells of life and truth."

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8 thoughts on “Cracks in Heaven and Earth: Orthodox Iconography of the Nativity, Baptism, and Transfiguration”

  1. Dr. Beck, with all due respect, why are you using the Archbishop of Canterbury as your source for information about Eastern Orthodox iconography?

  2. Hi Kirk,
    I'm working with a few different sources. Mainly art sources that have little theological commentary. But one of my sources is Williams' The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with the Icons of Christ.

    However, some of what I'm writing is original to me. The "cracks" motif of this post is uniquely my own. I have not read anything linking icons via a "crack metaphor. " But I'm sure this has been noted elsewhere. I'm no Orthodox iconography scholar. Just a psychologist.

  3. Dr. Beck,

    I did not realize that Dr. Williams had written about icons. It seems to me not unlike the situation you would have if John Madden authored a book about golf.

    As a student of Orthodoxy (and ACU graduate, btw), I would imagine that the Orthodox Church does not leave the interpretation of icons to the individual, but to the Church. Hence, I would recommend that you look for an Orthodox writer. Have you investigated Ouspensky and Lossky's book, "The Meaning of Icons"?

  4. You said, "So the disciples look at Jesus, and see him as coming out from an immeasurable depth; behind or within him, infinity open up, 'dwelling of the light', to borrow the haunting phrase from Job 38.19."

    In keeping with my habit of how I respond on your blog, I will note what a gnostic source says about this:

    from the Gospel of Thomas verse 50. Yeshua says: If they say to you: From whence have you come?, say to them: We have come from the Light, the place where the Light has come into being from Him alone.."

    This gospel tends to bring out the identification with Jesus that one can achieve. And of course light is a dominant theme of gnostic christianity. I will have to think about and look for the crack metaphor.

  5. Dblwyo made an awesome connection on the “ugliness” thread to Buddhism.

    I though I’d post a part of my response here, because it involves Buddhist icons integrating ugliness as a motif, and also, if you visit the link below, it’s not a far stretch to see the heruka (Buddhist iconic deity) as emerging through the stylized cosmos via an aporia-crack, similar to the cracks that Richard notes involving Jesus, creating a wake (crack) into Enlightenment.

    As you can see, in Vajrayana (Diamond-Way, or Tantra) Buddhism and its sub-families of traditions, there are wrathful-only deities, and there are integrated peaceful-wrathful heruka deities (a branch of Buddhism with deities), whose graphic ugliness and ferocity in iconographic images aims to keep novitiates on paths of enlightenment. Ugliness, and even violent ugliness, in images are intentional mediations of enlightenment. And form their own crack, crack-breaking out of ignorance and into enlightenment.

    See one iconographic image (Nyingma family) and the essay:

    The icons and the essay are a little misleading.

    Tantric Buddhist tradition isn’t textual, and it can’t be mediated textually by study (like Theraveda). Nor is it truly iconographic (like Eastern Orthodox Christianity), but rather, this tradition is mediated by ordained mentors who make assessments of all novitiates, and then prescribe visual heruka-deities as meditative aids. You can’t just pick and choose your god. You must be “given” a heruka-deity. And only after assessment. The gods have no objective existence. The mediation of the tradition happens not through text, nor through icons, but through the body, the physical human body of the ordained mentor, because our physical bodies are the "crack," the aporia, into enlightenment. Tantric Buddhism isn’t a way of denial, but rather, an embrace of passion and its torque. My father was ordained in this tradition in Tibet, and, as an ex-Lutheran minister, turned neuroscience professor (now retired), and occasional college lecturer on comparative religions, he knew how to retain a Buddhist-version of Luther’s fun social habit of “Table Talk,” which meant our dinner time was for less talk, and not for text, and more for making funny faces or ugly ones. No reflection on Mom, as chef. I’d hope.

    Since I'm a Christian, I see a typological connection between the heruka at the link above and Jesus, and the subject of His incarnation as a "crack" and opening into our space-time – I’m curious, now, to discover an iconic depiction of Jesus cleansing the Temple, perhaps a fearful-wrathful-ugly iconic depiction of Jesus, not a sanitized and beautified Jesus, but Jesus tearing through the Temple, like a Crack in our false Temple economy, with the buyers and sellers (like me) really getting the point.


  6. One wonders why only a "crack" ? Or better yet why a "crack" at all?

    What Paul calls "this present darkness" is only temporally "cracked" by the first advent. The god of this world remains. The Spirit of Christ enters via the work of Christ and remains to provide comfort; the Church confronts the god of this world with the Word and Spirit. The Church awaits the second advent in which the Christ enters the world not through a small crack over the Jordan, but in worldwide overwhelming glory.

    Why does the "darkness" persist? Why the "darkness" at all if it originated in "heaven"? Was there no other realm into which to send the "serpent" and his kind ?

    Guess I'm complaining about this "darkness" --- must keep in mind that "His grace is sufficient".

    Anyway suspect that the transfiguration imagery is more likely just "Light-darkness" contrasting.

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