The 5th Grade Icon is based on The Savior of Zvenigorod originally painted by Andrei Rublev in Russia at the beginning of the 15th Century. He painted during an unusually turbulent and violent time in Russian history. Rublev’s best known icon, The Trinity, might be Russia’s most important work of art. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Rublev’s image still represents the doctrine of the Trinity (in Eastern Christianity, the image has equal stature with the word). You can view a reproduction of the Trinity icon in Father George’s office.
Rublev’s Zvenigorod icon is a miracle in and of itself. It survived. Many of Rublev’s greatest works were destroyed by invaders and rival fiefdoms. Zvenigorod is a town near Moscow; its name means: “town where they ring bells.” Rublev presumably painted the icon for the Cathedral of the Assumption. In 1918, it was found under a barn floor near the cathedral, which is why it looks so damaged. Henri Nouwen, in his meditation on the icon, suggests the damage was meaningful: “When I first saw the icon, I had the distinct sense that the face of Christ appears in the midst of great chaos. A sad but beautiful face looks at us through the ruins of the world.”
Nouwen continues: “To me, this holy face expresses the depth of God’s immense compassion in the midst of our increasingly violent world. Through centuries of destruction and war, the face of the incarnate word has spoken of God’s mercy, reminded us of the image in which we were created, and called us to conversion. Indeed, it is the face of the Peacemaker.”
It is remarkable that Rublev’s icon is as traditional as it is original. Icon painters were not inventors or artists as much as they were copyists. The prototypes they copied from changed ever so slowly over centuries. In fact, there still are painters in the Russian tradition that paint from the same prototype. In this way, the evolution of the image comes from a spiritual transformation rather than from human inventiveness. The 5th Grade Icon might be seen in this light. The students were each given five-inch squares to copy the image as faithfully and as well as they could. No person’s work could stand on its own, but the final image is dependent on each and every square. The image they made is traditional because they copied it from a traditional prototype. It is also original because the students used non-traditional materials within a process that was communal, rather than that of a solitary individual. I believe this process is relevant because the image you behold when you view the 5th Grade Icon is the face of Christ interpreted and internalized by our children. It represents an unintentional consensus. The icon is also a congregational consensus insofar as it represents the face of Christ, the imago dei: an aspect of the image of God that we have extended to them. So this face represents us as a community; so many of us have shaped each of those who made it. I find that pretty compelling in light of Nouwen’s meditation.
Moreover, with a little imagination, I can see the icon beholding and blessing us as a congregation. The icon sees us. Like Andrei Rublev, who painted a prototype of Jesus, the “image of the invisible God,” hundreds of years old in the 15th century, we are being seen and beheld by the face of Christ, staring back at us through history, hundreds of years later, coming to us through our children.
Greg Halvorsen Schreck