Saturday, January 22, 2011

Sacred Geometry and Proportion: Analysis of the Composition

“In an icon with different figures the overall composition is based on geometric shapes: the triangle, square, circle (corresponding to the numbers 3, 4, 1). The ideas of Pythagoras and Plato on shapes and numbers were reinterpreted in the Christian tradition, where is the one that the others had symbolic meanings. The square represents the earth, the triangle, the Trinity, and the circle the Divine Unity.” (Guillem Ramos-Poquì, Come si dipinge un’icona, Piemme 1992, 60)

Using these simple guidelines, I have tried to trace (limiting myself to simple geometrical shapes) the “sacred geometry” of the Damaxxena icon. At a first glance, what strikes a lot, is the prominence of the circle and the way each intersects with the other connecting the figures together whilst opening up spaces for connection with both the cosmos and the spiritual world. 

After the 1963-1966 restoration, in a letter to Papas Vito Borgia, dated May 13th, 1968, Prof. Dr Talbot Rice (1903-1972), could judge the Damaxxena icon as “a thing of great beauty and historical importance in addition to being what it was before, an expression of faith”. According to Dr Rice, Our Lady of Damascus “is of earlier date than Our Lady of Vladimir”. Though both are if the Eleusa type of Virgin, the Vladimirskaya originates from Constantinople, while the Damaxxena reflects the Cappadocian monastic art. Infact, among the churches in the rock of Göreme, in the Church (9th-10th cent.) known as Tokali Kilise, there is, in the section known as the ‘New Church’ a fresco painting showing an Eleusa type Theotokos which is very similar to the Damaxxena.
Another characteristic which of the Damaxxena are the two archangels in full profile at the top corners of the icon. The only other known icon with similar angels is the Most Holy Theotokos of Tolog, depicted in 1314 in the Tolgsky Monastery in Yaroslavl. The icon shows and enthroned Eleusa type Virgin. This icon was frequently reproduced  in Yaroslavl. Striking also the similarity of the position of the Virgin and Child, in both the Tolga and Damascus icons.

Comparing the Damaxxena with the Tolga icon of the Most Holy Theotokos, one will be able to better understand that “the child seems to have just finished climbing or rather clambering, perhaps squirrel-like, up his mother’s body, from nourishing breast up to supporting arm, over to shoulder, as from branch to branch of a tree (I say ‘tree’ meaning a structure realted to genes and genealogy, highlighting the joyful/painful mysteries of biological process, of grafting and symbiosis, of kinship, of descent/ascent). Now the outer contours of his body seem to fit as if in a jigsaw into hers, tremulously as if he were thrilled at the perception that he had just grown out of her, but in the outward relation between the two bodies, traces seem to be still visible of their precious intra-bodily communion.” (Peter Serracino Inglott, Perichoresis. A Meditation on the Icon of Our Lady of Damascus, Malta: Preca, 2010, 8).

The Mystery of the Incarnation is celebrated in the icon through the way Mother and Child are connected to each other, one beholding the divinity, the other humanity; one making possible the humanization of the divine, the other enabling the divinization of humanity. The geometrical structure of the icon leads us to this proper understanding of the mystery portrayed, that initiated the new Creation with the New Adam and the New Eve. Thus the effect of the Incarnation mystery is portrayed here as bearing a “cosmic dimension” (Serracino Inglott, Perichoresis, 25). The whole of creation becomes the seat of God’s presence while the former is now enabled to transcend towards the supernatural order. The lower and upper circle, extended beyond the rectangular parameters of the icon seem to be pointing to this mirabile commercium. The intersection of the circular geometrical shapes in the upper part, especially those encircling the faces of the Mother and the Child point to the humanization-divinization process. The Incarnation mytery marks the start of this wonderful exchange while its completion is the Paschal Mystery.

Various symbols in the icon remind us of the Cross. Mary’s penetrative look is one of sadness, she pierces us through her eyes, whilst the Child clings to her, staring at her, as if frightened. Her deep glance invites us to behold the mystery, while at the same time she points to us with her hand Jesus “the Way, Truth and Life”. This gesture usually we find the Hodigithria icon type, portraying Our Lady as “She who shows the Way.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Historical Timeline

11th -12th cent.
Traditionally, since before the Crusades, there is mention of a legendary chapel known for an “Illustrious” (el Chagoura) icon of the Most Holy Theotokos, allegedly painted by St. Luke, and brought to the Syrian Monastery of Sajjidnaja (Our Lady) by a certain monk Theodore. Perhaps the icon in question is Our Lady of Damascus, which According to Prof. David Talbot Rice, was written some 50 to 100 years before the famous Vladimirskaya. Probably it was depicted in the context of the Cappadocian Monastic Tradition, by a holy monk.

Timur Lang (1336-1405), the Turkic military leader and conquerer invaded Syria. In 1402 he razed the city of Damascus, masscared 20,000 inhabitants and deported artisans and scholars to the Mongol capital of Samarkand.   

The Holy Icon of the Theotokos is spotted by a group of fisherman in a globe of light journeying by sea towards the island of Rhodes. Upon touching the shores of the island, Grand Master Giovanni Battista Orsini, some Knights of the Military Order of St. John, and locals placed the icon in the Conventual Church of the Order.  Some knights recognised the icon as the Qeotokos Damaskiniς present at the Syrian Monastery in Damascus. Today there is in this monastery a relatively recent Eleusa type icon reputed as miraculous. It may very well be a substitute of the Holy Icon of Our Lady of Damascus, now in Malta.
The icon takes again flight from the Knight’s Church, this time to the Greek Church dedicated to the Eleimonitria Theotokos. From then on, it is as if these two icons become inseparable companions.


The much venerated icon was transferred to a newly built church in her honour by a rich Rhodiat, Calamia.
Rhodes falls under the Ottoman Empire, who defeats the Knights of St. John. Suleiman I, the Magnificent allows the Knights, who governed the island from 1306, to leave the island together with all those (c. 4,000 inhabitants) who preferred exile than to fall under the Turkish rule and take with them all their belongings. They take with them, through Johanna Calamia the precious Icon of Our Lady of Damascus.  
For seven years, the Knights lived in exile, drifting from one harbour to another, and with them Our Lady of Damascus: Crete, Messina, Baja, Civitavecchia, Viterbo, VillaFranca, Nizza.
Emperor Charles V, gave the islands of Malta to the Knights. They landed on the islands’ shores at Borgo di Castello (today Il-Birgu). The GrandMaster placed the Icon of Our Lady of Damascus in the chapel dedicated to St. Catherine, annexed to the Visitation Oratory (today dedicated to St. Joseph). In 1534 it was bequethed to the Greek community as their parish church, with other two parishes dedicated to Saint George and St. Nicholas. Papas Giorgio Diasorno changed the patronage of St. Catherine’s church to that of Our Lady of Damascus. Today it is still referred to as Tal-Griegi.

The victory of the Great Seige of Malta was attributed to the intercession of Our Lady of Damascus, before which Grand Master Jean Parisot de La Valette used to frequently pause in prayer. Almost facing defeat during the Great Seige he pleaded for her intercession and help. After victory, he left his helmet and sword as a pledge on the steps of her altar.
After the building of Valletta as Capital City of the Island and head quarters of the Order, the Knights and transferred to Valletta. The Venerated Icon of Our Lady of Damascus was solemnly transferred from Borgo di Castello to Valletta on one of the vessels adorned  for the solemn festivity. The icon was saluted by GrandMaster Hughes Loubenx de Verdalle, other dignitaries of the Order, priest and religious of the Greek and Latin Rites and a great crowd of locals. The Icon was then taken processionally to the new Church built on the site donated by Grand Master Pietro del Monte and dedicated to her honour.
The icon went through “restoration” by Chev. Vincent Bonello.
Due to the great devotion of the local people towards this Holy Image of the Theotokos, on October 25th, the icon was solemnly crowned, to mark also the 1500 anniversary of the Council of Ephesus’ proclamation of Mary as the Theotokos, in 431AD. The coronation decree was signed by Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, later Pope Pius XII. The Archbishop of Malta Maurus Caruana presided the celebration.
During the WWII, the icon was transferred into a shelter given to Papas Giorgio Schirò by Sir Hannibal P. Scicluna. Later, it was transferred again to the shelter belonging to the De La Salle Brothers, in Gżira.
The Melkite Greek Church was destroyed on March 24th. The church was rebuilt and consecrated in 1951.
The icon was taken to Italy for restoration at the Istituto Centrale di Restauro. The Italian government financed the project. After restoration the original image resurfaced from beneath layers of paint.
Cardinal Joseph Slipji from Ucraina, paid hommage to Our Lady of Damascus.
The Archbishop Makarios from Cyprus paid hommage to the icon
Patriarch Masksimos V took the initiative of building a new church in Kosour, Damascus, dedicated to Our Lady of Damascus. The Carmelite iconographer Sister Etienne from the Latakie monastery in Syria wrote a copy of the original icon.
Hommage to the icon was paid by the Grand Master Andrew Bertie. During the same year the Order forged a medal in honour of Our Lady of Damascus with the Latin inscription on one side: Ave Virgo Damascena omnes Christi fideles aduna. On the rear of the medal, the gospel words: “That all may be one” were inscribed in Greek and Latin.
Pope John Paul II, intended to visit pay hommage to Our Lady of Damascus, during his pauline pilgrimage. Unfortunately, the organisers, for some unknown reason did not include the much awaited viisted to Our Lady of Damascus. Perhaps its shows the decline in the local devotion to Our Lady of Damascus.

Through the initiative of CAK Malta, Papas Vito Borgia gave his permission for a copy of the Holy Icon to be made. This is the second original copy (after the one executed in 1980) of the icon. Other copies from the same iconographer are being produced to rekindle the devotion to Our Lady of Damascus. As from December 2009, the icon of rare beauty, is kept with great devotion and veneration in the cell by a Carmelite.
His Beatitute Patriarch Gregorios III, paid hommage to Our Lady of Damascus in the Valletta Melkite Greek Church.