Sunday 18 August 2013

Orthodox roots [part 1]

The Sanctuary of Our Lady at Mellie─ža.

St. Luke was very much on my mind as I set off in the late afternoon yesterday to contemplate anew the wonder of the foremost of Marian shrines for it was St. Luke, who, according to tradition, wrote the icon of the Blessed Virgin and the Child Jesus on the rock face of a cave that is today the altarpiece at the Sanctuary.

Background to the icon

Recent research suggests that the paint visible today and which was uncovered only in 1971, has been dated to the 12th Century. More recent studies point to the 9th Century (circa A.D. 800) [1]. It seems likely that the "first" undocumented restoration of the icon was the work of Augustinian monks who appear to have been present at the Sanctuary from at least the 5th Century, as evidenced by traditional iconography dated to this period.

Augustinians were also present in the 16th Century, when Bishop Tommaso Gargallo commissioned the "second" round of restoration during a pastoral visit on 21st November 1587 [1].

The "third" alteration took place in 1614, when the icon was purposely damaged following a Turkish incursion [3]. The damaged lower part was quickly covered by a silver dress which allowed the holy faces to be venerated. Our Lady is depicted with a broad round face, large dark eyes and small lips, with the child Jesus wrapped in the blue veil of tradition [1].

The authorities have elected to retain the 9th and 12th Century layers due to uncertainty surrounding the state of the older layers. 

Back to the Sanctuary

Saints Paul and Luke established a Christian presence on Malta around A.D. 60 [1]. 

At some point during the three month visit (or perhaps within a reasonable time frame of their departure from the island), the Sanctuary of Our Lady in Mellieha began to serve as a locus of worship for converts. It seems plausible that the Augustinian presence in Malta was ushered in by the consecration of the Sanctuary by visiting Bishops in A.D. 409 (see Figure 1) [1].

The original setting of the Sanctuary is very much in evidence. The sacristy which houses the beautiful votive art (see Figure 2) as well as the outer rooms have been excavated out of solid rock, in what was then the highest point on the hill and which today is 100m above sea level. While the Sanctuary is still very much a living Church, a larger building in baroque style was built over the Sanctuary in the 19th Century to provide for the pastoral needs of the growing population.

Figure 1: The visiting Bishops complete the celestial
backdrop to Rocco Buhagiar's Eternal Father which
overshadow's the Holy Altar and altarpiece.

Figure 2: The museum is home to an impressive array of well documented
votive art, works of art commissioned to commemorate the miraculous
intervention following intercession of the Blessed Virgin. Examples abound,
one of the better known ones include a woman Liberata Calleja, a widow from
Floriana who together with her daughter contracted bubonic plague, a
condition almost always fatal. Following treatment by a Jewish doctor from
nearby Sicily and the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, both recovered [3]

Introduction to the iconography of the Sanctuary

The Sanctuary is an excellent example of how ("western") sacred art and traditional ("eastern") iconography can work together to create a sanctified environment suitable for veneration and worship. 

Figure 3: The "first", "second" and 
"third"heavens are represented by 
the three arches, under which hang
the seven "lampstands" (of which
four are visible in this photo). 
One of the first things that one notices in the Sanctuary are the "seven lampstands" reminiscent of the lampstands of the churches in the boom of revelation. In the Sanctuary, for practical reasons they are cast out of silver rather than gold and hang on silver chains beneath the lower third arch (see Figure 3).

The arches themselves are suggestive of the three heavens spoken of by St. Paul [4]. They provide a convenient "separation" between spaces inhabited by the congregation and the special place reserved for the Blessed Virgin. In the Sanctuary, she is shown with the Archangels with whom she appears in holy scripture, that is, with the angels Gabriel [5] and Michael [6] . 

Above these blessed and holy representations we see a statue of the risen and glorified Christ who provides complete access to the first (and highest) heaven. 

In the inner section of the Sanctuary, the Eternal Father by Rocco Buhagiar, (see Figure 1 and 4) overshadows the Holy Altar and the icon of the Blessed Virgin and Child Jesus (see Figure 5). 

Figure 5: The icon of the Blessed
Virgin and the Child Jesus, 
altarpiece at the Sanctuary
Figure 4: The oil on stone Eternal 
Father attributed to Rocco Buhagiar 
(1723 - 1805).

The aesthetic impact of the iconography and sacred art on the spiritual environment is the result of nearly two millennia of consecrated thought. 

A brief theology of icons

What is an icon? According to the teachings of the ancient Church, icons are as much a part of the oral tradition as holy scripture. They were (and remain) one of the primary means by which faith is handed down.

In the words of Russian theologian Vladimir Lossky:
"Icons affirm the possibility of the expression through a material medium of the divine realities (which are) symbol and pledge of our sanctification.  The issue at stake [...] is always the possibility, the manner, or the means of our union with God. 
The same principle lies at the root of the cult of the holy images which express things in themselves invisible and render them present, visible and active. An icon or cross does not exist simply to direct our imagination during our prayers . It is a material centre in which there reposes an energy a divine force, which unites itself to human art ".[7]

Eastern Orthodox priest Father Stephen offers a good explanation of What an Icon is Not:

"An icon does not become other than what it is – but its existence points towards something (or someone) else – and makes them present in a representational manner. The precise theological language of iconic representation is that an icon is a hypostatic representation [....] 
In pointing us towards the Truth, an icon shows us what we might not see otherwise. Thus the icon of a saint, more than mere biography or photography, points us towards the reality of the risen life in Christ. It bears witness to the glorification in Christ of a person." [8]
While neither icons nor sacred art are considered Sacraments, the spaces they define are holy and point to eschatological fulfillment  in the coming age.


[1] The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mellieha - Malta,  booklet published by the Church, p. 3-4

[2] Acts 28:1-10. 

[3] Muscat J., (2009) Ex Voto p. 1;27

[4] 2 Corinthians 12:2

[5] Luke 1:19

[6] Revelation 12:7

[7] Lossky V., The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p.  10; 189

[8] Fr. Stephen Freeman, What an Icon is Not, 18th August 2009

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