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Through the Ruins of the World  

Jean Hoefling

Christ Pantocrator. Andrei Rublev. 

Christ Pantocrator. Andrei Rublev. 

Icons are created for the sole purpose of offering access, through the gate of the visible, to the mystery of the invisible.  
     —Henri Nouwen, Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons

In his book of meditations on the icons of 15th-century Russian artist Andrei Rublev's, theologian Henri Nouwen says this about the iconographer’s famous “Christ the Redeemer:”

When I first saw… 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.

Originally painted to adorn the Cathedral of the Assumption in Zvenigorod, the ironic story of Rublev’s masterpiece is that it was lost for many years and lay moldering under the floorboards of an old barn before being salvaged in 1918. This just happened to be a year of intense suffering for the Russian people as they struggled through their civil war after the initial Bolshevik Revolution. I believe it is far from coincidence that such a ravaged portrayal of hope reemerged intact at such a brutal period in Russian history, the tone of Christ’s exquisite self-possession and regal bearing only enhanced by the icon’s strange stint under the barn.

The Orthodox do not consider icons church art but instead, "windows to heaven." They are portals through which one might contemplate the broken realities of this world enmeshed with the heightened realities of the next, through that mystery some call grace. In the damaged face in Rublev’s masterpiece, we gaze on a perfect image of the battered Savior—this paradoxical God who became a “man of sorrows… acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces” (Isaiah 53:3).

He was damaged but not destroyed, for the icon’s imperfections, many beyond the reach of the most skilled restorer, only make him seem more accessible, and, maybe, swifter to melt our frozen hearts if we will take the time. The marring of his features reflects starkly how we’ve ruined the world with our pride, self-anointed frenzies, and wars of every camouflage so tidily rationalized. In the running, blemished neck and pitted-out skin and head half-eaten away by time and exposure, we see our ruined selves transposed over the muted majesty of God.

For whatever else it may say to us (and the possibilities are as numerous as stars) this icon is testimony to the paradox that, though many a TV prosperity preacher may try to convince the gullible otherwise, there is beauty in ruin. Obscurity and loss are the marks of transcendent truth, with the odd but undeniable power to make damaged things whole again.