Wednesday, November 5, 2008


by Metropolitan Antony Khrapovitsky

It is an axiom of contemporary art that art demands historical truth but, it is constantly violated in this detail of religious art: we often see, in pictures depicting the Gospel history or the lives of saints, figures which are kneeling and, moreover, sometimes on one knee, even with palms pressed together. There was nothing even similar to this in either Hebrew or Orthodox Christian life up to the 18th century, when such poses began to be practised in our society in imitation of the Latins amongst whom they were accepted long ago. The ancient Hebrews and Orthodox Christians never knelt, but prayed either standing or else prostrating with face to the floor (see: Canons of the Ecumenical Councils; 91st Canon of St Basil the Great). Old Believers and Greeks [until the Episcopalianisation of the Church began in North America, Ed.note.] have never knelt, and at the exclamation of the deacon: "Again and again on bended knee, let us pray to the Lord!" they prostrate themselves face down, and, in the Old Believers expression, "press the face to the leaf."
The term expressed in Divine Scripture and Divine Service books, "bending the knees" does not signify standing on the knees, but precisely signifies prostrating face down, with the head and knees bent to the floor.
Thus, in the Gospel according to Luke, we read, "...and Himself went away from them about a stone's throw and, bending the knee, prayed, saying..." (22:41), and in Matthew's Gospel, the same event is stated thus: "...and going away a little, He fell upon His face on the ground and prayed saying..." (26:39).
In those instances where mention is made of kneeling, in the western, Latin manner, the Gospel uses a different expression: "...and they stood on their knees...and mocked Him" (Mt.27:29), or: "...they kept kneeling in homage to Him" (Mk.15:19). Let us note, incidentally, that the Old Beliervers, in censuring the contemporary custom of standing on the knees, always cite this offensive similarity to the Roman soldier who had mocked the Saviour.
This is why you will not encounter a single kneeling figure in a single old ikon. Only a priest who is reading a prayer from a book before a prostrate congregation (as on Holy Trinity Day) may raise his body and head; but in the service of Holy Pentecost, we are directed to bring prayers, "with bended neck and knees", from which it is evident that the Old Believer manner of lying face down more correctly corresponds to the service. The same must be said about bended knees at the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts, at the singing of "Let my prayer be set forth as incense before Thee..." when the congregation is instructed to bend the knees.
Judge for yourselves how unpleasant it is for an informed worshipper to see on ikons, as for example in the Moscow Church of the Saviour, St Dimitry of the Don in the pose of a contemporary horse-guard, on one knee before St Serge, or ikons of the Annunciation in which the Most Holy Virgin and the Angel are kneeling before each other... and sometimes even with Latin entwined fingers or palms pressed together, pointing upward or outward [as, for example, in the famous "praying hands" picture]. Such absurd versions are encountered in Latin pictures of the Meeting, the Adoration of the Magi, etc. Orthodox Christians, when praying, place their hands cross-like on the breast, or raise them upward in the form of a crucifixion.
Artists might be interested to know the psychology of this difference between Orthodox and western worship. I think that it is defined by the general ethos of both cultures. The East (Hebrew and Christian) built its worship of God on the idea of our culpability before God and of the contrition of one's sinful unworthiness before the Divine Holiness. To be pious, according to the understanding of ancient Hebrews and Orthodox Christians, means first of all to be humble, to debase one's pride, a condition without which, the Lord rejects all struggles of restraint and mercifulness (Mt.6:1-6).
Bowing the head in repeated reverences from the waist, or the complete prostration of the body with the head on the floor, expresses in itself precisely such a disposition in one who is praying and yielding himself, as one who is culpable, wholly into obedience under the authority of God
The Western religious consciousness, on the contrary, does not separate itself from its inherent juridical tint, and has the character of a concordat with God, as is denoted in the Latin word "religion", i.e., bond. There the worshippers do not like to lower their heads to the ground, but willingly stand on the knees (kneel) as if lessening their stature before the mentally present Divinity: confessing Him to be pre-eminent before themselves, recognizing their weakeness (in a physical sense) in comparison with Him, but with the preservation of personal ambition. In connection with a similar character of religious self-consciousness, the West evolved understandings, quite absurd from a truly Christian point of view, such as: noble pride, noble self-love. Our Holy Fathers spoke only about demon pride.
Though brief, this historical and psychological summary, will explain why, on ikons (or pictures) from Scriptural or Church history, one must never portray a kneeling figure.


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