Friday, July 20, 2007

Viewing the icon as a process of internalisation.

This duality of the heart is common to all Christian, Hindu and Buddhist thought. In Christian tradition, though only one heart is mentioned, its dual function is clearly defined. There is the carnal heart, which must die, and there is also the spiritual heart in which the day-star has risen. Ramana Maharshi warned his disciples not to think of the heart in a particular place, whether inside or outside the body, for it is the Reality. So if we have differentiated two hearts, heavenly and carnal, it is in an effort to distinquish the two aspects of Reality. The heavenly heart must descend and replace the carnal heart. The Chinese landscape painting celebrated, as is well known, not so much exterior reality as the lay of land within our souls. Hence a Chinese landscape must have the “Yang-Yin”
principles. The “Yang” principle is associated symbolically with the masculine, light principle, whereas in contrast the “Yin” aspect of reality is associated with the feminine, dark principle. The image of the water fall, which we often find in landscape paintings on Chinese hanging scrolls, is supposed to represent the descent of the heavenly principle onto the earthly plane. In Indian mythology we also find the theme of the “descent of the River Ganges” depicted, for example in the Pallava rock sculpture of Mahaballipuram. Bhagirath, the archetypal Guru, sits at the door of the cave of the heart, bringing down from heaven the beneficence of Grace, for the salvation and forgiveness of Creation, which has lost its link with the source of life that lies beyond the cosmos. In Tribal cultures in India, we hear also of a ladder linking the earth to the heavens. According to the Khasi myth of the north west hills, it was down this ladder of light that the first inhabitants of this planet came, carrying with them seeds with which they cultivated the earth. But finally, the tree of darkness plunged the earth into chaos, and when the first tribal peoples tried to cut down this tree, so that their crops might have the light that they needed to grow, they also inadvertently cut the ladder that connects earth to heaven.

I would suggest that a similar idea of the linking of what is above, with what is below, is found in the structure of the icon. In the icon of the Nativity, for example, the child Jesus is born in the cave of the heart, and in the sky above, the star (bindu, or “heavenly heart”), sheds a pencil of light, which penetrates the dark cave, where the child is lying in the manger by his Mother, and amidst the shadowy forms of animals. The three wise men follow this star, that is they concentrate their gaze upon the point of light (or, as the Meister Eckhart called it, the “Soul-spark”) which leads them down to the cave in Bethlehem, where God has become flesh. It is also important to recall here Eckhart’s teaching on the birth of God in the heart. Interesting too is the presence of the ox and the ass in the cave. Nowhere in the gospels are these creatures mentioned in the nativity story, yet from Eastern sources of symbolic imagery related to animals, we know that the ox symbolizes the earth, and the horse represents heaven. The ass, one might say, is a humble form of the horse—it is heaven come down in the world! Actually the ass in the Russian icon is nearly invariably depicted like a horse. The ox is often painted red (earth colour) and the ass, or horse is represented as blue or white. (Note: The iconographic tradition of painting the ox and the ass in nativity scenes stems from Isaiah I, 3 : “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people doth not consider.” In other words, the animal kingdom has often more insight than human beings, who have lost the wisdom of the heart.)

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