Mount Athos (Greece) in the 14th and 20th centuries

This article about Mount Athos ran in the Economist at Christmas-time in 2012. It is a narrow peninsula in the Aegean Sea in northeastern Greece. Currently the island has 20 monasteries and 2,300 monks all belonging to the Orthodox Church. The monastery has maintained its prohibition against women and female animals to this day. The Economist article picks up on a controversy at Mount Athos that unfolded a century ago with the Russian Tsar’s naval fleet and other geo-political alliances and tensions.

St. Panteleimon Monastery, Mount Athos, Greece,  (image:
St. Panteleimon Monastery, Mount Athos, Greece,

At the centre of the 20th century debate is a book by a Russian monk, Ilarion, that expands on the theological importance of the names of God. Soon after the book was published it became the centrepiece of a larger conflict at Athos. At the same time, a larger conflict was unfolding in the Balkans in 1912.

The theological argument concerning the holiness of the name, or names, of God. “In any philosophical system in which the starting-point is the radical, primordial distinction between the Creator and the created, a hard question arises. To which side of the line should words, images or phenomena be assigned that belong to earthly reality but also pertain to God? And is it ever possible for something or someone to be on both sides of the line at once?,” writes the author. In particular, God’s name is invoked in the hesychast prayer of “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Praying by saying God’s name implies transgressing the boundaries between divine and earthly realms.

Icons, too, were considered a sacred place, a meeting place where people were guided into the divine, uncreated realm, although the holiness somehow bonded to the images themselves.

“In the 14th century, as Byzantium dissolved into civil and theological war and the Ottoman conquest loomed, yet another dispute over the boundaries between Earth and Heaven raged, both on Athos and in the imperial court… When Jesus Christ appeared on a mountain bathed in light, were the rays that emanated from his body created or divine? But behind the question was that recurring dilemma in monotheism. How, if at all, can the all-powerful, transcendent Creator and the created world come into contact with one another, and what does that imply for human destiny? The view that prevailed was a subtle one. God was both an inaccessible ‘essence’ and an infinite variety of ‘energies’ that could be experienced on earth. Humans could both perceive the light emanating from their Lord and become re-transmitters of that light themselves—and all this could happen during their earthly lives. Ilarion’s treatise sparked yet another version of this debate.”

At the Transfiguration, was Christ’s radiant holiness created or divine? How can humans come into contact with God at all? What does this mean for humans and our spiritual anthropology? God’s essence is inaccessible, but God’s abundant energies are experienced on earth. Humans are able to perceive the emanating energies, or light, coming from God and are also able to pass along that light while on earth.

This liminal zone at the boundary between heaven and earth as represented or materialized on icon frames and covers is at the heart of what I explore in my dissertation. The hesychast prayers chanting a short acclimation about the divinity of Christ were somehow materialized in the adornment of icons with precious metals, familiar ornamental motifs, and miniature representations of the major liturgical feasts. It may be too much for me to fully address, but I want to integrate the shifting emphasis in the devotional lives of monks and other Orthodox Christians with the turn to more heavily ornamented icons and their cousins in the sumptuous arts like reliquaries and phylacteries.

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