Friday, July 06, 2012

Saints and Scrolls: The Greek Fathers at All Saint's Margaret Street

The richly-decorated chancel at All Saints' Margaret Street, the work of Sir Ninian Comper, includes murals depicting some of the Fathers of the Church, theologians of ancient Christianity whose teachings were influential in the nineteenth century revival of catholic liturgy and thought in Anglicanism so full displayed in the building.

On the north side, a group of four western Fathers are depicted according to iconographic conventions established in the medieval period, each with specific attributes that clearly conveys his identity. On the south however a group of eastern or Greek Fathers process towards the altar dressed almost identically (granted differences in colour) in the omophorion, the band of cloth equivalent to the pallium of the western Church.

The artist has offered some assistance to the keen-eyed by including the name of each in a nimbus or halo, but the most distinctive features are the scrolls they carry, which include quotations from their works. These are in the original Greek, in an authentic uncial script like that of Codex Sinaiticus, contemporary with them and parts of which are in the British Library. Although the codex - similar to the modern book - was prevalent in Christian liturgy by the time these saints lived, scrolls were often still used in art to depict books, being easier to use to convey an actual (if brief) text and not merely the fact of a written work.

The four quotations were obviously chosen carefully to reflect something of the significance of each theologian and his contribution.

The first of those depicted, moving left to right, is St Gregory Nazianzen (c.329-89), one of the Cappadocian Fathers, along with St Basil the Great (see below) and Basil's brother St Gregory Nyssen. Gregory was deeply involved in the controversies that established the doctrine of the Trinity in its orthodox form and contributed the term "procession" as a way of defining the Spirit's relation to the Father.

The quote on his scroll comes from his Oration 28, known as the second "Theological Oration"; he prays "that one illumination may come upon us from the one God, one in diversity, diverse in unity (μία<ν> ἐκ τῆς μιᾶς θεότητος γενέσθαι τὴν ἔλλαμψιν ἑνικῶς διαιρουμένηνμία<ν>" (Oration 28.1; PG 36:25D). So the Trinity is not merely an object of our contemplation, but the source of the grace that allows proper understanding.

Second is St Athanasius of Alexandria (c.296-373), another advocate of the Nicene doctrine of the unity and co-equality of Father and Son during the mid-fourth century when many opposed it (or as Jerome dramatically put it, "the world woke and groaned to find itself Arian"). Athanasius' commitment to belief that the Son was "of one substance with the Father" was not merely academic; salvation, he argued, depended on the incarnation of the one true God rather than of some subordinate. Hence he famously said in his work On the Incarnation, as quoted in his scroll at All Saints', "He became human that we might become divine (Αὐτὸς γὰρ ἐνηνθρώπησεν, ἵνα ἡμεῖς θεοποιηθῶμεν)" (On the Incarnation 54:3; PG 25:192B). This notion of salvation as a form of theosis or divinization has been influential in subsequent eastern and mystical theology.

Third is Gregory's friend St Basil of Caesarea (c.329-79), "the Great". Basil's treatise On the Holy Spirit was the most important vindication of the full divinity of the third person of the Trinity up to that point, and his leadership was crucial to the eventual resolution of the trinitarian controversy. His scroll contains a quote from that work that emphasizes both the reality and divine sovereignty of the third person:  "The Spirit is a living essence, mistress of sanctification" (τὸ Πνεῦμα οὐσία ζῶσα, ἁγιασμοῦ κυρία)" (On the Holy Spirit 18.46; PG 32.53A).

Last of the four in the chancel is the greatest preacher of the Greek East in the fourth century, St John Chrysostom (c.337-407). John's contribution and reputation had less to do with doctrinal disputes than with the witness of the Church in the world. John's famous Homilies on the Statues are a model of public theology, and of meeting what was then a new challenge, to live as citizens both of the present state and of the kingdom of God. In this quotation, from another set of sermons, he characteristically urges his hearers: "Let us learn to be critical of human honours , rather than desiring them (Μάθωμεν τοίνυν, ἀγαπητοὶ, τῆς τιμῆς τῆς παρὰ ἀνθρώποις καταφρονεῖν καὶ μὴ ἐφίεσθαι)" (Homilies on John 42.5; PG 54:291A).

Together these four represent how the Oxford Movement saw the Church of the fourth century as a model, despite that having been a time of controversy and division. Although the lives of these four theologians were spent in controversy, they witnessed to a faith they had both inherited but also needed to establish, and had to innovate in order to do so. The designers and early leaders of All Saints were similarly both traditionalists and radicals.

[Note: These texts on the Greek fathers' scrolls had not been identified or translated, at least in recent years. This post arose from conversation with current Vicar of All Saints, Fr Alan Moses, prompting an offer to do so.]