When I was an art student in college, I was particularly fascinated by medieval art and iconography. And I spent a lot of time poring over books of medieval art. The art of this time, in my opinion, expresses the spiritual reality more effectively than what would come later beginning in the Renaissance, which, with its classicism and humanism began to exalt the merely human over the divine. That’s a controversial opinion in the western world, which tends to look more favorably upon the works of Michelangelo and Da Vinci then it does upon the unknown artisans of the centuries before them.
Right there is highlighted a cultural difference between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. For the most part, the artisans of the Middle Ages are, as I say, unknown. It is in the Renaissance that the personality of the artist becomes exalted above the subject they are portraying in their art. When art historians are commenting on David or the Mona Lisa, they often have a lot more to say about Michelangelo and DA Vinci than they do about David or the Mona Lisa. The anonymity of most artists before this makes that kind of analysis impossible.
To this very day, iconography is traditionally left unsigned. Though, that tradition is unfortunately beginning to wane. The humility before the subject we portray is an act of veneration. How can I paint an icon of the Theotokos – and then sign my name to it? As if to call attention to myself rather than to my subject who is, in this case, “more honorable than the cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim”?
And so, perhaps understanding this, (though I am well aware of other economic and cultural forces at play, including the higher value given to the patron then to the artisan at the time), the artists and iconographers usually remained anonymous in the Middle Ages.
The anonymous iconographer is not concerned with exalting himself, but with exalting Christ; with acknowledging Christ before all; with loving Christ even more than himself (cf. Matt 10:32, 37). I think, if we are to become saints, which is what our Lord calls us to and makes us for, we can learn something from this idea of the anonymous iconographer. That is, we can focus our efforts not on calling attention to our own good work, but, by our good work, we can call attention to Christ – with both words and deeds. And we can focus on him rather than on ourselves. In fact, we will find our true selves in Christ. If we acknowledge him before all others, he will acknowledge us before his Father, he assures us today (Matt 10:32).
Preferring to acknowledge Christ rather than themselves, the medieval iconographers were intentionally anonymous, but another kind of anonymity also soon captivated me as I pored over those medieval art books. Medieval art is, as you know, very old. As a result, a lot of it is in significantly damaged condition. And a lot of it is decontextualized from having been moved around through various collections and its provenance is lost. For these reasons, and simply due to centuries of forgetting, sometime not only the artist, but also the subject is unknown. And so, quite often, one finds in books of medieval art a beautiful picture filled with images of saints. They’re clearly saints, being haloed figures in a medieval Christian artwork, but it is no longer clear who they are, specifically, if it ever was. Very often, in the description of the image, it will read something like, “Christ with the Virgin and John the Baptist and four unknown Saints.” Or, even just, “unknown saint.”
I love these figures. Often on the periphery of a scene filled with greater and better-known figures, they are saints too, but they are unknown saints. Personally, these unknown saints have become for me representative of all the saints we do not know by name. The saints who lived and worked and died for Christ in obscurity, which, I believe, is most saints. And today, we venerate them all.
I love to commemorate all the saints in a general way, as we do on this final Sunday of the Pentecostarion, the Sunday of All Saints, because it gives us the opportunity to remember in some way even the unremembered holy ones. Every day of the year, the Church lifts up a long list of saints we do know by name. These holy men and women are presented to us as inspiring examples of life in Christ worthy of our imitation. Yet, at the same time, it seems to me that most Catholic and Orthodox Christians I know hold in their hearts a saint they knew personally – often a member of their own family – who is perhaps not likely to be raised to the altars of the Church for public veneration. Most saints, it seems to me, are unsung, except on this day, on which we “celebrate a solemn feast of all those who from the ages have found grace before God.”
The unknown saints should encourage us in our own vocation, which is our own path to holiness and union with God. Because, like them, most of us are not prominent or famous or likely to be. Most of us will not be glorified in the churches with our own feast days or any such thing. Does this mean that we are not saints? Or that we are not called to sanctity? God forbid that we should fail to understand that we are created for holiness and union with God. And that this is attainable to us by his grace. I dare say that fame and prominence actually diminish our prospects of sanctity. Our relative obscurity is an opportunity to grow in humility. Of course, obscurity alone will not make us holy, but it is a helpful gift and not an impediment.
We are known to God. And there are no saints unknown to God. He knows them all. And to be known by God is all that matters. It is of no significance whether or not we are remembered by the world. To be remembered by God is to be remembered eternally and to live forever in him. Thus we pray for all those who have died in Christ, that the Lord God remember them forever. And for them we sing, “eternal memory.” This is nothing less than a prayer that God make them saints. Perhaps we don’t know what a saint is. A saint is holy person, made holy by grace, and eternally alive in Christ
How then can we access this grace and become holy and live forever? I can think of no greater grace than to be acknowledged by Jesus Christ before his Father. And he tells us today that, if we acknowledge him before others, he will acknowledge us before his Father. Evangelization, then, is mandatory for our salvation, then. It can take many forms, but it must take some form in our lives if we are to be acknowledged before the father.
But what if we have denied him? All of us who are sinners have denied him in some sense. He says that if we have denied him before others, he will deny us before his Father. Those are sharp words we need to hear. But if you have denied Christ, do not despair. “He forgave Peter his denial when he wept bitterly.” The Lord is kind and merciful and eager to forgive those who repent.
Beginning this evening, this repentance of Peter is our model of repentance. Tonight, we begin the Apostles Fast in preparation for the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul on June 29th. It has come to my attention that some of us do not even know about this fast. This is one of four seasons of repentance in our Church and it is not to be neglected by us. Our Church imposes no mandatory means of observing this fast, but neither does it permit us to ignore it. It is given to us as a season of repentance, which we all sorely need in our lives. Repentance is a way of life and not a momentary act.
Let us take this opportunity to increase in our lives the disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. To do no fasting at all during this season is unacceptable. Neither is it acceptable to fast perfectly while continuing in our sins. St. Ambrose of Optina instructs us, “People have to answer greatly for not keeping… the fasts…. They repent and consider themselves sinners in every other respect, but they do not think to repent about not keeping the fasts.”
Meanwhile, St. Basil the Great observes,
Beware of limiting the good of fasting to mere abstinence from meats. Real fasting is alienation from evil. ‘Loose the bands of wickedness.’ Forgive your neighbor the mischief he has done you. Forgive him his trespasses against you…. You do not devour flesh, but you devour your brother. You abstain from wine, but you indulge in outrages. You wait for evening before you take food, but you spend the day in the law courts. Woe to those who are ‘drunken, but not with wine.’ Anger is the intoxication of the soul, and makes it out of its wits like wine.
Take heart. We all have much work to do, and this is an opportunity for us to do it together as a Church helping one another to grow in holiness and become saints, known to God alone perhaps, but saints nonetheless.