Jonathan Pageau gave a talked titled “Christian Iconography Shows Us the Pattern of Reality” at Saint Tikhon’s Seminary (posted on January 3, 2020). He also has three posts in the Orthodox Arts Journal called “Mercy on The Right. Rigor on The Left.” and “St-Peter on The Right. St-Paul on the Left.” and “Authority on The Right. Power on The Left.” He makes the case that Christian iconography took up and further developed an ancient visual tradition from both Jewish and Greco-Roman art whereby certain characteristics of right and left corresponded with a long list of qualities such as internal and external. Visual perspectives are sometimes from the standpoint of the audience but more often from the standpoint of the central figure in the image. In iconography, this central figure is Jesus Christ. Pageau says in his second post that “this aspect of the symbolism of left and right is supported by early rabbinical traditions in which God is said to ‘bring closer with the right and push away with the left.'” Pageau also gives this connection from the Old Testament:
In the Temple of Solomon there were two prominent bronze pillars. These pillars are given names in Scripture. The first pillar is Jachin, which means “the Lord will establish.” This notion of establishing can be linked to our Lord telling Peter: “You are Peter and on this stone I will build my church.” The second pillar is called Boaz, and here we have an even more surprising relationship, because although the word Boaz has an obscure etymology, it refers to the ancestor of David known mostly for marrying Ruth, a gentile woman who converted. Boaz therefore strongly prefigures Paul as the “apostle to the gentiles.” Most importantly, just as with Peter and Paul, we can see in the two pillars of the first Temple this primordial movement towards and away from the center, analogous to the movement of the nous.
Before sharing more below about this right and left paradigm (and giving some thoughts of my own), I am quickly cataloging all of the attributes that Jonathan Pageau mentions in his talk (and his three earlier posts) into two simple lists. As you study these parallel lists that express this visual paradigm, it is critical to note (as Pageau says several times) that right and left are not good and bad categories. Saints and angels (with virtues and vices) are found in both registers.
- Authority [charisma?]
- Personal presence
- Direct action
- Toward those inside
- Hand gesture of blessing
- Words and actions of our bishop or priest given in person
- Bringing in
- Jachin temple pillar (“the Lord will establish”)
- Elijah (immediate presence) in the transfiguration icons
- Peter and keys
- Focused on the set-apart or inner family of God (Israel)
- Church of the circumcision
- Circumcised (outer removed)
- Theotokos (Mother of God)
- Good thief (sees his need)
- Cross footboard points up
- Halos (some resurrection icons)
- White and blue
- Archangel Gabriel (lily)
- Spiritual authority (eagle & cross)
- Power [title?]
- Formal office
- External body (indirect, added)
- Includes those outside
- Written code (formal guarantee)
- Outer structures of vestments, architecture, canons, liturgy
- Casting away
- Boaz temple pillar (for the man who married Ruth, a gentile)
- Moses (holding the written law) in the transfiguration icons
- Paul and new law
- Fool and shape shifter (all things to all men)
- Church of the gentiles
- Uncircumcised (outer remains)
- John the Forerunner
- Bad thief (sees no need)
- Cross footboard points down
- No halos (some resurrection icons)
- Archangel Michael (sword)
- Temporal authority (eagle & globe)
This list of attributes is clearly long and sweeping. It is not clear if Jonathan Pageau is making claims about basic metaphysical categories, universal human ways of seeing, ancient traditions in visual representation across multiple cultures, or all of the above. Particularly, with his phrase “patterns of reality” from the title of his talk, I generally take his claim to be all of the above. Pageau says at the opening of his talk that the life of the church brings us not only into the Kingdom of God but to see all of reality (everything in the cosmos) in its two basic aspects.
There are substantial breaks in these patters with some of the early images. For example, Pageau describes the Sarcophagus of the Traditio Legis (4th c., Vatican), Christ (without a beard) has Paul on Christ’s right and Peter on Christ’s left. Christ is handing Peter the written law (instead of an active blessing or the immediate applied power of the keys). Paul is being actively blessed by a hand gesture from Christ’s right hand. This is entirely reversed from all that Pageau is saying about the standard arrangement where Peter should receive the active blessing (later the keys) from Christ’s right hand while Paul should receive the external sign of the new written law book from Christ’s left hand.
In explaining these discrepancies quickly, Pageau mentions that everything is “still bubbling” in this early period of Christian imagery and that the patterns have not yet settled into place. He also mentions at a few other points in the lecture (as well as his blogs) that right and left are sometimes reversed depending on wether the perspective of the audience or of Christ are being used. These reasons may account for it. It may also be that the paradigm of left and right is not as rooted in Hellenistic culture as it is in Jewish culture (my own pure speculation without further investigation). As I will argue below, any paradigm of left and right clearly applies to each of us as a person (with the old man and the new man that Paul talks about, for example), and it is therefore entirely possible that the same figures could be used to illustrate either side (as we each contain both). In these older images, Peter may be receiving the old law (and standing in for the formal or external left-side in some early images) while Paul stood in for the immediate and active presence with the early Roman church (receiving the active blessing of Christ’s right hand). This apparent reversal of the expected (from our perspective with our later visual traditions) might also be illustrated with the transfiguration image of Elijah on Christ’s right and Moses on Christ’s left (reversing what we might expect of Elijah standing with John the Forerunner on Christ’s left and Moses standing interior to the household of God and the Theotokos on Christ’s right). With some varying emphases during the early period of church history on differing aspects of Peter and Paul, their figures may have intentionally been placed on different sides of Christ in early images as their different personal qualities could align with either the right of left paradigms.
Pageau notes that we each need both the right and the left. When describing the central throne of Christ around which all of this moves or is organized, Pageau also says: “We actually are inside that deësis. We are participating in it. And that’s really important to understand, that participation part.” This idea that we all contain the left and the right reminds me of the quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” It also reminds me of the ideas discussed by some of the early church fathers that the parable of the sheep and the goats is about Jesus Christ as the final judge who sorts out everything within each of us into that which is of the old man and that which is of the new man (see more here). With this image of the sheep and the goats or even our old and new man (from Paul), it is again critical to note that we are not even fundamentally distinguishing between good and evil in ourselves. Both sides touch our own heart and “who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
As Pageau points out repeatedly, “right and left” do not equate with “good and bad.” He cites St. Maximos the Confessor regarding sins of the right (pride and complacency) and sins of the left (passions and dissipation): “The passions of the flesh may be described as belonging to the left hand, self-conceit as belonging to the right hand” (Philocalia). In understanding this paradigm within ourselves and in relation to Christ, we see that all movements and places relate back to Christ and allow us to participate with Christ as long as Christ retains the central place of origin and destination.
In conclusion, as a pattern for reality (within the cosmos and within each human person as a microcosm), this paradigm has great explanatory power, and it can invite us into the full life of the church as well as into each icon before which we pray to God. It might be helpful to note that not all visual traditions within various cultures would have represented reality along these lines, and Pageau might have done better to qualify the universality of this paradigm across Hellenistic imagery (although he do not make any such universal claims about art history explicitly). Such technical or historical issues are clearly not the primary concern for Pageau. He is seeking to lay out a cosmic pattern that shows us more about ourselves as well as the entire creation and that invites us into a dynamic life with God.
For myself, I find all of this helpful in my engagement with Christian prayer and worship. I also am interested in connecting this paradigm of right (internal and upward) vs. left (external and downward) with a metaphysics of place that I have been discerning from multiple sources. This metaphysics of place claims that each human person (as a microcosm of the whole cosmos) connects (or anchors the connection) between two realms:
- each of our particular places in our present moments.
- the throne room of God (i.e. the immediate presence of God beyond temporal and spacial categories)
Pageau’s visual paradigm has a lot to offer as I hope (in some future writing) to develop this dynamic connection that each human person provides between the internal (transcendent, heavenly throne) and the external (earthly places in our present moments).
Appendix of images: