Icons Of Who We Can Become: Synaspismos

I’m reading through Playing God ahead of an upcoming event next week featuring Andy Crouch.  The book is fantastic, and is filled with memorable stories and illustrations that shed new light on what it means to wield power in ways that restores the image of God–in ourselves and others–instead of diminishing it.

One of the most beautiful pictures I’ve come across so far is in the chapter “Icons.”  Building on the idea that an icon is a trustworthy image (as opposed to an idol, which is an untrustworthy image), Andy recounts a trip to the Greek island of Patmos where he discovered a unique icon.  The following are a series of excerpts from p. 94-96 of the book, highlighting some powerful ruminations by Andy on the artwork.

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Most icons show one saint; this one showed two, Saints Peter and Paul.  And they were embracing.  Indeed, they were nearly kissing; their faces were pressed up against one another in an intimate greeting, presumably something like the “holy kiss” that Paul refers to in his letters.  The traditional circular halos behind their heads overlapped, forming a kind of heart shape.  The icon was a series of symmetries from top to bottom–their halos, their hands on one another’s shoulders and forearms, their overlapping garments of deep green, crimson, blue and gold all combining in a moment of balanced but dynamic harmony.

I ended up paying several visits to the icon during my week of Patmos, drawn back to it by the tension between its harmonious beauty and the complicated historical moment it portrays.  The icon, as a visiting Greek scholar did his best to explain to me using his limited English one day as we stood in the dry cool air of the gallery, shows the moment when Peter and Paul meet for the first time.  “Synaspismos,” he said emphatically.  “At yes, synaspismos,” I responded, pretending that my four years of classical Greek were not wasted.  For many years I though he was telling me the name of the icon; only later did I learn that the word refers to an ancient battle practice of advancing with shields overlapping one anther, just as the saints overlap in this moment of greeting.  It is a word for shared strength, comradeship, and partnership–the sharing of power that enabled both Peter and Paul to fulfill their vocations as ambassadors of the gospel across the Roman Empire.

But while Peter and Paul are indeed greeting one another with a holy miss, fellow warriors lending one another their strength and blessing, the longer I looked at that icon the more I suspected that Peter and Paul’s feelings about this meeting were, well, complicated.  The express on each of their faces is somber, even a bit suspicious.  Indeed, as they embrace they are quite conspicuously not looking one another in the eyes the way I do when I meet a long-lost friend; they gaze across and out of frame of the icon, each looking at something beyond the other.  These are not old friends reunited after a long journey.  They are, in fact, very recent enemies meeting shortly after Paul’s conversion from persecutor of the church to energetic defender of the Way of Jesus.

Peter and Paul were alike in some ways.  Both seem to have been bold if not brash, both were evangelists, both seem to have had an instinct for seeking out and training young leaders like Mark and Timothy.  Yet they were also undeniably different.  Paul, the cosmopolitan Pharisee and student of Gamaliel; Peter, the fisherman with the Galilean accent.  Oddly, the Galilean outsider become a leading figure in the Jerusalem church and ultimately was thought of as the apostle to the Jews; the Pharisee insider ultimately made his greatest contribution to Christian history by embracing a mission to the Gentiles.  The iconography of the Synaspismos icon plays up their differences even as it brings them together in their embrace–Peter with his traditional bushy head of hair, Paul darker in complexion and already balding (the iconographer thoughtfully gives him a little tuft of hair on top of his head–fortunately, the combover seems to have bee a later invention).  It also emphasizes, if not exaggerates, the difference in age between the two men: Peter is portrayed with gray hair and beard, oso that Paul, in spite of his premature balding, looks like the young man.

So the Synaspismos icon has become for me a picture of fellowship, partnership and community, and also of difference, distance and difficulty.  Ultimately they are all part of the same thing.  It is perhaps the best portrayal I have seen of the reality that love is as much an act of the will as an impulse of the heart.  In the Synaspismos we witness two strong leaders willing to submit to one another–to embrace the gifts the other brings and to join together, shields overlapping, in a shared mission.

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