The Feast Day of John of Damascus
The sign on the front lawn of our church identifying us as St. Paul’s Episcopal Church features a graphic of a man in a robe being thrown from a rearing horse. It mystifies people. Just last night my sister asked, “I’ve always wondered why you took that guy on the bucking bronco as your logo?”
It depicts, of course, the moment of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, when a bright light flashes around him and Jesus speaks to him, saying, “Saul, Saul. why are you persecuting me?” But most people these days have never read the story – or if they have it was so many years ago that they’ve forgotten it.
Those who do know the story often will sum it up by saying, “A bright light flashed, and Paul was thrown from his horse and blinded.” Interestingly, this summary is not accurate. What’s wrong with it? Well, take a look at the tale in Acts 9:1-19. What interests me as an artist is that nowhere in the account is there any mention whatsoever of a horse.
The horse came into the picture (literally) in iconography and then later in medieval paintings of Paul’s conversion. Perhaps the most famous of these paintings is from later still, a rendition by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio in 1601. It’s a wonderful image, full of light and emotional power. Have a look at it here.
The real Paul is much more likely to have had a donkey than a horse, if he had any sort of animal transport at all. (And he certainly wouldn’t have dressed as a Roman soldier, as Caravaggio depicts him.) Visual imagery can have a profound effect on how we remember a story and on what we think it is about. When I think of Moses, I still see Charlton Heston standing on top of a mountain looking fierce and manly. I have to think about it a minute to imagine instead a shy Asian shepherd who happens also to have been a kind of shaman. Or, here’s an exercise for you: think about Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel depiction of God and Adam and consider how it may have influenced your theology (at an unconscious level of course).
John of Damascus, whose feast day it is today, was a theologian, philosopher and composer of music who lived from the late Seventh to the mid Eighth Century. He wrote in strong support of iconography in the time when the iconoclasts were coming into power. Though he lost the argument with them, and countless icons were banned from the Church and destroyed, after his death his writings helped motivate the Second Council of Nicaea to restore the use and veneration of icons.
As a religious iconographer, I owe him a huge debt of gratitude. What would my life have been like if the iconoclasts had lastingly had their way? What would I be painting?
In “The Power of Myth”, Joseph Campbell compares artists to shamans. They make the journey to the underworld, and there they find new imagery to balance, to challenge, and to energize the attitudes of their communities. New understanding, new consciousness, thereby comes to everyone. While this feels to me more like the difficult- to-reach-ideal than the practical everyday experience of doing art, I think there’s something to be said for spending time with innovative images, especially those that elucidate elements of our faith traditions. New ways of imaging the stories – bringing new insights and directions of focus – can be breathtakingly powerful.
When someone asks me about my church’s logo, I tell them the story of the horse. Then I tell them the story of St. Paul. Sometimes they go away more mystified than they were before. But other times – well, they want to imagine the story for themselves.
Laurie Gudim is a writer and religious iconographer who lives in Fort Collins, CO. You can view some of her work at Everyday Mysteries.