Forever and Ever
‘Sit at my right hand’
Commentary by Maria Lidova
Psalm 110 opens by quoting words addressed by God to the ‘Lord’ of David: ‘Sit at my right hand till I make your enemies your footstool’ (v.1).
This line is particularly significant for Christian exegetes since it forms part of a group of citations that reappear in the New Testament and are used by Jesus himself in his disputes with Pharisees (Matthew 22:41–45; Mark 12:35–37). Hence, this text was re-read in Christian terms from very early on, and was considered messianic, highlighting the connection between the LORD in Hebrew Scripture and Jesus (read as the other ‘Lord’).
This parallelism between the Old and New Testament texts provides the context for the image found in this nineteenth-century Russian icon. The panel represents a rather late example of the so-called New Testament Trinity iconography that was introduced into Eastern Christian art at an advanced stage of the fourteenth century.
The image depicts a striking combination of figures: God the Father with grey hair and white robes is represented seated beside Jesus, who appropriately appears on his right, distinguished by a halo with an inscribed cross and a caption bearing an abbreviated form of the name ‘Jesus Christ’. The elderly figure is also identified by an inscription as Lord Sabaoth. The flying dove with wings spread wide embodies the Holy Spirit and completes this complex rendering of the Trinity, which grants each hypostasis (or ‘person’) of God an individual representation and gives God the Father and Christ equal visual importance.
Conventionally the two figures of Christ and God the Father would come to be shown as jointly enthroned. Here, however—instead of a throne—the two figures are seated on a ‘red field’ which is filled with the faces of cherubim, while winged whirling wheels serve as a footstool. The presence of these heavenly forces is reflective of the way visions of God are described in the Old Testament (Ezekiel 1; Daniel 7). Ιf read in the light of Psalm 110, they bring to mind the ‘enemies’ that—according to verse 1—are destined to form the footstool of God. In other words, like throne images, they allude to the absolute cosmic power of God, since all powers—whether earthly or heavenly; hostile or benign—are subject to the divine sway.
Bigham, Steven. 1995. Image of God the Father in Orthodox Theology and Iconography and Other Studies (Torrance: Oakwood Publications)
St John Chrysostom. 1998. Commentary on the Psalms, trans. with an introduction by Robert Charles Hill (Brookline: Holy Cross Orthodox Press)
David Before the Lord
Commentary by Maria Lidova
This painting by the eighteenth-century Venetian artist Giovanni Battista Pittoni portrays King David on his knees before the Ark of the Covenant. The scene is usually associated with 1 Chronicles 16:1. According to the Scriptures, David transported the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem and placed it on Mount Zion. The line in Psalm 110—‘The Lord sends forth from Zion your mighty sceptre’ (v.2)—seems not to be accidental in this context. Both the king and the LORD share their seat of power on the Holy Mountain. The king’s rule is rendered mighty by the Lord’s commission.
David, traditionally honoured as the author of the psalms, wears his full regalia, consisting of golden crown, fur cape and luxurious garments. Nevertheless, he demonstrates his reverence and humility before the Ark.
The latter is depicted as a longitudinal casket with angelic figures on top, known to have decorated the original container of the Tablets of the Law (Exodus 25:10–22). David’s traditional attribute of a harp is put aside, left almost carelessly on the steps of the temple at far right, as the King of Israel pays homage to his Lord.
Nothing intervenes in the silent dialogue between David and God, not even the High Priest (Nathan, perhaps) who is depicted standing behind David adjusting or simply staying the motion of the censer. His presence is justified not only by his ritual activity but also by the way he indicates the particular sacred, almost sacerdotal, powers of the king himself. This theme of priesthood resonates with the words of the Psalm ‘You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek’ (v.4).
The condensing clouds of smoke around the holy of holies, and the opening of the sky in the upper right corner of the composition, allude to the idea of the divine presence.
Pittoni masterfully highlights the fact that only David is aware of this revelation of God’s presence, while other figures—the priest, the two men conversing in the background, and the boy playing with a dog—are left unaware of the mystery. The painting shows us a moment of privileged access that is the king’s alone. In this respect it helps us to grasp one of Psalm 110’s central ideas: that the King of Israel and all his descendants have supremacy over their enemies, and spiritual sovereignty over the world, because of their special covenant with God.
Caneva, Caterina (ed.). 2002. Il Corridoio Vasariano agli Uffizi (Firenze: Silvana Editoriale), pp.155–6
Zava Boccazzi, Franca. 1979. Pittoni, Giambattista [l’opera completa] (Venezia: Alfieri), p.129
‘The Womb of the Morning’
Commentary by Maria Lidova
The apse mosaic of the destroyed Dormition Church in Nicaea was conceptually constructed around the figure of Mary standing upright with the Christ Child at her bosom.
Black and white photographs taken not long before the destruction of the monument in 1922 reveal that the mosaic was reworked on several occasions. Traces visible around the figure of the Virgin indicate that it replaced an earlier mosaic representing the cross, perhaps an iconoclastic modification of the original design.
Directly above the Mother of God a large semicircular section of the mosaic alluded to the heavenly realm. It was characterized by three bands rendered in different shades of blue. From within this sky a right hand—the Hand of God—pointed in the direction of the Mother of God. The idea of divine presence would have been reinforced with the help of inlaid rays of blue light emanating from the sky and penetrating the golden surface of the apse.
At the top of the sanctuary space, there was a mosaic image of the Hetoimasia: the throne prepared for the Second Coming of the Lord.
The meaning and theological message of the entire triumphant scene unfolding before the eyes of the beholder was made explicit with the help of inscriptions. Inscribed in Greek in a semicircle below the representation of the heavens was a slightly-paraphrased line from Psalm 110:3: ‘I begat Thee in the womb before the Morning Star’. The theophanic vision of the Incarnation in the apse was linked to the Old Testament promise that God was the source of life and future salvation.
By creating a complex symbiosis between the text of the psalm and the image, the authors of this decorative scene provided a visual commentary which enriched earlier interpretations of the psalm with Christological associations, and read it as a quintessential statement about the mystery of Incarnation.
Barber, Charles. 2005. ‘Theotokos and “Logos”: The Interpretation and Reinterpretation of the Sanctuary Programme of the Koimesis Church, Nicaea’, in Images of the Mother of God: Perceptions of the Theotokos in Byzantium, ed. by Maria Vassilaki (Aldershot: Ashgate), pp.43–60
Underwood, Paul. A. 1959. ‘The Evidence of Restorations in the Sanctuary Mosaics of the Church of the Dormition at Nicaea’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 13: 235–43
Unknown Russian artist :
New Testament Trinity (Otechestvo), 19th century , Oil on panel
Giovanni Battista Pittoni :
David Before the Ark of the Covenant, c.1760 , Oil on canvas
Unknown Byzantine artist :
The Virgin and Child, destroyed apse mosaic from The Church of the Dormition, Nicaea, 8th Century , Mosaic
The Covenant and Divine Promise
Commentary by Maria Lidova
In his eighteenth-century painting Giovanni Battista Pittoni brings to the fore the figure of David and his covenant with God. Psalm 110 evokes in a certain way the promise that the Lord makes to David via Nathan which is recorded in 2 Samuel 7:12–16:
When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son. … I will chasten him with the rod of men … And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever.
In both texts we find the same promises of a kingdom and a future throne of glory, and mentions of divine punishment and of a rod, or sceptre—an instrument of power.
In both the psalm and the biblical narrative, the words of the Lord can be understood historically as referring to events which occurred after the arrival of the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem and the establishment of the new agreement with God. However, both texts have also been given a Christological interpretation in Christian tradition. David takes on the role of intermediary not only in spiritual terms as interpreter of and communicator of the divine will, but also in a historical sense, since it is from his line, the line of David, that Jesus, the promised offspring, ‘the son’ of God will come into the world.
Indeed, since late antiquity, the content of Psalm 110 has been interpreted as referring to Christ who became associated with the one David calls ‘my Lord’, receiving from the Father power over his enemies, priestly status, and an honour equal to the Father’s own.
Thanks to its later re-appearance in the Gospels, the text was often used in debates with Jews in the Early Christian period about the divinity of Christ. However, no visual expression was available at the time for such a complex theological theme. It was only much later, when a new wave of artistic experiments gave life to a number of unconventional pictorial formulations, that the idea received its visual expression in the form of a ‘New Testament Trinity’. Before that, Eastern Christian art operated with subtler concepts and forms of visual embodiment, revealing the connection between the Father (not representable in accordance with the Second Commandment) and the Son. We see this in images such as the one appearing in the former Dormition Church in Nicaea. The latter was located in the apse above the altar—the altar being commonly referred to in Church tradition as the ‘footstool’ of God and, simultaneously, as his throne. A ‘genetic cord’ connects the Christian sanctuary space to the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy of Holies of the Jewish temple. The throne as an attribute of power is implied by the position of Sabaoth—or God the Father—and Christ (Daniel 7:9) in the triumphant image of the Trinity in the Russian icon.
In a certain sense, the three visual testimonies gathered here can be read as a sequence of historical developments taking place from the time of the Old Testament revelation onwards, beginning in the painting by Pittoni with the promise, progressing to that promise’s realization through the mystery of the Incarnation, and reaching final fulfilment in the image of divine glory and cosmic kingship achieved after God’s victory over death.
Furthermore, this exhibition provides three different versions of divine revelation and theophanic vision, played out in the interweaving of the psalm and the biblical narrative. All three images convey a promise of divine protection and sacred presence that the viewer becomes aware of almost immediately, thus becoming a participant in the event of divine disclosure which the psalm presents.
Thanks to the compositional arrangement, the eighteenth-century beholder of Pittoni’s painting was integrated in the mystic experience of David’s vision. While worshipping in the Nicaean church, believers could witness the expression of God’s agency in the blue rays of transparent light penetrating the space of the sanctuary and the womb of the Virgin. Finally, the New Testament Trinity offered an image for individual prayer directing the supplication of the worshipper to the Triune God, portrayed as eternally presiding in Heaven.