Chinese Depictions of the Life of Christ

The Life of Christ by Giulio Aleni (1637) is a picture-narration of the life of Jesus drawn by that early Jesuit missionary for the Church in China. It contains almost 60 engraved images, probably the earliest and definitely the most precious collection of Chinese icons. Here is a sampling (with a seasonal theme).

See the whole book by following the link above.

(Also see our posts on Our Lady of China here and here.)

The Annunciation
The Presentation
Christ teaching in the Temple
The Wedding Feast at Cana

The engravings are rich in visual detail, dense tableaux meant to capture a whole story. The central episode is in the foreground surrounded by other images, each one meant to evoke connected episodes in the Gospel story. Sometimes they even visually coordinate several Catholic doctrines, as in the Annunciation image, where Christ crucified appears in the left corner and underneath the poor souls await his coming.

The style in Aleni’s Life of Christ is purely Italian Baroque, though it harkens back to models in medieval painting. The faces and clothes are western (or fanciful depictions of Palestinian costume).

Fast-forward nearly three hundred years. 

In 1919, Pope Benedict XV issued Maximum Illud, an encyclical letter whose aim was to begin detaching foreign missions from the interests and direction of the colonial powers, and to promote native clergy and cultural forms in the local churches.

In 1922, Celso Benigno Luigi Constantini, the first Apostolic Delegate to China, came to China and promoted the localization suggested by Maximum Illud. Later he met the artist Lukas Chen Hs whom he encouraged to paint sinicized icons. Henceforth Lukas Chen Hs was hailed as the pioneer of localization of Chinese Catholic art.

A local tradition was born.

The Life of Christ by Chinese Artists,” published in the ’40’s, provides a sampling of photographs of works of art found in churches and private collections, all paintings on silk produced in this new, native Chinese style. This collection is an example of the “Other Modern” in the Chinese context. As the introduction explains:

“The Life of Christ by Chinese Artists comes the more gratefully at this time, when Western artists have either put the Bible stories aside as subjects for their art, or have blended with their work a harshness that wounds or a sentimentality that offends. The Chinese artist is never harsh and never sentimental. He catches the spirit of the Evangelists’ narrative. The genius of the East lies in the power of suggestion: indeed impressionism was employed in China before the word had any meaning in the art of the West. Above all, the figures, though they may be placed in a setting of abrupt peaks or plunging torrents, carry a sense of infinite peace.”

Image result for roman missal art

In the new art style, the world of the Bible is transported to the palaces and gardens of ancient Chinese noblemen, the persons clothed in the flowing, long-sleeved Han Chinese dress. Since it was considered undignified to portray important persons in scenes of squalor or humiliation, these aspects of the Gospel stories are often underplayed.

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The Annunciation
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Visit of the Magi
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The Last Supper

Compare with these icons, in a more elevated style, depicting Mary Our Lady of China as Queen:

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Madonna with child, Ming dynasty royal costume
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Madonna with child, Manchu-era royal costume


Stained Glass, Light Metaphysics, and Medieval Allegorical Commentary

Stained Glass

“The Old Testament is this vault which rises in a single rib, in a single groin, and the New Testament is the same rib that returns […]. And the keystone of this mystic vault is Jesus.”–Charles Péguy

The windows that exclude weather and let in the light are the doctors who stand against the storms of heresy and shed the light of the Church’s doctrine upon us. Light shines through the window glass, and this glass is the mind of the doctors, who contemplate, as if in a mirror, the heavenly things hidden in the figures (GA 1.130).

For those devoted readers who have followed us through Honorius’ Gemma Animae, here is a little meditation I wrote on his method of allegorical commentary.

According to the mystical tradition derived from Dionysius, and expounded by St. Thomas (e.g. I-II, q. 101), the liturgical symbol is the privileged medium through which the Christian soul contemplates the Divine Light in this life. Direct vision of the Divine Light must await the state of bliss. At the present time, since we have not entered into the pure light of eternity, “we need the ray of Divine light to shine upon us under the form of certain sensible figures.”

Otherwise invisible to us, the Divine Light appears through the filtered, differentiated light of incarnate figures. In the Old Dispensation, these figures were the narratives of salvation history and the ritual practices of the Old Law, which found their highest expression in the Temple liturgy, through which (according to Aquinas) the initiated could actually glimpse Christ as through a glass very darkly.

Christ comes as the Sun, shining through these figures and revealing that they were likenesses of him all along: “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer all these things?” In the New Law, the liturgical symbol becomes a diaphanous membrane through which we may contemplate the whole sweep of Christ’s redemptive work in the figures of salvation history, and even glimpse something of our heavenly end.

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Detail of stained-glass, Sainte Chapelle

With this in mind, the mode of revelation ascribed to the liturgical rites by the allegorical commentators may be understood through an aesthetic analogy with the Gothic stained glass window. In fact, from a historical point of view, the same Dionysian metaphysics inspired the conception of the Gothic style, with its use of light and color, and the Scriptural-allegorical optic of certain liturgical commentators as they sought to “illuminate” the “spiritual gem” of liturgical ritual.

Revelation is like the construction of a cathedral. God laid the stones and painted the windows in the Old Testament. He illuminated them in the New. The Temple is the Cathedral, media autem nocte. At Easter dawn the light of the Resurrection and the flame of the Holy Spirit flood through these windows to reveal the whole program of sacred history, its inner coherence and its splendor, the inner life that, though obscured, had animated it from the beginning. The High Priest in his cerulean robe, whom we once glimpsed in the shadows, suddenly is revealed as Christ himself. The dark forms of the lower ministers, the priests and levites, the hanging lanterns, suddenly spring into view as the orders of acolytes and deacons, Christ’s priests, and the doctors of the Church, disguised there all along, only waiting to be revealed. The Temple cultus was our cultus in germ; in Christ it finally springs into flower.

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Gloucester Cathedral (Source)

And even now the sun has not ceased rising. Through the illuminated colors of the liturgy of the new High Priest, we look further and catch some glimpse of the realms of light where angels sing and the saints rejoice, their earthly pilgrimage accomplished, the devil finally defeated. At times, at the Sanctus for example, the angelic song bursts through and the Heavenly and Militant churches are united in anticipation of their final reunion around the Altar of the Lamb. On the eschatological nature of liturgical cult, Fr. Quoëx writes:

The state of blessedness is the ultimate sacred reality to which the first two states of cult are ordered. The provisional realities, shadows, and figures of this world will give way to the eternal rest toward which man tends and in which, through the merits of Christ, he will be established as body and soul. There, “in this state of the Blessed, nothing in regard to worship of God will be figurative; there will be naught but ‘thanksgiving and voice of praise.’” Thus, the Angelic Doctor cites Apocalypse (21:22): “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.

The role of the Doctor is to help Christians to see the pure Light of Christ shining through the colorful pageant of the liturgical rites. As a friendly guide, he takes us up to the glowing windows of the rites one by one, pointing out the crowds of figures to him and deciphering the dense episodes of salvation history: a liturgical exegesis.

The doctor performs an act of Apocalypse, revelation, unveiling. This act has an eschatological dimension, because at the same time that he makes us glimpse the limbs of Christ working in the liturgy, he causes us to yearn for the light to overcome the mediating forms entirely, for faith to cease and vision to begin. So by “decoding” the liturgy, the commentator trains us to wish for the state of glory.

Allegorical commentary is not merely didacticism, or arcane scholastic exercise, or a childish “Where’s Waldo?” where the game is to spot Christ wherever you can. It came from a belief about the nature of Revelation itself. These commentators were convinced that liturgy was the ongoing drama of Biblical Revelation happening before their eyes, a continuation of the Incarnation that, like the sun shining through the stained glass each morning, flooded the dark world with Light and revealed Christ’s manifold presences in the Church. This drama invited intelligent viewing, and even active participation.

The Biblical narrative is not consummated once and for all on Calvary, but again and again when the sun rises on each Eucharistic celebration. The monk’s lectio divina in the dark of the night finds its completion in the Eucharistia at daybreak, when the protagonists are cast on the Eucharistic stage and he takes active part in the drama of salvation history: might catch a glimpse of Moses coming through the sea, or see Joshua blow his triumphant horn.

As the sun rises with the morning Eucharist in Sainte Chapelle, the dark figures buried in the stories of stained glass are irradiated with the light cast by the Sun who banished the shadows and fulfilled the figures. The companies of prophets and patriarchs renew their ceaseless homage to their Antitype, the Christian joins in worship with all the saints and patriarchs through whom God has revealed himself, and the humble species of the Eucharist is projected in pied beauty on the canvas of the chapel walls.

We can’t all pray with the illuminated book of Sainte Chapelle, but through the window of the liturgical commentary we can see the Scriptural types cast upon the walls of our own churches wherever we are.

The Holy Mass in the First World War: A Photo Collection

This article by Henri de Villiers was first published in 2014 on the blog of the Schola Sainte Cécile, to commemorate the centenary of the start of the Great War. It is translated and republished here in honor of Remembrance Day.

On 3 August 1914, Germany declared war on France, and Europe entered into a terrible four years of slaughter that would decimate believers on every side, wiping out the youth of thousands of towns and villages, and bringing about the loss of a great part of Europe’s Christian elite. In memory of this sorrowful centenary, we present a collection of photographs that testify to the faith of these men in the midst of the horrors of the front.

We shall remember them.

Requiem æternam dona eis Domine, & lux perpetua luceat eis.


“For the Lord will judge his people, and will be entreated in favour of his servants.” (Psalm 134,14)
Photo: Mass at the front in France during the First World War.


“The sorrows of hell encompassed me: and the snares of death prevented me.”
(Psalm 17,6)
Photo: Mass at the front for the French troops – New York Times, 14 February 1915


“I will love thee, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my firmament, my refuge, and my deliverer.”
(Psalm 17,2-3)
Photo: 1915: A mass at the 43rd battery of the 29th artillery regiment between Oostduinkerke and Nieuport.


“My eyes have failed for thy word, saying: When wilt thou comfort me?”
(Psalm 118,82)
Photo: Holy Mass for the French troops on the front of Champagne in 1915 – Collection of Odette Carrez


“The Lord will give strength to his people: the Lord will bless his people with peace.”
(Psalm 28,10)
Photo: 1915- the sub-lieutenant Pape (sic!) says holy mass for the 262nd infantry regiment. Photograph by Henri Terrier (1887† 1918). Musee de l’Armee, Paris.


“With thee is my praise in a great church: I will pay my vows in the sight of them that fear him.”
(Psalm 21,26)
Photo: German troops assist at mass in the Belgian cathedral of Antwerp – New York Times, 21 March 1915.


“Salvation is of the Lord: and thy blessing is upon thy people.”
(Psalm 3,9)
Photo: Austrian soldiers receive benediction of the Blessed Sacrament in 1915 in Russian Galicia. New York Times, 23 May 1915.


“Praising I will call upon the Lord: and I shall be saved from my enemies.”
(Psalm 17,4)
Photo: a Russian priest celebrates the divine liturgy for Russian troops in 1915. The soldiers have formed a choir and are chanting the liturgy next to the altar. The War Illustrated Album DeLuxe, Vol. 1; Amalgamated Press, London, 1915.


“I have lifted up my eyes to the mountains, from whence help shall come to me.”
(Psalm 120,1)
Photo: a priest says mass for Italian troops on the Italo-Austrian front in the mountains of Tyrol – New York Times, 27 February 1916.


“And they shall call them, The holy people, the redeemed of the Lord. But thou shalt be called: A city sought after, and not forsaken.”
(Isaiah 62,12)
Photo: April 1916-Soldiers of the Russian expeditionary corps taking an oath and venerating the icon and cross at the monastery of Saint-Pantaleimon, Mount Athos, Greece. Photograph: Dubray.


“God is with us.”
(Isaiah 8,10)
Photo: April 1916-In the Mirabeau camp near Marseille, men of the first regiment of the first Russian brigade pose around their flag, decorated with the face of Christ and emblazoned with the motto taken from Isaiah and chanted at Byzantine Great Compline, in particular on Christmas Day: С нами Бог – God is with us.


“Behold, God is my saviour, I will deal confidently, and will not fear: O because the Lord is my strength, and my praise, and he is become my salvation.”
(Isaiah 12,2)
Photo: April 1916-gathered on the parade grounds of Camp Mirabeau near Marseille, the men of the first Russian brigade receive the blessing from Fr. Okouneff, chaplain of the regiment, before their departure for the front.


“And the Lord is become a refuge for the poor: a helper in due time in tribulation.”
(Psalm 9,10)
Photo: April 1916 – gathered on the parade grounds in Camp Mirabeau near Marseille, the troops of the second regiment of the first Russian infantry brigade celebrate Easter, with the divine liturgy celebrated by Fr. Okouneff, chaplain of the regiment. The soldiers have formed a choir and are chanting the liturgy next to the altar.


“The sacrifice of praise shall glorify me: and there is the way by which I will shew him the salvation of God.”
(Psalm 49,23)
Photo: 1916 – Renault car-chapel dedicated to St. Elizabeth, donated by a businessman from Antwerp to serve the Belgian troops.


“In that day man shall bow down himself to his Maker, and his eyes shall look to the Holy One of Israel.” 
(Isaiah 17,7)
Photo: French soldiers assist at mass before going into battle – Source: Vive la France – William Heinemann, Londres, 1916.


“Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am weak: heal me, O Lord, for my bones are troubled.”
(Psalm 6,3)
Photo: Mass in an Austrian military hospital in 1916


“Thou shalt no more have the sun for thy light by day, neither shall the brightness of the moon enlighten thee: but the Lord shall be unto thee for an everlasting light, and thy God for thy glory.”
(Isaiah 60,19)
Photo: a priest, probably the famous Father Paul Doncoeur, S.J., celebrates mass at an altar – nicknamed the altar of Fr. Doncoeur  – carved into the 1st Zouave Quarry, in the quarries of Confrécourt in the Soissonais. Paul Doncoeur was a Jesuit who become a military chaplain in 1914. He participated in the battles of the Marne, Aisne, Champagne, and Verdun. He was seriously wounded at the Somme. Then he rejoined these regiments for the battles of Reims and Flandres. His bravery and dedication to assuring a Christian burial to soldiers who died on the battlefield earned him an immense renown: seven citations, the War Cross, the Legion of Honor. This altar was sculpted by the 35th and 298th infantry regiments in 1914. There is a patriotic inscription written below: “God save France.” On the right, a ladder gave direct access to the front lines.


“In my affliction I called upon the Lord, and I cried to my God: And he heard my voice from his holy temple: and my cry before him came into his ears.” 
(Psalm 17,7)
Photo: Mass celebrated for Austrian prisoners of war – Illustrated War News, Vol. 1, Illustrated London News and Sketch, London, 1916.


“But I, O Lord, have cried to thee: and in the morning my prayer shall prevent thee.”
(Psalm 87,14)
Photo: a chaplain preaching in a French church transformed into a hospital


“This hath comforted me in my humiliation: because thy word hath enlivened me.” 
(Psalm 118,50)
Photo: Mass for the troops in the region of Soissons


“By this I know, that thou hast had a good will for me: because my enemy shall not rejoice over me.”
(Psalm 40,12)
Photo: Mass at the front


“Offer up the sacrifice of justice, and trust in the Lord: many say, Who sheweth us good things?”
(Psalm 4,6)
Photo: French soldiers hear mass in a chapel in the trenches-New York Times, 25 February 1917


“Come and behold ye the works of the Lord: what wonders he hath done upon earth, Making wars to cease even to the end of the earth. He shall destroy the bow, and break the weapons: and the shield he shall burn in the fire.”
(Psalm 45,9)
Photo: March 1917 – M. l’Abbé Louis Lenoir (1882-1917), military chaplain to the 4th colonial infantry regiment, celebrating holy mass for the troops at Gravena (Greek Macedonia), shortly before his death in May 1917.


“Turn away from evil and do good: seek after peace and pursue it.” 
(Psalm 33,15).
Photo: Mass on the Italian front in 1917


“Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise thy name: the just wait for me, until thou reward me.”
(Psalm 141,8)
Photo: Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war assist at holy mass in a prisoner-of-war camp in Italy in 1917. British Library.


“Be thou mindful of thy word to thy servant, in which thou hast given me hope.”
(Psalm 118,49).
Photo: Abbé Even, chaplain of the 51st division. Photograph taken 10 September 1917 by Paul Castelnau (1880 † 1944). Médiathèque de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, Paris.


“All the flocks of Cedar shall be gathered together unto thee, the rams of Nabaioth shall minister to thee: they shall be offered upon my acceptable altar, and I will glorify the house of my majesty.”
(Isaiah 60,7)
Photo: field altar for Mass in the open air, installed in the back of a car in 1917. Photograph: Georges Pila.


“All ye inhabitants of the world, who dwell on the earth, when the sign shall be lifted up on the mountains, you shall see, and you shall hear the sound of the trumpet.”
(Isaiah 18,3).
Photo: 22 June 1918 – blessing of Polish flags in the woods of Beaulieu, Aube. Photograph: Auguste Goulden.


“You shall have a song as in the night of the sanctified solemnity, and joy of heart, as when one goeth with a pipe, to come into the mountain of the Lord, to the Mighty One of Israel.”
(Isaiah 30,29)
Photo: Mass celebrated in Amiens Cathedral, where the walls have been reinforced with sandbags to protect them from bombardments – 1918.


“In the year that King Ozias died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne high and elevated: and his train filled the temple.”
(Isaiah 6,1)
Photo: interior of Amiens cathedral, with sandbags to reinforce the building against shelling – 1918.

The Philosophy of Cult (3): Cult at the Center of Classical Culture

Part I: Introduction
Part II: Method

The next parts of the paper I deemed too boring….so I’m skipping to the historical section. Perhaps I will post the whole next week.



An Historical Illustration

a) The Unity of Ancient Religious Culture

Florensky moves on to justify his theoretical solution with an historical illustration. If he is able to show that, from an empirical perspective, religious cult has been the coordinating center of human activity throughout the history of human civilization, it lends credence to his claim that Divine Incarnation is the universal interior logic of human culture.

He first gives a brief rehearsal of the Slavophile critique of Western cultural decadence. The incoherence of modern western, humanistic civilization can be traced to the dissociation of culture and cult. Once the arts and sciences asserted their independence from religion they became superficial and sacrilegious. “Thus they lost their true utility and with it their certainty of their own undeniable necessity” (126). They are no longer “effective realities” but “intentional operations.” Things have become mere objects of practical use, and concepts are not longer links with the divine world but only utilitarian categories: a wholly “secular civilization” (126).[1]

But it was not always so. In the past, cult and culture were intimately linked, and any attempt to part an artistic or intellectual work from its divine source was considered sacrilege: “Historically, the fine arts are rings on the chain, or fledglings from the nest, of a more serious and creative art: the art of divine action, theurgy… the ‘maternal bosom’ of all the arts and sciences. The name for activity that claimed autonomy from theurgy was sacrilege” (125).

Since Florensky is rather impatient about historical particulars in this fragmentary work, we have to fill in the historical material ourselves, and this might be done by taking Greek culture as an example. The Greeks considered every art—even the most menial—to be a gift from the gods. The fine arts in particular were not only directly inspired by divine beings—the Graces and Muses—but participations in divine realities. The harmonic ratios, astronomical science, and the ideal forms of the marble statue are incarnations of the divine music that could harmonize one’s own soul. Artistic production in this view is participation in the divine work, a revelation of nous, a spiritual purification, an extension of divine incarnation. All works of culture—moral, practical, political, intellectual—are united in the one craft of divinization: making men god-like.

b) The Unity of Ancient Religious Culture: Pierre Hadot and Others

Florensky’s reading is supported by scholars of antiquity. In his classic studies of ancient philosophical culture, for example, Pierre Hadot argues that for the ancients, the task of the philosopher was not primarily one of communicating “an encyclopedic knowledge in the form of a system of propositions and of concepts that would reflect, more or less well, the system of the world.”[2] Rather, “the teaching and training of philosophy were intended not simply to develop the intelligence of the disciple, but to transform all aspects of his being.”[3] Ancient philosophy was a set of spiritual exercises aiming at spiritual “metamorphosis” and “transformation.” Each discipline had both a theoretical and spiritual aspect, so that the Stoics spoke of a “lived logic, lived physics, lived ethics”[4] which were the sciences as integrated into the unitary pursuit of wisdom. The disciplines of philosophy were not cut up into parts, but considered “a single act, renewed at every instant, that one can describe, without breaking its unity, as being the exercise of logic as well as of physics or of ethics, according to the directions in which it is exercised.”[5]


Religion as Cult

After this preliminary answer to the problem of cult and culture, Florensky proceeds to the second part of his project, to develop an account of human culture based on the philosophy of cult.

He outlines the three possible accounts of human culture, each depending on which tool-making activity one privileges: concept-terms (notiones), machine-tools (instrumenta), or holy things (sacra).

1) Ideologism: (N –> I, S)

If in its search for the sources of being, the intellect is seduced into seeing itself as the sole source of its own activity—e.g. the cogito or Transcendental Ego—it is led to approve a view of culture in which the primary activity is a system of concepts, elaborated by intellectual geniuses, that transcend the empirical world. All acts of production and religious rites “are a simple application of theoretical structures—scientific, mythological, dogmatic.” One first conceives a project in the rational faculty and then enacts it in the practical and religious realms. Under this category we might identify several modern forms of gnosticism, for which religion is a metaphorical expression of the system of abstract truths, which are the superior discourse.[6]

2) Economic Materialism: (I –> N, S)

This view holds that the formation of human culture is driven by the inexorable laws of economy. The cumulative force of infinite small actions produce conditions that define all man’s intellectual and sacral actions. Conceptual systems and sacred rites are ex post facto justification of existing economic arrangements:

“A world-view is really the a posteriori justification of an economic order that has formed itself using its own instruments and arms, through economic and social relationships that derive from it, while cult is the consecration of this very order, also a posteriori” (135).

3) Concrete Idealism (S –> N, I)

In an act of confidence that is tragically ironic in light of subsequent history—though not untrue to the experience of his generation of Russian philosophers—Florensky claims that economic materialism has become passé, ceding its place to a new, as yet undefined view he ventures to call concrete idealism. The term is borrowed from Soloviev, who is never cited in the text, but Florensky chooses to apply the term instead to the fruit of the Cambridge ritualist school of anthropology.[7] It is: “a theory according to which all existence is determined by a type of ritual, incarnate in religion, from which then derive all practical utility and theoretical concepts” (137).

The rationalist schools of the previous century tended to privilege dogma as the primary expression of faith. They looked on dogma as the expression of pure reason, superior to ritual and life, which are poetic elaborations or even obfuscations, of this primary datum. The new school recognizes the central and dominant role of cult in religion, making dogma, myths, and practices ancillary disciplines. (See Excerpts from The Philosophy of Cult (1): What is orthodoxy?)

Florensky gives several striking examples of the contrary view. The Symbol of Faith should not be seen as a compendious dogmatic summary or a declaration of personal or collective faith, but as a liturgical-sacramental performance of unity with the Trinitarian communion of love and thought. In fact, only in this liturgical, Trinitarian communion of love can a true faith in the Trinity be confessed,[8] and outside of it the creed is barren and without meaning:

“Outside the life of the Church there is neither Symbol of faith nor faith, but only something useless and incomprehensible. Thus outside the liturgy the Symbol of faith can be neither understood nor studied, just as, for example, the activity of the human body cannot be understood or studied from some chemically separated elements that were once integral parts” (146-47).

Doctrine is subsidiary, a “moment of cult” and not an independent reality in its own right. Scripture too is only a “liturgical moment,” and to read it outside the liturgy is as sacriligious as it would be to wear a cassock casually in the street.[9]

But one might object: If cult is a symbolic system constructed by a human community, there must be a prescriptive dogma or rational explanation that precedes it, “gets behind it” and mediates its meaning. Florensky denies that this is the case, for reasons consistent with his Neo-Patristic and symbolist inspirations. The ancients never bothered to describe the “meaning” of their rituals, precisely because their exterior forms were thought to be one with their “meanings,” such as not to require the mediation of concepts. Ancient cult is mute because its symbolic expression was understood to convey its message directly. These views are clearly derived from Florensky’s early exposure to the Russian symbolist movement and from Neo-Platonic accounts of religious cult, though in this context he cites the German Protestant theologian Karl Bähr.[10]

This epistemology, be in Symbolist or Neo-Patristic, is the ultimate reason why cultic objects do not require demonstration. The mode of liturgy—a poetic mode—precludes the necessity of rational explanation by the dogmatist or the scientist because it furnishes the participant a contemplative performance of concreted logoi transcending abstract reason. It is a divine condescension, making its forceful appearance in symbolic forms that speak directly to the mind. The force of this superior symbolic discourse explains why the logos of cultic objects requires no demonstration, and so fulfills the criteria for an activity of fruitful antinomy. It is probable that this solution, little justified in this text, will be unsatisfying to the modern reader.[11]

But once again we must recall that Florensky never promised a comprehensive, fully justified account of cult. The Philosophy of Cult is explicitly predicated on a prior subjective experience of divine fear and creatureliness in the face of the Divine Presence in the liturgy. Only the contemplative soul seized by the holy fear of the ceremonies can adequately exegete their contents and expression, and then only in the context of inspired discourse among friends, in the Platonic sense. Thus the ultimate transcendental precondition for unitive experience is not the symbol-structure itself any more than an a priori principle, but the fearful Advent of the Divine Savior upon the Altar. Florensky is conscious that his fragmentary, lecture-based format, delivered to friends, is a performance of this apophatic truth. Nothing could be further from the Kantian ideal.


[1] There is nothing novel in this Romantic-inspired critique of modernity’s technical logic, found everywhere in Khomyakov, for example, and the German Romantics. It is well expressed by Balthasar: “In a world that no longer has enough confidence in itself ot affirm the beautiful, the proofs of the truth have lost their cogency. …Syllogisms may still dutifully clatter away like rotary presses or computers which infallibly spew out an exact number of answers by the minute. But the logic of these answers is itself a mechanism which no longer captivates anyone. The very conclusions are no longer conclusive” (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Introduction to The Glory of the Lord, vol. I, San Francisco: Herder, 1982, pg. 19).

[2] Pierre Hadot, “La philosophie antique: une éthique ou une pratique?,” in Études de philosophie ancienne (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2010), 11; cited in Davidson, 21.

[3] Davidson, 21.

[4] Hadot, “La philosophie antique: une ethique ou une ratique?,” 18–29, cited in Davidson, 24.

[5] “It is the same Logos that produces the world, enlightens the human being in his faculty of reasoning and expresses itself in human discourse, while remaining completely identical with itself at all stages of reality. Therefore, physics has for its object the Logos of universal nature, ethics the Logos of reasonable human nature, logic this same Logos expressing itself in human discourse. From start to finish, it is therefore the same force and the same reality that is at the same tiem creative Nature, Norm of conduct and Rule of discourse” (Hadot, “Les divisions des parties de la philosophie,” in Études de philosophie ancienne, 211.)

[6] C.f. Cyril O’Regan, Gnostic Return in Modernity (New York, State University of New York, 2001).

[7]This new way has been elaborated largely by English anthropologists, among whom he names Spencer, Tylor, Jevons, Grant Allen, Robertson Smith, Andrew Lang and of course Frazer; Durkheim, Toutain, Hubert and Mauss and Reinach as sociologists.

In later scholarship, we might also point out the work of Louis Bouyer—e.g. Rite and Man—where he engages with the same body of scholarship and similarly concludes the priority of ritual to myth; and of Pierre Hadot, Roy Rappaport, and Mary Douglas.

[8] As opposed, e.g., to Cornelius Tiele (1830–1902) who wrote: “In doctrine, whether it be mythological and poetic or dogmatic and philosophic, I find the origin of every religion….Only from here do we come to understand what man thinks about his God and his relationship with Him. Cult, ritual, ceremony teach me nothing when I look at them, unless I have some explanation of their meaning” (f. 60, pp. 150-51).

[9] “Let us clarify our meaning with another example. The apostolic letters and the Holy Gospel are often considered books. The Holy Gospel and the holy apostolic letters are not “books,” but rather moments of liturgical action, derived from the liturgy, where they do not have a simply narrative or purely edificatory meaning, but one even more important: precisely an active, sacramental meaning.

In the same way the “books” of the Old Testament which should be read only in prayer, in an active, liturgical manner, and not a passive, mental, theoretical manner. The Psalter, for example, is a book of exorcism. That is why it is read over the dead, to defend them from the wicked powers of the devil. Some of its psalms, such as “Qui habitas in adiutorio altissimi” (Ps 91 [90]), are principally for exorcism, which is why they are embroidered on cinctures and transcribed in cases when spiritual defense is needed, and are recited for defense against rabid dogs and wicked persons. Upon the exorcistic power of the Psalter is based also the spiritual habit of continually repeating the Psalms from memory, even in the midst of doing other things, as a form of spiritual activity and consecration of one’s whole being through the sacramental words [. . . . ] Not only the Psalter, but all of Sacred Scripture has a cultic meaning, not merely a literary one” (The Philosophy of Cult, 147).

[10] “This is surely because in antiquity real and sensible objects were in general held to be immediate images of ideal and suprasensible things. Signs were at the same time words, or even more comprehensible than words” (K.W.C.F. Bahr, Symbolik des Mosaischen Kultus, vol. I, pp. 35–36; pg. 154).

[11] The problem with this epistemology is that it is perhaps insufficiently attentive to the analogical nature of the lumen fidei, as if the liturgical symbols could speak directly to human intelligence without the mediation of supernatural faith. Elsewhere, however, Florensky discusses the process of ascesis and purgation required to experience the liturgical vision: “The isolations of the hierurgos are his ascents into heaven, a sort of spiritual liberation. But each must limit himself to the measure that is given to him, ascending only to the dimension that is proper to him. If someone tried to go beyond the sphere chosen for him, he would enter an atmosphere so rarified, into an element that the fire had so refined, that he would be suffocated and hurtled with broken wings into the recesses of the earth and the depths of the sea. A new little Icarus, he will tumble into the abyss of chaos and spiritual formlessness” (The Philosophy of Cult, 306).

The Philosophy of Cult (2): Method

Part I: Introduction

Trembling Before the Wholly Other:

Method of the Philosophy of Cult

In the inaugural lecture—“The Fear of God”—Florensky defines his subject and explains his method of procedure. He begins invoking the motivating principles of this new discipline: divine love and holy fear. Elaborating these themes in a way reminiscent of Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, he describes religious fear as the experience of the completely new, the wholly other:

In the series of sensations that come to us from the world, there intrudes itself one that has nothing in common with the others, is comparable with anything us, something completely other. . . It penetrates like a two-edged sword to the point of separation between the soul and the spirit, up to that point of contact between our noumenic essence and the sphere of phenomena, the objects of earthly comprehension. . . This new thing rends the fabric of the ordinary in a way both mysterious and unusual….What reveals itself is not of this world and thus the whole world suddenly feels unstable, vacillating, weak: the ordinary pales in the face of true Being. And with the ordinary pales also our very existence. We end up seeming like tremulous flames exposed to the winds at the extreme edge of nothingness, as non-beings. It is precisely here where we find our eternal support, in Him Who Is from all the ages. Our greatest humiliation is also our greatest exaltation.[1]

But where Otto and others are less explicit, Florensky is unequivocal: this terrifying encounter between heaven and earth takes a definite concrete shape and specificity in space and time, precisely in religious cult:

There is a source, eternal and active, of this fundamental antinomic movement: the perennial dynamism of the “yes” and “no” of our life. It is a volcanic crater in which the lava is never covered by a rocky crust. It is the open window into our reality, through which other worlds appear. It is a breach in our earthly existence, out of which rivers from another world pour to nourish and strengthen us. In a word, it is cult.[2]

Cult is the terrifying eruption of the divine into the earthly plane, into concrete reality. Thus he is in a position to give a preliminary definition of his subject:

The first, fundamental, and most substantial definition of cult is just this: it is that specific part of reality in which the immanent and the transcendent, earthly things and heavenly, things from here and things from there, the fleeting moment and the eternal, the relative and the absolute, the mortal and the immortal encounter one another.[3]

If it is true that cult is fear and trembling before the advent of the Holy, the Wholly Other, how can the philosopher dare to approach liturgy as one intellectual object among others? What can frail words do when only vital contact with the Other yields true understanding? A comprehensive system is not only inconceivable, but downright impious.

Image result for the wholly other

Nevertheless, the philosopher of cult can make a series of halting approaches, clumsy starts that lapse into silence, a ring of concentric motions around the mystery of the cult, without claiming to define cult Itself. In fact, in one sense the method is an apophatic exercise meant to expose cult’s otherness and incomprehensibility when our language so often tends to domesticate it. Why bother? Florensky is ever frank:

I would never have dared to present these conferences before you, except that for many years now I have been tormented—in a positive sense—by this one thought: that the chief cause of the Church’s current collapse has been the lack of attention to and reflexion it has paid to cult, and that the primary job of theology today is precisely in the comprehension and explanation of cult.[4]

This apophatic method sheds light on the literary form of The Philosophy of Cult. Partly as a result of his devotion to Russian Symbolism,[5] Florensky was acutely sensitive to the relation between literary form and content. His Pillar and Ground of Truth is written in the form of 12 affectionate letters to a mysterious friend, which Rudolf Gustafson interprets as a conscious stylistic choice designed to symbolize the dialogue of mystical love which is the work’s central theme. We may read the fragmentary lecture-style of Philosophy of Cult along the same lines: they are a performative contradiction to rationalist philosophy with its pretensions to exhaustive system and autonomy of individual reason. True, “integral” thinking takes place within a community of friends turned toward the liturgical cult in fear. Their utterances can never claim to capture, much less surpass, the transcendent reality they praise.

[to be continued…]


[1] The Philosophy of Cult, 69–70.

[2] Ibid., 70.

[3] Ibid., 71.

[4] Ibid., 102. Thus Florensky intuited one of the principle labors of the 20th century, in which liturgy was discovered and promoted in scholarship of every confession. At his time, liturgics was virtually unknown in Russia.

[5] See Richard Gustafson’s introduction to Pillar and Ground of Truth, pp. ix–xxiii; and Orvacz, pp. 53–54.