Capital Visions of Brâncoveanu, The Martyrs Dance by
Nicoletta Isar, 2012
in the Album Constantin Brâncoveanu, the Power of vision (chapter Epilogue)
Inspired by On All the Martyrs, I would like to conclude by expressing my hope that the images of the Brâncoveanu martyrs will be painted in our minds in “rich colours”, as John Chrysostom puts it in that homily. This is also the spirit in which the icons of Elena Murariu have been painted, in honour and commemoration of the Brâncoveanu martyrs. The challenge with which this text begins proves to be a revelation: Elena Murariu’s icons refer us to ancient models and paradigms. As we predicted, the Brâncoveanu project validates the idea of the open and living nature of the icon that has been preserved within tradition. The icon is enriched with new images according to the image of the new saints, following the movement of the Christian soul in its continuous ascent to the divine archetype. The lesson of the martyred princes conveyed by these images is edifying, “making our house brilliant”, as Chrysostom says. It is above all a lesson in love: “No human being has loved Him to the same extent as the martyrs.” The love of the Brâncoveanu martyrs is conveyed by the terrible act of their martyrdom. For this love and martyrdom the martyrs are honoured by all the heavenly powers who tend their wounds, like “diamonds”, and race around these athletes of the faith who ascend to the heavens surrounded by hosts (choruses) of angels. For, as Chrysostom also says, the martyrs differ from the angels only in name, but in their works they are as one. In this victorious ascent of the garlanded martyrs we recognise yet another inspired paradigm from the iconic universe Elena Murariu has dedicated to the Brâncoveanus: The Ladder of the Brâncoveanus.
The most explicit comparison between the ascent of the martyrs and the heavenly ladder can be found in the same homily of John Chrysostom:
Remember the envisioned ladder that the patriarch Jacob saw stretching from earth into heaven (cf. Gen 28.13). By means of that one angels descended, by means of this one martyrs ascended. Each [of these ladders] the Lord propped up. These saints couldn’t have endured the pain, if they hadn’t been fastened to it.
The ladder, a symbol of the martyrs’ ascent, is therefore not only directedness toward God, but also the weapon with which these athletes confront the foe in their battle. This is the key to the understanding of this mystery. They climb the ladder as garland-bearers towards Him who judges the contests, Christ agônothetês. In an inspired synthesis, one of the most innovative reconfigurations of the icon, Elena Murariu succeeds in capturing within a single image the complex meaning of this iconographic subject. In effect, she recomposes the well-known binary of figure and ground, investing the ground of the icon with augmented power, making it an integral part of the image’s discourse. Thus, the ground itself becomes an icon, a martyr’s cross, and the ladder becomes the weapon of victory. At the same time, this dramatic episode from the nation’s history is integrated into the autochthonous landscape, and in an archetypal tradition that links the loftiness of the fir tree, with its stepped branches ascending to heaven, to the mystical ladder climbed by ascetics and martyrs alike in their ascent to Christ. Through the paradigmatic nature of the symbol of ascent, the fir tree and the ladder both refer to the wood of the Cross, as well as to the fruitful tree in the Garden of Eden. The coherence of this symbol, which is systematically present throughout the project, strongly conveys a single message: that of the sacrifice (martyrdom) of the Brâncoveanus and their Resurrection as a suggested reward from the perspective of Heaven. The Cross and the Resurrection thereby conjoin in an inseparable, profoundly Christian inter-penetration.
It is interesting to remember that the sacrifice of Christ, the model of the martyrs’ sacrifice, whereby they become imitators of Him (μιμηταὶ τοῦ Χριστοῦ, 1 Cor. 11:1), was understood from the very beginning as an incredible, cosmic event. This is why the early Fathers of the Church attributed to the Cross a cosmic symbolism. The presence of the symbolism of the Cross in the cosmic structure of the universe was recognised by the Church Fathers and in a mysterious way it was also intuited by the pagan philosopher Plato, as Justin Martyr tells us. According to Justin, what Plato seemed to be thinking when he described the Demiurge, the creator of the cosmos, as arranging the soul in the form of the holy letter khi (ἐχίασεν αὐτόν), was that he mysteriously predicted Him (Christ), thereby providing an inkling of the Christian tradition of the Son of God.
A cosmic perception is conveyed by the colossal force of the Brâncoveanu Fir Trees, archaic posts that burst up from the earth and soar heavenwards. In their heavenwards ascent, the fir spears, used in ancestral tradition as funerary as well as nuptial objects, seem to unite death and life, heaven and earth, bride and groom in a hierophanic way, transfiguring the entire cosmos. This cosmic union was imagined as a cosmic wedding, a nuptial dance, as long ago as Antiquity, but also in the Christian times of the Brâncoveanus, who would thus have honoured the young bridegroom, Prince Radu, had his wedding not proven to be one in heaven. This is the cosmic wedding at which the stars and the angels dance, as well as the bees and flocks of storks, and their wheeling dance was imitated by the saints and martyrs in their harmonious chorus (χορὸς μαρτύρων). But above all, they imitated Christ the Bridegroom (Νυμφεῖος), who, as the hymns of the Triodion say, came to Earth so that by his passion he might re-establish the dance (χορός), the chorus of the angels from which Adam and Eve had fallen:
Come, Adam and Eve, our first father and mother, who fell from the choir on high (Δεῦρο, τῶν πρωτοπλάστων δυάς, ἡ τῆς χορείας ἐκπεσοῦσα τῆς ἄνωθεν) through the envy of the murderer of man, when of old with bitter pleasure ye tasted from the tree in Paradise.