Landscapes were important in defining God’s interactions with the people of ancient Israel. And landscapes were important in Jesus’ own ministry. Desert, mountain, sea, city and village – places, topoi, where the drama of salvation was played out in the Gospels. Those same landscapes became important in Orthodox tradition, in the writings and meditations of the church fathers and mothers, but even more crucially in the iconography and hymnography of the church.
In thinking about what the Bible and theology of the church say about salvation, I’ve found much inspiration from the book Landscape, Nature, and the Sacred in Byzantium by Veronica della Dora, published by Cambridge University Press in 2016. While the letters of the apostle Paul have been the prime sources of much of what the church has taught about salvation in Christ, the iconography and hymography of the church have been guided by the Gospel narratives and the typological interpretation of Old Testament events. The Gospels show us that Jesus was very much connected to the land where he walked and where he brought people into direct knowledge of God. The drama of salvation played out in the landscapes of Judea. Jesus was connected to the land and he became the land of salvation!
Consider two famous mosaics from the 14th century in what is today Istanbul but was then Constantinople. These two mosaics are in the Church of the Khora, now known as Kariye Camii in Turkish. Khora (Χώρα) literally means place, space, country. Why Khora? These two mosaics tell us why:
Both mosaics contain the word Χώρα, Khora. Both Christ and His Mother are represented as spaces of life. She is the space which contains the One who is uncontainable, namely Christ, vividly shown as if contained in her womb. Christ, who is God, cannot be contained in any space; and yet, in the miracle of the incarnation, He comes to be contained in her womb. In words of space and in vivid iconography, the incarnation is boldly represented. You can’t miss the play on the word Χώρα. She is Χώρα of the one who is beyond χώρα or χῶρος, beyond any idea of space – he is αχώριτος, akhṓritos. Amazing theology in just a few words and a beautifully crafted mosaic.
Christ is αχώριτος, beyond any conception of space or containment. But in the parallel mosaic in the same church He is Χώρα. Χώρα of what? Of the Living – Χώρα των Ζώντων. He who is beyond space took on existence within the dimensions of space in order to become for us the place, the space, where we receive Life! He is the Land of the Living! And that’s about as good a definition of salvation as one can give in one or two sentences.
Orthodox iconography and hymnography fully exploited the landscapes in which the drama of salvation played out, both in the Old and the New Testaments. Different topoi – mountains, deserts, seas, rivers, caves, gardens, towns, villages – became places of judgment and redemption in the Old Testament; but they took on new meanings when Jesus entered these topoi in the Gospels. The book by della Dora is a wonderful way to begin exploring this rich dimension of biblical and patristic imagination.