Bishop Jovan Puric: The Orthodox Aesthetics in the Hagiography of St. Arsenius of Srem

Fresco painting depicting the burial service of St Arsenius
in The Patriarchate of Pec
An opening discussion for further research

At this historical moment of our struggle to keep Kosovo and Metohija within the boundaries of Serbia, and in the light of 1220th anniversary of 1st Ecumenical Council, it seems sensible to discuss the topic of burial services as presented on frescoes and icons in the Patriarchate of Pec. A new iconoclasm has been present in Kosovo and Metohija in the course of recent years. We have recently visited Pec, i.e. on the occasion of celebrating the Feast of Holy Protection of Тheotocos and once again experienced silent prayers of this sanctuary area, the See of Serbian Archbishops and Patriarchs; it is a sanctuary in wich holy relics of saints and icons speak a wordless language. The peace of the Sanctuary takes us into another dimension; it is witnessing of the one crying in the contemporary wilderness spreading the voice of the Truth.

This time I avail myself of the opportunity to bring to your kind attention some hints for possible research taking into consideration frescoes depicting burial services in Monastery Gracanica (15th/16th century) together with the icons treating the same theme (17th c). A series of scenes from the Hagiography of St Arsenius in the Church of Theotokos Hodegatria Patriarchate of Pec (1335) was long ago noticed and partially explained as a peace of art. (V. Petkovic, V. J. Buric, B. Todic, G. Babic, V. Corovic and others).

What sort of burial services was presented on this fresco painting depicting the funeral of the Second Serbian Archbishop, i.e. what sort of services as such was practised in the Middle Ages are questions of basic interest for the theologians. It is known and confirmed by liturgists that a common burial service was in use in 14th c. the time of these presentations. Yet, let us go further and pose a question: what burial rite was held at the funeral of St Arsenius Sremac?

Before our attempt to offer a reply to this, bearing in mind that it is very difficult to reconstruct the liturgical laws of that time, we would suggest stating some fact about the milieu and the person of the saint within the theme Theology of Icon in 21st c.

The divine service in the holy memory of St Arsenius, as well as the Hagiography of the Saint was written by St Daniel the Archbishop who places special emphasis on the liturgical life and canonical orders of the Church in Serbia, particularly on the organization of the monastic life. Daniel “established the typicon in the Church to be observed by wise and sensible monks (of Greek stock), all to be in accordance with the law in that church, as well as to celebrate the Divine Services as per The Orthodox Directory” (P. Simic).

Right in that church founded by the Archbishop himself, i.e. the church of Theotokos Hodegatria is painted the biography of Archbishop Arsenius in four compositions on wault surfaces of the Chapel of Prothesis. The cycle of four compositions is situated just opposite the sarcophagus containing St. Arsenius relics in the adjoining Church of the Apostols. In the Church of the Virgin endowed by St Arsenius are the holy relics of St Nicodemus, a saint noted for the typicon on the basis of which the transition to the Jerusalem order was introduced.

Since Daniel wrote the Hagiography and the Divine Service to St Arsenius, attention should be paid to some eschatological elements in the burial service. But before treating these parts something should be said about the personality of the saint based on the Hagiography: “None of the things which he lovingly wrote about Arsenius, did Daniel expect the painter to realize in the cycle dedicated to the saint... The Hagiography of Arsenius turned to adoration of St Sava's virtues” (V. Duric). Hence St Daniel states in the saint's Hagiography: “In prayers was he so devoted that he never erred in typicon and ecclesiastical rules both during day and night time, or was he ever for any reason late for anything, having always Christ in his view, St Arsenius surpassed the visions of old rigieous men...” (B. Todic). As regards the story about the fresco painting depicting the respective burial service we have in the enclousure herewith quoted the detailed descrition of St Arsenius' death from his Hagiography, together with the troparion, kontakion and exapostilarion from the Divine Service in the holy memory of the saint. (Encl. 1,2)

First of all, let us interpret the text of the exapostilarion which the iconographer reads, i.e. which we read through the form of this fresco: “When the saint passed away people assembled to bury his body.” No text can be seen on this fresco in the way it can be noticed on another fresco painting in the church of St Apostoles depicting the burial of St Sava 2nd, the issue to be discussed on another occasion. Now we stop before the fresco in the Church of Virgin Hodegatria to analyse it. The words of the Hagiography repeted in the Divine Service in memory of the saint are important for us. “Taking his venerable and sacred body, they walked stepping towards the prepared tomb in the Church of St Apostoles” (from exapostilarion).

At the initial stage of this discussion we put ourselves before a task to try, by “reading” throughly the fresco, and following what the author of the Hagiography and Services in the memory of the Saint saays, to foresee what sort of a Divine Service was celebrated at the burial of the Sant:

chansfor1at the burial of the Saint: “…exalting chans for the eternal rest of the Saint with psalms and spiritual song”, and in kontakion in his memory it is obvious that he was a cantor: “in the language of praise and on his lips chants as an offering.”

There arises a question here: what hymns and chants were sung at a bishop s funeral. As far as some of the liturgists' researching (J. Goar, Dimitrievski, Uspenski, Fundulis, Arranz, Kniazeff, V. Bruni) the old Euchologions did not contain the burial services at all. The present form of burial services are nothing but the services of panakhida in which the antiphones and prayers are replaced by other texts. At first Panakhida was a short service to be later developed into vigil services. Some prayers (5) attributed to Herman the Patriarch of Constantinople (+733) in an euchologion from ll1 c. (Sin. 959) (Sinaiticus gr. 956, 10th c.) came to be known, as well as in Codex gr. 336 (8/9th c.) where these services are elaborated by scholars. Even a Panakhida for the living can be found in Georgian documentation.

It is known that the office of burial of a priest contains special prayers with the antiphone chant. This is again to stress the context of the imposed task and state that the common memorial service for the departed had already been celebrated in 14th c., when the above mentioned frescoes in the Patriarchate of Pec appeared, the issue to be discussed further. However we can presume, without providing more valuable insight into this problem, that the Panakhide prayers had in the past cenuries been an integral part of the liturgy. “O God of spirits”, is one of the oldest prayers. Having in mind the solemn announcement of victory over death in the manner of old anaphoras contained in the euchologion - these Panakhida prayers were sung, and they practically do not distinguish from the commemoration services of Saints for their being glorified by God. They were worthy of rememberance as “every spirit of the righteous departed in faith”. The office in the Euchologion is after all inspired by the office of St John Chrysostomos. Just as Chrysostomos himself, writes both Pascal Catechesis and the book of priesthood in liturgical key.

As regards psalmody in services of the Church, Psalm 117 was traditionally used during burial services long before 14th c. Therefore we have reasonable grounds for free conclusion that the burial of St Arsenius, the Archbishop of Serbia was aestetically and iconically presented against the description in his Hagiography and Church service in his holy memory. A brief account of iconism and hymnography can be given here. Besides, a theological icon of death based on the Bible is to be offered, too. In the words of the troparion of the saint: “that we do not abruptly, i.e. suddenly fall asleep to death”, is given a theological lesson and message of both the office of burial service itself and the Service in memory of the Saint — the issue to be comparatively studied. (We intend to do this in a more extensive study.) Now, let us draw our attention to the fresco of burial service of the saint which inspires us for further research and theologization in hesychastic experience of death, the point that prompts modern iconographs.

At very first sight we can see the deceased on the bier surrounded by the assembled community of worshippers headed by their priests how they pray together including the deceased himself, saying the ancient prayer accompanied by Hallelujaih, have mercy on thy servant” with psalms. As though Daniel 2nd were responding to the supplication “the angels then shall gladdening embrace his soul inhabiting her in the dwellings of light”. The Church, as a heavency - earthly community, in the office of the entombment on Great an Holy Saturday affirms her obedience unto death, even the death of the cross (Phil. 2,5—10). In the light of this office we can recognize the ministry of each bishop and priest. Yet this will be discussed further.

Now this is just to notice that relationship between an individual and the community concerning the burial service. From the laudation that the poet puts in the mouth of the deceased, we can hear him saying the farewell to community assembled there, i.e. on earth, to support him with their prayers to enter a new way of existence in anticipation of Resurrection . The above mentioned Psalm 117 conequently shows what actually should the icon of every baptised individual be like, since he is called to follow Christ s example and His obedience to the Father's Will. This Psalm also includes a reminder to let one know that sainthood is his ideal, i.e. an aim that every christial should achieve.

The procession round the church in which the deceased is taken reminds us also of Great and Holy Saturday service; this means that a priest's burial points to the Church who liturgically keeps the memory of Christ's burial. This implies the relationship between the deceased priest and Christ. The analogy drawn between a priset's burial service and the Service of Great and Holy Saturday includes actually a prayer and appeal: the prayer for the one who was not capable of making a sacrifice like Christ as well as the prayer for the living priests to be summoned to the sacrifice of taking his own pastoral cross, part of it being death that all are to encounter. The crossbearing task of a sheperd is therefore to get his community prepared for death; to witness the dual attitude towards death. On one side, death is trampled by Christ and this cleared the way to the Triumphant Resurrection. That triumph over death should be the foundamental idea of an iconographer for his art. On the other the painful fact of death remains. It is the fact with what a Christian does not reconcile, in spite of its frightening educative effects. It is indeed what the Holy Fathers put it “it is an memorable memento of death”, a gentle pedagogue of soul and body.

This fresco of burial service interpreted in Paschal key uses the language of evangelic mystery which comes to us from the reverse perspective and educates us in spirituality. For “Death in Christianity gains through the crucifixion of Christ and His Death not only soteriological but also gnoseological - educational character and signification”. (Most Rev. Amfilohije Radovic) Out of this the following can be viewed: The present-day burial service is of eschatological character inasmuch as it is inspired by the ancient services; it is overfull of abundant metaphysics in which we can find responces to the utmost signification of humankind living in this world. “The praising language” of that service sends the message of man’s signification during his lifetime; through it we hear the voice of the Church who bears the Truth as well as of her mission i.e. “Cheering Searmon”. This fresco of Pec makes a specific preaching the Gospel. In front of this fresco presentation one stands sober in the same way one experiences his inner depths in illness or at the cemetery. One can even better look at his inner being in a Sanctuary where relics of sants are kept and where one is released from emotionism, vanity and hypocrisy. St. Arsenius gets particularly prepared for the Holy Office of burial which is preceded by “chants on lips as offering” in everyday services. It is there that we notice the full iconism of his language on his lips; as if the poet and paimer addressed him who is lying on bier; “Teacher of Chanity and treasury of benevolence that you gave to all”. We are to present a more extensive account about that grace (charity benevolence) and their sources. In one word he became a treasury of mystery to percieve deification in his funereal and particularly with his holy relics. That is why his tomb with his holy regularly frequented, where a special prayer service is celebrated before his icon. Looking at this fresco painting we “Prudently nourish thine heirs”, because from your lips and shut mouth we hear an exciting voice: “Christ thouart the light inexpressible”. Now and here, at this very place before his holy relics we sense the fragrance of Christ.

It is in the Mystery of thax in expessible light (“O, cladsome Light ), that we perceive the greatness and dignity of man. The saint was truly aware of the greatness and significance of hymns in divine services. The divine service strengthened his personality and inspired him all his lifetime long. He was “a rule of faith” while teaching his people and “a preacher of faithfulness” and “Divine fairness” of hierarchs. On the one hand he strengthened his virtues and faith gaining enormus power to serve to his people as an archbishop for thirty years; now on the other, lying on a bier he bears witness to the spiritual beauty which he was preaching and for which he was striving. His death means lying in rest where the funeral procession iconizes “the divine beauty” of his divine charity and philantropy. That is why so much fragrance from the holy relics and immaterial of grace fills, nourishes and insires us. That iconic death of a man would otherwise be unimaginable. This issue is worth further discussion and analysis. (The announced study will be treating this issue within the context of designated topic.)

            At the end of this brief review of the fresco depicting St Arsenius' burial service, the hesychastic approach to death by the medieval man should be stressed. Within the living experience of a holy man his life determination and ascesis, we can see the preparation of burial service. He was experiencing death in the Person of Theantropos Christ, and for that reason we offer Christ prayer “not to fall asleep in the Lord at unawares.” Out of his cheering: “Christ thou art inexpressible light”, by gracious turning fright of death into faith, we accept life through death by inercessions of his prayers. This is the eschatological experience of the Church where the graceful gift to remind of where death is particulary possessed by saints. The words of the ancient prayer written by St Herman of Contantinople take us somehow to a deeper liturgical comprehension of death. By these words I would close this report, not having in mind to include all medieval frescoes depicting burial services - the task to be continued.

We who are expecting coming of the Day of New Christ our God, Judge of all of us, not to be found lying and sleeping but vigilant and alert in conducting His commandments enter into the Joy of our Lord where neither pain not sorrow nor sighing exist, where is the dwelling of all who rejoice in Thee.

By the above words we open a topic of more complete insight into analysis of the Hagiography of and Prayer Service to the Saint and present an interdisciplinary interpretation of the ancient panakhida as well as the position of icon and relics of saints in the Worship of the Church (Liturgy) stressing the biblical elements of the burial service. The above elements whose accordance with the tradition witness all the complexity of the Church and her worship tradition. Without this interactive approach we cannot have a full insight into the mystery of the fresco based upon the Hagiography of and Prayer Service to St Arsenius of Srem. In order to find the byzantine influence in the Prayer Service to St Arsenius it is important to emphasize all complexity of the Byzantine Aestetics in the Canon to the Saints and ascetism in it. In our attempt to analyze the language of the icon in the Hagiography of and Prayer service to the Saint as well as the fresco painting of St Arsenius, we will uncover the language of St Daniel 2nd as a language of the Gospel, Litugy hymnography, hagiography, dogmatics and pedagogy. In the church office of the Patriarchate of Pec, where the Miracle - Working icon of Virgin Hodegatria we shall feel the mistery of the fresco icon depicting Akathist, as well as place its position in the Liturgy. Above all this we feel the invocation of the Divine Name that accompanies the icon depicting the feast of the Saint. That aspect of research is exactly the key issue of our next topic.

Bishop Jovan Puric