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Lay for the Day
24th September

787: the Second Council of Nicaea convenes. The council was a turning point of European civilisation, because it defined the Church’s doctrine on representational art – holy images – and condemned the iconoclasts, the image-breakers:
“… we decree with full precision and care that, like the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, the revered and holy images, whether painted or made of mosaic or of other suitable material, are to be exposed in the holy churches of God, on sacred instruments and vestments, on walls and panels, in houses and by public ways, these are the images of our Lord, God and saviour, Jesus Christ, and of our Lady without blemish, the holy God-bearer, and of the revered angels and of any of the saintly holy men. The more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration. Certainly this is not the full adoration [latria] in accordance with our faith, which is properly paid only to the divine nature, but it resembles that given to the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, and also to the holy books of the gospels and to other sacred cult objects. Further, people are drawn to honour these images with the offering of incense and lights, as was piously established by ancient custom. Indeed, the honour paid to an image traverses it, reaching the model, and he who venerates the image, venerates the person represented in that image.”
The controversy over images flared in the Byzantine Empire for more than a century. In 730, Emperor Leo III prohibited the use of icons, and his successor, Constantine V, severely persecuted those who venerated them. Nor was the matter finally settled by the Second Council of Nicaea. Thirty years later, with the accession of Emperor Leo V in 814, the iconoclasts were again in the ascendancy, and icons were prohibited in 815. Their use was not securely restored until 843 when, after the death of the Emperor Theophilus, his widow, the Empress Theodora, reinstated the icons. The event is still celebrated in the Eastern churches at the Feast of Orthodoxy, on the first Sunday in Lent.
The tomb effigies in the poem below are not the kind of holy images that the councillors at Nicaea had in mind, but it is due to their ultimately successful defence of the icon that such art exists.

Death & the Hanged Man

I. In Tewkesbury Abbey

The last Abbot – Wakeman, John – is shown in stone,
Long, worn and lowly, and he has no clothes,
And even flesh has left the bones alone.
There he moulders, effigy of those
Who glory in garments to no avail
As they must end. And over the corse
Humble frog and mouse, worm, snake and snail,
Five beasts with dust for meat, do slowly race
To fill their bellies, while the stone itself
In which these things have life, is scribbled
And scratched with years of hands in idle stealth.
It would make his father sad he dibbled,
But for the fact of the case laid bare:
The tomb is empty, and the man elsewhere.

(In Gloucester Cathedral, to be precise.
His bishopric there was the gracious price
Of giving the Abbey up to the state
Embodied in the gut of Henry Eight.
And there he shares the ground he once mastered
With the first-born son of Bill “the Bastard”.)

II. In Gloucester Cathedral

Bright, thin, elfin in his red and gold,
Robert, son of William, Duke of Normandy,
Conqueror of England, still makes bold
In wood, with armour on and dancer’s dandy
Legs crossed. But they’ve carved him all askew
And not at rest. The knee across is lifted
And his right hand’s reaching for the sword it knew.
What of deathless daring left him gifted
Thus with art? History remembers
And the world forgets. Tourists pass an odd knight
Oddly twisted like low flames on embers.
But one who stoops may start to see the light
In the open eyes of one about to jump
Up smiling at the playing of the trump.

John Gibbens
from Church of Thorns

The Lay Reader: an archive of the poetic calendar