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December 31, 2018

The Controversy Over the Bathing Scene in Nativity Icons of the Holy Mountain

On Byzantine images of the Nativity of Christ, it is well known that there are several secondary elements represented in the rocky countryside, even though Christ and the Mother of God remain the main figures. Among these elements, we find angels in the upper-left corner; the shepherds listen to the good news in the upper-right corner; the Wise Men, in the middle-left section, are getting close to Bethlehem; Joseph, in deep, disturbing reflection, is shown in the lower-left corner; and the bathing of the divine Child is in the lower-right corner. We sometimes see the bathing scene represented in the middle of the lower section, right beneath the seated Mother of God; sometimes, the scene is in the lower-left corner while Joseph occupies the lower-right corner. In the bathing scene itself, we see two women with their sleeves rolled up. The older woman is seated holding the Child on her knees or in her arms he is ready to be washed. The young woman stands holding a jar and pours water into a deep basin placed between the midwives. The young woman, sitting, extends her hand to check the temperature of the water. She is preparing the bath. On other icons, we see the young woman plunge the Child into the water up to his neck. In these cases, we have the actual bathing scene.

This picturesque scene, which is not mentioned in the canonical gospels, has its source rather in apocryphal writings, in the Apocryphal Gospel of Matthew, but especially in the Protoevangelium of James, which, as we know, had a great influence on iconography, hymnography and the feast calendar (eortologion) of the Church. The first of these sources mentions two midwives that Joseph asked to help the Virgin after the birth of Christ. The second source speaks of only one midwife and her helper, Salome. The Protoevangelium of James notes that Salome’s hand was paralyzed as a punishment for her unbelief when she tried to check the virginity of Mary “who remained a virgin after giving birth.” It also tells how Salome’s hand was healed when she touched the swaddling clothes of the divine Child. According to an ancient hymn, probably from the 6th century, “Of Your Cross Planted in the Earth,” there was only one midwife present: “...there the rock showed the cave and the midwife received grace.” Even though it is completely normal for the women to bathe the Child, pagan art provides the model of this scene. The bathing of Dionysios is represented in the same manner on a sarcophagus. The Church simply adopted and adapted this event in its own art since the scene simply replaced, without any problems, the pagan scene already familiar to converted and Christianized nations.

The bathing scene is naturally present in the main churches (catholicon) and in the chapels (parekklesia) of the monasteries on Mount Athos. We see it in the magnificent paintings of the Protaton (14th century) and in the main churches of St. Paul Monastery (15th century), Docheiariou and Chilandar Monasteries (16th century, second painting 19th century). Unfortunately the monks erased the bathing scene from certain very important monuments on Mount Athos: for example the main church of the Great Lavra and its chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas, the main church of Stavronikita Monastery and the main church of the Dionysiou Monastery.

In the Great Lavra, the famous iconographer Theophanes the Cretan painted the fresco of the Christmas icon (1535) as well as the other frescoes in the main church. The icon of the Nativity is found in the south transept (the south apse, upper left) of the cruciform church with three apses. All the secondary elements are there in this fresco, except the bathing scene. In its normal place, we see a small tree which contrasts with the normal arrangement of the parts. It is obvious, after close examination of the fresco, that the erasure of the scene was voluntary. The artist painted a little tree to replace the empty space in the lower-right corner of the work. The same thing happened in the chapel of the main church of the Lavra, painted by Frangos Katalanos in 1560; the bathing scene in the Christmas fresco, at the same place, in the main church itself, is absent. But the monks of the Great Lavra were not happy with just modifying the frescoes: they also changed the portable icons. As a result, the very interesting icon of the 16th or 17th centuries, suspended on the south-west column of the main church of the Great Lavra has no bathing scene. In this case, however, the monks added nothing in the empty space; only a few paintbrush strokes reveal their work. On the Christmas icon of the Stavronikita Monastery, painted by Theophanes the Cretan and his son Symeon (1546), in the same place as in the Great Lavra, we see a shepherd has replaced the bathing scene.

So the unacceptable changes carried out on these monuments unbalance the cruciform dispositions of the elements [in the shape of a Greek cross] of the Christmas icon. The proportions among them have been lost. We also have the impression that all the parts are hanging in mid-air, without any support. The small tree, the rocks and the shepherd cannot re-establish the lost balance. The erasure of the bathing scene is all the more serious because those who modified them damaged historical monuments painted by the best known of all post-Byzantine iconographers, Theophanes the Cretan, and his students, as well as by Frangos Katalanos, equally well known.

But why and when did the bathing scene disappear? It seems that the monks of Mount Athos, during the middle of the 18th century began to discuss why the bathing scene appeared in the Christmas icon. The silence of the canonical gospels on the matter of the bath opened the door to erroneous, dogmatic interpretations. Some monks saw the bathing scene as an attack on the absolute purity of the Lord or as an unacceptable aid added by foreign hands. They also saw it as an assault on the supernatural birth-giving, without labor pains, of the Mother of God. The presence of the two midwifes with their bare arms scandalized certain monks who thus provoked the discussions on the subject. Such discussions are still going on today, but with less intensity as says Fr. Theoklitos of Dionysiou Monastery, a distinguished and scholarly monk of Mount Athos. I think that the silence in Dionysios of Fourna’s work, written in the 18th century, The Painter’s Manual of Dionysius of Fourna, is a manifestation of this very movement. Dionysios was himself an iconographer, but despite his admiration of the art of Panselinos and his respect for Theophanes, he said nothing about the bathing scene when he set out directives for painting the Christmas icon. This is all the more surprising since, as we have said above, Panselinos painted the bathing scene in the Protaton church, and Theophanes painted it in the Great Lavra and elsewhere. In the following paragraphs, we will see how the description of Dionysios, at least in some important points, expresses the dominant mentality of Mount Athos at this time.

Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, from Naxos and a well-known and prolific author of Mount Athos, supported and encouraged, during the middle of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century (1750-1820), the opposition of certain circles to the representation of the divine Child being washed. In his work, the Pedalion (The Rudder), Nicodemus interprets canon 79 of the 6th Ecumenical Council which defined that “the divine childbearing of the Virgin was without labor pains” and condemned those who accept “the so-called labor pains” of the Virgin to be like those of every woman who gives birth. He wrote this note: “As for the representation of certain women washing Christ in a deep basin, this is absolutely unjustified. It is the invention of carnal people. In any case, this representation must be rejected.” In his interpretation of canon 60 of the Apostolic Canons, Nicodemus declares that the apocryphal text where “Joseph brings a midwife to help [Mary] during the marvelous moment when she gave birth to the Lord” is “a totally unreasonable thing.”

This man’s extraordinary authority was such that many monks accepted his idea and argumentation; they thus erased the bathing scene. His influence, happily, was limited to the Dionysiou Monastery where he received his monastic formation and to the Great Lavra where he lived and to the Stavronikita Monastery. It must be noted that, even though Nicodemus greatly contributed to the discussion, he did not start the debate. As we will see later, some monks were already persuaded by the dominant ideas of the 16th and 17th centuries and had already shown their opposition to the bathing scene.

(The above excerpt comes from a longer article on the subject titled "The Erasure of the Bathing Scene from Some of the Frescoes of the Holy Mountain" by Dr. Constantine D. Kalokyris. To learn more about this controversy, read it in full here.)