by Heleanor Feltham
The icon painter
Lazarus the icon painter
Senior among the artists of Byzantium
Caught God in wood and gold
And filled the courts, churches and monasteries
With choirs of angels.
But there were those who said
The infinite could never be confined
Within the circuit of a golden frame -
Not even in the glittering tesserae
Of the great dome.
How can the living Word express itself
Through the dead medium of glass and paint?
(And when the hanging lamps supply the light
Through coils of blue-sweet smoke, and incense hangs
And shimmers in the air,
How easy to suppose the image smiles
And moves within a cloud of miracles.)
So Lazarus was branded on both palms
And scourged, and stigmatised;
Anathema cried out against him.
Those who would steal a part in God’s creation
Must also suffer in His crucifixion.
……But when they smashed the glittering reliquary
Did God hatch from the icon like an egg?
Drinking the blood of the dog
Ref: Theophilacti Bulgariae archiepiscopi in Fontes Graeci Historiae Bulgaricae, Sofia 1963, 6: 31
When Leo V, Byzantine emperor,
Devious pragmatist, local boy made good,
Met with the young Khan Omurtag to sign
A treaty giving thirty years of peace,
They swore by Bulgar custom on each other’s gods
To seal the bargain.
Leo killed a dog,
And raising one hand filled with grass to heaven
He drank its blood. The chronicle does not say
What Christian oath Khan Omurtag declaimed.
Dogs, nomad people think, prefigure us.
They are the unborn human generations
Come here to sniff the landscape; fugitive,
They monitor our contracts.
And how they live with us comes back to haunt us
On the other side of a new incarnation.
A generation of the dispossessed,
Abandoned and abused
Darkens the sun.
Those who receive our love,
Fire suns to harvest.
Dogs who are valued, and whose lives are lived
Within the frame of mutual obligations
May be cut short when need is absolute.
Dogs, on the whole, deal honestly with us.
Out of a primal, bright-eyed innocence,
An honoured sacrifice will take our vow
Swiftly as wind through grass
And bring our words
To lie in the hands of God like a thrown stick.
And the dog within will see our treacheries.
Leo did not live long. His death
In the shallow pre-dawn dark of a Christmas morning
With the rows of chanting monks and the incense rising,
And rings of lamps reflected off white walls
As clear of images as snow,
And even the emperor singing in a voice
More used to moving armies,
His assassins moved
Out from among the monks.
And Leo fell,
Wielding the abstract gold cross like a club
Against the sudden violence of death.
Cut down, his blood spilt over holy ground,
No sainted stony eyes to follow his,
No numinous shimmering surfaces to haunt
And echo in the night;
Only the betraying purple and the feral dog
At the heart of things.
We spin out empty words in the hollow air;
Sending a message to the yet unborn
Of doubt, mistrust and fear.
We lick our lips and lie through the blood of the dog.