In my second novel (tentatively titled The Garden in the Heart of the World), one of the characters is given a choice–to remain inside a broken body, or to allow the soul to take flight. The character chooses to fly away in the form of an eagle.
This choice is not accidental. When poets wonder about the wandering of a soul after death, they like to compare it with a butterfly, a six-winged angel, or a bird. The same is true of iconographic symbolism of the soul.
How Iconographers Draw the Soul
The soul’s immateriality is most often depicted by drawing it as a bird in flight. The eagle symbolizes the bravery of the flying spirit, the swan symbolizes its purity, but the most often used visual symbol was the white dove. It’s a kind of “echo” of the Spirit-dove in the Gospel account of Christ’s baptism.
The Soul as Child
This iconographic symbol reveals the primordial purity of the soul that was lost in the Fall. This purity is increasingly lost as a person wallows in sin more and more over the course of his lifetime. The most obvious example of this iconographic motif is Christ holding the soul of His mother in the form of a child. This is significant, because Orthodox theology makes it clear that Mary was the only human being to not willingly commit a sin.
We also see the depiction of the human souls in general as a child.
In some icons of the final judgment, there is a section called “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God.” In it, the divine hand holds the souls of the saints (in the forms of children). Around them, angels and demons fight over the rest of humanity, while the saints are protected.
The Soul as a Bride
Russian wood-printers of the 18th century came up with an original allegory of the soul. The pure soul, as expressed from a poem of that time, is like “a bedecked bride, brighter than the sun, and the moon is under her feet, while on her head is a royal crown.”
This icon is a literal illustration of that poem:
The elegant bride wears a crown. She has a nimbus (purity) and wings, which symbolize her righteous life.
The sun and moon are widely-used symbols of Christ and the Mother of God, respectively.
There are other, no less cryptic, symbols in this painting. The soul holds a pitcher, from which it pours tears of repentance. Thereby, it extinguishes the fire of sinful passions and even cast down the devil himself. She also holds a lion, the symbol of sins that are tamed by prayer and fasting. Here we also see a humbled serpent.
Two more interesting details. In her hands she holds a fruitful tree—the eternal symbol of life. The naked body sitting in the dark room is symbolic of a sinful soul. It serves as a striking anti-mirror image of the pure soul, reminding the viewer that both fates are possible for each human soul.
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