The western Ukrainian city of Lviv is home to the Lviv School of Iconographers, a collective of women and men who are keeping alive deep-rooted traditions, not by slavishly reproducing past forms but by labouring with the Holy Spirit to birth twenty-first-century descendants.
This icon, titled ‘Attack’ is by Danylo Movchan. If we think, for a moment, of icons as psalms in paint, there are the careful and deliberate meditations on the wonder of God’s glory, and then there are the urgent cries of the heart. Written in free-flowing watercolours, ‘Attack’ is an example of the latter, a lament in response to the Russian bombing of a maternity ward and a children’s ward in Mariupol.
Four skulls cut through a yellow-gold field that evokes Ukraine as the breadbasket of Europe. In as much as skulls are universal symbols of mortal danger—poison bottles, pirate ships—or even manifest evil, we notice that they cut an obliterating trail through the gold, they cause real harm. And yet, far more gold remains than not. Hope is not easily erased.
In as much as skulls represent our common human frailty, our mortality, we may see here a different kind of attack. The failure of life to reach fulfilment, to take hold of Life: too few sperm, failing to reach an egg; a child, stillborn. And the troubling, accusing questions that trail in the wake: Why are we unable to conceive, when others find it so easy? Is it my fault I could not carry this child to full term?
In as much as skulls stand for death, we gaze on death crushed beneath Christ’s feet.
In as much as skulls stand for human creatureliness, we gaze upon the skull transfused by Christ’s own life-giving blood.
We gaze upon the field, the Land, transformed into a hospital, a church, a place of healing, for body and soul, under the cross of Christ and centred on his self-sacrifice, his bruised and battered body, luminescent in darkness, agony shot through with glory.
Come, Lord Jesus, to the mothers and the children, to the sons and daughters, to the men who are prepared to lay down their lives for those they love, and the men who are prepared to kill.
Come, Lord Jesus, to the life fighting for Life, to the lives drowning in sorrow.
Come, transfuse us with your life, and set us free.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.