From Narration to Theology in The Fiery Furnace

Detail of The Fiery Furnace icon from the Conestoga Iconographic Studio, 2021.

To my understanding, there are many ways an icon can beautifully depict an event. The most simple of these is a historical narrative. In this case, the iconographer brings together scripture, tradition, and history, and renders an image of that event. The result of such icons can be beautiful and meaningful as the icon weaves together so many elements of a story into a single vision, using the unique language inherited from a cultural tradition of iconography. In my experience, an iconographic depiction like this is common with less popular or local events. This form of an icon is something I would call an “iconographic narration”. Having the Fiery Furnace develop from an “iconographic narration” into an “iconographic theology” was one of the most beautiful aspects of painting it for me.

Iconographic Narration

Historically, icons of The Fiery Furnace broadly fall into the iconographic narration category. While the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego recorded in the Book of Daniel in Chapter 3, is a popular one, iconographically, it is little depicted. Those icons that do exist commonly look like this 15th-century icon from the Russian Novgorod School:

The Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace, Anonymous, Novgorod School, 15th century.

In this beautiful icon, every detail of the story has been included. The angel, youths, soldiers, king, and even the statue are here (you can review the story in the studio’s previous post, The Story of The Fiery Furnace Icon). Such an iconographic narration is where the studio’s cartoon began with my initial sketches, drawing from the account in the Book of Daniel and several historic iconographic examples. In such drawings, each element of the story needs to be wrestled with to find the best way to stylistically and symbolically embody the story in the icon. An excellent example of this is the youth dancing in the furnace. This particular depiction is probably what I like most in this icon. However, two issues arose for me in considering the youth’s dancing. 

The first is that it would be out of tune with the studio’s iconographic style and how my own eye and hand renders an icon. Seeking the stylistic simplicity I do in the studio’s icons means that each one attempts to offer an experience of holiness through stillness. But again, there is no judgement of right and wrong—any more than my preferring the timbre of a cello over that of a trumpet is a statement of either instrument’s inherent goodness.

The second reason that such dancing was lost early on in the sketching process has to do with the actions of the young men in the fire—first Shadrach, and then all three, sing praises to God. “And they walked in the midst of the flame, praising God and blessing the Lord.”—The Book of Daniel 3:24. This response is the one painted in the earliest known depiction of this story from the 3rd century in the Catacombs of Priscilla:

Three Youths, Anonymous, Priscilla Catacombs, 3rd century.

Here all three youths have their hand lifted in an orans (Latin for “praying”) posture which is the ancient form common to Jews and Gentiles in prayer. As the words of the Benedicite sung by the youths rolled meditatively in my mind as I worked, it became apparent that such a posture of praise was very appropriate for an icon of the event. And, even after many iterations, it remains the most beautiful depiction of their actions to my eye.

Iconographic Theology

Another way, and one which I think embodies more of a revelational perspective within the iconography, happens when the icon moves beyond the “iconographic narration” to an “iconographic theology”. This seems to be part of the natural progression of an icon’s form. Looking back, one can trace such a development over the centuries. As a fuller understanding of Christ and his saints is expressed by theologians of different ages, iconographers use this to focus their icons. An excellent example of this would be the famous 15th century Trinity icon from St. Andrei Rublev. Looking at the iconographic prototype of The Hospitality of Abraham, from which it is based, we can see the iconographic form deepened through a love of trinitarian theology.

As my pencil continued to try and find the best lines for the composition, I availed myself of all the books I could find about the fiery furnace. As part of this education, I happened upon the commentaries written by St. Basil the Great on the Psalms in the 4th century. In his reflections of the 28th Psalm, (as enumerated in the Vulgate and the Septuagint, and the 29th Psalm under the Masoretic system), he draws a profound insight when he gets to the seventh verse, “The voice of the LORD divideth the flames of fire” (Psalms 28:7). St Basil writes,

“According to the story of the three children in Babylon the flame of fire was divided … providing for the boys a most pleasant breeze and coolness as in the shade of plants in a tranquil spot. Nevertheless [we read that] the voice of the Lord divides the continuity and unity in the nature of fire. I believe that the fire prepared in punishment for the devil and his angels is divided by the voice of the Lord, in order that, since there are two capacities in fire, the burning and the illuminating, the fierce and punitive part of the fire may wait for those who deserve to burn, while its illuminating and radiant part may be allotted for the enjoyment of those who are rejoicing. Therefore, the voice of the Lord divides the fire and allots it, so that the fire of punishment is darksome, but the light of the state of rest remains incapable of burning.” 

—St. Basil the Great, Commentary on Psalm 28

In this text, St. Basil makes a profound statement about our experience of the Lord’s fire. For those sanctified by Christ, the fire is a means for illumination, but that same fire consumes those who experience it without Christ. After reading this in his commentary, his theological clarity brought the icon into focus for me, and its drawing began to change. While the three young men’s hands being lifted in praise is a detail about what is most significant in the event, St. Basil’s understanding opened the possibility of focusing the icon on humanity’s illumination and damnation in experiencing God’s fire. And so, the carefully drawn image of King Nebuchadnezzar on this throne, with his soldiers and statue all stacked one on top of each other, were erased from the icon’s right-hand side and the furnace became central. 

As the drawing continued, the fire’s movement in the icon began to be worked out in light of its interaction with the figures. A calm, undulating form developed in which the three young men stood, while around the sketched-out soldiers, an expansive and energetic aura was drawn out. And, as my pencil began to draw the different forms of the icon, it became clear that this iconographic theology would also inform the figure of the angel, the soldiers, and ultimately the whole vision of The Fiery Furnace icon.

1 thought on “From Narration to Theology in The Fiery Furnace”

  1. In this morning’s readings, we heard from St. Cyprian’s (†258) commentary on The Lord’s Prayer, in which he references the Fiery Furnace as an example of the unity desired by God in our prayers.

    “God is then the teacher of harmony, peace and unity, and desires each of us to pray for all men. The three young men shut up in the furnace of fire observed this rule of prayer … United in the bond of the Spirit they uttered together the same prayer … Even though Christ had not yet taught them to pray, nevertheless, they spoke as with one voice. It is for this reason that their prayer was persuasive and efficacious. For their simple and spiritual prayer of peace merited the presence of the Lord.” —A Treatise on the Lord’s Prayer by Saint Cyprian.

    Hearing these words this morning was a joy I thought worth adding to this little article. The idea that it was the peace and unity of the young men’s prayer that merited the angel’s arrival is so beautiful. And, more personally, it reaffirmed the importance of their gesture of prayer and praise found in this icon.


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