The Angel in The Fiery Furnace

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

In sketching a cartoon for the icon of the Fiery Furnace, I found that it divided quite naturally into three horizontal layers. In the centre layer were the three young men and their prayerful worship of God. As my pencil moved to the upper third of the icon’s drawing, The Angel of the Lord began to take shape. 

This angel has a fascinating account accompanying it. In the Book of Daniel, its author writes:

“Then Nebuchadnezzar the king was astonished, and rose up in haste, and said to his nobles: Did we not cast three men bound into the midst of the fire? They answered the king, and said: True, O king. He answered, and said: Behold I see four men loose, and walking in the midst of the fire, and there is no hurt in them, and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.”

Book of Daniel 3:91-92 (emphases mine)

A Christophany Vision

The angel’s description as the Son of God invokes for many the person of Christ, the Son of God, who, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit, is God, the Trinity. Seeing such instances of seeing Christ prior to the incarnation in the Scriptures is called Christophany, and it’s an understanding with a history rich in stories and songs.

Many early Church Fathers perceive a Christophany even when considering the Old Testament of the Holy Scriptures. In such a reading, the Angels of the Lord (or The Son of God, in this case) is seen as a foreshadowing of Christ’s incarnation. There are poems about Jacob wrestling with Christ and stories about the three young men meeting him in the Fiery Furnace. I love these stories and find in them the Church Fathers reading with a kind of playful awe—which I hope is also embodied in the icons being painted here in the studio.

Consider how the first-century teacher, St. Justin Martyr, in his Dialogue with Trypho, talks about his Christophany ideology:

“I shall give you another testimony, my friends,” said I, “from the Scriptures, that God begat before all creatures a Beginning, who was a certain rational power proceeding from Himself, who is called by the Holy Spirit, now the Glory of the Lord, now the Son, again Wisdom, again an Angel, then God, and then Lord and Logos; and on another occasion, He calls himself Captain, when He appeared in human form to Joshua.

—St. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 61.

Such thoughts are an idea—and have a resulting joy—that comes not of carefully constructed arguments based on human wisdom but have a love of Christ colouring every corner of history. When I was apprenticing at St. Theodore’s monastery, the monks called them “holy musings”—little ideas that give us a glimpse of Christ in something unknowable that becomes a source of a profound holy joy (unless taken too seriously!).

As the drawing of the angel continued over the next couple of days, it became obvious that two aspects of this figure would be essential if the words of St. Basil’s commentary were to take shape: The Son of God must be identified as Christ, and he needed to not be in the fire, but to be the transformation of it.

To begin working out the depiction of the Son of God, I initially drew the literal form of Christ. Over the three young men, I drew Christ with his hands blessing Meshach and Abednego, the two men on either side of Shadrach. After that, wings were added, and other traditional angelic elements began to reform the figure of Christ into a more angel-like vision. The beard was removed, and a diadem and its ties crowned the figure. In the end, the most Christ-like element that remained was the crucifix in the figure’s halo, something traditionally reserved for Christ iconographically. 

The singular identification of Christ through the crucifix in his halo seemed the perfect depiction for such a holy musing. The figure we see is unmistakably an angel, whose halo hints at truth beyond what we witness.

The Angel’s Fire

The other significant development in preparing the drawing for this icon comes in the angel’s relationship to the fire. If the Son of God was to be seen as a pre-incarnate Christ, then his relationship with the flames also needed to change. Rather than being the protection from the furnace’s intense heat (as is the case in typical biblical illustrations), this angel would need to be its source. This was also an interpretation that I thought necessary to weave into the theological understanding found in St. Basil’s commentary on the Psalms a vision of that voice of which he speaks.

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

There is a beautiful phrase in Psalm 103:4 (or 104:4 in the Masoretic system) that reads, “Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire. Whenever we sing this passage in our prayers, my mind’s eye has always seen the angel’s wings as the fire, and instinctually, I began to connect the angel’s wings and the flames. Not only did this un-engulf the angel, but the colour of those wings and flames also created a fire that permeated the whole icon. From the top of the angel’s outer wings to the serpentine tendrils entwining the soldiers, the same orange-ochre consumes while the intense blue flames of the inner wings illuminate the young men in the centre of the furnace.

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