St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco is home to a 3,000-square-foot icon of ninety dancing saints (and four animals), who wrap themselves in two large rings around the rotunda as they follow the lead of Jesus, the Lord of the Dance. This monumental work is by iconographer Mark Dukes, who is also an ordained deacon at St. John Coltrane Church in San Francisco.
The church’s founders, Rick Fabian and Donald Schell, commissioned the Dancing Saints Icon in 1997 to give visual expression to the theology of the church’s patron saint, Gregory, who lived in the fourth century. In his commentary on the Psalms, St. Gregory wrote, “Once there was a time when the whole rational creation formed a single dancing chorus looking upward to the one leader of this dance. And the harmony of motion that they learned from his law found its way into their dancing.”
. . . Just think about that for a second. In Eden, God established a fundamental unity between himself and man, and between man and his environment. He beat out a rhythm, and all of creation—sun, moon, stars, trees, water, man, beast, and bug—danced to it, in sync with their Creator and with each other. But then man got out of step. He listened to and followed the calls of a different leader. He started making up his own rhythm, so that this universal dance that God set in motion at Creation can no longer be said to be harmonious. But Jesus came to restore the harmony that was once there. To bring all of creation back into sync. St. Gregory’s sees it as their duty and joy to point people toward this Jesus, this leader of the dance. Their mission, according to their website, is to invite people “to see God’s image in all humankind, to sing and to dance to Jesus’ tune, and to become God’s friends.”
At St. Gregory’s, dance is an integral part of the liturgy. Each Sunday, congregants kick up their heels as they circle the altar in celebration of God. (See a photo here.) The Dancing Saints Icon was designed to reflect and enfold this dancing going on below it. To remind the congregants that they belong to a vibrant community of believers who have danced before, and who are dancing even still in heaven.
A lot of the pictured saints you’d be hard-pressed to find on the walls of other churches. That’s because they include not just theologians and missionaries and martyrs and prophets and bishops, but mathematicians, activists, architects, anthropologists, choreographers, poets, musicians, and others. They include children, and even animals: Lady Godiva’s horse, who carried her naked through Coventry as she protested an oppressive tax system; the bear whom Seraphim, a Russian Orthodox mystic, fed, while he himself went hungry; a reformed wolf who, after hearing from St. Francis, ceased from terrorizing the people of Gubbio; and the tiger of Sadi’s parable, who faithfully cared for a fox without legs. While many of the pictured individuals do not have official sainthood status (that is, are not canonized), they are nonetheless people who acted in line with God’s vision for humanity. They crossed boundaries and defied odds and promoted the values of equality, compassion, beauty, justice, and peace.
To view close-up images of all ninety saints, along with a brief description of each of their contributions to the faith, visit the All Saints Company website. For an interactive view of the saints, click here.
The focal point of this colossal piece is a twelve-foot-tall icon of a dancing Jesus. Fabian and Schell describe the image:
Jesus, Lord of the Dance, leads our ninety saints, four animals, and all humanity in a great dance. He’s vested in the street attire of an Ethiopian Orthodox priest, a close parallel to teacher’s garb in the first century Mediterranean world and he wields his cross to lead the dancers, making the sign of suffering and shame into humanity’s invitation to joy.
In the article “Who Are These Like Stars Appearing” (the title is taken from an eighteenth-century hymn), Fabian says that the ninety saints were chosen from among 350 nominees, which were put forward by church members. He says that although the final choices may surprise some (not all the saints depicted were Christians), they were chosen because “God’s stamp” was clearly on their lives; Christian or not, they were set-apart people, and we should celebrate the work God accomplished through them.
In addition to our primary goal of showing an image of God’s many and diverse ways of working in people’s lives, our aim was to achieve a reasonable representation of men and women and a few children from different historical periods, life roles, and kinds of work. Whenever we heard or felt “of course, we have to include . . . ,” we paused and gave that person an extra skeptical scrutiny, trying to push our list beyond a self-evident “hall of fame” and further, beyond mainstream church consensus, stretching our thinking and enlarging our gratitude for grace overflowing in so many startling and different lives.
The selection certainly is diverse. The saints are male and female, rich and poor, gay and straight, black and white. They represent twenty-six different countries and a range of ages. Some are dressed as would be expected—that is, in monastic robes—but some are in jeans, some are in suits or gowns, some are in uniforms, some are in no clothes at all. As far as headwear, there are the typical veils and tonsures, but there are also feathered headdresses, wigs, laurel wreaths, turbans, flowers, bonnets, and crowns, and hats from all around the world. Dukes, who paints in a neo-Byzantine style, said that it was a challenge to depict such diversity of ethnicity and dress.
Dukes’s saints stand arm in arm, their left legs raised, their right legs planted, celebrating God and the life and victory they have through him. “There is a universal consensus of religious ideals,” Dukes told Tikkun magazine. “Maybe not religious practice, but religious ideals. Like humility. Like peace. Like hope. That’s what [the mural] is about. It’s about love. God is love.”
Contrast Dukes’s painting to this one, from St. Nicholas’s Church in Tallinn, Estonia:
These people are dancing too, but Jesus isn’t the one leading their dance; Death is. This is a danse macabre, a popular motif in European art from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries that depicts the living and the dead dancing together in a line or a circle. Death is personified as a host of skeletons, who carry pickaxes, arrows, and coffins. Such paintings were meant as a warning against the imminence of death. What a difference in tone from the bright, high-spirited paintings at St. Gregory’s! Dukes’s work is a danse anti-macabre, in that it depicts a dance of life rather than a dance of death. And unlike the dance leaders in the danse macabre-themed art of earlier centuries, Jesus does not pull us into the dance against our wills, but rather invites us in, and then gently leads us.
Derek Olsen at the Episcopal Café wrote a response to Donald Schell’s two posts on “Making Saints,” disagreeing with St. Gregory Church’s definition of “saint” (read the post here). He notes that there is a difference between good people and saints—both can be worthy of emulation, yes, but the latter is a more exclusive category that describes only those who belong to Christ. My thoughts accord with Olsen’s on this one. I appreciated reading the stories of all these great people, many of whom I would classify as saints in the biblical sense of the word, but I do not believe that all of them belong to the body of Christ. (Several of them did not profess his name; they worshiped other gods.) Whenever the word “saint” is used in the Bible, it refers to those who profess faith solely in Jesus Christ and thus are part of the Christian community. So the term is not as rigid as Catholics would have it be, nor as loose as St. Gregory’s would have it. Despite my sinfulness, I am a saint, and so are you, if you claim Jesus Christ as your Savior, Lord, and Treasure.
I believe that God’s love encompasses all beings. I believe in common grace. I believe that God’s atoning work on the cross was for all of mankind, and that salvation is available to anyone who seeks it. And I believe that God is powerful enough to reconcile all people to himself. But I do not believe, as universalists do, that all people will in the end be saved. While a full heaven and an empty hell is a nice idea, I don’t think that the Bible supports such claims. I do hope to explore this viewpoint further on down the road, though.
If this topic interests you, I suggest you read Donald Schell’s article “The Blessed Company of All Faithful People” (follow it through to part 2). In it, he talks about the idea of there being such a thing as “anonymous Christians” who know Christ, even though they don’t know that they know him. Citing C. S. Lewis, he says that God accepts the prayers and worship that are sent up to false gods, as long as they are sincere, and that Christ is present in the “good” of all religions.