My dear friend Anita went to the National Gallery and in the gift shop bought me a beautiful little book entitled The Art of the Icon. It’s a treasure, full of gorgeous full-color plates. But the text is a gem of distortion, disinformation, and misunderstanding.
The term ‘icon’ … is loosely applied to the devotional panel paintings that were produced under the auspices of the Eastern Church. As in the West, the primary function of these pictures was to convey the main points of the liturgy to a largely illiterate congregation.
In the first place, why, in a book copyrighted in 1994, is the Orthodox church always referred to in the past tense?
What does “under the auspices of the Eastern Church” mean? The fact is simply that certain Christians paint icons, those who have the skill, knowledge and spirituality to do it. There are no “auspices,” there is no official oversight, there are no committees or monitors.
The primary function of these pictures it not at all “to convey the main points of the liturgy” to anybody, illiterate or educated. To the best of my knowledge, that is not the function of sacred art in the West, either, is it, “to convey the main points of the liturgy”?
Unlike their Western equivalents, however, icons were not straightforward illustrations of Biblical events. Rather they were venerated as sacred objects, as spiritual tools which allowed the faithful to commune directly with God. For this reason, their format was strictly regulated by the Church authorities.
An Orthodox Christian shakes his head in bewilderment over this passage.
Icons have no “Western equivalents.”
An icon strives to depict the inner, spiritual meaning of an event or the soul of the saint portrayed. If this is not straightforward, then we can only conclude that “straightforward” here means external or secular.
To say icons are “tools which allowed the faithful to commune directly with God” is, of course, an oxymoron. Such communing would by definition be indirect.
Again, there simply are no “Church authorities” who “regulate” anything about icons, period. Instead, there are certain techniques for portraying the spiritual instead of the carnal realities, and these techniques are known and studied by iconographers (whose first task is to be highly spiritual themselves). The people, too, know as if instinctively when an icon does or does not succeed spiritually; for devotional purposes, they will reject a mere worldly work of art, even if it is a Michelangelo.
The earliest surviving icons (sixth century) were discovered at St. Catherine’s monastery on Mount Sinai…
I have seen icons painted on the walls of the Roman catacombs that far predate the Sixth Century. They look just like icons painted ever since. (Where they “regulated by Church authorities” do you suppose?)
And so it goes, page after page. The author even speaks of saints being worshipped. I asked Demetrios, “Where do people GET all this?”
He said they observe what we do, i.e., the externals, and then make their own interpretations of what they see.
I said no, any decent scholar will at least talk to the people he’s studying before simply drawing his own conclusions.
Anybody who puts himself and his readers through so many historical, linguistic, and theological acrobatics as these is working from his own agenda, and it does not appear to be a benign one.
A New Heart
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