Sunday, May 13, 2007

Why I Like Icons

I've always been an admirer of art. The icon pictured here hangs on my bedroom wall. I bought it at the local Eastern Orthodox church's annual festival a few years back. I have a couple of other small icons as well, beautiful icons of the creation.

Mark at Pseudo-Polymath has been discussing icons, among other things. Protestants have not disowned religious art completely, but religious art certainly holds a much smaller place in Protestantism. Each of the different major groups in Christianity have different artistic styles for devotional artwork. Protestants seem to specialize in pastel pastoral scenes. Roman Cathlolics tend to specialize in the bare-chest/heart revealed artwork. And here I will give the Eastern Orthodox their due, I think they do the best at sacred visual art. They show little interest in realism; the holy cannot be directly drawn so realism does not help in representing it. But icons have been made of nearly every major scene in the Bible, carefully crafted so each color, each hand position, each element of the picture carries theological weight. The various elements of the drawing have been discussed and studied and have taken traditional forms over the centuries. The traditional forms are well-developed so that if you see Peter in one icon, you can easily recognize Peter in the next icon, even when drawn by another artist in another nation in another century. This allows a tremendous community and rich tradition within the artwork that is not really available when each artist re-imagines what each person looks like or how each building might have looked. This standardization has freed the artist from decisions about such details and allowed the artist to focus on communicating the holy. Some of the Eastern Orthodox icons are breathtakingly beautiful. And the range and variety of icons available is extensive. If you had to find Protestant renditions of every major scene in the New Testament, it might take some time and still be incomplete; for those you did find, the representations of certain people might not be recognizable from one artist's conception to the next. If you had to find Eastern Orthodox renditions of every major scene in the New Testament or likely even the entire Bible (along with parables and picturesque sayings), you could contact any of the major carriers of icons and place your orders and hope you had enough wall space for them all. The breadth of material covered is impressive.

I'm aware of the objection that Eastern Orthodox icons show no innovation in style, that they do not allow the artist much range or freedom, that the basic forms and even the representation of certain scenes may not have changed for a thousand years. To me, that's almost like complaining that the Psalms are poems that rely heavily on standard themes and internal parallelism; that's half their charm and all of their claim to unity. It's what creates the artistic impression of belonging to a set, representing a single vision of the world where they communicate with each other, grow and build from each other, each forming the background to the next. The unbrokenness of the tradition and style across many nations and many centuries has been the key to creating that unique richness of the icon tradition.

Icons and Devotion
I find icons useful in devotions in the same way that visualizing a scene from Scripture can be useful in devotions. A good set of icons can easily serve as a Bible for someone who cannot read or who does not have a Bible immediately available. They can serve as a focus for pondering Scripture, for meditating, for prayer. The "prayer" part may make some people uncomfortable. On occasions when I look at an icon while praying, I'm certainly not praying to the icon; the icon is simply useful in helping me focus on prayer. Neither would I choose to look at an icon while praying every time that I pray. It's simply helpful, an aid to devotion. And when visiting sites around the confessional Lutheran blogroll, I notice a good number of other Lutherans showing their appreciation for Eastern Orthodox icons.

Icons and Veneration
I've been to Eastern Orthodox worship services where the icons are venerated. That is to say, a line forms and each person is expected to join a line and kiss the icon. As a visitor, I've always been free to pass. And looking in from the outside, it feels as if here the Eastern Orthodox may have crossed a line. It's not the line of idolatry; they do not honor the pictures in their own right, but as visually helpful stand-ins for the realities they represent. The icons are not idols and are not used as such. The reason that I dislike the veneration of icons has nothing to do with any suspicion of idolatry. No, the reason that I dislike the veneration of icons is that it takes something which probably should be an acceptable practice (someone honoring the memory of one of the apostles by venerating their icon) and turns it into a commended practice, something very close to obligatory. There is a suspicion among the Orthodox that those who do not use icons in some sense dishonor the Incarnation in which the Word of God condescended to become visible and therefore representable in art. While it is probably helpful to almost any Christian to see icons, it does not follow that it is helpful to everyone to venerate icons, less still that it should be required. And there is an unfortunate after-effect to the ancient disputes over the place of art in the Christian community. If a thing has been disputed and has fought for acceptance, it is common afterwards that this view sees itself as "defeating" the alternative. A view which once fought to be permissible, after earning its rightful place, now increasingly sees itself as mandatory and obligatory. That is the perception I have of Eastern Orthodox veneration of icons, of a practice whose hard-fought fight for acceptance has eventually been interpreted as a something close to a mandate.

Icons and the Church Universal
If you have ever been inside an Eastern Orthodox sanctuary, you will have seen that each church has a collection of icons from the large and prominently-displayed ones of Christ to less large but still prominent ones of the apostles and the holy family and John the Baptist, and on to other icons representing the prophets of Israel and other people who have a key place in the history of the church. In such a setting, it is far easier to remember that we are part of a larger community, that there is an unbroken chain from Abraham, from Moses and Isaiah and Jeremiah, through Christ, to Peter and James and John, and down to our age. It is easier to remember the whole sweep of church history, the great cloud of witnesses, the saints triumphant, when it is represented before your eyes with the exact point of calling it to mind. In such a setting it is much easier to recognize ourselves in living community with the church universal, in fellowship with the believers of all ages.


japhy said...

I like icons too. The thing that always strikes me as odd about them is the anachronisms! Things like the baby Jesus holding a cross or a scepter. I know the artist wasn't trying to be "accurate" in that sense, but was probably following the amazing examples in the book of Revelation of multiple symbols coming together through time and space.

The first time (and so far, only time) I attended an Orthodox Divine Liturgy, the "veneration line" at the end of the Liturgy surprised me, too! Looking back on it now, it's not that different from what Catholics do on Good Friday, venerating the Crucifix: we come up in procession and venerate it however we see fit: some genuflect, some kiss it or touch it, some bow, some cross themselves.

I think it really comes down to our human element, our need for the physical, which we know can never replace or fill our need for the spiritual. I attended a May Crowning last week; adorning a statue of Mary with flowers is not idolatry or worship, it is an expression of our earnest spiritual desire to render the same service to Mary herself.

There's a hymn, "Crown Him with Many Crowns" (link with audio and lyrics) (cf. Rev 19:12). Would that we could place crowns and robes upon Christ's head and shoulders, and hand him the scepters of all the rulers of this earth! Our desire for the spiritual reality, because of our human nature, calls for a physical representation of that reality.

I have an icon similar to the one you've shown on my new The Cross Reference "business card".

Mark said...

I've only been attending an Orthodox parish regularly since September but I don't think it's "required" to venerate the Icons after service. In the time before I and those of my family were comfortable with it nobody made any sort of comment at any time about that. I'm just saying I don't think it's "required" in the way you seem to think it is.

Weekend Fisher said...

Japhy: I love "Crown him with many crowns". Last time we sang that (Christ the King Sunday last fall) we had 3 sopranos in the congregation who could hit that spine-tingling descant line. Beautiful. (No, I'm not a soprano, much less up to hitting the descant, but I sure do enjoy it when I hear it.)

I'll have to admit the May Crowning of Mary seems strange to me. If I were there I'd smile and keep my mouth shut since I expect it's harmless, but it's so ... well ... fantasy, if you know what I mean. I don't fault the devotional spirit that gives rise to the practice; but still the practice seems kind of odd to me, that's all.

Take care & God bless

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Mark

I don't mean to imply that the veneration is required for participation in the service or anything of that sort. I think I was probably clearest when I put it this way: "a commended practice, something very close to obligatory."

Whenever I've been at an Orthodox service, I was very much expected to join the line, to where people on either side of me would give me the look and I would end up in line anyway so as not to scandalize them, and I just skipped out on kissing the icon or relic or whatever the object of the day might have been. After awhile I just developed the practice of joining the line and skipping the veneration, though the good Archimandrite did tend to raise his eyebrows when he held out a relic or I went through the icon line and I didn't venerate.

I'm curious, are there any members of your church who do not venerate?

Take care & God bless

MMajor Fan said...

I'm also fond of icons. You wrote a very nice essay here. There are definitely three approaches that vary in their objectives. Protestant art tends to very much illuminate "life and teaching of Jesus." Catholic art tends to illuminate the "heart" of the faith. Orthodox icons attempt to illuminate the "spirit" of the person being represented.
My stepfather (rest his soul) was Russian Orthodox and I loved his church, and the icons, because icon artists take responsibility for illuminating the essence of the spirit of the saint. It's like a time machine because one feels in the presence of an old friend! As such, I think of it as venerating and paying respect to the memory of the spirit that lives on in Christ. Catholic art, which is my "home boy" art :-) is to me a journey within the heart of the Roman Catholic faith, which is the sacrifice of the lamb, the New Covenant, and the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Catholic art is like walking through the Apostles Creed, visually.

One of my hobbies is design and paint pictures of monstrances with the Holy Eucharist present.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

The questioning looks you get from the Orthodox are simply to determine "who goes first". They don't want to butt in ahead of you. It's like arriving at your bus stop and not being sure if the person sitting beside you is getting off at the same stop, so you don't know whether to wait for her to get up or climb over her.


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