If one person has a question, then probably everybody is wondering about it. That is what they always told us at school, in seminars, at lectures. So ask. And somebody did, in a comment concerning my recent post quoting my teacher in regards to iconography in the Western Church. I want to clarify any misunderstandings. She was referring to the loss of the tradition of the icon in the Western Church, and the repercussions of that loss.
The word “icon” is not a catch-all term for religious painting.
It is a specific term for an artwork that has specific purposes and functions in Eastern Christian churches, both Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic. It is the original Christian art form–maintained and preserved since the earliest days of the church by the Orthodox faith–and which was drifted away from in purpose, style and philosophy in other religious and artistic traditions. The icon emerged at the very beginnings of our faith, and it belongs to all. The truths which the icon relates are part of all of us, all Christian denominations.
The western eye–and our cultural ideal of beauty has grown in another direction. We have been artistically “trained” to highly value “looking real” and “being pretty” in our aesthetic sensibility, as a culture. We are not as attuned to seeking out symbolism, but prefer, as a society, to have things spelled out for us more literally.
For example, given a choice between these two following images, where is a typical American going to see beauty?
The second image makes us uncomfortable. We don’t understand what is going on in the image, what it is saying to us. Many people turn away from it. Although people have been praying with this image for more than 700 years, it rarely inspired any reverence or prayer in Catholic or Protestant viewers.
The first image, on the other hand, is reassuring and familiar. This is an image that we understand.
Likewise, which of the following is preferred by our modern, Western eyes?
Perhaps you might remember Jesus’ words to St. Faustina when she expressed disappointment over the appearance of the first Divine Mercy painting:
Jesus said “Not in the beauty of the color, nor of the brush, lies the greatness of this image, but in my grace.”
Any miracles attributed to artworks are due to grace, not to the painted board or statue.
The icon is steeped in doctrinal symbolism. Everything means something. It teaches dogma, teaches truth, as surely and deliberately as the Gospels do. It is part of every Orthodox liturgy and sacrament. There is no concern for naturalism, likeness, or artifice, but only for expressing theology and truth using specific stylized techniques. Many icons are beautiful indeed, to both Western and Eastern eyes, but that was not the main purpose: to be “beautiful art”. The true beauty comes from prayer and God’s Grace.
Because of the specific, sacred place that the icon has in their liturgy and faith, many Orthodox people do feel that icons should only be written by (1) Orthodox Christians (2) clergy or religious and/or (3) males.
And many do not feel that way at all.
This is not to say that God does not speak in other ways than through the icon, that other types of art cannot be holy or sacred or inspire prayer. Certainly they can. Western art may not be part of the liturgy in most cases, but it can be very beautiful and touch the souls of many.
The fact that Catholics are used to this:
and the Orthodox depict it like this:
is not to be separate in the sense of dividing, or to judge superiority, but merely is part of the unique expression of who we both are and how we use art as an expression of faith.