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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Holy Beauty of Icons

"In former times God, who is without form or body, could never be depicted. But now when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take His abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter. Never will I cease honoring the matter which wrought my salvation!" On Divine Images, John of Damascus

"Just as words edify the ear, so also the image stimulates the eye. What the book is to the literate, the image is to the illiterate. Just as words speak to the ear, so the image speaks to the sight; it brings us understanding." On Divine Images, John of Damascus

I am going to interrupt my series on Distributism vs. Capitalism to offer a few reflections on the sacred art of Eastern Christianity.

The traditional understanding of human nature affirms the fittingness of sacred art in general. An intimate union of body and soul, of matter and spirit, exists in the human person. Human knowledge reflects this duality, for it fundamentally depends upon the senses. For this reason, material signs and images are an important means of making the truth intelligible to man. In the words of St. Thomas: "Though we cannot reach God with the senses, our mind is urged by sensible signs to approach God."(ST.II-II.Q84.2.ad3)

St. John of Damascus offers even greater justification by pointing to the Incarnation. Now that God has walked the earth, the Old Testament prohibition no longer applies:

When the Invisible One becomes visible to flesh, you may then draw a likeness of His form. When He who is a pure spirit, without form or limit, immeasurable in the boundlessness of His own nature, existing as God, takes upon Himself the form of a servant in substance and in stature, and a body of flesh, then you may draw His likeness, and show it to anyone willing to contemplate it. Depict His ineffable condescension, His virginal birth, His baptism in the Jordan, His transfiguration on Thabor, His all-powerful sufferings, His death and miracles, the proofs of His Godhead, the deeds which He worked in the flesh through divine power, His saving Cross, His Sepulchre, and resurrection, and ascent into heaven. Give to it all the endurance of engraving and colour. On Divine Images, John of Damascus

God could have redeemed mankind without taking a human nature, but in His infinite mercy He gave us the Incarnate Word, a perfect image of Himself. Now we have a Person to imitate and remember, through His words and through His saints, but also through holy images.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended an insightful lecture on icons. The artist speaker made several interesting points. First, the artistic purpose of icons is different than that of western art, thus they employ a different technique. Generally speaking, in traditional western art, the picture draws the viewer in through the use of perspective. The artist wishes the viewer to feel a part of the scene, so the vanishing point is in the visual distance, pulling the eye in. In contrast, the icon is meant to enter the heart of the viewer. The principle is a Trinitarian one. We can only know the mysteries of God the Father through the Son and His friends, who work in us through the Holy Spirit. Thus, the background of the image is solid, flat, plain; it represents the mysteries beyond our reach. The person represented in the foreground helps us to see those mysteries. Finally, architecture in icons is often wider at the back and narrower in the front so the vanishing point of the image is in the viewer, a symbolic representation of the Holy Spirit effecting a transformation of the soul.

In order to elucidate the aforementioned concept, the speaker made a fascinating analogy, quoting from one of the Early Church Fathers. The passage pointed to a paradox in the Eucharist - while ordinary food becomes part of the flesh of the eater, the man who eats the Body and Blood of Christ is assimilated by IT, entering more deeply into the Mystical Body of Christ. Similarly, the icon ought to enter into the viewer, increasing his piety. And for Eastern Catholics, icons hold hefty sacramental uumph. Regulations have loosened, but in the past, icons could not be used until after an elaborate blessing period - they were enshrined in the sanctuary for 40 liturgies!

One last point of interest, the writing on icons is "weird" for a reason. The artist purposely distorts the words so the viewer will stare at it longer. Through this distortion, the image reminds us that the understanding of sacred mysteries requires patient, meditative attention.

St Basil's Sermon on the Martyr St Barlam, beginning, "In the first place the death of the saints."

"Arise, you renowned painters of brave deeds who set forth by your art a faint image of the General. My praise of the laurel-crowned victor is faint compared to the colours of your brush. I will give up writing on the excellencies of the martyr whom you have crowned. I rejoice at the victory won to-day by your strength. I contemplate the hand put out to the flames, more powerfully dealt with by you. I see the struggle more clearly depicted on your statue. Let demons be enraged even now, overcome by the martyr's excellencies which you reveal. Let the powerful hand be again outstretched to victory. May Christ our Lord, the supreme judge of the warfare, appear in picture. To Him be glory for ever and ever. Amen."


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