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Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Just What Do Catholics Believe About Icons?


Are icons really superior to other forms of sacred art?
The Triumph of Orthodoxy

The growth of interest of icons, identified with the Eastern Church, has helped to ignite a greater movement towards the re-establishment of authentic Christian art in our churches. This is good. Very good.

However, the same process that has lead to a greater appreciation of the importance of icons has created as well, it seems, a misplaced mystique about icons to the detriment of a genuine appreciation of our own traditions. Whenever I write about icons I get responses from people who are very often Roman Rite Catholics who tell me that Catholics can’t paint icons, only Russians or Greeks can do it (even though the fact is that it is as much part of the Western tradition as the Eastern). Some tell me that only religious can paint them despite the fact that I know accepted and thriving icon painters who are not monks or nuns. I am told that I should not say that an artist ‘paints’ icons, rather that he ‘writes’ them; even though my teacher, who is as Orthodox as they come and a respected authority in the Orthodox world, refers to this pedantic insistence on the word ‘write’ as ‘a bit precious’. (I am told that this happens because the word for write and paint is the same in Greek.) And, perhaps most importantly, people speak of icons as though the saint depicted is really present in the icon. So what does the Church really believe about icons? I have done my best to find out.

As I understand it, the orthodox view was articulated in the 7th Ecumenical Council and with a later clarification by the Synod of Constantinople, which finally closed the iconoclastic period in AD843. This is celebrated today in the Eastern Church as the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. The Church Father who expresses this is St Theodore the Studite. Theodore was abbot of the Studios Monastery in Constantinople and he is revered in the Eastern Church as well as Western. (He is probably more known in the Eastern Church.) What is ironic is that the error of attributing to the icon a presence of the saint by iconophiles (those who were in favour of them) is one of the things that the iconoclasts objected to so strongly that it provoked them into seeking to eliminate the use of sacred images altogether. Theodore, like the iconoclasts, opposed this view; but he provided an alternative theology that justified the use of sacred images.
Saint Theodore the Studite

According to Theodore:

1. The essence of the saint is not present in the icon. It is just wood, gold, paint etc. The connection to the saint is made in our minds, especially through the imagination, when we see the characteristic likeness portrayed. So if the icon is covered up, for example, by metal cladding, it has no sacramental value (unless the cladding has been panelbeaten into a likeness, in which case it is the cladding that evokes the saint for us). Theodore illustrates with the point that once the icon becomes damaged so that the likeness is destroyed, it is just thrown away.

2. Icons, when worthy of veneration, are  like sacramentals.  Their value is that they predispose us to grace, they are not themselves channels of grace. This distinguishes them from sacraments.

3. Theodore’s theology applies as much to any form of art in which the characteristic likeness appears. Therefore the view that what we now consider to be the iconographic style is a higher form than the other traditions of the Western church, such as the gothic and the baroque, cannot be justified. Theodore spoke of ‘icons’, but only in the broad sense of the meaning of the  in Greek, meaning ‘image’. He did not refer to specific styles or traditions beyond that. Accordingly, his theology, applies as much to gothic and baroque art (the other two traditions cited by Pope Benedict XVI as authentically liturgical in his book the Spirit of the Liturgy) as it does to the iconographic style; it can also be applied to statues as it does two-dimensional images.

Furthermore, it should be pointed out that there is no canonical or dogmatic statement or account by any Church Father, Eastern or Western that I know of that that says that the iconographic style, as we now refer to it, is inherently superior to any other. Like the discussion of Theodore, the debate in the early Church was about the validity of images in general.

It may be a surprise for some to discover the theology of the iconographic style is it is generally articulated today (and which does distinguish the iconographic style from other forms of sacred art) is a modern development and did not exist until the 20th century. This doesn’t make it wrong, but it does make it new. We should be aware however, that it was developed by very anti-Catholic Russian Orthodox thinkers based in Paris (such as Ouspensky and Lossky). So while they did some great work in their assessment of their own tradition, they spoke in ignorance of other traditions. While their dismissal of other liturgical traditions may be fair from an Orthodox point of view (that is for the Orthodox to say) but has no basis in the teaching of the Catholic Church.

Eastern Rite Catholics might legitimately and reasonably say that the only form of sacred art that is appropriate for the Eastern Rite is the icon, and this might affect their choice of image for an icon corner in their homes. But it is just as legitimate for Roman Catholics look to their authentic liturgical traditions (which includes the iconographic) and consider them appropriate for the Roman Rite, and for use their own home.

To read an account of the theology of icons of Theodore the Studite, his works are still available. For an excellent summary of the whole debate regarding sacred art which includes an account of the theology of images develope by both Theodore and St John of Damascus, I recommend God’s Human Face by Cardinal Cristophe Schoenborn, published by Ignatius Press.

The icon at the top is the Triumph of Orthodoxy.

MY COMMENTARY

This is an excellent article, but I would like to make one or two comments and distinctions in order to better draw out the meaning of icons.

The clue to understand the role of icons in the Christian life is that they are liturgical art: after having been blessed by the Church, they become a means by which we participate in the Christian Mystery.   It is true that there were many people at the time of the controversy over icons who believed that they are sacred in themselves, that they, by themselves, are a means of making present the saint or mystery depicted.   This is superstitious, and the iconoclasts were quite right in opposing such a view.

   It is equally superstitious to believe that a priest has the power quite independently of Christ and the Church to consecrate bread and wine as long as he says the right words, consecrating a bread van or the contents of a wine shop out of malice, but it would be equally wrong to deny him the power to consecrate as instrument of Christ and functionary of the Church within the context of the liturgy.   The Bible simply as a book made out of paper and ink, is not God speaking when no one is reading it with faith.  The Divine Office, simply as a text, is not Christ praying when no members of the Church are praying it. However, the Bible is the Word of God, and the Divine Office is a participation in Christ's prayer when they are being used as they should be used. Likewise, an icon does not manifest  the presence of a saint nor is it the participation in some aspect of the Christian Mystery when it is alone.  Nevertheless, it is a real meeting with a saint, or a real participation in some aspect of the Christian Mystery when it is being used as it should be used, as a means of our participation in the Church's liturgy or a means of extending the liturgy into our ordinary lives.

To say that there is a real meeting with a saint or a real participation in the Christian Mystery by means of an icon does not contradict the understanding of St Theodore the Studite.   No one is saying that some kind of miracle takes place.   In our celebration of the liturgy, we are truly celebrating the Christian Mystery in communion with Our Lady, the angels and saints and with Christians of all times and places; we are taking part in a cosmic act, all by the power of the Holy Spirit, an action that is objective in so far as it goes on whether we as individuals are conscious of it or not, but there is no interruption of ordinary natural causes: they become instruments of a higher reality without any damage to themselves.   As de Caussade says, every moment of our lives is a kind of sacrament, stuffed full with divine activity and purpose.   If there are miracles, it is only to draw our attention to the wonderful presence of God who is just as present in ordinary life as in miracles.  We celebrate the liturgy accompanied by the angels and saints, and heaven can be discovered in the humdrum tasks of everyday life.   We can encounter the presence of the saints in icons because they are present already as co-members of the Church by the power of the Spirit and want to communicate with us.

The trouble is that we westerners, especially Protestants, are heirs of the Enlightenment in which a distant God created a world to run by itself.   He wound up the clock, set it ticking, and then left it alone to tick by itself.   If God wants to intervene in this self-contained world, then he has to break through his own system and make exceptions to the way things normally work.   The world is run by natural rules, and God intervenes by miracle.   This is not Catholic Tradition. Our Tradition is expressed by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

 God’s Grandeur


THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;         
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;         
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

You only have to read a book like "The Cross and the Switchblade", to see that, for the young Protestant pastor, Christian life is one miracle after another, one divine intervention after another.   Compare it with Lourdes where people are fully aware of the presence of Christ and Our Lady in their lives, but miracles are rare.  God is just as present and active where nature follows its course as where he works miracles.

In Catholic Tradition, God works in and through natural causes by his Providence: miracles are always exceptions and lead us to believe that ordinary, everyday life can be as wonderfully filled with the will of God as any miracle.   

A moment with an icon can be really filled with the presence of a saint or can take us up into participating in the Christian Mystery without any miracle taking place; but, of course, there are miraculous icons  to teach us the value of all icons.

Thus, when St Theodore gives a "natural" explanation of how icons work, he is not excluding the use by God of these natural means to bring about an extraordinary effect.   After all, St Thomas Aquinas teaches that the gift of prophecy is directed towards and acts through the imagination of the person who receives it.  The question,"Is it a real prophecy or did he imagine it?" does not arise because prophesying and imagining are not alternatives: imagination can be a vehicle of prophecy.

Whether Eastern icons have something that western religious art hasn't is a more complicated question.  Of course, Eastern iconography has developed its own language of symbols which may differ from western catholic depictions of the same subject.   But that is not the most important thing.   I believe that the most significant question is, "Is the western art filling a liturgical function?"   Images in Peruvian villages, Our Lady of Guadalupe and other images in Mexico and throughout Latin America, Our Lady of Monserrat in Spain, Our Lady of Engelberg in Switzerland are clearly fulfilling the same function as Eastern icons, whatever the style of the art.

   However, the Frankish bishops received the 2nd Council of Nicaea with reluctance, only after being persuaded by the Pope; and we have never developed a theology of the icon as has the East.   That is happening now as we begin to breathe through both lungs, so that we can be in tune, not only with the East, but with our own religiosidad popular among the poor.

At the same time, we must also acknowledge that  much western Christian art is educational but not liturgical and we often do not expect it to be a means of our sharing in the Christian Mystery. 

St Andrew Rublev passed twenty years in retreat before he painted his famous "Hospitality of Abraham".   To paint an icon is a spiritual project, one that requires much self-giving from the artist; but it doesn't express this self-giving; it is not about him.   It proclaims our participation in the Christian Mystery and our subsequent relationship with the saints.  It requires prayer and humility on the part of the iconographer as well as on the part of the person who is looking at it.   In fact, the person who looks at it in faith is really part of the icon because, through his participation, the icon fulfils its role and he shares in the life of the Church, as in any other liturgical act.   

An icon becomes visual liturgy whenever prayerfully looked at by someone who shares the faith that it depicts.   I am not sure this can be said of western religious art in general.


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