Saturday, November 17, 2007


A continuation of a look at icons.

To those in the west, particularly those who have not had much contact with or understanding of icons, they can be seen as, well, ugly. In any even, they are certainly not of the same ilk as westernized art that has tended to be sumptuous and somewhat realistic. But icons are not intended to appeal to our senses in the same way that Western art has tended to do. They are trying to do something different.

Rather than copy the world, there is a spiritual reality that is trying to be brought to the fore. Rhythm and pattern replace material reality, dogma is emphasized over faith, and anatomy is by and large ignored. It is the concept that is important, not the appearance.

Detail is minimal. Only that which is indispensable for understanding is retained. This is the ideal world transfigured by faith. In this world there is no such thing as perspective. Size has more to do with the importance of the persons depicted rather than how far or near they are to the viewer. Time becomes relative as before and after can be seen together and the supernatural light in which they are bathed casts no shadows. The flatness of the figures takes us out of world of bodies. However these are not attempts of art that are more primitive thereby causing these aberrations, but highly calculated symbolic art that has a definite message to get across.

Icons are read much the same way that statues are read (top to bottom) though some of the symbolic language may be different. For example it is sometimes difficult to tell if a person is inside or outside a building. A general rule of thumb is if there is a cloth draped over the buildings in the background the person pictured is inside. If not, they are outside. Also, notice Mary is always pictured with Jesus. If Jesus is not in the icon with Mary He is depicted in an icon to her left. It might be handy to pick up a book on icons if you want to know more about their unique symbolic code.

If you have the opportunity to go to a Divine Liturgy or to visit an Eastern Rite parish, you will notice an icon screen between the nave of the church and the sanctuary. In the Roman Church this became the altar rail while in the East there developed an iconostasis. This is a kind of wall or screen on which there may be a number of icons. Remembering from last week that to look on an icon is to be looking on and contemplating the heavenly realm, one can appreciate the beauty of gazing upon this while the celebration of the Church is making present the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity during the Divine Liturgy, Jesus descending from heaven and coming to his people as it were.

I am afraid that I am not an expert on icons and I’ve almost exhausted everything that I know about them over the past couple of weeks. But I hope it gives you some insight into the special and very important aspect of the Catholic faith.


Anonymous said...

Indeed, you've given many insights.. quite thought-provoking, all of it. Thank you very much!

I attended a Greek Orthodox mass one "morning" (one kept thinking it was starting and then, after three or four hours, one kept thinking it was ending!), and it was quite literally an eye-opener -- icons, lit candles being brought to the iconostasis by youngsters, enormous icons on the inside walls, enormous chandelier..

A friend of a friend who died a few months ago had just started writing icons; she prayed all through them (as you know), and oh, they are beautiful. It's very rewarding to know a little more about them, put into laymen's language.

I am a tad dismayed, however, to find that I've been "reading" statues all wrong, all these years. I'm 5'2" -- I don't "start with the top" of anything, lol. But that's good to know, too -- thanks.

Your info so kindly imparted is like hearing all about one's extended fam after a long quiet.. we forget how big this Body is.

A Simple Sinner said...

"To those in the west, particularly those who have not had much contact with or understanding of icons, they can be seen as, well, ugly. In any even, they "

A good intro to icons but you may consider a more charitable description of icongraphy as "primative" of a sort! Small typo in the into also worth correcting. I am sympathetic - I am notorious for them!

By way of clarification, you would do well to reconsider the term "an eastern rite parish" on two counts - it is a little antiquated, and inconograpy is not as common or prolific in all Eastern Catholic Churches. The readers of your blog who find their way into a Maronite or Chaldean parish may find few if any icons, and will not find an icon screen. It is more common in the Oriental and Byzantine Churches - and your work seems in particular reference to Byzantine iconography.

A rather good entry otherwise and a wonderful blog. I am a regular reader!

Anonymous said...

Well, for what it's worth, I've tried to read a book on iconography, but it was so Cleveland Amory-ish in its never-ending sentences, I didn't get far into it. Hence, I didn't get half as much from that effort as I got from this post of Fr. V's and last week's. Also, in truth, I found icons ugly initially --there's no more apt word. And if that was how heavenly folks look when glorified, I don't think I'd struggle so hard to make it there! Icons are not primitive-- they just aren't life-like, perhaps similarly to how abstract art is to the eye that doesn't understand how or why to "read" them. I appreciate knowing more about them without my brain being beaten up into it; and now, I do. I have a much greater respect for them, because of that, and maybe someday a love of them.

Fr. V said...

Thanks for you comments!

S.S. - thanks for the additional information - very worthy and I appreciate it. (Like I said, I'm not an expert and you caught it - most of my connection has been with the Byzantine Rite!)

Adoro te Devote said...

Question: You say that the icons are read top to bottom, however, this seems to conflict with some info I learned a week ago or so.

Fr. Loya (of TOB fame), himself a Byzantine priest, is also an inconographer.

His talk was not about iconography, but he used it to illustrate another point. Specifically he used the icon of the Trinity, and explained that as an artist, he knows how our eyes will track over the icon. And how this is actually INTENDED when the icon is written. Because the way we are drawn to look into the icon, we are drawn ourselves into the center of the Trinity. I can understand top-to-bottom to a certain degree even in that icon, but the true meaning isn't found that's found by following where the iconographer is leading us to some revealed truth. That's my that in conflict or is it possible there are other ways of reading icons which are subject to intent?

Fr. V said...

Yes, yes, yes,

You are correct. I should have been more clear. I was not intended to say how an icon should be used, but how it could be symbolically interpreted. For example, many icons have writting on them and that generally appears near the top - so that can tell you about what you are seeing - then perhaps the type of halo (remember when we talked about halos) and the clothing - what is in the hands - can give many clues as to who and what the icon is about on a technical level. Thanks for the opportunity to clarify

Adoro te Devote said...

That makes perfect sense. Thanks!