Archive for March 12th, 2007

Icons and the Heart

March 12, 2007


My maternal grandparents’ home had an array of popular religious art: Jesus knocking at the door (as discussed in the previous post’s comments), the guardian angel and the children, prayer in the garden of gethsemane. They were country Baptists, and yet religious art (I suppose some would call it kitsch) was an important part of the home.

My first encounter of the Theotokos was with a Raphael Madonna that was the frontispiece in the little Bible my mother’s Baptist Sunday School gave me when I was born. It is with my altar books at the Church now. Strangely, having grown up in what was an almost uniform Baptist culture, religious art, such as it was, had a great deal of importance.

Iconoclasm played a huge role in the Reformation, and yet it becomes progressively weaker as it moves away from its intellectual centers. I have no way of offering a survey of such matters but I would expect that more highly educated Protestants (excluding the Episcopalians) may have had less art of this sort in the home than the less educated. Did Presbyterians (almost always more educated than Baptists) have less religious art in the home? I can only guess.

Nevertheless, the role that relgious art, whether good or bad, played in Protestant homes shouldn’t be underestimated. I am certain that my earliest awareness of God and my earliest thoughts of God were related primarily to the images I saw around me. Thus what I saw and considered was largely sentimental, but still gentle and kind.

It was only later, particularly in early teen years, that the fearful ideas of a punishing God became important – doubtless mixed with experiences of angry adults. But I think earlier ideas trump later misfortune.

That all of my children have grown up with icons in the home and part of my family’s prayer life, encourages me when I think of their life in Christ. What I cannot fathom would be an imageless Christianity.

Human beings make images – we do it everywhere and in every culture. Islam has its strict iconoclasm and yet cannot resist turning Arabic Script into something of an image itself. And if were to have traveled across the Middle East (particularly before it became such a political nightmare) you would have discovered a strange symbiotic relationship with the Christians (usually Orthodox) who lived among them. There are monasteries with miracle-working icons of the Theotokos who are (or at least were) likely to have more muslims in attendance at any given time than Christians. The muslims ignore the religious implications of their actions (largely), but come for the miracles anyway. Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain has a number of such accounts.

What seems obvious to me is that Christianity is far better served by a doctrinally ruled use of art (which icons are to a large extent) than by art that is driven by little more than sentimentality. Both may touch the heart – and God’s great kindness is such that He’ll use virtually everything for our salvation – but images are at least as important as words. As the Seventh Council stated: “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” Thus it seems obvious that art should be a doctrinal matter. Indeed, the unique ability of art to communicate on the level of the heart (thus a picture is worth a thousand words) would seem to require that we pay at least as much if not more attention to it than to the written word.

Or so my heart tells me.