14 March 2008

The spirituality of icons

Patrick Comerford

Several Greek dignitaries were in Derry on Wednesday night (12 March) for the opening of a stunning exhibition of Greek icons at the Gordon Gallery at 13a Pump Street.

The exhibition, which is so appropriate at this time as we prepare for Holy Week and Easter, was opened by Dr Victoria Solomonidis, Minister Counsellor (Cultural Affairs) at the Embassy of Greece in London, who is also the representative of the Hellenic Foundation for Culture.

(The icon above is the Crucifixion, written by Tilemachos Tsoumbris.)

Opening the exhibition, Dr Solomonidis said she was delighted this exhibition was being displayed in the city. “Some 1400 years ago, St Columba said, ‘the angels of God sang in the glades of Derry and every leaf held its angel.’ He would be pleased to see such a congregation of saints and angels from Greece giving witness to the glory of God in the heart of today’s Derry.”

The exhibition is organised in collaboration with the Hellenic Foundation for Culture. Richard Gordon of the Gordon Gallery said: “This is a very unique exhibition of icons within the Byzantine tradition and the only exhibition of this size to ever come to Ireland.” In 1993, Gordon Galleries hosted an exhibition of icons by Sister Aloysius McVeigh from Derry, founder member of the Iconographers’ Association of Ireland.

The most striking icons are written by Dimitris Kolioussis from Oia, on the island of Santorini. This is his first exhibition outside Greece for 20 years. According to Richard Gordon of the Gordon Gallery, Dimitris “uses old wooden doors and reclaimed wood as the basis for his work. Dimitris has a great understanding of the timber and because he does use old reclaimed doors, some of which are hundreds of years old, you can often still see the various graffiti etched into the wood underneath the actual painting.”

Richard Gordon continued: “There is something very special about icons. They have a certain power, something within them that seems to hold our attention. Perhaps it is their pure colours and the fact that every colour means something, everything in an icon is symbolic.”

I was delighted to be asked to contribute my ideas on “The Spirituality of Icons” to the richly-illustrated catalogue for this exhibition. Other contributors to this catalogue include: Sister Aloysius McVeigh; Maria Sigala-Spanopoulos, President of the Panhellenic Society of Iconographers; and Dr Margaret Mullett and Dr Lyn Rodley of the Institute of Byzantine Studies at Queen’s University, Belfast.

Christ Enthroned, an icon in the exhibition by Panagiota Boutsikaki

In the catalogue, I write:

The Spirituality of Icons

For many people on these islands, their first impression of icons may come during a Mediterranean holiday when they stumble by accident into an Orthodox church in Greece, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Egypt or parts of Italy, and are blinded by the beauty of the church interior, filled with frescoes and icons. But in recent years, Western spirituality has become more inquisitive about the place of icons in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Orthodoxy has had a remarkable influence, not just on aesthetic considerations, but on theological journeys in the west too. Our understanding of the Trinity, for example, has grown by the way in which many influential, contemporary theologians have come to a fresh way of talking about the Trinity because of insights received through Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Visitation of Abraham.

But we are often in danger of seeing icons as mere decorative additions to churches, or as paintings in a style that is curious and engaging. For the Orthodox, on the other hand, icons are never decorative, nor are they ever seen as paintings. For them, the whole edifice of a church building is one great icon of the Kingdom of God. The frescoes, the icons and the icon screen (iconostasis) separating the congregation in main body of the church from the sacred mysteries behind the royal doors are there not to make a church more pretty or beautiful, but are central to worship, liturgy and praying.

Tradition says Pilate made an image of Christ and that the first icon was painted by Saint Luke the Evangelist, the first Christian icons may have been produced in the 4th century, and the earliest surviving icons, found in Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai, date from the 6th or 7th century.

Although in some of the Western tradition of the Church icons are seen as foreign or exotic, the dispute over the doctrinal orthodoxy of icons and their place in the life of the Church was settled at the Ecumenical Councils in Nicaea in 787 and Constantinople in 843, so that icons are part of the heritage of the undivided church, before the Great Schism of 1054.

The word “icon” comes from the Greek word (eikon, εἰκών) which simply means a depiction or pictorial representation. However, the theological foundation for the use of icons rests in Scripture: the New Testament describes Christ as the eikon, namely the image and exact representation of God (Hebrews 1: 3). If Christ makes the invisible God visible, then visual theology is as much a requirement for the Church as is verbal theology. And so the Orthodox say that an icon is written rather than painted, and speak of icon writers rather than icon painters. Icons as they are used in Orthodox liturgy and prayer life are no more worshipped than the pages, ink and typeface of a prayer book are worshipped in prayer. The Orthodox believer prays through but not to an icon, and the reverence given to an icon is not worship but the reverence that given to the sacred person depicted or represented in the icon.

Icons are embedded with a symbolism that conveys far more meaning than simply the identity of the person represented, and that symbolism and style is handed on from generation to generation. The personal, idiosyncratic and creative traditions of Western European religious art are largely lacking in Orthodox iconography before the 17th century, when Russian icon writing was strongly influenced by religious paintings and engravings from both Protestant and Catholic Europe. Greek icon writing also began to take on a strong romantic western influence for a period and the difference between some Orthodox icons and western religious art began to vanish. On the other hand, the Orthodox tradition of iconography from Mount Sinai and Crete had a strong influence on Western art after Michael Damaskinos and his pupil El Greco moved from Crete to Italy in the 16th century.

Icons are designed to capture the spiritual aspects of Christ and the Saints, not just the material human form. Large icons can be found adorning the walls of churches and icon-style frescoes usually cover the inside walls completely. They begin with more worldly scenes at ground level, and work their way up through the Gospel stories and the stories of salvation, so that as we are distracted by worldly thoughts during the liturgy, we are called back to the purpose of worship, until our eyes are drawn ever upwards, so that at the height of dome we see the evangelists and angels surrounding the highest and holiest of all in the dome, Christ the Pantocrator, the one through whom all things are made.

Orthodox homes have icons on the wall, usually together on an eastern facing wall, not as decorations but to help the family to pray together. Every Orthodox believer will also have an icon of his/her saint after whom they have been named beside their bed or in a private place at home. They are always understood within the context of the liturgy, the teaching and the prayers of the church.

In recent years, Western Christians have been introduced to the spiritual riches of icons through the writings of writers such as John Baggley, Richard Temple and, more recently, Archbishop Rowan Williams. There is a small number of icon writers in Ireland, and increasingly icons are becoming commonplace in many churches on these islands. Yet, despite the resurgent interest in the Orthodox tradition of icons and icon writing, many people today think of an icon only as an image on their computer screens. Hopefully this exhibition organised by Richard Gordon and Gordon Gallery will go some way towards introducing a discerning public to the beauties and spiritual depths of icons and allowing more people to reclaim a tradition that belongs to an undivided Christianity.

The Greek Icon Exhibition continues at the Gordon Gallery until 12 April from Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Further information on the exhibition is at http://www.gordon-gallery.com/. Telephone: (028) 7137 4044. Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College.

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