Recently, the church I attend did something that churches don’t do often enough. They issued a call for artists to submit works of art for an upcoming sermon series.There was a time when the words “church” and ”artists” were found in the same sentence with much greater frequency than today. Of course, few of us are familiar with that time since it was back around the 16th century. To be fair, that is not the only time the church has patronized the arts, but it was definitely a high water mark. Still, in the modern church, art is often considered either a worldly or worthless pursuit—descriptive words that some would consider redundant.
The requested art was to be created out of reflection on what it means to live a life “centered” in Christ. For me, the challenge has enabled me to reconnect with a part of my own calling. I am a graphic designer by trade and I have been reasonably successful bringing my own gifts to the world of selling widgets. Nothing wrong with widgets, they keep the wheels of the economy turning, provide jobs for the employees of the Acme Corporation and food for their children. I even teach students at a local university how to use their creative gifts to sell widgets. But like many people who are more-or-less content, but not quite satisfied in their profession, I have always asked if there was anything more.
This summer, my oldest son was married. He lives out of state and has been a member of an American Orthodox community for some time. I had never been to an Orthodox church service and I had no idea what to expect. What I did know was that their liturgy is purported to be the original way Christians “did church,” and they were the folks with the icons. The unassuming little church building looked pretty much like any other clapboard church building—typical of a small Baptist or Methodist congregation in rural Arkansas. You know the kids hand game where interlocked fingers are turned open while saying, “Here is the church and here is the steeple. Open the doors and see all the people.” In this case it was, “Here is the church, and here is the steeple. Open the doors and see all the ART!”
I was completely unprepared for the overwhelmingly visual nature of Orthodox worship. It was not so much the pageantry of the service, which is not that far afield from Catholic or Anglican traditions. Instead, I was struck first by the illuminated brightness of the sanctuary. In an ordinary church that brightness would have merely been a reflection of the white paint on the walls. (If you can’t afford nice wood paneling, then white, or more likely off-white, is the color you choose so as not to offend anyone.) In this case the brightness came from the almost prodigal use of gold leaf, bright gold paint and golden thread in the art that covered almost every square inch of the interior of the building—murals, paintings, tapestries, carvings, fixtures and sculpture.The entire church, especially the interior, is an elaborate, three-dimensional (at least three, probably more) icon.
All I really knew about iconography (apart from that which populates the desktop of my computer) was that icons were images (That is the literal meaning of the Greek word eikon, by the way.) that some Christians in the third or fourth century somehow used in their worship of God. I also knew that some other Christians, who misread the second commandment, zealously attempted to seek out and destroy icons in the late 8th century and again during the early days of the Reformation around 1600. Those folks were known as iconoclasts and should not be confused with the people destroying Christian places of worship in Iraq, or filing lawsuits to have crosses removed from public spaces in America.
So I did a little reading about icons. I must confess that I am not totally comfortable with certain practices related to icons in the Orthodox Church. Forgive me, but kissing an icon just seems, shall we say, yucky. However, veneration, does not disturb me at all, especially since it has been clearly explained that the icon itself is not the object of worship. Contrast that with the prices paid for art today and you could be forgiven for thinking that worship (idolatry?) is an apt description of the art world’s reverence for the works of Cezanne, Van Gogh, Picasso, or even Jackson Pollock. Even as I admire those works of art, I am pointed beyond the art to the marvelous talent of the artists and then beyond that to the glory of the Creator in whose image all those artists were created. From that perspective, admiration and veneration can find the only appropriate object of worship.
There is one thing I have noted regarding icons, and it is true of so much of what we call art. Some art, though not all, can require a specialized vocabulary to understand. Certainly you can look at a painting or a photograph or a piece of sculpture and marvel at its beauty. But at times, it is helpful to understand something about color and composition, rhythm and line, and the vocabulary of a given school of art to grasp all that the artist intends to express. Here is a description by art historian HRR Rookmaker of Rembrandt’s “Christ and the Two Disciples on the Road to Emmaus” that illustrates the point:
When we look at the drawing, at first glance there is nothing special about it. Three men are standing together near a house. Yet we gather that the middle one is most important. Rembrandt has made this apparent by pictorial means, by making the side of the house dark, thus creating a rhythm, man-Christ-man-house, with the downbeat on Christ and the house. He also makes Christ stand out as important by the way he has placed him between the two disciples. Then Rembrandt draws some trees in the distance in such a way that, although there is no halo, yet there is a suggestion of one. In this way the drawing is natural, and yet it is much more than just three men on a road. It brings out the fact which he wanted to get across. (HRR Rookmaker, Modern Art and the Death of Culture, p. 10, Piquant Press PDF Edition, Chapter 5, p. 10)
Rookmaker goes on to explain that it is important to remember that art makes “visible a particular view on life and the world, it expresses deeply-felt values and truths through the way the theme and subject matter are handled.” This is especially true of religious iconography. You can find excellent and brief discussions of the “grammar” of iconography here and here.
Between a newfound curiosity with religious iconography and an assignment to create an explicitly faith-centered piece of art, I wound up creating something like an icon myself. Since I am neither Rembrandt, nor an actual icon painter, I ‘m sure my work will not be confused with either. But I do recognize that a bit of explanation might be helpful. I am not one who believe that the artist’s intent is irrelevant and that the only meaning in art is that which the observer brings to it. So I have written a brief description and posed a few questions for the observer to consider in looking at the piece.
Referencing the iconography of the Orthodox Church, the piece contains a number of symbolic elements intended to evoke reflection on the story told in Genesis, chapter three. Adam and Eve turned away from God, fell, and became mere shadows of their former selves. Adam and Eve are startled. They hear God’s “footsteps” and his question, “Where are you?” Panicked, they scramble to cover their nakedness as their sin has been discovered. The image of God is still evident in them but they find only darkness and chaos as they are estranged from him, from each other, and even from nature, which they had attempted to use—without success—to cover themselves. The rift is severe, but as they turn back, we see clues to the restoration and redemption that had already been graciously prepared through the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world.
What are the symbolic elements?
To their right, there is chaos, darkness and fire as represented by red colors. Turned away from God, chaos, darkness and fire are all that they find. Repentance—turning back to God—represented by looking back over their shoulder. As their gaze is drawn back toward the right, that fire turns from something that consumes to the beckoning radiance of God’s light.
The skin is nailed with three spiked nails as a reminder of the nails that held Jesus to the Cross. The horizontal block of wood, representing the Cross is made of black palm wood.
For additional thought.
- Why is God not pictured?
- Which character is Adam and which is Eve? What would the difference in placement (Adam in front or Eve in front) make in the meaning of the piece.
- Why do the characters look so similar?
- If the serpent plays such an important role in Genesis 3, where is it?
- What is the image in the lower left? Durer’s Cat, or something more sinister?
One more thought that needs to be conveyed. Traditionally, icons must utilize the human form. For me, that is a powerful reminder of Ephesians 2:10 “ For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” There is no more profound work of art than a human being each one uniquely created to reveal something equally unique about God. 1 John 1:12 says, “No one has seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us.” Through his grace we are becoming the full expression of God’s love—even, as Jesus put it, “the least of these.” We are all living icons, visible references to the love of God. Nature gives us His invisible qualities. Other people can reveal Christ’s incarnation.