Gold and the icon

I find gold fascinating, alluring, mesmerising. Not because it is valuable, but its qualities. I visited the gold museum in Bogota a few years back, and saw there how the pre-Hispanic culture of Colombia had the same sense of enchantment with this precious metal. For them it had profound spiritual qualities, and with amazing dexterity wove created intricate cultic objects of great beauty. And despite the centuries that have passed they still had retained every bit of its lustre and deep colour.

The icon of the presentation of Samuel to Eli, which I gilding today

 Byzantine Christians seem to have had a similar sense of this spiritual potency. Gold came to play an overwhelming place in religion and the imperial court. If you compare Roman mosaics from Byzantine ones, there are some notable differences. One is the abundant use of gold, another that they are on walls, and another is that the use of golden tessarae is most abundant in churches. Pre-Christian mosaic used only a little  in the way of gold, which makes sense when you think that the usual place you found mosaic was on the floor, and walking over a pavement of gold was a bit ostentatious even for the Romans. However, the Christians began to cover their walls with mosaics showing Christ and the saints, and gold became a dominant feature even when it was just used in halos.

 A church lined with gold shone. It reflected light, created a sense of mystery with its 'bright darkness', a sense enhanced with the warm flicker of candlelight. The first Christian churches built by Constantine after the liberation of the Church from official censure and persecution were noted for their sense of splendour. These were also significantly different from the pagan temples which they came to supplant, in various ways. One of these was that the interior area was set aside for the public assembly of worship, while for Roman temples it was the exterior courtyard that served this purpose, with the priesthood ministering within the temple itself. Thus pagan temples had much more elaborate exteriors while the Christian churches were plain on the outside but a riot of splendour on the inside. And gold creates this sense of splendour like nothing else.

When we think of Jesus as the Light of the World, when we think of the shekinah (golden cloud) which accompanied the Israelites through the desert and enveloped Jesus at His transfiguration, when we think of the imagery of fire for the sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit, light as something full of splendour is a primary Christian image. And gold more than any other element or pigment somehow captures something of that which even the non-initiate can't but help to pick up.

I remember when I first came across icons. It was on a trip to Athens when I was 18, and I was taken to see a very ancient, very small, and very dark church. Bright shafts of sunlight penetrated the interior, catching the smoke wisps rising from the candles lit in great banks before the icons. The icons were smeared in soot that had seeped into the oil varnish, so that the images themselves were barely discernible. However, the halos and the gilded backgrounds still shimmered through the grime and seemed to flutter like fire-flies. Absolutely enchanting, truly numinous, in their true home able to sing the praises of God in a voice anyone who paused long enough could hear.


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