Icons and Lent

So Lent begins.

Iconography is an ascetical way, an ascetical art and so, I guess, Lent is a special time for us iconographers. A time when everything co-inhers, aligns, the liturgical art and the liturgical year, interiorly and exteriorly, the aspirations of those who paint and the liturgical rhythm of the Church for whom it paints.

Iconography is all about matter, the stuff from which all creation is made and which indeed Man, made of the dust of the earth, of mud and clay, is himself made. "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return", so speaks the priest as he 'anoints' us with ash. We are intensely material beings, and our struggle to become saints is all about how we transfigure this matter, just as our struggle as iconographic artists is how to portray transfiguration in colour and line. Our destiny is not to become angels, to loose our physical nature and become pure spirits, but to become raised in Christ, to put on the new body and take our place in the new cosmos, the new heaven and the new earth, where all is perfected and at peace because everything is totally rooted in and united to Christ Himself.

Matter is, as God says in Genesis, good. Out of matter Christ was formed in the flesh, dwelling among us full of grace and truth. The material world can 'carry' such glory, and indeed it is the whole point of the resurrection that Christ is raised in glory in the flesh, not as an immaterial soul. Christ Risen body eats and drinks, walks and talks, can be touched and seen, yet at the same time becomes more alive than before, able to materialise in a room, to change appearances, to vanish before our eyes, to become the Eucharist and to ascend.

The transfiguration, long held as the paradigm for iconographers with its manifestation of the Divine Light, something seen by human eyes and radiating heavenly glory not just in Christ's face but even in His garments. Matter has thus a particular capacity and destiny, though for the most part we human beings neither see it nor even regard it as a possibility. We are literally blind to the fulness of human potentiality and indeed the deeper realities of the material cosmos.

Science shows us how ignorant we have been for most of human existence about the laws of nature, whether quantam physics of the nature of the human body with its DNA etc. Ignorance and blindness is part of the course, and part of the wonder of being human is to discover how amazing human life and indeed the whole of the cosmos is. The materiality of our existence is something beyond our imagining.

This should realisation should also be a warning to us not to stop exploring the dynamics of our human existence to the purely observable, but also to be open to the spiritual dimension also. The whole history of humanity bears unrelenting testimony to humanity as a 'bridge' between the material and the spiritual worlds, and as such the pinnacle through which the glory of the cosmos can be revealed. Our spiritual nature enhances our material nature to the point of glorification, as we transcend the limitations of matter through the spiritual life of love, hope, empathy etc.

As we write the icon we accept the limitations of matter in and of itself, and paint stripping our work of all attempts at illusion. Matter in itself cannot reach its potential, it is however mind-blowing, humble before the realm of the spirit, of angels and archangels, of cherubim and seraphim, of virtues such as love, joy, compassion.  The icon is a thing of matter at the service of the spiritual realm, and as such transcends the limits of matter revealing matter in its fulness. By depicting Christ, Our Blessed Mother, the saints, indeed as well as angelic visitors, but without the hubris of illusion, it strains matter to become truly itself, bearers of greatness and glory by being itself.

This might sound a bit double dutch, but let me try and explain. When an artist uses his skill to create the illusion of heaven through painting clouds, swirling vestments and the like it appeals to our earthly imagination, but in doing so it reduces the spiritual to a sort of physical fantasy, suggesting that in reality it is not possible to actually experience it.

Yet in Christianity it is the very opposite, above all in the Liturgy. As St John says,
"What was from the beginning,what we have heard,what we have seen with our eyes,what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life—for the life was made visible;we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was made visible to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; for our fellowship is with the Fatherand with his Son, Jesus Christ." 
Christians don't need to imagine Christ, heaven and the saints, we experience it.  In the icon, which is the art of the Liturgy, by being honest and reducing all illusion to a suppressed sparsity of perspective, yet holding true to the revelation received by the Church and the dynamics of its Liturgical reality between the contemporary limitedness of our corporal existence and its eternal destiny in the new cosmos, is made accessible. The icon is, like the sanctuary, a thin place where heaven and earth meet. Just as the scientific depth of the universe has remained invisible, unknown and even now a matter of human conjecture perceivable only to those with supreme intellect and knowledge, it is a dimension of reality which can only be perceived with certainty with the aid of Divine grace. The art of the icon extends that experience, makes it intelligible to the human senses and so initiates all members of the Christian family into the reality of what is taking place.

It does this by being honest. It is wood and clay and chalk dust and animal skin glue, and egg and ground rock. It is gold and made by human hands. Yet it is more. It is a true representation of Christ, icon of the Father, Who was not made by human hands, because it is written according to the Tradition of the Church councils and Fathers, and inscribed as such. The icon makes the faith of the Church tangible and real, and thus is truly worthy of veneration. It is humble and so is exalted, honest and therefore truth-full, and thus capable of being the context for prayer.


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