Icons: an Evangelical Anglican Perspective - March 2009
by Graham Kings
Date added: 11/03/2009
The word ‘icon’ has been popularised through it use in modern computers and we understand the phrase, ‘click on the icon’. Apple Macintosh developed this way of highlighting the meaning of a computer application by focusing on an ‘icon’, which is a recognisable pictorial symbol of it, and provides access to it.
Currently, we see adverts for the iPhone in large posters and in newspapers, which feature the screen of the phone ablaze with icons. An interesting secular echo, perhaps, in word and image, of the screen across the sanctuary of an Eastern Orthodox church, the iconostasis, on which the icons are positioned…?
Church icons are, of course, different from computer icons – they are personal rather than impersonal – but they are still vitally symbolic and, for many, provide some sort of intriguing access. The recent exhibition, ‘Byzantium’, at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, has been very popular and has generated increased interest. Rowan Williams gave the Byzantium lecture, 'Icons and the Practice of Prayer', at the Royal Academy of Arts on 16 January 2009.
Traditionally, evangelical Anglicans have been wary of icons, though many now appreciate them for prayer. The second of the ten commandments, warning against idols, the focus of prayer addressed to God, rather than to the saints, and the consequent concern about veneration turning into something akin to worship, are all taken seriously.
How then have I come to appreciate icons in public worship and private prayer? In what follows I sketch three sections, Icons and the Crossing of Cultures, Silvia Dimitrova’s Icons and Theological Concerns about Icons.
1. Icons and the Crossing of Cultures
In the summer of 1981, I was visiting Yugoslavia with Hugo de Waal, the Principal of Ridley Hall, Cambridge. Following an introductory letter from Stella Alexander, who wrote ‘Church and State in Yugoslavia since 1945’ (Cambridge: CUP, 1979), we met Bishop Stefan of Zica in Belgrade at the Serbian Orthodox Patriarchate. He kindly gave us copies of an icon, ‘Jesus Christ, Saviour and Life Giver’, and we discussed the theology of icons as ways into prayer.
I discovered later, in Kurt Weitzmann’s book The Icon (London: Studio Editions, 1981) that the original was painted in 1393-94 by Metropolitan Jovan Zograf at the Monastery of Zrze, near Prilep, Macedonia, and is currently in the Art Gallery at Skoplje.
I had further visits to Yugoslavia in 1983 staying with Endre Langh, a Reformed Pastor in Vinkovci, and finally in April 1989, for an evangelical conference at Osijek. The latter was a few months before the Serbian war in Croatia which attempted to push the boundary to form a ‘Greater Serbia’. The tragic backing of the Serbian Orthodox Church for this nationalistic war made it very difficult for me, sadly, to continue to use the icon I had been given as a present. I felt the strain of the context too much.
Another important icon for me has been the oldest known Coptic icon of ‘Christ and Abbot Mena’. It comes from the monastery of Bawit in Middle Egypt and was painted in the late 6th or early 7th century. The original is in The Louvre, Paris. Alison, my wife, and I bought a print there and had it framed for our curate’s house in Harlesden, North West London. Christ has his right arm around the shoulder of the Abbot reassuring him. Both copies of these icons went with our family to Kenya in 1985, and came back with us to Cambridge in 1991 and then to Islington in 2000.
2. Silvia Dimitrova’s Paintings and Icons
In 2002, I saw Silvia Dimitrova’s paintings of egg tempera on wood at an exhibition at the Business Design Centre, Islington. From our meeting came the first exhibition in our Crypt Gallery at St Mary Islington in May 2003 called ‘Sacred and Secular’, which showed her traditional Bulgarian icons and modern Bulgarian folk pictures, depicting mostly love scenes. The quotation advertising the exhibition was from Kenneth Cragg, a Christian scholar of Islam: “The sacred is the destiny of the secular and the secular is the raw material of the sacred.”
Silvia trained as a Bulgarian Orthodox icon painter and her studio is currently at Downside, the Roman Catholic Abbey and boarding school in Somerset. Downside invited her over from Bulgaria to paint an icon of St Benedict and she married a lay schoolmaster, Simon, and stayed. In 2000 she was artist in residence at nearby Wells Cathedral and painted 14 stations of the cross for the millennium. In 2008, she painted five icons on the theme of reconciliation for the east wall of the Bishop’s Chapel in Wells.
Silvia never used religious subjects for her modern Bulgarian folk paintings – that is until 2003. Then, for my 50th birthday in 2003, Alison and I commissioned her to paint the face of Mary Magdalene, as she heard Jesus call her name on Easter morning. This was to be a painting and not an icon. Icons follow particular traditional styles, are unsigned, and are blessed for use in prayer. Paintings can range over various styles, are signed and are not usually blessed for use in prayer.
I knew of many paintings of this famous encounter centred around Mary wanting to touch the risen Jesus, but of none so far which had captured the very moment - a few seconds earlier - of her hearing her own name pronounced by her Teacher. We discussed the possibility of depicting that moment that her faith comes alive - her face of faith. Silvia asked me to read the passage from John 20:11-18 onto tape. She meditated on the text and the tape, prayed and painted. When she arrived with the painting, it was three times the size expected. She had not only painted Mary but also added Jesus, the angels, trees and the tomb.
In the story of John chapter 20 Mary Magdalene, devastated in her bereavement, mistakes Jesus for the gardener:
Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).
After meditating on the painting, I wrote the following poem:
Who is this woman facing this man?
Head lightly inclined,
eyes wide open, gazing;
hands uplifted, palms upward, surprised;
Who is this man facing this woman?
Coming from the right,
profile clear, bearded;
hand outstretched, palm down;
Behind her, two angels hover
reflecting her shape:
behind him, scented trees lean
setting the scene:
below her, a dark opening hints.
All silent witnesses.
The eyes have it:
focus of tension and attention.
One word awakes her: ‘Mary’.
One word responds: ‘Rabbouni’.
Their hands shape a triangle
at the centre of meeting:
her two, shocked and suppliant;
his one, blessing, calming, sending.
(b) Jesus Christ, Saviour and Giver of Life
In 2007, Silvia had an exhibition of her modern paintings and traditional icons in the Bishop’s Palace at Wells, Somerset. I combined a retreat with a visit to the preview and recognised the subject of one of the icons. It was ‘Jesus Christ, Saviour and Giver of Life’ and a very similar style to the one I had received in Belgrade. Here was a chance of ‘retrieval’.
The next morning I returned to the gallery and meditated on the icon and wrote the following poem:
Gallery into Oratory
East Gallery, Bishop’s Palace, Wells;
windows of light, in and on three walls.
At the previous evening’s preview,
people gathered without gathering,
and looked without seeing.
In the peace of a fresh morning,
the gallery becomes oratory,
flowing with your presence.
I bring a chair to sit
and gaze, amazed, at you,
the Saviour and Giver of Life.
I peer through wood and tempera
to you, the Peerless One.
You see through my appearances,
and pierce flesh and temperament.
Your right hand gives
the sign of bread and blessing;
your left hand holds
the Word of life and love.
To you, I give thanks for saving me;
to you, I turn and return my life.
Though icons are unsigned,
Silvia’s love for you
shines through and through.
She is the woman who
wipes the hair of her brush
on your face and neck,
your hands and garments,
pouring out her life.
Signing the invoice,
my inner voice sighs:
Pearl without Price,
owning nothing, I owe everything
to you, the Only One.
Through the abundance of your face,
flow the subtleties of your grace,
knowing, guiding, anointing,
searching, guarding, sending.
There were two surprising moments during my meditation in the gallery. One was when I realised that the icon I was contemplating was actually a two-way window, and that Christ was also viewing me, with his penetrative gaze. The other was suddenly seeing Silvia as Mary Magdalene, as she wiped the hair of her paintbrush on Jesus’ face, neck and clothes. It was only later that I realised it was actually Mary Magdalene’s day, 22 July 2007.
(c) Virgin Hodegetria
A particular traditional form of an icon is the ‘Virgin Hodegetria’: Hodegetria translates as ‘the one who shows the way’. We have such an icon at St Mary Islington, painted by Silvia Dimitrova. Mary’s right arm ‘points the way’ to her son, whom she is carrying on her left arm. The direction of focus is on the Christ Child.
I was struck by putting this icon side by side with ‘Jesus Christ Saviour and Giver of Life’. In meditating on their juxtaposition, two phrases came to mind: ‘The child is father of the man’ (from William Wordsworth’s poem ‘My Heart Leaps Up’) and ‘The bouyant child surviving in the man’ (from Samuel T Coleridge’s poem, written in Malta - Coleridge: Selected Poems, edited by Richard Holmes, Harper-Collins, 1996).
3. Theological Concerns about Icons
I mentioned two theological concerns about icons in my introduction.
(a) You shall not make for yourself an idol
The second commandment, Exodus 20:4, states: ‘You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them’. How does that relate to our subject?
Jews, Muslims and some Protestant Christians today take a stand against icons based on this verse. It was also a key concept during the ‘Iconoclast’ controversies of 8th to 10th centuries. For almost 200 years the Emperors and Church authorities vacillated between iconoclasts (image breakers) and iconodules (image worshippers) and many icons were destroyed and damaged. The Syrian monk John of Damascus (655-750 AD) pressed the case for icons based on the doctrine of the incarnation and the theological importance of matter. In the end his argument, which I think is very convincing, won through.
I tried to sum up something similar in a poem entitled ‘Matter of Great Moment’, written in 2001:
For God, matter matters:
For the Word became flesh.
In the beginning was the Meaning,
And the Meaning became matter,
And the matter became moment,
And the moment became movement,
And the Meaning moved us.
For God, matter matters:
For the Word became flesh.
It seems to me that an icon does not draw attention to itself but to the holiness portrayed through it. Someone may grow to love a particular icon and venerate it, or treat it as holy. This may be appropriate and I believe God may be glorified, so long as it does not move into worship of the icon rather than of God.
(b) Praying to the Saints?
This was a controversy of the Reformation in various forms. Sadly, God had too often been portrayed as very distant and a glorified human, who was very close to God on earth and now in paradise, was thought easier to address in prayer. Sometimes this was with the thought that the saint could ‘forward’ the prayer to God.
I prefer to pray directly to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit but was struck by the importance of the Communion of Saints during seven years teaching theology in Kenya.
The great evangelical Anglican theologian John V Taylor, General Secretary of the Church Mission Society and later Bishop of Winchester, wrote an early appreciation of African Traditional Religion called ‘The Primal Vision: Christian Presence Amid African Religion (London: SCM Press, 1963).
In his chapter intriguingly entitled ‘The Tender Bridge’, he considered prayers for those who have died, the ancestors, but also I think it may help us concerning prayers to the Saints. He wrote:
The content of all such prayer, therefore, should be a form of thanksgiving and the exchange of love and the joy of partnership in God’s work and God’s praise. None of the classical forms seem to me to be satisfactory. The requiescant in pace, in the African as in the mediaeval European setting, hints too strongly at a fear of their restlessness; while prayers of Protestant origin walk so delicately amid their if’s and maybe’s that they lack the ingenuousness of all sincere prayer.
He then went on and suggested that ‘This adaptation of one of them, perhaps, strikes a truer note’:
O God of the living, in whose embrace all creatures live, in whatever world or condition they may be; we beseech thee for him whose name and dwelling place and every need thou knowest, giving thee thanks for our every remembrance of him. Tell him, O gracious Lord, how much we love him, and grant that this our prayer may minister to his peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
So instead, perhaps, of praying to Saints, and asking them to forward our prayers to God, we should rather pray to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and ask him to forward our thanks to the Saints. This reversal of movement – to God and then to the Saints, rather than to the Saints and on to God – was very resonant for me and has helped me pray with icons of Saints.
Similarly, on All Saints Day, I enjoy the sort of litany that refers to the different Saints, but is addressed to God, such as:
we pray to the God of Abraham for faithfulness;
we pray to the God of Job for patience;
we pray to the God of Saint Benedict for order in our prayers;
we pray to the God of Saint Francis for delight in creation etc
So, we have considered the crossing of cultures – focusing on a clearly Mediterranean Christ reminds us that the gospel did not originate in England – the creativity of one particular painter, Siliva Dimitrova, and the theological concerns raised by the use of icons in worship and prayer.
One of the reasons evangelical Anglicans have grown to appreciate icons is the advent of data projectors. This electronic medium cries out for images as well as words and the subtle adjustment of the context of lighting can enhance illumination. We have a screen on wheels at St Mary Islington: when used, it is moved after the sermon and prayers and opens up a full view of the chancel. This reminds me, somewhat, of the opening of the central doors of the iconostasis during an Eastern Orthodox service…
I conclude with a poem written by John V Taylor just before he died in 2001 and included at ‘proof stage’ in the publication of Love’s Redeeming Work: the Anglican Quest for Holiness (Oxford: OUP, 2001, p. 715) compiled by Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson and Rowan Williams.
As he approached death he had been mediating on Andrei Rublev’s icon. This was painted in about 1410 in Russia and is currently in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. It depicts the three angels who visited Abraham at the Oak of Mamre and is often interpreted as an icon of the Trinity.
Love’s Self Opening
Love in its fullness loomed, love
loomed at the tent door in its truth,
not the sole unique truth
reserved for the incomparable God,
but a love consisting of communion.
I, Abraham, looked for a single
flower; but it has blossomed into a
multiple head, made for sharing.
Love’s ultimate reality, gazing at the Son
Proclaims ‘I AM’.
And He, as love’s delight,