It’s not often, at art exhibits, that you see passersby moved to tears, bowing in prayer, crossing themselves or whispering devotions.
Yet so it was at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, as thousands filed past the images of Christ and the Virgin, the saints and the angels, showing in “The Glory of Byzantium,” which I visited with my buddy David Scott back in 1997.
Though the exhibit included works of pottery, sculpture, tapestry and bookbinding, the dominant form, by far, was the icon, the traditional type of sacred image in Eastern Christianity.
Indeed, many of those who filed through, rapt in prayer, seem to be Eastern Christians — Orthodox or Catholics of the Eastern Rites. While a museum docent led groups through and spoke with erudition of a mosaic’s “evocation of the numinous,” her onlookers themselves appeared to be caught up in the numinous.
For icons are more than art. In the Eastern Church, they are central to the practice of the faith. One saint called them “open books that remind us of God.” Tradition refers to them as “windows on another world.”
The term “icon” properly refers to works produced by certain formal techniques, hallowed by almost 2,000 years of tradition in the East. The Middle Byzantine period, the time covered by the Met’s exhibit, is known as the golden age of icon production.
Icons range in style, though they share some common characteristics: a two-dimensional quality, symbolic use of color and shape, and surreal, slightly distorted bodily and facial features: elongated fingers, impossibly large eyes, long necks.
They are essentially different from Western religious art, which is almost always associated with an individual creative genius: Giotto, say, or Michelangelo or Rembrandt. Not so with iconography: Most Middle Byzantine iconographers remained anonymous. Their work is impersonal, adhering to strict forms that manifest the heavenly archetypes. In some monasteries, painters specialized — one monk for eyes, another for hands, another for hair — so that no single artist could claim a work for his own.
Still, such work required a high level of technical skill. Icons speak a rich, symbolic language. Every color, gesture, garment, shadow and prop is significant … The oversized eyes? They represent the beatific vision of God that a saint enjoys in heaven. A sideward gaze? The aloofness and peace of someone who has left behind the cares of the world. The bright gold background? The divine aura, the glorious atmosphere of heaven.
In any good library you’ll find thick volumes that explain how to “read” icons. But no one really needs a lexicon. For two millennia, icons have served as the theology textbook of the saints, the catechism of the unlettered, and the pauper’s psalter.
From the icon of the Pantocrator (Lord of the Universe), the faithful gain confidence to abandon themselves to a Will that is all-powerful and all-good. From the Eleousa (Virgin of Tenderness), they learn of humility, selflessness and the maternal care of the Mother of God. From the Man of Sorrows, they see the redemptive value of suffering.
The saints of the East bring up another important lesson taught by icons: that every man and woman is an icon of God — made in the divine image and likeness.
That’s the sort of radical doctrine that has made icons the target of puritan purges down through the ages. In the eighth and ninth centuries, the puritans were running the Byzantine Empire. They called themselves iconoclasts (“icon-smashers”), because they believed that the veneration of icons violated the first commandment’s prohibition of “graven images.” They accused their opponents of worshiping wood and pigment. And they had other items on their agenda: Some iconoclasts believed that all matter was contemptible and so doubted that Christ was truly human, as the Bible and the Church Fathers had taught.
A holy monk, St. John of Damascus (675-749) — the last of the eastern Fathers — wrote a devastating refutation of the iconoclasts’ position, showing that it opposed Scripture, tradition and good sense. A capsule of his hundred or so pages: “In former times, God, being without form or body, could in no way be represented. But today, since God has appeared in the flesh and lived among men, I can represent what is visible in God. I do not worship matter, but I worship the creator of matter who became matter for my sake . . . and who, through matter, accomplished my salvation. Never will I cease to honor the matter which brought about my salvation!”
With the Council of Nicea, in 787, the Church declared definitively in favor of icons: “Holy icons ought to be exposed to view, since the more Jesus Christ, His mother and the saints are seen in their likeness, the more will people be led to think of the originals and to love them. Honor is paid to icons, but not worship, which belongs to God alone. Honor paid to images is directed to the original which they represent.”
Yet the prohibition of images continued until the rise of the “iconodule” (image-loving) regent Theodora. Her proclamation restoring icons in 843 is today commemorated in the Eastern Church by a special feast day.
The Second-Nicene Fathers, like John of Damascus before them, were always careful to remind us that in icons we see “as through a glass, darkly.”