Dear Mode of Life,
I would like to thank you for your article on the fullness Church iconography (http://modeoflife.org/iconography-a-statement-of-image/), I found the article wonderfully stimulating, and almost overwhelming in the riches of tradition and theology in which it describes.
My own congregation is a Protestant church which is dedicated to Mark the Evangelist, we have placed an icon of St Mark in front of the church’s lectern. The icon was written (painted) by a retired minister of the congregation. I wonder whether you would approve of it, or whether it is in keeping with iconographical tradition, could you offer some thoughts…
In the Name of the One and Only All-Merciful and Almighty God, Father Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
What I can say to you, is that the placement of the icon of St Mark the Evangelist at the lectern is actually reminiscent of the original tradition of icons of Evangelists, Epistle writers and Prophets being displayed on Christian pulpits, together with various other Christian symbols such as grapevines or the iris.
I suppose the issue at hand, is that Western Christians need to be reintroduced to iconography and its actual use and meaning. To not be hesitant or condemning of iconography on one hand, nor to go to the other extreme of “artistic expression” as was the case in the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
The icon in effect must be an integral part of prayer and devotion, as the Christian must seek to remove any sort of “images” from their mind and replace them with visions of the sacred to focus our attention upon God, His many benefactions or to find strength and inspiration from others who have gone before us and struggled to live truly Christian lives, often to the point of martyrdom. And it is here that we see that God is glorious and manifest through His Saints, who were soldiers of Christ waging war against the evil passions and the devil and his minions. For us, the significance is that the presence, witness and biographies of the Saints, as a testimony to our own life stories, for these stories tell of the same struggles that we endure, express the failings of human character as well as its strengths and virtues. Theirs is the story of the good, the bad, the ugly, the educated, the illiterate, the stupid, the pious and so forth who were all called by God towards salvation and unity with Him (theosis).
Like them, we too come from many different backgrounds and circumstances, but irrespective of this, each one of us has the potentiality to open ourselves up to God’s divine uncreated energies (grace) to work through us for His glory and for the benefit and salvation of this world. In effect to become living images of grace and the manifestation of agapetic love. This is what the Incarnation was about, and hence it was not coincidental that undivided Christianity for 1,000 years maintained the presence of icons both within churches and within the prayer corner of private residences; (usually the kitchen, so as to remind us of the bread of life being Christ who sustains our physical and spiritual life, which are one during our dwelling upon this earth until death separates the body from the soul).
Subsequently we have the 7th Ecumenical Council which deliberated about the importance of the icon, as it is an expression and theology of Christ’s Incarnation. Such luminaries as St Theodore the Studite, St John of Damascus, Bishop Theodore Abu-Qurrah and others wrote treatises or bore witness to the necessity and usage of icons within Christian devotion, and condemned any efforts by those who sought to destroy them (iconoclasts), or pervert their usage towards “iconolatory”.
Without doubt, within the Western Christian sphere there is a need to ensure that one’s theology and liturgical life must correspond with each other; because the way a believer worships must be the way they believe and vice versa, otherwise there is a spiritual contradiction which produces disastrous results. And I believe, in observing carefully the trends that are apace within Western Christendom, there is both a spiritual disaster and a spiritual awakening. Many seek to draw upon the “wisdom” of other “religious traditions”, but the answers are clearly and squarely existing within Christianity already, but they have been lost, and there are those who realise this and are desperately seeking to rediscover this heritage and wisdom. Iconography without doubt is one of these elements, and it still has a small manifestation still existing from which to rediscover and rebuild what many are seeking. That manifestation is the Stations of the Cross.
But the reintroduction and usage of icons will not be an easy task, especially given that an icon can express the most sublime points with less effort than the cleverness of the poet’s pen; or as we say today, a picture tells a thousand words! And it is here that I would suggest to anyone wishing to re-introduce iconography, to begin by utilising icons that tell of events from Scripture and of the parables of Christ. Such icons as that of the Lord’s Nativity, the Lord’s Presentation within the Temple, His Resurrection, Ascension or Transfiguration, are definitely musts for any Christian congregation, as they tell the purpose and objective of the Christian life and the mystery of God.
The icons of Saints could later be introduced once accustomed to and catechised by the images of the icons. And they should be utilised upon walls so as to remind the Christian that they are not alone in prayer but can take strength in knowing that others like them, have struggled and attained salvation and are praying alongside of them, and can serve as an assistant and intercessor to God. And I know that within Protestantism there is a great aversion to this, but this is due more so to the abuses of the Papists (Roman Catholic Church), because the theology of the Saints and icons is really the theology of the Incarnation and part and parcel with Christian devotion. We worship God not the Bible or the Saints, as the dangers of Sola Scriptura (which really has never been practiced by anyone) or the bizarre medieval papal cultic practices regarding the saints can produce.
The use of liturgical vestments, oil, water, incense, icons, relics, hymnography, the Scriptures, bread, architecture and so forth, were all geared towards setting the scene for the worship of God, and to convey His eternal beauty and serenity, as well as the beauty and serenity of Paradise; And just as equally important the beauty and serenity of the heart which we seek to cultivate (with His help). We are of course sustained and trained by the spiritual disciplines of the liturgical cycle, the mystagogies (sacraments) and the guidance of a mentor to whom we remain accountable to, as they are our guide within spiritual warfare and the arena of the struggle against evil.
Either way, icons should be an integral enriching part of our lives which help provide a focul point for our prayer and our contemplation of Christian truths.
The retired minister, I am sure was a man devoted to the service of Christ and the congregations that he administered to, and this is definitely the starting point for one who seeks to write the eternal images of God’s truths in material matter. It is a difficult task and not one that should be taken lightly as it requires fasting and many other disciplines. But I have explained this point in the referred article.
In any case I send you some pictures to illustrate the traditional usage of icons. The use of the icon at the lectern within your parish is in keeping with tradition and usage, as it was and is customary, that a lectern holding an icon or the Scriptures would be placed at the solea (the area between the nave and the altar sanctuary) outside of liturgical services.
There would be lecterns holding icons in the narthex and in the central aisle of the nave, while the Scriptures would usually replace the icon during liturgical services or on Saturdays. But even the Scriptures had icons upon its cover and internally with various motifs (consider Byzantine illuminations or the Books of Kells as examples). In any case, icons placed upon lecterns are accompanied with candelabrums on either side (as is the Scriptures when placed upon such lecterns), to signify the light of God’s presence and truth, and this would also be complemented by placing around the icon (or Scripture) flowers and aromatic herbs such as mint or basil. Vases of flowers and herbs would also be placed at the base around the lectern and the people will come and kiss the Scripture or the icon and make a prayer to God before it.
Anyway, that is my 5 cents worth. May the Lord keep you and your loved ones in health and wisdom.
With the sincere and humble love of Christ,
VM on behalf of Mode of Life Project