Eastern Iconography in the Contemporary Protestant West

. . . or, Protestants shouldn’t like icons, but they do

(Ed. Here’s an impressive piece of teamwork: the write-up by convenor of the Victoria Chapter of the Australian Academy of Liturgy, Dr. Kieran Crichton, of the address given last night at the chapter by Dr. Peter Blackwood, who convenes the Uniting Church’s Icons School. And: enriched with photos by Dr. Catherine Schieve of the Exploring Liturgy team. Thank you, Kieran, Peter, Catherine.)

It's a rare presentation on iconography that begins with the knotty question of how Western Protestants can find ways to accept the gift of Eastern Orthodox iconography, surveys the ground from Eastern theology, and comes out with a synthesising reflection from Walter Brueggemann. Peter Blackwood took us on a journey that covered a great sweep of time, place, doctrine, and sensibility.

The scene was set through a thorough reflection on rejecting and affirming icons, which took us into the world of the iconoclast controversy of the seventh and eighth centuries and a good dose of St John of Damascus. There was a fascinating glimpse of parallels between this late patristic controversy and Reformation-era doctrinal statements, represented by a very dense paragraph from the Larger Westminster Catechism (click here and scroll down to Question 109 for a feast of unique syntax).

This section of Peter's talk illustrated the tension between image and mystery. For the Protestant traditions there is a perception that the veneration of icons opens the danger of worshiping the image itself. Yet John of Damascus and many other writers in the Eastern tradition (and indeed in the Catholic West) emphasise that the icon must be understood as pointing to the mystery depicted, whether it be a holy person, or a scriptural scene. To venerate the icon is to seek an immersive connection with what it represents. Artistic and doctrinal sensibilities came to the fore in Peter's consideration of painting God. This section of the talk focussed on two icons, one 'wrong' and the other 'right'.

Some icons give figural shape to the First Person of the Trinity. This is something that has brought a bit of hesitation for theologians and artists in the iconographic tradition. The Novgorod Paternitas (15th century) poses challenges to prohibitions on depicting God, and a quote from a Russian theologian bore an uncanny resemblance to comments from the Larger Westminster Catechism quoted earlier.

By contrast, Andre Rublev's Trinity has come to be accepted and loved by Western Protestants entering the world of prayer with icons. The Rublev image is grounded in an Old Testament narrative -- the visit of the angelic messengers to Abraham and Sarah -- and also contains some visual cues that speak of Christian understandings of the Trinity. The used of a common pigment to unify the sleeve of the central figure with the mantle of the figure on the left, and the bowl on the table speaks deeply of the unity of human and divine nature in the person of Jesus -- homoousios.

The Rublev Trinity is a point where many Protestants engage with the world of icons, and Peter mentioned that the Uniting Church Icons Schools frequently has someone painting this image.

How should Protestants receive the gift of icons?

Peter explored a couple of case studies as the springboard for proposing some principles about how Protestants can receive and benefit from the gift of icons.

One was the placement of Peter Paul Rubens's Adoration of the Magi in the chapel of Kings College, Cambridge, in 1968. This was the result of a gift, which led on a to a serious process to display the painting as the altarpiece of the chapel.

The other was an 'icon invasion' in Peter's home congregation, where icons were introduced to the space during Lent and Passiontide as a way of deepening the experience of the season. This provided the congregation with a way to enter the world of icons, and to engage with their visual language.

So how should Western Protestants receive the gift of Eastern icons?

There are some basic principles that are important. Like stained glass, icons have an effect on a space. Icons are sometimes given as donations to churches, and this raises the issue of whether it is better to commission original works or accept whatever is given. Attention needs to be paid to how icons are placed, whether on side walls, or as a visual focus on an ambo or stand. Peter emphasised the importance of reserving the Holy Table for bread and wine, and not using it as an icon stand (or as a Bible stand -- we have lecterns for that!).

And those who live with icons need to have some entry into the language of icons. It is valuable for people to have access to the biography of an individual portrayed in an icon, or to the scripture depicted in a scene.

And a question that forms the basis of lectio divina has application in prayer with icons: what can I see in this icon, and what can this icon see in me?

So, finally to Walter Brueggemann. Peter drew our attention to Brueggemann's reflection on the place of prose and poetry in Christian preaching. One of the features of the Western Protestant tradition is that it tends to be most comfortable dealing with prose, which is language that can reach a high degree of definition. By contrast, poetry expands the potential of language. An icon is poetry because it points to a mystery that is always above the horizon, slightly out of reach. And for Protestants there is a delicious irony in placing icons of modern figures, such as Karl Barth, in the midst of the congregation. Thus we reach a union of the Church Imminent and the Church Triumphant.

Peter graced his presentation with a display of some of the icons in his series illustrating the people in the Uniting Church calendar. One image stood out as having particular significance. Peter has been privileged to create an icon of Alan Mungulu, an important Aboriginal church leader and artist, with the permission of his family, and using ochres from Mungulu's country.

Discussion after Peter's presentation focussed on a variety of questions, reflections, and comments. Two of these stood out for me, and I hope might be worth considering more broadly.

Robert Gribben pointed to the role of the Taize community as a catalyst for making icons acceptable in Western Protestant devotion, and to a lesser extent whether the Bose community has helped to underpin a similar mood. In both communities icons form part of the visual environment of places where there is a prayerful intensity that captures the imagination of many of the young people who visit. It's interesting to note that the Taize Community commissioned an icon expressing the theme of mercy to mark the centenary of Brother Roger's birth, which was also the tenth anniversary of his death, and the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Community's foundation.

The second was a remark from Rev'd Emily Payne, who spoke of the challenge of being asked to find ways to help a non-verbal child to pray. This picked up on Peter's theme around the tension between the prosaic and poetic, and pushed this out to question the Protestant habit of wanting to secure worship and devotion by words. The language of icons offers a more open and inclusive road to people who value or need the non-verbal.

Find out more:

RUSSIAN ICONS: http://www.iconrussia.ru/eng/
ICON SCHOOL: www.iconexhibition.wordpress.com

Editor's note: Because taking photos, Catherine - frequent photographer for this site - rarely features in our images. Here she is, with her partner Warren Burt, standing next to Patrick Negri’s “Abstract City” at AAL last night...

Catherine Schieve with Warren Burt; photo by Stephen Burns

Catherine Schieve with Warren Burt; photo by Stephen Burns