ICONS have become a familiar sight in churches and cathedrals across the UK. The discovery of icons by the Western Church has enriched its prayer and worship. The idea of icons comes from the theological and liturgical tradition of Eastern Christianity. Some important books have shown the pictorial language and meaning of icons and also the theological tradition that was defined in the course of the iconoclastic controversy of the seventh and eighth centuries. This poses a theological challenge for the West to discover how to make sure that icons are more than attractive religious pictures, and how they can offer us that salvation in Christ.
The essays collected here explore how icons work in the life of the Church. They place icons in a wide and broad perspective. Their approach to iconography includes statues as well as two-dimensional icons; compares iconoclastic with icon-friendly architecture; values sculptural work on the outside of churches as well as images within; recognises that, for most, it is prints and reproductions that are used rather than those painted (“written”) by iconographers; involves the use of icons in processions and festivals, which take place in Rome, the United States, or Chile, as well as in Eastern churches.
This generous and inclusive list of topics affirms that icons belong to the whole Church. The book makes us think in fresh ways about how we approach worship, how our faith can be strengthened and how icons do this.
It begins with a summary of the Eastern context. In Eastern churches, art and architecture cannot be separated, and both belong within a building that has a sacramental quality. Worship uses the whole building in liturgy as an invitation into divine life. Much modern Western worship, especially since the Second Vatican Council, distrusts excessive imagery, and prefers light, space, and simplicity. These provide alternative approaches to worship.
Icons are used in worship. Often they are covered with precious metal, called revetment, which obscures the image but adds to the spiritual value and shows reverence to the icon. Then especially significant icons are carried in procession or taken on tour to other churches and places to make their blessings more widely available. Often it is a reproduction of the original icon or statue which is the focus of worship.
Some icons are powerful, evoking apparitions and miracles or oozing sweet-smelling scents. Sometimes, icons are described as a “window to heaven”, leading the worshipper to approach the original that is depicted; and, if so, one passage of the book suggests, then a three-dimensional statue might work differently, locating the divine in the world and making it present and real instead of acting as a pointer towards it.
The book is beautifully produced with vivid illustrations. It is a pleasure to read, and raises intriguing and important questions that will leave the reader thinking and reflecting. It is a challenging and thought-provoking addition to the growing library of books about icons.
The Revd Dr John Binns is Visiting Professor at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge.
Icons and the Liturgy, East and West: History, theology, and culture
Nicholas Denysenko, editor
Notre Dame Press £73.50