Icons – pointing to what?

by Gareth Powell.

The death of a 36-year-old mother of two in a road traffic accident and the temporary silencing of the chimes of a clock, both having attached to them the language of iconic.  One, twenty years after the event, continues to see the person described as an icon, with photographic images venerated. The second, an inanimate object but one that marks time, marks occasions and is considered a landmark.  At various points in the life of the late Diana, Princess of Wales commentators use the language of icon more because of perception than because of human dignity and the langue is simply applied to Big Ben as the most photographed building in London.

Contemporary icons seem to have about them little by way of a common thread.  They are defined by a plethora of commentators, and are a long way from icons in the Christian tradition and those that caused such controversy at the second Council of Nicaea.   In the great sweep of the Christian Church icons are very much more than items of religious art, rather icons express central doctrines of the faith.  They are more than visual aids, they are created (written) with great devotion and are only understood fully within the context of worship.  Icons give a visual expression to the surrounding cloud of witnesses, and of course to Christ. They present the believer with a visual embrace in the economy of God.  Moreover, they offer windows on the divine.

So, our use of the word now offers us a challenge.  What are modern day icons a window onto? In a Christian tradition that has not paid very great attention to the visual, what sort of icons do we need so that we may see God; see the holiness of the created order and all in such a way as to transform?

When compared with the great icons of the Eastern Church Big Ben seems a small, modern image.  Innocent enough.  On the other hand, a 36 year old mother of two killed in a road accident has about it much more than worship at a shrine of flowers. There was a human soul at the heart of that accident and two grieving sons, still.

The language and definition of icons has developed and it is unlikely that the more overtly ‘religious’ use of the term will in any way be narrowly defined again.  It may be then that we need to rediscover (reclaim?) the language, and our task is to work harder at offering a critique of icons that can all too easily point to a shallow understanding of human worth and dignity.  There is nothing wrong with iconic buildings, but when the icon prevents an encounter with what holds human life and death, we have to reassess our priorities.  The Eastern Icons were about encounter.

In some traditions icons are treated with great respect and care, reverence even.  From time to time our cultural icons are similarity treated.  The reasons for this may be ambiguous and from time to time a challenge of such an icon is necessary in order to break the myth and let what really matters take center stage.   If we want an icon to point us to something different we have to work at understanding the breadth of the world.  The icons of the present moment may in fact be nothing more than memorable events, noteworthy points in discourse, significant markers in a given discipline, or popular people.  The language of icons however has a deeper definition.  John of Damascus reminds us that the icon is a song of triumph, and a revelation, and an enduring monument to the victory of the saints and the disgrace of the demons.[1]

The same could be the case for our definition and contribution to public discourse.  The purpose of the image in iconography is to give a sense of direction.  ‘In being offered a sense of direction we are, in turn, brought into a new place and a new perception.’ [2]  When applying the language of icon there is a theological task to offer some views on how we interpret the world and see that which is ultimately of value as part of God’s creation.

[1] Ware, Timothy, The Orthodox Church 1963 p42

[2] Williams, Rowan  Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement  2000 p184

2 thoughts on “Icons – pointing to what?”

  1. If you’re in the vicinity, High Street Methodist Church in Harpenden currently has some icons on display and there will be a brief talk on them on 21 Oct


  2. I love icons.
    In my house I have crosses of course, and I also have rosary beads, a flaming chalice, a Buddha and two Hindu ladies. I have candles, images of Jesus, Bibles, the Quran, lots of spiritual books and music.
    It might sound like some multi-faith temple but it really isn’t. My atheist husband lives in it quite comfortably.
    All these things are just symbols, of course. They help me feel peaceful and closer to God.
    Peace, love and grace are the same in any language. And any religion.


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