Monday, December 27, 2010

From a Name Synonymous With Christian Iconography

What makes an icon holy? Surely it can't be the iconographer. Speaking for myself, I often fail in my spiritual life. At times I really try, and at other times I struggle to make even a small effort to live a life of holiness. From my conversations with other iconographers, I know that this is a common problem, which should not be surprising since most of us live our lives this way.

So if the work of the iconographer doesn't impart holiness to the icon, what then makes it holy? Surely it must be the image itself. The image reflects the prototype, and gives us a glimpse of the holiness of the person depicted. Most of us have many icons that are mounted prints. This is permissible because the image still reflects the prototype. It needs no iconographer to recreate the image because the iconographer imparts no actual holiness to the image anyway. Sure you need a few iconographers to create the images to be reproduced, but a photographic print is just as holy, just as real as a hand-painted icon. And since so many of us can't afford the cost of hand-painted icons, we are very fortunate that the mounted print is just as holy.

But what if you could have a hand-painted icon for the same cost as a mounted print? This morning I got an email from Shiva International based out of India. As you can no doubt guess from their name, they are in the business of selling icons... or at least they hope to be. They sent me several pictures of hand painted icons they have produced and would like to sell in the US, Greece, and a few other countries. They all look similar to icons, but just enough different that they look slightly off. There was no indication what the prices would be, but let's hope that they are cheap! With a little work, I'm sure they can get to the point that they look very much like the real thing. So if the iconographer is not what matters, and the image looks like the prototype, it must be holy, right? Or is there more to it than that?

I think that what is missing is that icons should be the work of the Church. We all know that if the priest doesn't pray or fast as well as he should that the sacraments are still holy. We all know that if the priest gets a few things out of order or misreads a word that the sacraments are still holy. They are the work of the Church with Christ as its head. So too icons must be the work of the Church. Whether hand-painted or mounted prints, icons should come from the Church. Those doing the work should be people striving to live a good life and in good standing within the Church. But we recognize that they too are fallen and in need of constant forgiveness. Our work in making them should be an offering to God and a service to our fellow man, and not a work of pure commercialism. We as members of the Church should support those whose ministry it is to create these icons for our Church. People in India need to make a living too, but where will we be if we support businesses before ministries?

My wife and I have been trying to eat more local foods, ones that have been sustainably raised, in a responsible and ethical manner. What if we were to do something similar with icons, prayer ropes, incense, candles, vestments, and other goods for our Churches and homes. A local producer may not live next door to you, but shouldn't they at least share your faith? Shouldn't they be a part of your Church in some way? Shouldn't the creation of these items be something that is passed on from generation to generation, one that gives back to the Church and its faithful people rather than just taking from them? Shouldn't we support those people who make quality products, who are familiar with the theology they are passing on, and who use their work to minister and not just make money? Of course the answer is yes to all of these questions. But when we look for icons, are we looking at the bottom line of price, or are we choosing to make our Churches healthier and our ministries stronger? I hope so.


Emily H. said...

Thanks for explaining the similarity of icons and icon cards/prints.

I sure wouldn't order an icon from someplace with the name Shiva no matter how cheap!

M Patrick said...

I was just thinking about how long it takes me to ready myself spiritually and prayerfully to start writing an icon when I reloaded my page and you had a new post. I seem to have let it sit for a while.

Wonderful article though and I agree wholeheartedly. Right now I am working on icons for people who have icon corners full of printed "icons". I think everyone should have at least one hand written icon.

My wife and I are eating locally grown and raised food as best we can. Had a wonderful year in the garden though we won't quite make it to the next harvest.

Daniel Nichols said...

I have often made the comparison of an iconographer and a priest, but it has been more in the context of an iconographer being no more free to use iconography for individual expression than a priest in the Liturgy.
I am particularly sensitive to this as a Byzantine Catholic iconographer and teacher, thus in communion with the Roman Church, which has unfortunately not disciplined certain of her children, religious who have used an iconographic style to further their own personal agendas.
I just discovered your blog, though I have long admired your work...
- Daniel Nichols (