Never as Gods-lessons From Icons

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Never as Gods-Lessons From Icons
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  108 Religious EducationVol. 98No. 1Winter 2003DOI: 10.1080/00344080390176357 “NEVER AS GODS”: LESSONS FROM A MILLENNIUM OF ICONS Anton C. Vrame Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute  Abstract The Orthodox Christian experience with sacred art—icons—servesas a guide to the present consideration of the potential and chal-lenges of the icon and iconic in our visual age. This article considerscontemporary understandings of the icon in light of a millennium of living with icons in the Orthodox tradition. Three basic questionsare asked and discussed: 1) What does an icon depict? 2) How doicons form us? 3) What are the dangers of icons? “Icons” and the “iconic” seem to have filled our vocabulary, espe-cially in popular culture. Through the growth of virtual reality, whichcombines the visual with audio via the power of a computer, we havethe possibility of entering new worlds and engaging new possibilitiesfor ourselves, even as we are entertained in the process. Proving thatthis is no fad, even the U.S. military has begun thinking iconically.The March 31, 1997 issue of  Time included a story about how theU.S. Army is experimenting with computers in the battlefield(Thompson 1997, 72–72). To convince soldiers and commanders toaccept the pictorial information on their monitors, the Army intro-duced a slogan: “Trust the icon.” This visual age already has a mottofor the future. While icons seem to be relatively recent phenomena, they havebeen around for centuries, shaping the life and thought of the East-ern Church. Orthodox Christians have trusted icons for over one thou-sand years as the visible presence of the invisible God in their midst.The Byzantine conflict over icons also led to a great deal of reflectionupon their potential as well as limitations. While icons are a powerfulsource of divine inspiration, commanding veneration and honor, thereis a limit placed upon them: They are not gods. Constantine Scouteriscites the Seventh Ecumenical Council (AD 787), “‘the Christians re-  109  ANTON C. VRAME spect one God praised in Trinity, and him alone do they  worship’...And thus, in approaching the icons, ‘they venerate themrelatively...and indeed never as gods.’” (15).The Orthodox experience with and reflection upon the visual mightserve to guide our modern consideration of the power and potentiallimits of the icon and the iconic in our visual age. This article willconsider our present understanding of the icon in light of a millen-nium of living with icons in the Orthodox tradition in order to draw some lessons for the present age. Three basic questions will be askedand discussed: 1) What does an icon depict? We will examine the iconicdepiction of the person in order to challenge our practice of labelingsomeone or something an icon. 2) How do icons form us? We willconsider the parallels of the ancient and the modern understanding of the influence of the iconic. 3) What are the dangers of icons? We willexplore examples of the limitations of icons from the past and thepresent. This paper, in many respects, is still very much a work inprogress, reflecting an initial sketch on a visual culture, the place of religious imagery in a faith community (and here I will strive to re-main safely within the confines of my own), and the need for bettertools for visual understanding, especially when the two—the visualculture and visual in churches—begin to overlap.  WHAT DOES AN ICON DEPICT? Not too long ago, an article in The Boston Globe called local tele- vision anchor Natalie Jacobson an “icon.” Admired for her longevity and her multi-faceted ability, “Natalie has survived. She is woman hearher roar. She reads the news, interviews the odd celebrity, whips upMartha Stewart-style food specials, sells videos of same, grants self-promoting interviews, makes public appearances, raises funds for char-ity, and above all, is wife and mother” (White 1998, C6). The reasonfor the accolade and the story was not Jacobson’s stellar and admi-rable career, although it was mentioned. The story was about her new hairstyle. The real purpose of the story, buried deep in it, was theprice of celebrity, of icon status (especially for a woman) in that the viewing public makes a big deal of an anchor woman’s new hair style,but pays no attention to a male reporter having gained a few pounds. While this example raises many issues about journalism and the treat-ment of women, I bring it to your attention for its assumption or defi-nition of “icon” and what one depicts.  110“NEVER AS GODS” In the above case, the icon is a person who does it all in just theright proportions. Jacobson is an icon of the ideal career-minded, fam-ily-minded, civic-minded woman of the day. That she achieves this while appearing on television would appear to be a decisive factor forher status given that many women today manage to successfully per-form a similar juggling act. The popular definition of an icon wouldseem to be high visibility, usually a presence on television. Obscurity from view does not lead one to being named an icon. Wealth andpower frequently confer or determine icon status, sometimes devo-tion to meaningful causes. Rock stars, politicians, and sports figuresare given iconic status: Madonna, Bill Clinton, Mark McGwire, andSammy Sosa, to name a few in these categories. Occasionally a busi-ness leader is called an icon, for example, Bill Gates; less often a reli-gious leader reaches that position, such as Mother Theresa or PopeJohn Paul II. Despite the plethora of “icons” in our society, a clearand meaningful definition of icon seems to have eluded us, excepthigh visibility or “celebrity.” Without appearing to be hand wringing over our impoverishedstate and looking nostalgically for a better era in the past, the Byzan-tine Orthodox experience with icons would seem to offer guidance tochallenge our present situation. In the Orthodox ecclesiastical tradi-tion, icon status—by this I mean whose icon was painted—was con-ferred sometime after the death of the person, usually long after. Theicon status was given upon the proclamation of sainthood. Sainthoodhad nothing to do with visibility but had everything to do with holi-ness or quality of life. Sainthood recognized a number of characteris-tics in those persons, including excellence in teaching as exemplifiedby John Chrysostom (4th c.) or John Damascene (8th c); significantpolitical leadership such as that of Vladimir and Olga in Kievan Rus’(10th c.); wonder working capabilities such as that of Nektarios of Aegina (20th c.); monastic and ascetic superiority such as the Antony the Great or Mary of Egypt (4th c); willingness to suffer physical tor-ture or martyrdom such as Maximos the Confessor (7th c.) or Katherinethe Great (4th c.).Philip Sherrard has offered a most compelling definition of theartistic icon that points to the distinction that I seek to make betweenour present understanding of icon versus the Byzantine Orthodox con-cept. He writes, “the icon testifies to the basic realities of the Chris-tian faith—to the reality of the divine penetration of the human andnatural world, and to the reality of that sanctification which results  111  ANTON C. VRAME from this” (1990, 74). In his writing he consistently seeks to empha-size the interpenetration of the divine into the human that came aboutas the result of the incarnation and the implications that this has uponhuman life if it is taken seriously. In Christian terms, this implicationis the “kingdom of God.” For example, Sherrard was noted for hisstrong opposition to the modern scientific paradigm and its destruc-tive posture toward the natural environment. However, rather thanmerely focus on the external causes, Sherrard draws our attention tothe underlying root of the problem—our loss of a sacred worldview that includes a loss of the sacred dimension of human life. He writes,“We are treating our planet in an inhuman god-forsaken manner be-cause we see things in an inhuman god-forsaken way. And we seethings this way because that basically is how we see ourselves” (1992,2).In keeping with his line of thought, the problem with our presentconferral of iconic status has less to do with external realities of themedia, journalistic standards than it does with our self-image as com-munities and cultures. What we name an icon tells as much aboutourselves as what the icon tells us. Our present definition of icon gen-erally seems to be limited to one who can gain our attention withoutany criteria for the quality of life that this person lead or inspire those who gaze at them to do likewise for the transformation of the world.An icon, based upon the Byzantine understanding, would be an im-age that reflects the most inspirational qualities and achievements of our present situation and draws us more deeply into our personal ap-propriation of those qualities.This two-fold definition is drawn from the Orthodox experiencethat considers icons both as mirrors and windows. So far, my lamenthas been on what present icons mirror to those who gaze upon them.Our present day icons reflect celebrity, wealth, and power seemingly in and for their own sake. I believe that the Orthodox theological term  theosis (divinization, deification) offers an alternative. As PaulEvdokimov points out, “The doctrine of   theosis ...is not a logicaldoctrine, not a concept, but rather a vision of life and grace” (1990,50). In the Byzantine understanding, icons serve to reflect a vision of a life that has come into fellowship with the divine and thus radiatethe presence of God in that life in all its ways of being and knowing.Icons also serve as windows, that is they seek to open up to a world of the divine and draw viewers into a deeper relationship withthe sanctifying power of God. They become a media, a means, for
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