These days, we’re likely to associate the word “icon” with symbols on our computer screen, but in the Church, “icon” is the word for an image of religious art that the Church uses in teaching the Faith and in encouraging religious piety. In the 1500 years of Church history before the invention of the printing press, images were important, because few had books and fewer still were literate. When missionaries went into pagan lands, they took with them icons of Our Lord and of Our Lady to help them overcome the initial language barrier and to introduce another heathen race to the Gospel. Sometimes, these original images became beloved by the people, as they could hardly imagine Our Lord or Our Lady looking anything other than like those initial holy pictures depicted them to be. So culturally, some images become very important to certain ethnic groups.
Sacred art can teach us about the mysteries of the Bible and the importance of the saints. And, let’s face it, just because a person can read doesn’t mean that he or she will. Sometimes an image can encourage such a person to want to know more.
So, sacred art is also a focus for our contemplation and prayer. Praying before an image of the Lord allows us to look upon the face of our beloved, and contemplate the face we long to see in heaven. Icons can help us lose ourselves in a prayer without words. By looking upon the face of the Lord, or of Our Lady, or of the saints, we can ponder the mystery of salvation history and of the Church, and become inspired to live more virtuous lives, to live prayerful lives, and to invoke the example and the prayers of the Church triumphant.
Catholic art developed over a span of twenty centuries and took some divergent paths, depending upon historical circumstances of the day. The earliest images we have of the Apostles are in the catacombs of Rome, where the paintings show the apostles in togas and looking like Romans. In time, however, our image of the apostles changed. Catholic artists blazed new trails in more vigorous ages, but also looked back to keep in mind the precedents, too. Thus, a baroque chapel in Rome might have, at its gilded center, a darkened icon said to be painted by St. Luke himself. And each age and people have their own gifts. So, for example, the Greeks became famous for their mosaics, the Celts for their books, the Anglo-Saxons for their ecclesial textiles, the Italians for their frescos, and the French for stained glass. There is much variety over the ages, but there are two large trunks that we should look at more closely when it comes to the topic of sacred art – the divergent trunks of the east and the west.
In the eastern branches of Christianity, monks became responsible for the painting of icons, copying exactly from an ancient precedent in the time-honored way (just as they would copy scripture without changing a single word). So, in eastern tradition, iconography is very much a fixed style within a fixed technique. Their tradition is one that encourages the artist to lose himself in the art, to learn from his masters, and not to deviate. In such an atmosphere, one might come to believe that too much novelty is approaching heresy.
Some of the icons in our own parish have a decidedly eastern quality to them, painted on boards with egg-tempera. These icons might look a bit unnatural or stylized to us, and their colors somewhat muted. Some of these were commissioned from eastern iconographers, others brought back from the east. These are masterworks of iconographers, each a work of art. Though they followed strict precedents, the artists sometimes introduced elements that were western, bridging the two traditions. For instance, our icon of St. John the Baptist is eastern, but contains a quote from a modern western priest.
In the western Church, our artistic tradition developed such that we tended to let the layman (not the monk) take up the task of religious art, and those artists took some bold steps away from the byzantine or eastern precedents. Consequently, in the west, our art can look less stylized and more natural and life-like. This method led to some magnificent masterpieces (just visit Italy), but these lay artists sometimes took too many liberties. Their art looked less and less devotional and more of a personal expression. This led, in some cases, to a kind of decadence or barbarism.
As a general rule, the more deeply an artist practices the Faith, the less likely it is that his/her art will be offensive to the faithful. But finding faithful artists who understand good Catholic art has become more and more difficult in the west, when art schools today encourage abstraction in their art. As Catholics, we want beautiful art, not ironic, or blasphemous, or unintelligible art. We don’t want artistes sneering at us for wanting beautiful art. Sadly, to make up for the lack of vision or talent in our less enlightened age, many churches have turned to reproductions of old art, and while the people are less offended by these attractive reproductions, we certainly aren’t helping artists in our day.
Given the decadence of the visual arts in the west, to turn eastward seems a logical step. The eastern tradition of iconography makes it almost impossible for the pride and decadence of the west to occur, because in the east, they are very much tied to a set and strict canon of images they produce again and again without deviation. Within the western tradition of religious art, it is trickier to balance our more liberal sense of style, because it can become more and more subjective. So while in the east, the art might seem to some to be stilted or stuck in one epoch, in the west, our art can become ridiculously tied to the trends of our day.
In our parish church, there are many examples of western art, too. Our parochial art is, for the most part, historically modern, but not necessarily “modern” in style (aka silly or abstract). Taken as a whole, the art in our parish church reflects a conscious effort to blend east and west, ancient and modern, byzantine and gothic, Asian and European, Anglo and Latino, and even the amateur and the professional. So, for example, we commissioned eastern iconographers to create new icons of western saints in gothic frames, or asked an artist to create a new retablo in an updated Spanish colonial style, or brought in a primitive bas-relief woodcarving from South America and put it nearby an antique icon brought back from Palestine. This eclectic blend of styles and influences is purposeful and strategic. By so doing, we hope that the results are both reflective of whom we are as modern American Catholics made up of a people from all over the world, but also something genuinely refreshing (both spiritually and aesthetically).
We see our efforts to patronize the arts as exemplary in the broader recovery of a sense of the sacred, and we take our leadership in the advancement of the arts seriously. Our parish art takes us backwards so that we can move forward again. By looking back, we can become less absurdly modern (in the pejorative sense of the word). If we mean by “modern” that we are without faith, that we have lost all belief in objective beauty, and that the only good art is abstract and ugly, then we must repudiate that sense of “modern” as loathsome and inimical to our Faith and even to our very essence.
But there is nothing wrong with being “modern” if we mean “alive now,” if we mean created in our own age, or in a fresh or updated style. Almost all the art in our parish was created for our parish in our day and age. Still, we need those ancient precedents and masterpieces to help us learn who we are. Through them, we can find and recover our own tradition that has been broken and needs restoring. Let’s face it, at times our tradition has been almost obliterated by lesser minds following the trends of the day.
If icons are holy images, then we should also say something about iconoclasm, which is the destruction of sacred images and the rejection of representational art as idolatrous. Iconoclasm was a heresy that began in the east in the eighth and ninth century. Islam had burst forth with a fury from the deserts of Arabia and it had made its way north into the great homelands of the Church, and with Islam came a spirit of destruction that influenced Christians in the east to begin to suspect their own tradition of iconography. If there had been some Catholics who saw the veneration of icons in the east as occasionally excessive, there were also heretics (including bishops) who began to see all matter as evil, so the veneration of icons, relics, or even the sacraments was considered evil, in as much as one was venerating a material thing.
The emperors in Constantinople, influenced by so many heretical opinions, wanted to “purify” the Church and therefore, declared all icons to be idols. Thus began the persecution of anyone who honored or kept holy pictures, and the systematic destruction of these images. The monasteries, where the ancient icons were kept and the new icons made, and where the old faith was zealously guarded and lived out, became targets for the emperors’ ruthless attacks and persecutions. Monks were tortured and put to death, monasteries destroyed, and efforts were made to abolish monasticism in the east. Sacred relics were thrown into the sea to be lost forever. (Many Greek monks fled to the west at this time and found protection and patronage under the popes. As a result, Rome has some beautiful mosaics from this period.)
The center of the heresy was Constantinople. The iconoclastic emperors wanted to gain more control of the Church for the purposes of centralizing power in the government, so the emperors expanded the authority of Constantinople’s archbishops. The power of Constantinople became more and more unchecked in the campaign against holy pictures.
The people finally began to riot in the streets as their cultural patrimony was being so senselessly desecrated and destroyed. Over time, some eastern bishops appealed to a succession of popes in Rome. But the emperors in the east had long ago stopped thinking of the popes as having any authority over them. To the contrary, the tyrannical eastern emperors presumed to order the western popes to destroy the images in Rome, even threatening to come to Rome and break the beloved bronze statue of St. Peter in the Vatican and imprison the pope. Several popes in Rome had first tried to ignore the heretical emperors, and then tried to correct the heretics in Byzantium, but these emperors could send fleets to harass the pope, and steal papal lands. Sadly, these many years of the iconoclastic heresy in the east set up the eastern schism that would occur a few generations later.
But the heresy probably helped to codify in the east their present canon of ancient icons as prototypes, because after iconoclasm ended, the churches in the east had to reproduce holy images, and it was understandable that a certain set of icons would thereafter become their norm (whereas in the west, where artistic development was more fluid and uninterrupted, we have a less established sense of religious imagery).
In the west, some iconoclasm did occur within the Frankish Church, but the real iconoclasm came with the Protestant rebellion, which was (like the iconoclasm of the east) anti-monastic, anti-papal, exceedingly destructive of culture, and hysterically opposed to the veneration of icons, of relics of the saints, and even the invocation of the saints. The devastating level of loss of heritage and art at the time of this so-called “reformation” is impossible to measure. When Christians turn like a mob of Barbarians upon our own culture, who is left to stop us?
While these irrational attacks on art were done in the name of “reason,” it was also an attempt (like earlier in Byzantium) to empower the crown at the expense of the universal authority of the pope and to enrich the state’s coffers to the impoverishment of the monasteries. When Englishmen were forced to become Protestants and the patrimony of the English Church destroyed, Catholic Europe, if anything, became even more visual, as if for every monastery that was wrecked and for every piece of art that was destroyed in the Protestant north, the Catholic south had to build ever more sumptuous churches and fill them with even more art. So while the Baroque churches dripping with sumptuous art are not everyone’s favorite, no one could call them puritanical!
Thus, Catholics remained more or less a people who loved art, until the 20th century when a rupture of sorts occurred. History will look at the period of time after the Second Vatican Council as a highly iconoclastic age in many parts of the west, when art was destroyed at a level unseen since the rise of Protestantism. This 20th century iconoclastic barbarism was in no way called for by the Church nor by the Council, but no reasonable observer of the Church who lived through the second half of the twentieth century would deny that the wanton destruction of stained glass, of altars, of statues, and of holy images was endemic (even epidemic!) to the spirit of the age.
The scandalous stories are heartbreaking, when priests commanded their own parishioners to destroy stained glass windows with sledgehammers, when monasteries and seminaries whitewashed over frescoes, and dropped marble altars and statues into lakes, when parishioners secretly followed their own pastors out to the trash bins to recover discarded statues or vestments or holy vessels. It is hard to imagine. The ugly modern aesthetic of “the abstract” sadly had its destructive influence on our western minds, and for a while it seemed that if anything looked traditional or beautiful, it had to be rejected and replaced by the novel, the bizarre, or the unintelligible. But this was not just an artistic style at play; it was a conscious effort to remove the sacred from our worship. Moreover, there was also an accompanying loss of respect for the priesthood, the sacraments, nuns and brothers, sisters and monks, monasteries and convents.
Happily, much of the contemporary “art” of that era had a short shelf life, and soon became an embarrassment. Today, in many places, younger Catholics strive to pick up the pieces and remake their parishes anew in the Church’s tradition, but how do they address this cultural loss? Do they just put everything Victorian back in place, or do they advance their culture in new ways? While Our Lady of the Mountains parish never went through that iconoclasm, we were nevertheless born in that age, and so we too need to find a new Catholic American aesthetic that speaks to us about our history, our culture, and that promotes our Catholic piety.
This makes our efforts at OLM all the more important in that we are endeavoring to live out a more authentic and more orthodox expression of our great Catholic Faith. As Catholics, we do not worship wood or stone, but we do love beautiful art, and we use the arts to teach the Faith. Moreover, as Catholics, we must be guardians over the patrimony of our heritage and of our ancient tradition. Our parish is a place where the arts are celebrated and encouraged, where icons and relics have been re-introduced into our daily piety. Here beautiful stained glass windows and statues are to be a part of our parish experience. As such, we reaffirm our Catholic culture, but we also hope to advance it.