Found: Oldest Known Icons

Reported all over recently: Vatican researchers have used lasers to uncover a series of icons of the Apostles Peter, Paul, James, and Andrew. Dating from the fourth century, they are the oldest known icons.

For those of you unfamiliar with iconography, see here for an introduction to the topic. It is a matter in which any artist of faith ought to be especially well versed, particularly since the fierce battles over iconoclasm led to a council with tremendous consequence for the history of Art.

The Council of Nicea in 787 declared that the veneration of icons was legitimate by linking the creation of icons with the Incarnation itself. Before Christ became man, man could not look on God and live; images of God were forbidden. But in the Incarnation, God had revealed himself to man. And since we have seen his face, it is therefore legitimate to depict his face artistically.

The veneration of icons remains a central aspect of apostolic Christianity, especially in the east, with the Byzantine tradition perhaps being the most recognizable. But I want get back to this key matter: linking the Incarnation with Art.

A few years back I was in LA meeting with some Hollywood-types. One group in particular was comprised of Protestants and Catholics who were having a go at the movie biz. They had some successes, but what struck me most about them was their lack of ‘missionary mentality’. I raised the issue with one of them, a former Catholic seminarian, asking him why they seemed to be doing as well as they were while many Christian groups struggled to create beautiful work. I will never forget his answer.

“They don’t understand film because they don’t really understand art,” he said. “They really don’t understand art because they don’t really understand the Artist. They don’t really understand the Artist because they don’t really understand Man. They don’t really understand man because they don’t really understand Christ. And they don’t really understand Christ because they don’t really understand the Eucharist.”

I can understand that for my non-Catholic and non-Orthodox friends, this may sound a little provocative. But to be honest, I can think of no better way to account for the torrent of bad art in modern Christianity. As far as I can see, it all comes down to the artist’s sense of Incarnation.

In a way, Art itself is a process of ‘incarnation’. An idea, an intangible something, is made present (in fact, only ever known!) by taking on some sensible form. (For more on this, read Dorothy Sayers’ Mind of the Maker, a book that presents a stunning account of the artistic activity as being analogous to the inner life of the Trinity itself, where the Father is only revealed in the Son, where the Artistic Idea is only ever known through the Energy that makes it manifest.)

But more important than the theoretical understanding of the process of Art as incarnation is the practical understanding that Art deals with the tactile, with stuff, with the sensible matter of the world, with mud and paint and wood and wire. Any attempt to divorce Art from the material in favor of a stronger ‘spiritual’ effect is self-defeating. For whatever ‘spiritual’ effect Art may have comes only through material means.

If you doubt this, try this experiment. Go sit in a quiet room with a good sound system and listen to Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. Then, go attempt to explain the effect of the piece to someone who has never heard, and see if you can create the same experience in them as you experienced in that room.

Musicians must have instruments and painters must have a canvas just as Man must have Language.

Back to the Eucharist.

For those Artists whose spirituality revolves around the miracle of bread becoming flesh, the flesh of God Himself, it is no far leap both to see the world as miraculous and to understand that the explanation of such a miraculous world can and must be expressed through sensible, tangible, tactile means. That ineffable something that pricks the Artist’s soul demands to be let out, and the Artist with a heathy sense of Incarnation knows that that ineffable asterisk only comes to light through material means.

As a Protestant artist, I always felt this “something unsettled matter” in my heart with regard to my faith, especially when I tried to work as a poet or musician. There was this terrible tension between preaching the Word, which I understood must be the ultimate aim of all my work, and the execution of my Art.

It wasn’t until I began reading Catholic authors that I understood the significance that while, yes, God gave us his Word, the Word became Flesh and pitched his tent among us. That he was really present among us, and that this real presence does not spurn the material. No, in fact, it sanctifies it, transforms it.


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