I just completed Fr. Gabriel Bunge’s The Rublev Trinity. It is quite an interesting work in that it begins with a historical survey of the depiction of The Hospitality of Abraham, provides an account of the life and spirituality of St. Sergii of Radonezh (the founder of the community that commissioned Rublev’s famous icon), says a little about Rublev, and then finishes with a rather heavy reflection on the Holy Spirit as illumined by this special icon.
I think the following passage is excellent, both as a taste of Fr. Bunge’s writing (his writing is interspersed with quotes from various liturgical texts and the writings of the saints), but also as a primer for anyone interested in iconography and for anyone reflecting on art in general.
“The icon is an image of the One who alone is truth — and has truly manifested himself to us in the flesh, for ‘God has come visibly’ (Ps. 49.2 LXX). In contrast, the idols of the gods were never more that [sic. — ‘than’?] the fashionings of human vanity, for the gods of the pagans are themselves vain ‘nothings,’ without any true being.
“Beholding the crucifixion in an image, we venerate Christ with love and embrace the signs of him, and bow down to them, not honouring them as gods.
“Why then, thrice-wretched one, do you hate the pure form of Christ’s Incarnation and of all his saints? For we faithful do not venerate dumb idols.
“In the veneration of icons, human beings do not submit themselves through the idols of the gods to any godhead of their own vain imagination or empty desires, but they submit themselves rather to the tremendous reality that the only true God has in grace shown himself to the eye of faith — and only to it: to him is due all glory!
“The honor of the image, says Basil, is raised to the archetype. Therefore, we venerate relatively the images of Christ the Saviour, and of all the Saints, and clinging to them, we shall never now be dragged down to impiety.
“Or, to use the words of a modern Orthodox theologian and saint: ‘An icon remembers its prototype.’ Outside the strictly theological context of the remembering of the saving deeds of the Incarnate One, the icon sinks to the level of a mere object of art, and thus to that of a coveted collector’s piece, robbed of its soul. Its meaning is now measured only by its profane artistic value, or simply by the market value it attracts in accordance with its human desirability. Robbed of its logos (sense, word, meaning), the icon can no loner proclaim its theological message. For, remembering and making present [a spiritual reality] for the faithful is something the icon has in common with the word that proclaims the faith.
“What the words of the sermon are for the ear, so the icons are for the eye. And this is so not because the icon conditionally ‘translates’ some written text or other but, instead, because both icon and text have as their immediate object — a subject from which neither seeks to be separated and to the manifesting of which both essentially seek: both have as their subject the same spiritual reality.
“Like the Church’s preaching of the word, icon painting makes use of its own principles. It consciously submits to its own rules and thus renounces much that is essential for profane painting. So, it rejects what the world considers to be the natural, or central, perspective, which issues from the standpoint of the beholder, and chooses what can be considered the unartistic reverse perspective, which forces the beholder to surrender his own standpoint, his sense of distance. Likewise, neither are shapes and objects illuminated from outside, rather they have their own source of light within themselves.”