Monday, June 25, 2012

More refreshing than a fragrant rose garden

This wonderful recollection and meditation on ikons is one that I want to remember, and so I am posting it here for myself and to share with visitors to my blog. It is by Aunt Melanie, whose gentle, wise words are also ‘more refreshing than a fragrant rose garden’ to me.

Leafing through the pages of my memory, through the many volumes of years gone by, I was stymied that I could not remember the first icon I ever saw. Was it in a church? Was it in a book? It must have been in an Orthodox Church, because my memory serves up icons in a wondrous grouping—not especially thematic or entirely consistent, not in orderly movement like the Stations of the Cross in the Catholic Church, but nonetheless unified and coherent within a structure and its spaces. In fact, I have seldom seen an icon without one or two others together with it.

What I know, however, despite any gaps of memory, is that icon depictions became deeply fixed in my mind from the first moment of contact. I could gaze into an icon forever if I were not so conscious of my own sin and unworthiness. That is, if I could dare to lift my eyes and ascend into Heaven with the saints just as they seemed to descend onto earth for me. Looking at an icon is not the same as appreciating a painting or becoming engrossed in movie. This may sound extreme (and inexcusable) but, sometimes when I felt too tired or ill to read the Bible, I could always lie in bed and look over at my icon corner and find the essentials of the Bible there.

Throughout my adult life, I have viewed many icons in churches, bookstore catalogues, and even at a museum exhibition. I have seen icons that were poorly painted—some that were mere portraiture, some that resembled storybook illustrations, and some so horribly rendered that they were nightmarish. I have been criticized for preferring not to attend churches in which the icons are simply ugly, as though I were arrogant because I count not accept the spoiled figures and faces as Heavenly. There are certain guidelines for painting icons. If those procedures are grossly violated, then I do not trust that it is really an icon. I do not reject the saint or biblical episode. However, I cannot believe there is deformity in Heaven but only transformation.

Although I cannot say that I really remember it this way, the first icon that seems foremost in my mind is that of the Virgin and Child. It is striking not only maternally, but because Christ is usually presented not as babyish but almost as a miniature adult having proportioned limbs and a young yet mature face. This icon seems to summarize so much of Bible—the Annunciation and Nativity which are intimately connected to the Crucifixion and Resurrection, the prominence of Mary in relationship to Christ, and themes such as humility, meekness, submission, love, sacrifice, and condescension. To me, this type of icon is more powerful than a crashing waterfall and more refreshing than a fragrant rose garden.

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