Tuesday, July 14, 2009
There are two important events in the life of Christians that illustrate why we have icons and statues in our churches. The first is the event of the Incarnation itself. When the Word became man, he took on our flesh – Picturing him is not forbidden. On the contrary, it is venerating to the One who, being fully Divine, shared our humanity. This tradition is as early as the painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary by St. Luke according to ancient tradition. St. Veronica is said to have wiped Christ’s face on his way to the cross by her handkerchief. His face was immediately imprinted on it. In Christianity, the Jewish tradition was married to Greek thought. And with this, the magnificent arts of Rome and Greece were developed into Christian art (music, painting, sculpture, architecture...etc.) The second event was the advent of Islam into the Byzantine empire by the 7th century which caused a heresy in the East. The heresy “destruction of icons” lasted almost a century until in 787 A.D. the seventh Ecumenical Council proclaimed the truth about the Christian faith. At the Council, icons were restored to churches and peace to the empire. Why the Eastern Church no longer has statues of Christ and saints can be explained as an effect of the aftermath of Islam. It is interesting that Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer in Europe's 16th century, never intended to eliminate statues from churches. As St. John Damascene, the Arab theologian explained in the 8th century, people who could not read the Bible and the liturgy could still worship by looking at icons. In the early and Medieval Church and up to the printing industry in the 16th century, the Bible was copied by hand in monasteries. Ordinary people infrequently read it outside the church. Thanks, however, to the Greek culture, schools of theology and philosophy flourished and thanks to Christian thinkers in both East and West they became centres of learning. By the 12th century the university of Paris was already shining with many great minds. There is a third event which we tend to neglect - it is peculiar to the West as Islam was already in most of the Medieterranean countries. This was Renaissance. Renaissance developed humanism from the classic literature and influenced the Christian West in many ways. We see that in St. Francis' emphasis on the nativity and humanity of Christ. The West developed a culture open to life. Polyphony in sacred music was born in the 11th century. Gothic cathedrals are also a characteristic of Christian churches. The great painters such as Michael Angelo and Raphael brought more beauty into the Christian tradition. Think of this panorama and think how Christ has been pictured in abundant ways and colours, and you will see a sea of imagination. He has brown eyes in the East, blue eyes in the North, yellow hair in the West, and black one in Africa. Christ has the most beautiful face - and he points us to the Father! Why not paint him who dared to be visible to us? Why not paint his mother who participated in his mission and carried him in his life and death and is now with him? Why not paint saints who were heroically transformed to his "image"? The Church carries Christ in all the earth and till the end of times.