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New book explores the meaning and place of icons in the West

Authored by the young Benedictine Sister Jeana Visel, Icons in the Western Church: Toward a More Sacramental Encounter deserves the widest possible readership among Western Christians.

If you count any clergy, religious, catechists, liturgists, teachers, artists, or art historians among your friends and family, order them this book for Christmas. Even if you don’t order three copies nonetheless: one for your parish, another for your diocesan liturgy office, and the third for yourself. And you will do all this because you care—as any sensate person must—about overcoming the depressing barrenness of too many Roman Catholic churches today.

The book in question is Icons in the Western Church: Toward a More Sacramental Encounter. Authored by a young Benedictine Sister Jeana Visel, this slender but vital book was published just last year by Liturgical Press. It deserves the widest possible readership among Western Christians.

I came across this book as one of my graduate students was finishing her thesis this summer on the non-reception of Nicaea II in the Latin Church, and the periodic outbreaks of iconoclasm in the same, not least after Vatican II—a point powerfully made by Joseph Ratzinger in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy. Both my grad student and Sr. Jeana have been thinking about ways to recover a theologically strong and liturgically healthy use of images in the Western Church today.

Readers may recall that I proposed such a recovery of iconography back in February when I made some modest suggestions about what the West could and should learn from the East. Some of my more sensible interlocutors demurred slightly from my point that the West could adopt Byzantine iconography wholesale—a not unimportant point in light of the ecumenical principle that indigenous liturgical traditions should avoid use of other traditions without very good reasons.

But now Sr. Jeana has come along and written a much fuller answer to the challenges that I only mentioned in passing. Her book begins with a brief introduction to how the Christian East has historically understood and used icons. After that first chapter, which gives just enough history without being overwhelming, she then spends the remaining five chapters of this relatively short book looking at images in the Western Church; at Vatican II and its notion of “noble simplicity”; at a Western defense of icons; at the challenges facing greater Western use of icons; and then at the ecumenical implications of all this. To do all this in under 200 pages, many of which are nicely illustrated with lovely colour plates, is a formidable achievement.

Visel begins by noting a phenomenon others have seen in the last two decades especially: the increasing fascination with, and use of, icons by Western Christians, both Protestant and Catholic. While later in the book she strongly encourages yet greater Western usage, she rightly notes at this point that many who are drawn to icons have only a very vague understanding of their theology and history, and the spiritual disciplines necessary to produce them. If they are to have a deeper understanding, then we must begin in the context where icons begin, and thus we turn to the East for some answers to basic questions such as what icons are, how they developed out of a Scriptural theology of the Incarnation, and how they are governed by guidelines that have developed down through the centuries in Egypt, Russia, Syria, and elsewhere. Her first chapter ends with a brief history of the iconoclast crisis that ran, roughly, from the seventh to ninth centuries. This chapter draws on just about every leading Eastern source today, but displays all this learning with a light hand, making it very accessible for the reader coming to the subject with little to no background.

Her second chapter opens with the question of how “devotional art” came to be preferred over more traditional Byzantine-style iconography as the West moved into the second millennium. But that is not to suggest that icons were never seen or produced in the West. On the contrary, she has tracked down a number of sources showing the presence of icons in major Western monastic centres such as Cluny and Grandmont; and, of course, the well-known presence of iconographers themselves in Sicily after the Norman Conquest as well, later, in Venice and elsewhere.

The Crusades played a role here as those traveling in the Holy Land sometimes learned iconographic skills while there, and took those back home with them. For a time those skills were used in a more or less traditional fashion, but then, as she shows in some detail, Western influences—especially from the Renaissance onward—crowded out Byzantine tradition in favor of more “realist” attempts at greater perspective of depth than was thought possible in icons—a process repeated later on in Peter the Great’s Russia. But underlying these changes in the West was nonetheless a steady stream of devotional practices—the “indulgenced picture,” the praying before tombs, statues, and hieratic portraiture.

The Reformation disrupted so much of this devotional culture, as the Cambridge historian Eamon Duffy, and before him John Bossy, began showing a quarter-century ago in vivid detail. Outbreaks of iconoclasm at and after the various reformations are by now so well documented that this, I assume, is why Visel gives barely two pages at the end of her second chapter to these dolorous and destructive developments before jumping directly to Vatican II, the subject of chapter three.

This chapter goes straight to the heart of the problem: the tendentious phrase “noble simplicity,” which has given far too much cover to far too many iconoclasts in the last fifty years, resulting in hollowed-out churches of cold and denuded walls, or of old churches torn down and replaced with buildings having all the charms of a Soviet hydro station. Visel bluntly begins by saying that at Vatican II “a kind of iconoclasm commenced”. This iconoclasm, in turn, as she puts it later, “created a vacuum, with too much ‘simplicity’ and not enough ‘nobility’”.

At this point Visel reviews various post-conciliar documents, especially from American bishops and theologians, on aspects of art and liturgy.  These documents, she argues, insist on certain principles, all of which are realized in icons, though the documents themselves often fail to realize this or stop short of such insights and their implications.

Icons themselves have, of course, crucial principles undergirding not just their production but also their “use”. And it is the lack of recognition of these principles that make the increasingly widespread practice of putting up icons willy-nilly in Catholic and Protestant churches somewhat problematic insofar as some well-intentioned people mistakenly treat icons “as decoration” on the walls when, of course, they are in fact locations of theophany, embodying—to use common Western language in a different context—the “real presence” of Christ, who is, as Paul tells the Colossians, the “visible image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15, where the word in Greek is εἰκών = icon).

How are we to move beyond this problem? How, that is, can we encourage widespread recovery of icons in the West while also ensuring they are not treated as just decorative wall coverings but as incarnational and theophanic? This is the burden of the rest of Visel’s book.

She begins to shoulder this burden with some of the sturdiest guides of both the early East and the modern West, starting with St. John of Damascus, honored in the West as a doctor of the Church. She links an understanding of icons to one of Incarnation and theosis (so well treated in Called To Be the Children of God: The Catholic Theology of Human Deification). The Damascene is invoked along with another would-be doctor of the Church, St. John Paul II, whose 1995 Orientale Lumen is drawn on in this chapter along with the Catechism he promulgated and other letters of his pontificate.

Much of the late pope’s theologizing is translated in terms of sacramentality, and Visel here returns to points made earlier in her book about how the West has a long and venerable tradition of reverencing objects as conveying grace. She tries to begin a recovery of icons in the West by returning us to this language and its practices.

But in her penultimate chapter she goes beyond arguing that icons be seen as just one more in a long list of “sacramentals.” Instead, she says that for them to be used more widely they have to be understood in the context of liturgy, and here is where matters get both more interesting and more complicated.  For without a wider liturgical consideration the fate of icons will too often consist in their being stuck in a chapel or transept or “prayer corner” for, in essence, private devotion and thus not integrated  liturgically the way they are in the East. To make some of these arguments, she draws on the contemporary Catholic liturgical architect Denis R. McNamara and his work showing the integration (or, sadly, the failure to integrate in too much modern ecclesial architecture) of building, image, and liturgy. Here Sr. Visel shows a very discerning pastoral sensibility to integrate Eastern insights with the best of recent Western Catholic scholarship on liturgy, architecture, and ritual studies.

Her final chapter notes that the hitherto haphazard adoption of icons by Western Christians has been born of a commendable ecumenical desire for unity with the East. But without some careful consideration of how the East uses and understands icons, these Western endeavors risk doing harm while attempting good. Here she rightly singles out such problematic Western figures as Robert Lentz, whose popular but bizarre products mix Byzantine style with Western politics, to produce images not merely of non-canonized figures (e.g., Dorothy Day), but even of non-Christian figures (e.g., Einstein, Gandhi, and Harvey Milk). Visel notes that the Western Church has not really grappled with this and related challenges but will need to if a healthy iconography is to flourish once again, offering, as she says in the conclusion to her splendid book,  the gifts of healing and wholeness that icons bring by means of their “deifying light”.

Icons in the Western Church: Toward a More Sacramental Encounter
by Sister Jeana Visel
Liturgical Press, 2016
Paperback, 192 pages

About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 59 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor and chairman of the Department of Theology-Philosophy, University of Saint Francis (Fort Wayne, IN) and author of Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).

5 Comments

  1. The Western historical tendency was to produce art that became more and more realistic till it reached the point that the religious figures looked more and more like real people, and no doubt the models used in past times for various saints were recognized as being “so and so” by their contemporaries. The icon, instead, immediately removes you from the ordinary world and puts you in contact with real persons whose features will remain unknowable in this world. There is another question though — what about saints from our own era whose photographs and authentic appearance are knowable?

  2. “There is another question though — what about saints from our own era whose photographs and authentic appearance are knowable?”

    Such photos have been used as source material for the creation of icons — we can take a “phenomenological” approach — are icons more effective for prayer than photographs, and if so, why?

  3. The Ordinariate in the UK has a small but important movement to revive the pre-reformation endemic English (“St Albans”) style icon in future Ordinariate Churches.
    These “native English” icons are more accessible to “western” tastes, and constitute part of the cultural patrimony of the English-speaking Catholic church.

  4. Thank you for this interesting review. I agree strongly that the integration of images into the liturgy and its engagement in liturgical prayer are important; and that there has been too much devotional art in Catholic churches. I had the thought that if we pray the liturgy of the hours, then this authentic engagement with images can, in fact, be developed through the domestic church and icon corner (this was the premise of the book I wrote, published by Sophia Press called The Little Oratory).

    My understanding is that there are three authentic liturgical styles in the West, each with an integration of theology and form. First the iconographic is not an Eastern style, as you mention, but neither are its Western forms all adaptations of Eastern style. There are authentically Western styles that are in accordance with the iconographic. eg the Romanesque, Celtic, Ottonian, Carolingian art). For more on this, I suggest the analysis of Orthodox iconographer Aidan Hart in his book on icon painting technique.

    The second style is the gothic, and third is the baroque (note not High Renaissance art, 19th-century realism or 20th-century modern art).

    I suggest that any of these three (iconographic, gothic, baroque) can be a starting point for today, not just the iconographic.

    In regard to what Catholics believe regarding the theology of the image, Cardinal Schoenborn’s book, God’s Human Face is the best I have read.

    For any who wish to know more, all of this is summarized in my own book, the Way of Beauty and is taught as part of a Master’s in Sacred Arts that I designed for http://www.Pontifex.University . David Clayton, Provost, Pontifex University

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