A Proper Icon

Hello, all! I’m back from an epic four-week gallivant, during which I was blog incommunicado. Oh, the places I’ve been, and the things I’ve seen: the highest mountain in Alabama, an aircraft carrier in South Carolina, leaping manta rays in Florida. Along the way, I’ve also acquired some treasures, and now I’ll show you the best of the lot: a Russian icon of Christ Pantocrator, a gift from my wife, who knows me very well indeed.

But first a word: I love the Christian art of most periods, but my favorite works for contemplation and study are the icons of the Orthodox tradition. Their stability of style and design appeal to my longing for historical rootedness; their layers of encoded meaning engage my heart and mind at once, like Donne’s Holy Sonnets. Moreover, I find the Orthodox theology of icons compelling: these are images that announce, through their prescribed and formal style, that they are not what they represent, and that our attention should be directed elsewhere. Our eyes meet the egg tempera on wood and stop, but the icon urges our hearts to press onward and upward, through it to the archetype.

With that in mind, here is the Russian icon my wife gave me.

If you’ve ever seen a traditional icon of Christ Pantocrator–and if you haven’t, I urge you to follow this link before proceeding–you’ll immediately recognize that this Russian icon has some serious problems. For one, it’s not painted in the traditional style. Heck, it’s not even painted! Instead, this icon was stamped out of a brass (or brass-ish) sheet of metal, mounted on a block of pine lumber, and then decoupaged with paper cutouts of Christ’s face and hands. Even the face and hands smack of mass production, for they are clearly printed on slick paper, like a magazine, and their style is distinctively Western, not Orthodox. This is obviously not a traditional Orthodox icon, painting with devout care by an approved iconographer. This is not even a replica of a traditional icon. It is a Soviet-era icon, stamped, printed, and assembled in a factory: a product aimed at the religious consumer, one of a million churned out and sold.

To an Orthodox iconographer, this is an abomination, but I love it.

I love this icon because it reminds me that even my theology is a representation, and not the real thing. My thoughts of Christ, my conceptions of Him, are like this icon: they are bits I’ve received from others, a chimeric hodge-podge of traditions and eras, more brass than gold, and assembled with nothing near due reverence.

Also, I love this icon because it still performs its function. As shoddy as it is, it is still the image of Christ Pantocrator. The letters in His halo still announce that He is the I AM of the ancient covenant, His two raised fingers still declare Him God and man, and His left hand still holds forth the Gospel. As manufactured, as inartistic, as this icon is, it still speaks: “This is the Christ, God in flesh, ruler of heaven and earth. Hear Him!”

And that is why this icon is, for me, a proper icon.

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