Blog 4: Icons
In order to understand how worship makes it possible to engage with an image as an icon, it is important to distinguish between a regular image and an icon. An image is a picture in which we see something that is not really there, allowing us to gaze without any connection. Images do not grant the same full spiritual connection that can be found in an icon. An image is a veiled sense of seeing, the opposite of an icon whose illustration invites us to cross gazes in an unveiled way. Marion states that the icon is not meant to be “seen”, it is meant to be worshipped because it itself is a prototype of what it depicts.
Worshipping an icon is not seeing for the sake of gratification (because that would make the icon null and void (aka just an image)). Worship lifts the veil of an image so that it may be engaged with as an icon. The icon itself is not a spectacle that is to be worshipped, but through worship it gives itself so that the observer can see through it. When one worships an icon they are not just giving thought to things that are pleasurable to look at. Rather, they are seeing the invisible God through Jesus, experiencing and partaking in the love that is viewed and reciprocated back through the icon.
When engaging in worship with any icon, such as the Ghent Altarpiece, the Florentine frescoes, and the Madonna altarpieces, there is a link made between the devotional life and the liturgy. Altarpieces can be encountered in daily life, leading to an adoption of the symbols and images within them. They offer a way for beautiful meditation through a visible image that leads to the invisible. I think it would be unwise to attempt a deep dive into all of these works individually in a short blog, so I will focus on Fra Angelico’s The Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saints John the Evangelist, Dominic, and Jerome and hope that the observations made are logically translatable to the others.
I have spent too many hours and tears analyzing visually overwhelmed altarpieces from an art history perspective. I have been forced in the past to succinctly describe each brushstroke (I swear the artist always manages to shove half of the Bible on one panel). As migraine inciting as that was, I believe it gives me a solid understanding of what is typically “seen” in them. Knowing that, it is far simpler to put aside those stylistic elements and get to the real religious weight held in the image (which is way more fun to analyze because I’m more of a contemporary than classical art fan myself).
To analyze this work I will mostly focus on the theory of figural exegesis and will assume you have basic information on the layout of the artwork (image included at the bottom). The Eucharistic sacrifice is the very essence of this piece. Jesus’s blood is what first caught my eye, with its gory motion. It takes quite literally the pouring out of blood, reminding viewers of the sacrifice behind the blood given at the mass. Even his halo has stripes of red on it. A black sky starkly contrasts the white stone. The sky reveals the darkness that has fallen upon the Earth, while the stone offers a notion of pure intention within this event and mirrors the color of the Eucharist. An illumination appears on the white loincloth and skin of Christ, who is the light of the world, even in these dark times (also again referring to the Eucharist). Christ is raised up above his crowd, not only labeling him as God, but placing the Eucharistic sacrifice on an altar. The stones in the background seem to engulf Jesus, foreshadowing his impending death and placement in a tomb, yet they do not block off a path of resurrection as Jesus is still placed above them with an opening upwards. This piece is very similar to the one with just Saint Dominic, and suggests a similar form of reverence to its audience. The heads of the saints are bowed, painfully looking up at a scene that, while ever-loving, is excruciating to watch. A hat lies in the corner near St. Jerome’s feet, as if he took it off out of respect. Additionally, he usually wears red, but putting that in this image would distract from the blood of Christ. His book is red, however, which (if it is the Bible because he is known for translating that (even though the NT wouldn’t have been written yet during this scene)) suggests a connection with the physicality of Jesus to the physicality of the word of God told through the Bible (the whole “Word made flesh” idea). Lastly, Mary is clothed in pink, which is not typical and may point to the sacrifice of her only son (pink rather than red because she is not spilling blood).