Wednesday, November 25, 2015

An Icon from Crete

While visiting Crete we hoped to buy an icon. We have no real advice on how to shop for one. We went to an religious goods shop in Heraklion, a town on the north shore of the island. Selecting an icon was a little challenging. It would have been nice to get an icon of one of our patron saints but we couldn't decide on which of the four of us. We weren't going to buy four icon. A long time ago in America I'd seen an icon of the Wedding Feast at Cana but the store didn't have any. The lady recommended one for scholars, featuring three of the greats of the Eastern Church.

Click to enlarge

On the icon are the Three Holy Hierarchs--Saints Basil, John Chrysostom, and Gregory Nazianzen. They were bishops in the 300s who had a major impact on Christian theology through their teaching and their holy lives. In the Eastern Church, they have a special feast day on January 30 dedicated to all three. They are venerated in the Western Church as doctors of the church but do not have a combined feast day.

Icons themselves have an interesting history. As an artistic tradition, they grew out of the Egyptian mummy portraits of the first to fourth centuries AD. These portraits featured large eyes and formal settings, a step away from the naturalistic depictions of Roman and Greek art from the same time. The style also flows from the Platonic tradition of the world of idealized Forms, so that the icons represent archetypes of Christ or Mary or whatever they portray. The images invoked the sort of reverence that could be misconstrued as idolatry, leading Emperor Leo III of Byzantium to start the first wave on iconoclasm in 726. The persecution lasted for about one hundred years. Afterwards, the Byzantine church spread north through Eastern Europe all the way to current-day Russia. They brought the tradition of making icons with them.

Of course, icons are not considered art properly in the East, they are a way of praying for both the artisan and the viewer. The icon is incarnational, communicating a spiritual reality through material means. The icon gives a focal point and rich details for meditating on the person or event depicted. It raises the mind and heart to God, the classical definition of prayer.

In other ancient icon news, I bought one in Jerusalem when I visited back in 2000. I'd been looking for a Nativity but I had special criteria. Most icons have Saint Joseph off in a corner moping which I don't particularly care for. I understand the theology behind it--he's not the father of the baby. But surely he wasn't whiny about it. He accepted his position and worked hard to do what he needed to do. I came across an icon where he was by the manger and knew I had to get it right away. It's a triptych which we usually open for the Christmas season.

Nativity icon closed (click to enlarge)

Nativity icon open (click to enlarge)

Of course, photos never do justice to icons, so don't miss an opportunity if you can see them. Eastern rite churches are loaded with icons, including the iconostasis that separates the nave from the sanctuary. Symbolically, it's a doorway between earth and heaven. It includes images of Jesus, Mary, the evangelists, the patriarchs, the apostles, and the patron of the church. It's worth the visit, plus there's probably other icons around the church.

Read more about icons in this slim, illustrated volume:

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