Thursday, February 25, 2010

Snow Angels at Sinai

I decided to take the millinerd show on the road to defend icons, but it's good to be back. I used the original Iconophile terminology, briefly quoting the most helpful encapsulation of the icon debate that I'm aware of, and then I simplified the matter, admitting that I was doing just that. In the comments, I was both accused of simplifying (which I had already conceded), and of using overly subtle terminology. "The anatomy of a blog makes serious conversation all but impossible," said Alan Jacobs, and sometimes he's right. What makes it worse, is that peppered amongst such comments were some very insightful ones. Alas, I can commiserate with Dan Siedell's recently expressed frustrations.

Rather than churn out another post to defend this position abroad, I've decided to pick up my ball and go home.  It should be easier to keep up with the comment volume here.  Now, let's take a deep breath get a few things straight about icons:

1. The Iconophiles who defended icons in the Iconoclastic controversy used complex terminology to defend against the complex terminology of the Iconoclasts, but their aim was to vindicate the instinctive Christian piety of the laity. When faced with charges laced with complex terminology, clients - however guileless - better hope their lawyers are equipped with equally complex terminology.

2. Protestants who refuse to engage this terminology and cling to their distrust of icons are not dissimilar to Protestants who refuse to read the Catholic Catechism, continuing to insist that Catholicism teaches that Mary should be worshiped, faith is by works, or tradition trumps Scripture. Those who cling to these caricatures will only attract and keep the ignorant (no small crowd).  But there are better reasons to stay Protestant.  I look forward to reading Sarah Wilson's.

3. The most advanced form of Byzantine Iconophile thought is very limited in its claims. Instead of continuing to refer to my article that makes this case (a strategy wearing thin even on me), instead I'll quote another Byzantine art historian who makes the exact same point. In her contribution to The Byzantine World, Bissera Pentcheva explains:
Byzantine Iconoclasm (726-843) challenged [the] understanding of eikon as a site of pneuma dwelling in matter. So far, we have viewed this crisis through the prism of the sixteenth-century Reformation, imagining the destruction of churches, murals, mosaics and panels. By contrast, the Byzantine phenomenon appears to have been more of a process of narrowing of the meaning of eikon: from an identification with a body (an essentialist theory manifested in the stylite cults) to an eikon understood as the imprint - typos - of visual characteristics on matter (a formalist, non-essentialist theory).
While the Iconophiles used the image of the seal to illustrate these limited aesthetic ambitions, Pentcheva compellingly equates this non-essentialist theory of icons with snow angels. As a snow angel is not the child who made it, so an icon of Christ does not claim to "capture" Christ's divine nature.

4. Of course such sophisticated theological justification was not always kept in mind, but this is no reason to dismiss it. The Byzantines were relatively vigilant. When the practice of icons was abused because clergy or laity put too much faith in matter itself, Byzantium would sometimes have itself small Reformations. Emperor Alexios I Comenenos, for example, had to remind his subjects, in a 1095 decree, that an icon was only a likeness.

5. There is nothing about icons, properly understood, that violates the command to not make graven images.  Such images, most people seem to understand, are not worshiped. A fine - perhaps the finest - illustration of this fact comes from the place where the command was originally given: Mt. Sinai. Pentcheva, again quite perceptively, explains that the icon collection at Sinai was, in a way, most consistent with advanced Byzantine Iconophile opinion. There are no metal or ivory icons at Sinai, material features which attract attention to the icon itself.  All Sinai icons are painted on humble wooden panels. There are no miraculous icons at all at Sinai, which tend to take the focus away from the prototype. In contrast to the glittering, bulbous, sometimes promiscuous icons of Constantinople, the ascetic icons of Sinai are devotionally chaste, especially conforming to the commandment given just a short climb away. It is fitting, therefore, that these are the icons to have mostly survived.

6. It is not absurd to suggest that the Iconoclast par excellence John Calvin is therefore in agreement with the most advanced Byzantine justification for icons. Calvin knew only of the first (essentialist) defense of icons made by John of Damascus.  While this was not necessarily wrong, it was improved upon. Calvin cannot be faulted for failing to consult sources that he did not have. It is ecumenically serendipitous that the Genevan Reformer had no opportunity to refute the most advanced Byzantine argument for icons.  In fact, he made points similar to those made by the later Byzantine Iconophiles. This is why it's such great news that Wheaton chose a Reformed president (who gave an illuminating interview here).  Icons will festoon Blanchard Hall in a matter of months.  I'm sure of it.