Icons and Images, windows and mirrors

Icon in the Mill House of  the Cappadocian Fathers
Icon in the Mill House of the Cappadocian Fathers

I’ve spent a lot of time in art galleries, looking at “pictures.” I’ve also spent a lot of time in Orthodox cathedrals, looking at icons. Some people would not see a distinction between the two… but, as I’ve thought about it, they are so different that I think it might even be deceptive to call both activities “looking.”

A pane of glass – it can be a window…. Or a mirror.

If it’s clean, you may not even know that it’s there (which is why sometimes people put stencils of owls and stuff on windows, because, apparently, birds can’t see them any better than we can). Like Chief Dan George said (about his red candy) in “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” “it’s just for lookin’ through…”

“You have any food here?” “All I have is a piece of hard rock candy. But it's not for eatin'. It's just for lookin' through.”
“You have any food here?” “All I have is a piece of hard rock candy. But it’s not for eatin’. It’s just for lookin’ through.”

It can scarcely exist, not be perceptible, have a function which points totally beyond itself and its own substance or surface. If it’s doing what it’s designed to do, you won’t even notice it’s there.

Or it can serve to reflect back the gaze of the one who looks into it. Then it doesn’t facilitate looking at anything-in-itself, but instead presents one with the gaze of the gazer as he gazes. Entirely self-referential.

What’s behind the glass? What does it show you?

2014-05 DSC00870 (Large)Here’s a frame in the Mill House which holds a picture I like… I’ve looked at it lots of time… but never once thought about the glass… Having thought about the picture, I could tell you a number of things about it: its content, its style, things like that.

Like many pictures, it’s a picture of something. (Though,  according to some artsy types, it could just be ‘art for art’s sake,’ a picture not of something – at least not necessarily.) But we’ll call that “art” and keep the focus on the “picture.”

So, what’s the relationship between a picture and that of which it is a picture? What if the picture has a special, deep connection to its subject?

What if you can see through a picture like you can see through a piece of glass, to look through it to see –not the image itself, but – something else? That’s what an icon is.

What if you look in the same piece of transparent glass which has been modified to be a mirror? Then we see nothing… not even the glass itself (if it is clean); we see ourselves looking.

This illustrates the difference between a “picture” and an “icon.” If our gaze is on the surface of the picture itself (or the surface description of that which it represents), then it is not functioning as an icon – regardless of what is being depicted.

What do we do in corporate worship? Do our singing, contemplation, praying, and the like “break through” to a transcendent reality… or are we just making sounds and gestures?

Can a picture be an idol? It can, if all we see is the picture, the image, itself. Then the focus is basically on our own looking.

Painting by the amazing Gerhard Richter at the Art Institute of Chicago
Painting by the amazing Gerhard Richter at the Art Institute of Chicago

What if we see a picture as an icon? Then we’re seeing through it to the spiritual reality which it manifests. The physical picture itself is almost incidental to the act of spiritual perception that such a viewing entails.

In light of the differences between a pane of glass and a picture frame… or an icon… I’m wondering…

  • What is our relationship to nature? The world around us?
  • To our vocation?
  • To our physical bodies? Our sexuality?
  • And what do these things, these concepts mean?

My sense is that there is something in the distinction between an idol-image and an icon that can help us here.

We can look at these things as ends-in-themselves… or we can look through them to discern a deeper reality to which the thing before us (somehow) refers.


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