Driven indoors by the cold and snow on a recent trip to New York, I was fortunate to happen on an exhibit of icons in the Onassis Center. A basement gallery was filled with beautiful examples of the iconographer’s hand, and I spent nearly an hour wandering around, soaking them in. The point of the exhibit was to illustrate how iconographic images influenced El Greco.
From a curatorial standpoint, that message got lost. For the art dummies in the crowd, the commentary failed to pull the images from the icons into the images by El Greco at the end , though the ethereal design and figures certainly evoked some of the same feelings that the icons did.
What was truly fascinating, though, was that this was an exhibit of entirely religious art, with nary a comment on the religious aspect of the material, except for passing references to design styles and “cults” in the Church. It was a little like reading a critique of a novel with no mention of the plot or characters, but a lot of talk about the dust jacket and font style.
One of the more striking icons was of the crucifixion. It was a riot of figures, jammed with detail, the visual equivalent of flowery Victorian prose. Angels collected the blood from the wounds of Christ in golden chalices, except for that dripping from His feet, which trickled down to the Underworld, where it dripped on writhing demons. Mary the Mother of God is at the foot of the cross, in the arms of John. Mary Magdalene embraces the cross, looking up at Jesus. The dead are rising up from their crypts. The icon is so crowded with onlookers that there is not a blank space at the foot of the cross. The sea of humankind presses in on Christ, some looking on in sadness, some in horror, some in indifference, and some turning away. It’s a visual metaphor for the way we still approach the cross.
The accompanying commentary was all about technique, which I found very interesting. Art drivel usually dredges up deep meaning in the most insignificant images; I once read commentary that talked about the terrible isolation of mankind depicted by an entirely blank, white canvas. Here a curator had at his fingertips one of the most powerful images and stories ever presented and made nothing out of it. Modern culture at its best, trying to extract meaning from things, and failing to see meaning in God.
The technical commentary was interesting enough, but the substance and power of the image rests not in the animation of the figures or the exotic style of the figures. The power of the Crucifixion icon I was looking at comes from the interpretation of the Passion narrative, and except for a passing comment about the “commotion” at the time of Christ’s death, the curator does not speak of the power of the events underlying the icon. It was not just the technique that made El Greco's paintings so powerful, but the substance. Looking at the image of the Coronation of Mary, his painting communicates the same kind of narrative that the icons did, because he understood the story and knew how best to tell it.
Eavesdropping unintentionally on others as they passed, it was clear that most visitors to the gallery saw the image without hearing the message, a great tragedy for an art form that is considered to be written, not painted; to be a narrative, not merely a picture. I was astonished to find how clearly these icons spoke to me, and how much more I saw in them because of the journey I am making in faith. The notion of “reading” an icon was foreign to me a scant few years ago, and now it’s as natural as breathing, a credit, no doubt, to the wonderful Catholic practice of using art to communicate faith. And the result of learning to meditate in the presence of great religious images.
An icon is a form that suggests a deeper meaning, to be appreciated not just for itself, beautiful as that may be, but for the underlying truth it projects. I think that’s why I find the artistically critical but spiritually shallow approach of the exhibit so disturbing. To look at the form and miss the substance is a terrible shortcoming, and it’s becoming more and more emblematic of our society. I am not sure whether it is underlain by mere political correctness, the desire not to put anything overtly religious into the public sphere, or an appalling ignorance that doesn’t even consider the religious in the first place. Either way, we are the poorer for it.
Like the icons on that wall, I am meant to be a form that suggests a deeper meaning. I wonder how much of the writing of my life is obscured by my own censorship, how much I fail to write clearly the story of my faith because of my fear of the culture or my ignorance of my own life’s meaning. I wonder too, how well I curate the icon of my life. Please, God, do not let me concentrate on form and shape without communicating to others the reality of who and Whose I am!