Friday, 5 December 2014

Eikon: Icons of the Orthodox Christian World ART GALLERY OF BALLARAT

Philip Harvey
Twenty-seven people travelled to Ballarat on Friday for a viewing of the Eikon Exhibition currently being shown at the Art Gallery of Ballarat. This was under the guidance of the Carmelite Centre and Carmelite Library. Our happy band left by train from Southern Cross Station (Melbourne), departing at the off-peak time of 9.08 am, arriving in Ballarat at 10.33 am. It is a five minute walk to the Gallery and there are twenty cafes for lunch within a short walk. Tickets allowed re-entry again after lunch to view other parts of the collection. A Gallery Guide gave an excellent account of the theology and history of the works on display. There was also plenty of time for solitary meditation with the icons. The Exhibition continues until the end of January, so I encourage anyone who can go to Ballarat for the day to consider the trip this summer.

Put simply, ‘icon’ is Greek for image. When we touch an icon on our gadget or click an icon on a screen, we are hitting a little image. But the original, ancient use of the word in English is specifically to do with the holy images of Christian Orthodoxy. As one traveller to Ballarat put it wryly, “When I hit an icon on my iphone I am not opening a ‘window on heaven’. Sometimes I’m going in the direction of the other place.”

To walk into this exhibition is to encounter the results of a profound human argument about the creative act. Christianity is not just a long history of agreements, it is a long history of arguments and, rightly understood, non-violent argument is an inheritance from Christianity that we all live with to this day. The main argument about icons was, and still is, whether humans can make an image of God, what in Latin is called Imago Dei. While we may be comfortable with the idea that the entire created universe is an icon of God, humans are more conflicted about whether they themselves can or should create such a thing themselves, an icon of God. The eighty icons in the Exhibition at Ballarat exist because one side of an ancient argument, that of the iconophiles, won out over the arguments of the other, the iconoclasts.

Ballarat has a superb timeline history of this argument on the walls of the Gallery entrance. Three main facts are salient. First, in the Roman Empire, early Christians confronted idol worship. It wasn’t just that the ‘pagans’ had need to find the One True God, the gods they did worship (if they bothered worshipping at all) were in objects. Their temples were filled with these objects, whereas the Christians taught that God cannot be found in an object but is in and behind and above all. This cohered with their own Jewish understanding that they must not make graven images of God or bow down to them. For later iconoclasts, an icon was tantamount to a graven image. Secondly, there was Saint John of Damascus. John and his friends succeeded, at the Second Council of Nicea (787 CE), in winning the argument for icon making. Councils were not just big committee meetings of bishops, there to iron out a few issues. They met to resolve huge arguments going on in the Christian world and of course in 787 the world was held together by Byzantium, an Empire which had as its head, Jesus Christ. The conundrum of this awkward imperial position comes alive when we meditate on the meaning of Christ’s words about rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. However, Nicea determined the following, and I quote at length: "As the sacred and life-giving cross is everywhere set up as a symbol, so also should the images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the holy angels, as well as those of the saints and other pious and holy men be embodied in the manufacture of sacred vessels, tapestries, vestments, etc., and exhibited on the walls of churches, in the homes, and in all conspicuous places, by the roadside and everywhere, to be revered by all who might see them. For the more they are contemplated, the more they move to fervent memory of their prototypes. Therefore, it is proper to accord to them a fervent and reverent adoration, not, however, the veritable worship which, according to our faith, belongs to the Divine Being alone — for the honour accorded to the image passes over to its prototype, and whoever adores the image adores in it the reality of what is there represented." That John lived in Damascus in Syria is not an accident, for he was involved in the very same arguments with followers of the new religion of Islam, adherents of which were pressing the borders of Byzantium. Nicea is a significant date, for even though iconoclasm rears its head again over the centuries, it is here that Christians choose the incarnational way of Imago Dei, while the Muslims refuse to have images in their places of worship, or anywhere, something that remains the case to this day. The third important date is the Schism of 1054, when Greek and Latin Churches went their separate ways, thus isolating Orthodoxy from the rest of the Christian world, and with it, the central practice of icon writing.

The shock of the new is now a cliché of art history, but walking into this Exhibition is to be confronted with the shock of the old. Works from the 11th to the 19th centuries fill three rooms of the gallery. To gaze upon an artwork of wood and paint made one thousand years ago is in itself a shock. Even more of a shock when we learn that the makers of the icon did not consider it an artwork and had no interest in signing their name on the back. For them, it was a means to prayer, a reading of scripture or tradition, a reminder of the ‘prototype’ that is represented in the image. By ‘prototype’ is meant the original saint or martyr or great holy person or event that is our example toward life in all its fullness, a truly more perfected holy life. Most significant of all ‘prototypes’ is Jesus Christ, the Logos, and the main Pantocrator icon in the third room of the Exhibition confronts us with the shock of the New.

It is well to remember, when you visit the Exhibition, that each one of these icons was not intended to be placed on a Gallery wall, unless we think of the Art Gallery of Ballarat as one of those “conspicuous places” defined by the Second Council of Nicea. Icons are used for worship, in particular for personal devotion. Indeed, most icons are confronting in a one-to-one relationship, where the person at prayer engages with the icon in order to deepen their relationship with God. One of the ironies of having such icon shows is that the works themselves are being treated as artworks, which was never their original purpose. The temptation to grade icons according to effect is human, whereas each icon on its own is a means to veneration and adoration of that which it points to. Each icon could be used for a lifetime’s reflection, which is why there is something superficial about spending eighty minutes looking at all eighty of them. Most of these icons would have been venerated in such ways for centuries by generations of human beings, long before they were sold to private collectors. And even today, the icons themselves live a life and present meanings that go outside the temporal expectations of those who visit them in Ballarat.

That said, it is worth the trip. History and liturgy and art and human imagination and theology and philosophy and Scripture are all at work on the walls of this show. Rather than just being confronted, or baffled, or overwhelmed, or even turned off by what I saw, my approach was to treat each one as a sign both of what the past tells us and what is speaking to us in our hearts. Most of my time was spent in front of about half a dozen of the icons that said something to me in the here and now. Rather than adopting the consumer view of “all very interesting”, which will not get you far when looking at icons, I asked myself what the icon was telling me, what did I understand from being placed in front of such a remarkable object. Though even ‘remarkable’ is a comical word in the context, one I have been confronted with lately. Because icons are not there as works upon which we pass remarks in a gallery, though any amount of such wordplay is going on. Icons do not invite remarks, but our attention and our prayerfulness, when properly viewed. Once we get past the guide notes and the contexts of the stories that are their background, once we get past the remarks, we are into that space where the icon may put us in communion with what has been called ‘the ground of our being’, where we live and move and have our being.