Saturday, January 19, 2008

"Icons will save the world" (from First Things)

By Susan Cushman
Thursday, December 20, 2007, 6:36 AM

Standing before the icon of Christ in the front of St. John Orthodox Church, I prepare to offer my confession at the Sacrament of Forgiveness. The Holy image of the One Who Forgives comes forth to meet me, as the father comes forth to welcome home the prodigal son in the familiar gospel passage (Luke 15:11–32). The love of Jesus pours forth from his prototype (the icon), sees the offering of my broken heart, and raises it to the heavenly realm.

After receiving the priest’s counsel and absolution, I remain in the nave (the large part of the temple, called the sanctuary in Protestant churches) to give thanks and to let God’s grace and peace fill my heart. Surrounded by icons of Christ, his Mother, the angels, saints, biblical scenes and church feasts, I think about how Prince Vladimir’s envoys must have felt when they walked into Hagia Sophia Orthodox Cathedral in Constantinople near the end of the tenth century. Their mission was to find a religion that Prince Vladimir could embrace and offer to the people of Russia. In their report they said, “We didn’t know whether we were in Heaven or on earth.” Shortly thereafter, Orthodoxy became the official religion of Kievan Russia, infusing the lives of peasants and princes, artists and writers, with the Orthodox vision of beauty. Nine hundred years later, the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky penned the famous words, “Beauty will save the world.”

I don’t think Prince Vladimir or Dostoevsky had in mind the kind of worldly beauty that today’s fashion and entertainment industries worship, or even the beauty of secular art and architecture. I think they were both swept off their feet by true spiritual beauty—in Vladimir’s case, the beauty of the Orthodox temple (church), adorned with icons.

In his book Icons: Theology in Color, Eugene Trubetskoi said that the beauty of the icon is spiritual. “Our icon painters,” Trubetskoi said, “had seen the beauty that would save the world and immortalized it in colors.”

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