About 20 years ago, while visiting very briefly in London, I attended an exhibition of Russian icons. While I am embarrassed that I cannot remember which gallery held the exhibition (either the Victoria and Albert or The British Museum) I still remember the feel the exhibition evoked. The first thing you noticed was the atmosphere of awe and wonder - the resonance of the Orthodox liturgy that sounded throughout the gallery; then there was the dim light and the fragrance of incense – all of this was “the stage set” for this exhibition of the icons. This was an encounter with an art that manifested otherness and presence. These were images that were used in worship; that were venerated and that projected something of the holy presence.
These are ideas that the Western Church, Latin and Protestant, is traditionally not comfortable with. We tend to emphasise the educational value of art; its utility as a vehicle for intellectual instruction, stimulating thought while pleasing the eye.
That is not at all how the Orthodox understand it. They have argued that the veneration of the icon is the necessary outcome of Orthodox Christology.
If Christ is the Word incarnate in our material substance, then the form and making of images follows from the incarnation. Think of it this way: if God deified matter through the incarnation of the Son, not only has all humanity been subsequently changed, so too has all visual imagery and aesthetic form.
Consequently the icon is not merely what it shows; it is not only an image, it is also an object, a piece of wood panel with paint applied. But it is also more than its material properties. Its making, too, is what gives it power. The tradition of icons, the materials, the practices and discipline in their construction are all reminders of how matter is infused with spirit and the completed icon is carried about in worship, physically reverenced by being touched and kissed. Icons are a window through which the spiritual can be experienced in matter.
In the exhibition space of the Cathedral’s ambulatory I am pleased to see the series of paintings on biblical subjects by Bill Graham. These are not icons, but like icons they also stretch the spirit. There is not just a familiar biblical story given local ‘colour’ or context but behind the composition may be the classical structure of da Vinci and an intuition, even a theology, of presence. Tradition, contextuality and biblical narrative come together in this material form as a local artist mediates for us this sense of presence. These works draw us into contemplation. Encourage others to see them this Lent.