Western Iconography

Update: 28/01/10 - Please note that this post reflects my views during my early stages of exploring Orthodoxy and may not necessarily reflect my current understanding with complete accuracy.

Ladye of Walsingham, be as thou hast been:
England's Protectress, our Mother and our Queen!

I must admit that I find it a little strange to find an icon of Our Lady of Walsingham. I have seen a few icons depicting western Saints and aspects of western spirituality and have always felt that, somehow, it doesn't quite fit. I suppose this is because I am something of a purist in most walks of life. I believe that each tradition has its riches, but that one element of a tradition, separated from the other elements of that tradition, loses much of its value without the grounding that the whole provides. It needs context in order to be effective.

Icons are not traditional in western expressions of the Faith, and, although I love them dearly (and use one in my own private devotion), I cannot help but feel a little uncomfortable (although that is too strong a word for the sense that I am trying to convey) when I see them used for public veneration in western churches.

Is this a little silly of me? I'd be interested to know what people's thoughts are.

18 responses:

Michael said...

I just noticed as well that the iconogrpaher appears to have forgotten the frog.

Ari said...

Icons are traditional in western expressions of the faith. See www.paintedchurch.org Also read the account of St. Austin of Canterbury coming to England - he brought with him an Icon (the 19th c. English liturgical historian Daniel Rock fervently wrote in support of the English tradition of iconography, which when 'portable' was usually of hammered bronze, or silver... otherwise done most often as fresco or tapestry. The churches of France and on the continent are full of iconography as well - in fact, the only traditions in the West that did without were the Reformation (hence the barreness of English churches - they weren't that way by design, but by assault), or the Cistercian movement which was simply going after simplicity. One cannot do the Sarum use properly without the Pax-Rede, usually a metal icon of the Crucifixion, for passing the Peace. The ministers and the people venerate that icon at the Pax - so, I'm not sure why anyone should feel uncomfortable about it in the West. Iconography is so Western, that the West never repudiated it or argued over it: simply accepted it from the beginning wholesale.

Anonymous said...

Try looking at it this way, and maybe the veneration (=not= worship!) of icons of saints and even of the Theotokos won't bother you so much: think of them as pictures of people you love very, very much--dear members of your own family--who are in heaven. Then, give them a kiss, because you love them and want to be with them in heaven some day. They will "look back at you", and their love will flow back to you, =because= they are in heaven.

Icons are (as Orthodox theologians often tell us) Windows Into Heaven.

(And the frog, as a dear creature of God, is not out of place! God made the world and we glorify Him when we depict His creation as beautifully as we know how)

Leetle M.

Anonymous said...

Do you think maybe the frog, being green, is somewhere on that pretty green rug Our Lady is resting her feet on? Maybe he's under her throne....


Leetle M.

Eastern Run said...

I think icongraphy might be western (as aristibule elucidated above) but I definitely don't think it is modern (may the master save it if it ever becomes so!). The idea that we can use something that is so difficult to quantify and objectify (like a piece of art) to prepare our minds and hearts for worship is totally foreign to our modern mentality. It hits too close to home and makes you think about the meaning of the text when you see it depicted right before your eyes. I'm certainly not calling you spirtually lazy (as if you don't want to really process the text when you see an icon). If anything, I'm the chief bearer of guilty in that regard! I just feel that desire to passively feed off the text instead of process it is something that is a part of that shared curse of modernity we all deal with. Myself included!

Hope that helps...


ps My tradition of faith doesn't use icons, but after reading your post I felt that the stories and epics I read serve much the same purpose as icons do. Stories like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicals of Narnia help me pray and process the text much like icons do for you. I'm trying to figure out how those stories (and the great true story of faith) fit in to my daily life too. Hopefully, I'm not too far afield on this!

Anonymous said...

Daniel, you're doin' fine, in my way of thinking. We do not limit the ways God can express Himself to us, and certainly if He wishes, He can come to us through the ways you mention, just as He can through icons, church architecture, and of course the image of Christ we see in our fellow human beings.

In the Orthodox Church, we use very few statues, but we do have bas-relief icons. The reasoning is that statues, like the figures in Madame Tussaud's, are a little too limited by spatial boundaries and =could= lead those who do not realize what they represent into unproductive forms of prayer. Icons, being 'written' (not "painted" in the artist's sense of the word, since the iconographer's hand is guided by God, rather than by the artist's personal idea of "creativity") according to strict rules, are designed to lead the person praying beyond the icon itself, right into heaven with the saint it depicts.

Leetle M.

Ian said...

Can I show gross ignorance and ask why a frog should be depicted? My hagiographic knowledge is very limited.


Michael said...

Many thanks to everyone for their replies.

I think there may have been some misunderstanding of my intentions though, I certainly do not object to icons: I think that they are wonderful things and have helped my own prayer life enormously. I have one (that was sufficiently beautiful for me to part with the sum that I did for it) of the Theotokos - her eyes looking directly at me almost as though she is inviting me in, then her hand directing my attention to her Son, enthroned on her arm, while he extends his hand in blessing. This, for me, somehow manages to capture Mary's role in the Church.

My objection was merely one of blending traditions, which, it appears was an objection based on incorrect information in any case. Thank you to aristibule for clearing that up. As somebody who has kissed a Pax-Brede at the Mass, and found it a wonderfully moving experience, I ought to have known better. (It was actually at the York Mass mentioned in an earlier post)

Leetle M, thanks for your comments. It's wonderful to hear such a heartfelt description of how icons work for people.

I know what you mean, Daniyel, about diferrent expressions of faith. I also like words. I think that used sensitively and beautifully, they can capture the soul. When these words are combined with the beauty of images, the scent of incense and the flicker and warmth of candles, my senses, being happily entertained with this sensory richness, can relax, while my mind focuses on God. This is one of the reasons I used to love the rosary - after a while, the prayers would just roll off my tongue, ensuring that while my mind was meditating on God and the different mysteries, my body was left with something worthwhile to do. As a result, I never became fidgety or uncomfortable.

Ian, I may be wrong, but I believe that the frog is traditionally seen to be the equivalent of the serpent in relgious art. I know that Our Lady of Walsingham is usually depicted with a frog under her foot. See here:

Thanks again, everyone.

Anonymous said...

Oh dear... I'd much rather it was a regular serpent under Our Lady's foot. I tend to be fond of little green frogs.

Leetle M.
Glad the frog has escaped safely from the icon of Our Lady of Walsingham--"It's not easy, bein' green" [Kermit E. Frog on "Sesame Street"].

Anonymous said...

Just looked at the photo you mentioned, Michael, and now I don't feel so bad...the frog is blue.

Leetle M.

Ari said...


I thought that one is more in the English tradition (especially being metal, as Daniel Rock described in "The Faith of Our Fathers" - 1840).

I'm awaiting completion of an icon (in the medieval English style, ie 'Insular Romanesque Vernacular') of Our Lady of Glastonbury. Our Bishop here (Bp BASIL (Essey) of Wichita and Mid-America) has a deep interest in English and Celtic Saints and Church History. The Antiochian Archdiocese is going to have another pilgrimage to England this year.

The young fogey said...

I hate it when liberals steal the use of icons because they don't understand the sacramental principle really. (Icons are 'sacramentals plus'.) When conservative Westerners use them I don't mind but still there is the general rule that thou shalt not mix rites.

Icons are hip right now while hypocritically statues aren't. As a religion reporter I've seen several liberal mainline* ministers' offices with several icons in them (but not votive candles, lamps or censers!).

*Free Church, dissenting chapels, though it's a liberal Anglican thing as well.

Michael said...

I had never really thought about the meaning of icons in this way, but, having read the page that The Young Fogey has linked to, it seems so consonant with my understanding anyway. :-)

Ari said...

Having said that, the *form* of icons is universal - the Roman rite has such icons as the Irish Madonna of Goar in Hungary (which was brought from Ireland to escape the Protestant depredations, and now hangs over the altar in Goar Cathedral ... IOW, it is an icon of the Roman rite that has likely never seen a Byzantine rite.) Reredo screens are Western iconography - period. One should be wary of Byzantines trying to deny a probably two millenia old Western tradition, and limit iconography (painted images) purely to themselves: if Protestant iconoclasm or the bareness of Cistercian spirituality (or local and temporal decoration with statues alone, a rarity) is used to define the West by some Byzantines, then it is fair for Westerners to define the East by the Iconoclasts. It is what is right and ancient, not what is common or contemporary, that should be the determining factor.

But, it does bug me to no end when folk try to make new icons of Western saints with the saints in Byzantine vestments or monastic habits, or with Byzantine hair and beard rather than the tonsure proper to that saint's rite and order. Or, icons of Western devotions to the BVM with Byzantine details or colour schemes - that is a mixing of rites. I find both to be dishonest (in trying to claim those saints, not for the Church, but rather for a *rite* and local tradition!), and disrespectful of those Saints and God's work in their lives (it invalidates their prayers and ascetic works within their western cultures and rites.)

Ari said...


A link, for your enjoyment and edification: the Irish Madonna of Gyor (or Goar) in Hungary. Hungary seems to also have a connection with Britain as being the 'nursery' of many royals, among them not a few saints.

Here is the Irish Madonna: http://homepage.eircom.net/~clonfert/gyor6.jpg - Western style, but still an icon.

Anonymous said...

I used to subscribe to a travel magazine that was big on trips to Russia right after the election of Gorbachev and during the beginnings of glasnost and perestroika. Unfortunately, the magazine, an otherwise delightful publication, had the bad taste to feature the face of Gorbachev, printed on its cover in the style of an icon (but thank goodness without halo). I think that one huge gaffe lost them quite a bit of their circulation--I don't see the magazine on sale any more.

Other gaffes: an icon of Martin Luther King can be easily obtained from an outfit called "The Bridge", and I've also seen, in a catalog of various "unusual gifts", an icon of "St. John Coltrane" (with halo and saxaphone). Rest his soul, he did play amazingly well on that saxophone, and I understand there's even a church somewhere dedicated to him that uses a quasi-Coptic ceremonial, and where various members of the congregation sometimes play the saxophone together as a form of communal prayer.


Leetle M.

The young fogey said...

The outfit is called Bridge-Building Images - it was Bridge-Building Icons until enough Orthodox complained.

They can and do make beautiful traditional icons. And some paintings that work as art but aren't really icons. And the infamous dodgy 'icons' like that of Dr King.

One of theirs, not traditional but arguably acceptable as an icon, of a Semitic Christ was the main image on the final version of my primitive original site until the blog replaced the old site two years ago.

Anonymous said...

That's so interesting, "Young Fogey"! Thanks for the additional info!

Leetle M.

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