The Importance of The Christian Icon
The essence of the Christian Icon is Christianity at work thereby encouraging us in prayer to Mary and adoration of Christ in Holy Mass and Benediction.
Icons have been in circulation for centuries. Even in pagan times pre-Christ sculptors created very fine statues some of which survive to this day. I have seen a Greek statue of circa 500 BC of the highest quality of a charioteer. Clearly the pagans were inspired by these statues as we are inspired by Christian Icons. The images of their Gods in statue shape or rendered pictorially on mosaics or friezes are clear proof of their pre-Christian belief and these Icons define their reverence for their Gods.
2. Graven Images:
We are told in the Old Testament not to “worship” these images. That must be right. The image should not supplant Almighty God. Yet we revere the Icon as representing God albeit not God Himself. It is if you like symbolic. The difficulty arises with the monstrance and consecrated Host the exposition of which is carried out in Benediction in the Roman Catholic Church. This is no graven image but Christ Himself hidden in the Host within the Monstrance (the mechanical form of holding the Host for the Priest to grasp). This Host is worshiped and adored rightly by Catholics as the very Christ Himself is reserved in the Monstrance.
3. Byzantium and Iconoclastic groups
As I understand it there were certain Iconoclastic persons who bitterly opposed Icons in the Eastern Empire based in Constantinople and systematically destroyed religious images of great antiquity and value. These Icons were so precious they were irreplaceable. A whole tranche of Christian pictorial historical record was lost at a stroke. Fortunately the Head of the Eastern Church did not support this Iconoclasm throughout its occurrence. The Iconoclastic surge in Asia Minor and Greece appears to have grown after Constantinople severed her links with the Roman Rite and the successors of St Peter. We must remember the great Eastern and Grecian centres of Christianity in Constantinople, Ephessos, Antioch, Damascus, Thessaloniki, Plovdiv, Corinth to name some. These places contained extraordinarily and beautifully and skilfully constructed and painted Catholic Icons destroyed wantonly under the mistaken “graven images” theory by Christians themselves and these Christians were I believe of the Eastern Rite.
4. Protestantism in Western Europe
When the break with Rome hit mid 16th Century in Germany and England a number of Icons would have been wrecked and destroyed under the mistaken “graven images” theory. Cromwell in England was fiercely Iconoclastic and damaged statues seriously by ordering his troops to do so. Cromwell’s Puritanism in England and savagery in Ireland shows his misguided approach. Thus his Iconoclasm was born of that misconceived intent based on a misunderstanding of the Bible text I refer to and other Biblical texts. Since 1700 matters have settled down in England with each religion Catholic and Protestant agreeing to differ on Icons in Church. The trail of damage has ended. Clearly the old English Cathedrals and Churches now Anglican would have had more Catholic Icons inside their walls pre-Reformation. This may never be reversed and the administration of these Cathedrals and Churches is now firmly Anglican. The Catholic Cathedrals e.g. Westminster and the Brompton Oratory (Pro Cathedral) are adorned with Iconic frescos, religious statues and in the Oratory grand painted scenes. The revival of the Icon has been completed in England (the dowry of the Blessed Virgin Mary) very properly particularly since 1850 when the Catholic hierarchy was restored.
5. The meaning of Iconoclastic politically.
Someone who opposes the status quo and the Establishment and wishes to bring it crashing down. The classic example is Sir Michael Foot deceased who supported the Trade Unions and working man unswervingly and argued for unilateral Nuclear Disarmament in Britain in the 1950’s and 1960’s. A man of principle yet manacled by his inflexible beliefs.
6. What is the true meaning of the religious Icon.
To embrace the true image – Say Mary and the Son – and convey something of the relationship between the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child to educate those who look on the Icon. Painted Biblical religious scenes on a large scale will be awe inspiring and reveal the greater canvas albeit unable to catch all the true majesty of the event which is beyond human hands to tell. The small religious Icon on wood is direct and by its minutiae effective. Without crucifixes inside and outside churches we would be severely impoverished. The Crucifix is the most galvanising of all the Icons as it portrays Christ in agony dying on the erected Cross. There can be no greater statue or icon which pierces our souls as it did Mary’s. Everything pales into the background before the Crucifix. In Westminster Cathedral the giant painted and harrowing crucifix hangs from the ceiling as the Crucifix above all others in this premier See of England and Wales. It humbles all who survey it and we are immediately at the foot of this Cross – a very symbolic place. This Crucifix disarms us and we take the memory of the image home to revere when we return to the Cathedral. Our worship is however reserved for the Canon of the Mass and the Holy and Living Sacrifice of the Mass carried through by the celebrant priest.
I say “Vera Icon” or Veronica who took an impression of the face of Jesus Himself as He carried His Cross – blood, sweat and tears. Only the true Icon matters painted by the Christian believer to represent truly the image of Christ be he child with his mother or as a man on the Cross. Veronica had the very special privilege to wipe the face of the suffering Jesus Himself. You cannot get a truer than that impression. Hence we have revered the name Veronica since the time of Christ whether or not her name appears in the New Testament.