In the most interesting interview OSV conducted with Catholic iconographer Marek Czarnecki, that I referred to yesterday, we gain a sense of how we can properly understand the real language of icons. Before I quote from the second part of that OSV interview let me answer a question or two about this subject.
Am I suggesting that you cannot worship fully without icons? Not in the least. Am I suggesting that icons must be used in public worship? No. But are icons a form of idolatry? Those who answer yes to this question are numerous in evangelical Protestant circles and can easily impress others to follow their simplistic and iconoclastic reasoning without the evangelical having a framework for considering this subject. I am attempting to give such a framework and at the same time telling you why I use icons in my own worship.
Here is the second part of the interview that I began sharing yesterday from the (February 7, 2010) OSV.
OSV: It seems like there is a lot going on in icons that many of us are not aware of. Is that true?
Czarnecki: When you look at an icon, the meaning of it should be absolutely open. There shouldn’t be anything hidden in an icon. There shouldn’t be anything esoteric in an icon. There shouldn’t be anything so complicated in an icon that you can’t immediately start praying with it. It’s like the Gospels. You don’t need a degree in philosophy or theology to open up the Gospels and read them and understand them. The icon has to be exactly the same. . . . People think icons are some very complicated symbolic map, and they’re not. They express the reality of a person’s life. Iconographers only use signs and symbols when the language when the language of naturalism is inadequate to express a spiritual truth.
It’s forbidden to make an icon of God the Father because the First Person of the Trinity is inexpressible. Like when Jews write up the Torah, they leave an empty space, and that absolutely correct. We have no adequate expression of God the Father, even though our churches are filled with them. In order to express that Jesus is divine, we can only make an image of his physical presence. To show that he’s divine we have to use signs and symbols because there is no adequate way to express his divinity. So we start with a halo, we put a three-barred cross in his halo, and the Greek characters that in English look like WON, which is an abbreviation for “I am Who I am.” Y putting in those characters, we demonstrate what Christ himself said, which is, “I and the Father are One.” But there’s no way that I can figure out how to paint that so we have to lapse into the use of semantic symbols, but it should be minimal, and it should only be used when you can’t express something in a very straightforward way.
OSV: For Westerners, icons can sometimes seem foreign, even off-putting. What’s behind that and how can we get past it?
Czarnecki: When the schism