I intended to write about this at the end of the previous post but ran out of time then.
Two days ago Joris van Ael, the Flemish iconographer whose work I mentioned in a previous post, gave a talk to our community in which he highlighted the common roots of eastern and western religious imagery. (Well, he was actually here to give an intensive workshop to two of us, but that is another story). Something that he said struck me as worth noting, as it intersects with themes that keep recurring for me. Having emphasised the wide variety of iconographic expression, and the creativity of differing traditions, he addressed the question of what the common factor was in all these traditions. What is it that makes something an icon, as opposed to, say, other forms of western religious imagery? This is a question that I have often been asked, and I have always found my answers inadequate. Yes, one can speak of a particular style, of working within a tradition, even of working within a canon, but that remains at a surface level. And, yes, one can also speak of the icon’s theological and liturgical role, but that can be understood as implying a sort of didactic role which, while not untrue, only touches the surface.
Joris’ answer was that the icon has both an element of resemblance and similarity, but also of dissimilarity and elusiveness. There is the contrast between light and darkness, between proclamation and silence. The icon leads us to a point that goes beyond our thought processes and leads us to the Mystery that is beyond all expression. In the icon the Unnameable appears.
Now this is of course rather paradoxical, for iconography pays great attention to the details being correct and, indeed, to persons and events being properly named. Yet such detail is there precisely to lead us to something greater. And the same thing applies to liturgy and theology. It has sometimes struck me as rather ironic, but perhaps also instructive, that those liturgical traditions that are most insistent on careful adherence to the rites are precisely the traditions that are most able to lead us beyond themselves. And, likewise, apophatic theology is not to be found in the traditions (if one may call them that) that have become rather vague on what they believe, but precisely in those traditions that place great emphasis on correct belief, but which are aware of the limitations of our human expression.
Some food for further reflection!