I mentioned recently that I had been doing some reading on iconography in order to prepare for a talk that I’d been asked to do. In the process I read two introductory books that I had only glanced through before. I found them both very good introductions and thought that it might be worth highlighting them for those who are interested. Both are very good starting points for people who want to understand the place of the icon in the Orthodox Church.
Michel Quenot’s The Icon: Window on the Kingdom (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1991; Mowbray, 1992), while providing an accessible introduction for a general readership, nevertheless offers a fairly comprehensive discussion of the history and theology of the icon, and of its role in spiritual transformation, and of the way that the various aspects of style and composition influence this. While by no means polemical, it explains clearly how eastern and western art went their different ways. The icon is something very different from what the West came to see as “sacred art.” Quenot is not opposed to the discovery of the icon by westerners, but he does warn us of the dangers involved in this and insists that the icon should be rediscovered in its true integrity, for it is “a traditional iconographic purity which expresses the profound truths of faith” and the icon is an object that exists in order to be venerated.
Amid the surfeit of images swamping our world, today, the icon testifies to the spiritual outlook and vision of an authentic Christianity, that of the Divine Humanity of Christ. Its language of love is revealed when the eyes meet. It not only imperceptibly enriches and fructifies every face that gazes at it, but contains the vivifying impulse that leads to the joyful rediscovery of a Christian, theological art. (164-165)
Jim Forest’s Praying With Icons(Orbis Books, 1997, 2008) covers some of the same background as Quenot’s work, providing insights into the history, theology, and what goes into producing an icon. However, this book is more personally written – beginning with a description of the author’s own experience in discovering icons – and is more focussed on enabling people to appreciate the icon’s role in leading us to prayer. While this book is irenically written and clearly aimed at a broad audience (it is published by a Catholic publisher) Forest does not avoid questions of the western loss of the role of the body in prayer, and presents the icon in terms of a broader Orthodox understanding of prayer, fasting and spiritual discipline. Like Quenot’s book, Forest discusses several well-known icons. However, he also, very helpfully, provides various texts of prayers as a conclusion to the book entitled “Prayers of the Day.” Their efficacy is witnessed to in the following description:
My wife and I stand side by side before our icons before going to bed. Occasionally we are joined by guests. In the beginning our effort required reading together parts of the service of evening prayer used in the Orthodox Church, but gradually the prayers are learned by heart and no book is needed. We end our prayers with intercession, using several lists we keep. We have come to recognize this part of the day as one of the essential activities of our married life, bind us more closely together. (55)
Both books provide several colour reproductions. Those in Forest’s book are mainly well known old icons, while Quenot provides several examples of the work of Father Gregory (Krug) whose icons I am particularly fond of.