MY APPROACH TO ICONS

I often tell people that the many long years I spent studying Russian and Greek iconography have proved of almost no practical use. I originally began researching icons several decades ago because museum research was my job at that time. I became something of a specialist in the “reading” of Russian icons — that is, in interpreting them for the average person and for museums and collectors, for whom they were initially as cryptic as carvings on an Egyptian tomb.

My approach was certainly not and is not that of the icon-venerating Christian — and I consider religious dogma in general an unhealthy thing. Nor was my interest that of the collector, because what I collected was not the physical icons themselves, but rather the information enabling one to understand the icons — which I assure you is far less expensive and enables one to collect in far greater quantity.

I did have my inevitable encounters, now and then, with the “true believers” of the field of icons — those for whom icons are inseparable from the rigid framework of religious dogma — frequently somewhat over-the-top Western converts to E. Orthodoxy. I irritated them endlessly simply by existing, because what I knew of icons from long study would not fit into their simplistic, rigid doctrinaire schemes. And it bothered them that I seemed to know so much about it — more so than many E. Orthodox priests — while all the while remaining quite uninterested in whatever brand of dogma they were selling.

So I will say right off that to me, Russian and Greek icons are the continuation — in Christian dress — of the ancient non-Christian veneration of images of the gods. When the old religions were outlawed under Christian intolerance, the saints painted on icons became the new gods, taking the place of the old for the average person — asked to bring rain or babies or to protect from this or that catastrophe or problem. There is no evidence to date in support of the making or use of icons for ritual veneration by the first Christians — or even any evidence of the slightest interest in such a thing by them, which of course is in direct conflict with the Eastern Orthodox dogma that icons go right back to the lifetime of Jesus, who was supposedly the first to “make” a Christian icon — supposedly. So is it any wonder that Eastern Orthodox of a more fundamentalist persuasion are unhappy with what I have to say?

Now some may think it bold to say outright that I think much of what is said about icons in Eastern Orthodoxy is absolute nonsense.  But I would certainly not hesitate to tell a Protestant fundamentalist that I consider a belief that the world came into being a few thousand years ago completely false, so why should I not tell any Eastern Orthodox person who asks that I have a similar attitude toward the dogma concerning the origin of icons? (and by the way, even Eastern Orthodox believed the world was only a few thousand years old until relatively recently; no doubt some still do).

But I am not writing here for the “true believers” of any brand of dogma. ¬†Instead, I am writing simply because I have accumulated all of this rather useless knowledge about icons and their history — and so I post bits of it here in case it might be of interest to someone somewhere who happens to be wondering what icons are all about, and who wants a more factual and rational explanation than is generally offered by “true believers.” But is there anyone out there to read such a blog? We shall see.

David