There is much more than meets the eye when dealing with icons. However, in order to receive all that there is to get out of an icon, the burden is on the viewer to put in extra work. Tying back into Gadamer’s points on veiling and unveiling, we initially see the veiled portions of the image, but it requires a deeper look, a contemplation, in order to grasp the unveiled portions.
Similarly in worship, we are trying to get to know God and further our relationship with Him. God is essentially an unveiled image, we cannot physically see Him materially on this Earth. However, through worship — and the especially the liturgy — we are able to foster this relationship with an invisible Being. Through prayer, attending mass, and celebrating feasts of the Church, we utilize our physical senses to understand spiritual concepts and know an immaterial God.
This same principle of worship is what allows us to engage with an image as an icon and not an idol. For Jean-Luc Marion, he makes the distinction between icons and idols as such: an idol is an image in which the individual views for simply viewing sake. What makes an image an icon is the attitude of the viewer — they must be viewing for the purpose of veneration, through which their gaze is returned. Not only is one able to gaze at the image, but God gazes back upon the viewer in what Marion describes as a sort of “crossing of the gazes.”
It is through this veneration of the image, in looking at the veiled portions and contemplating upon the physical, that one is able to see the invisible. In this sense, Marion would argue that we are not using the image as a means, but as an end in itself — through our veneration of the image we are able to see more.
In our course this week, we dealt with reading icons (as well as viewing frescoes and altarpieces). This task was something completely new for me, and I had much to learn in “reading” these pieces. To put it simply: there was way more meaning and intentionality in these works than I had thought of at first. Specifically this week, we viewed several Marian altarpieces and Florentine frescoes, as well as The Ghent Altarpiece.
With regard to the Florentine Frescoes, our “iconic way of seeing” translates well. These frescoes were painted with an aspect of figural exegesis in mind. Not only do they visually represent figures allowing us to understand what the painting is trying to depict, but they also incorporate an element of dissemblance — which allows for the viewer to ponder the imbedded mystery and strangeness of an image. Through interpreting the frescoes in this way we are able to learn more from the image. In the case of the frescoes this included learning proper ways to pray, proper forms of posture, the proper identity to have as a member of the Dominican order. Engaging with these works as worship elevates the entire experience.
In the case of the Marian altarpieces and the Ghent altarpiece, Williamson would agree with the ideas being discussed in this blog — there is a devotional and liturgical purpose in viewing the altarpieces. In taking the Eucharist, we are celebrating and remembering the sacrifice Christ had made in order to grant us the possibility of salvation. Altarpieces serve the function of allowing one to contemplate what one is truly being offered in the Eucharist, while also allowing us to offer ourselves back in return. Once again the idea of reciprocity is touched upon.
Through viewing the Marian altarpieces in an iconic way, one can better understand the theological aspects going on within the image. Mary can be understood as an altar herself — especially in the Lucca Madonna as she is lactating to nourish the incarnate baby Jesus. Jesus himself is a huge baby (notify his prominence and importance), but He is holding an apple, signifying that He is a “new Adam,” sent to free mankind. There are many more themes I could go into specifically, but the point is apparent. Williamson would conclude with this idea: that altarpieces allow for a multivalent reading and interpretation. Because the images have no exact relation to time or place, it broadens the ways in which we as viewers can interpret the image, thus allowing us to develop our own personal relationship to the image.
The Ghent altarpiece likewise follows the Marian altarpieces as described. The image itself is a myriad of fragmented images coming together to portray an overall message. Familiar figures such as Christ, the Virgin Mary, and saints are depicted, as well as some other Biblical figures such as Cane, Abel, Adam and Eve. The central image of the altarpiece depicts a lamb shedding blood into a chalice surrounded by an entire city coming to praise it. On a macro-scale, looking into this piece as worship can allow one to view themselves like saint — a devoted, faithful follower of Christ. We can understand the Eucharistic celebration taking place as depicted by the lamb’s sacrifice, as well as through the faithful people coming to witness said sacrifice. The image calls on us to join in on this Eucharistic liturgy and, in essence, an Eternal Liturgy as well.
All these images call on us to engage with the work on a deeper and more meaningful level. If we worship the image, if we venerate it, then we allow God to gaze back upon ourselves — we become able to see the invisible.