Glimpses of Heaven: Icons, Paintings, Prayer, and Meditation

March 27, 2020

In the spring, just before my homeschooling seminars closed for the summer, my Latin students and I would head to the Basilica of St. Lawrence in Asheville, North Carolina. We would gather in the courtyard outside the church, and I would issue my usual admonitions: Whisper, don’t disturb those praying in the side chapel, walk, don’t run, and be respectful.

I then divided the students into teams, equipped each team with a Latin dictionary, and turned them loose inside the Basilica, where they engaged in a scavenger hunt, copying down the Latin inscriptions they found there and then translating them. I roamed from team to team, giving a hand with the translations or pointing them to a site they had missed. Most were a little shocked when I pulled open a heavy metal door in the wall, showed them the tomb of Rafael Guastavino, the architect who had designed the Basilica and donated money for its construction, and had them translate the Latin on the coffin.

ny religion, but the great majority were devout Protestants, many of them members of the traditional Presbyterian Church in America. On first entering that sanctuary with its statues and paintings, its bank of votive candles, and the handful of people kneeling in prayer in Eucharistic adoration, my Protestant students inevitably paused while they absorbed these strange sights.

Art and Religion: Different Interpretations

Later, they would pepper me with questions: “Why were all those candles lit?” “Do Catholics worship statues?” “Why are there so many pictures of Mary?” “Tell me again why that guy is buried in the church?”

Religious statuary and paintings have in the past roused conflicts among Christians. In the eighth and ninth centuries, citing the injunction in the Ten Commandments against the worship of “graven images,” and after Emperor Leo III began banning icons, Byzantine iconoclasts (image breakers) declared war on paintings with human images inside churches and destroyed many works of art. Occasionally, this fierce battle over icons led to bloodshed.

During the Reformation, Protestants practiced a similar iconoclasm, stripping churches of their statues, burning paintings, destroying altars, and smashing stained-glass windows. The cross replaced the crucifix, and white plaster erased various mosaics.

Even today, some take sides in this ancient war. After coming back from Europe, where he had visited a number of churches, a friend told me that he could never belong to a church where the devout kissed their fingers and touched them to a painting, or knelt before a statue of Mary. And certainly it’s tempting to regard that gesture, or kneeling in prayer before a statue, as idol worship.

Russian Icons

Yet those who engage in these practices are not worshiping the art itself, but what it represents. The Russian Orthodox, for example, have long regarded icons as sacred objects not because of paint and brush, but because these pictures open a window into heaven.

On the online site Russia Beyond the Headline, the article “How to Read and Comprehend a Russian Icon” by writer Irina Osipova and designer Ekaterina Chipurenko provide a splendid introduction to the art of the icon. Every detail on these wooden panels—color, perspective, dress, the most insignificant image—serves a purpose and has meaning. Osipova tells us, for example, that the color gray is never used in an icon, as it is a mixture of white and black, symbolic of good and evil.

The eyes, the windows to the soul, are deliberately enlarged. We Westerners find icons stilted and strange in part because their artists use reverse perspective, “a drawing with vanishing points that are placed outside the painting,” creating an “illusion that these points are ‘in front of’ the painting” and so focusing the viewer’s attention on the religious figures depicted.

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