We don’t see icons too often in Western Christian churches. The use of icons in worship is something that our Protestant churches lost in the split from the Catholic church – although “lost” might be the wrong word for it. To say you lost something implies a sort of passivity. But the lack of icons in Protestant churches was quite purposeful.
We can blame, among others, John Calvin and early Protestant reformers for our lack of icons. These early reformers were iconoclasts, which literally means ‘breakers of idols’ and basically means they promoted the destruction and removal of all art from all churches. Calvin believed that icons were a form of graven image, and to use icons in worship was idolatry. Sadly, these beliefs led to the destruction of a lot of religious art. The worst of this was a 16th century wave of beeldenstorms, in which Calvinists would mob churches and public places, destroying all the art that lay within, often against great protest of the church inhabitants, and sometimes interrupting sermons in order to wreck their havoc. I feel sad just writing that. So much for ‘decent and in order.’
The Eastern Orthodox church, on the other hand, puts icons on the same level as the cross and the gospel as ways to encounter God. Also, among Protestant traditions, Lutherans never got caught up in the waves of destruction of art, as Martin Luther actually taught that images were a wonderful aid in worship, stating “If it is not a sin but good to have the image of Christ in my heart, why should it be a sin to have it in my eyes?” Images are an inescapable way of relating what we see to God, so the question is what images do we put before our eyes? And how do we use icons without replacing God with what is seen? We are starting to see something of a reemergence of icon usage within other Protestant traditions, as well.
I found this painting on a blog “Icons-Interfaith, paintings by G.E.” The G seems to stand for Gabriele. So based on the title, I think this icon was painted by a person named Gabriele, around 2006. I don’t know anything about the artist. As frustrating as it is to not be able to properly credit the artist, it’s appropriate, in a way, for an icon. Icons are a special kind of art. These images of sacred figures and events are still commonly used within Eastern Orthodox traditions as a tool of meditation. The design is very standardized, as is the symbolism. As such, many icons look alike. In fact, it is quite normal to copy another icon exactly. As opposed to other forms of art, which are meant to be an expression of the artist, icons are expressions of the subject.
This icon depicts John 15:1-8, Jesus the True Vine:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
Try using this icon as a method of contemplative meditation. Start by closing your eyes and praying for guidance, that you may approach this image with fresh, innocent eyes. Read the Bible passage this image is depicting. Then rest your gaze upon the image, taking it in. Try not to think about it to much – let the image speak for itself. Then, after an appropriate amount of time (before your mind starts to wander too much and you find yourself mentally creating your grocery list), read the Bible passage again. What do you see that is new? Take a moment to write your reflections. Then close your eyes, thank the Spirit for this insight, and go about the rest of your day.