I used to love watching the TV detective ‘Columbo’ many years ago, when he would turn around at the last minute in his long worn out white coat and with a slight comment would solve the crime.
He then took great pleasure in revealing the clue that was right in front of our eyes yet hidden in the detail.
In times of great peril, poets often used images in their poems to get their messages across. A classic example of this in Ireland is the ‘Aisling’ style of poetry.
One such writer was the renowned fíle Aodhagán Ó Rathaille, where mother Ireland would be described as Spéirbhean, her tears would represent sadness at Ireland’s occupation, her four sons represent her four provinces and losing one son (Ulster) etc. Powerful messages could be delivered in this way.
Icons deliver similar powerful hidden messages and should not be taken at face value.
To get any great benefit out of them, just like detective Columbo we have to pay attention to what is hidden in the detail. Then they begin to reveal their true beauty.
To this effect there is a whole science around the study of icons, it’s called Iconography and perhaps the solution is hidden in this very name.
The name Iconography is of Greek origin and when broken down means – ‘image’ to ‘write’ so just like the ‘Aisling’ poem that I mention above it is as if the artist (poet) is sending us a distinct message in a sort of camouflaged manner.
Just like many other things in life the full appreciation and true beauty may not reveal itself initially but will over a period of time and reflection. Like the best things in life you get out of it what you put into it !
Perhaps they are a sending us a message in their own right to slow down and appreciate the world and nature in which we live in and not to be looking for instant gratification.
On a personal level, I often look at the world through the ‘eyes’ of energy (i.e. everything in the world is a vibrational energy in one form or another) and I find this very helpful especially when looking at religious icons and I believe just like Columbo that this is the key to unlocking the mystery and beauty of the icons. They are hidden gems.
To add to this understanding what I refer to as ‘energy’ the Church call ‘spirit’ and I believe these are one and the same thing tomato/tomatoe (a tomato is the same as a tomatoe, the same thing only different pronunciation!).
An icon is said to be a mirror of divine revelation. A painter’s interpretation of it is also a reflection of his spiritual attitude.
Here are a few simple points about Icons.
They are very much associated with the early Orthodox Church. Thus they were painted not long after the death of Christ and also remember most people didn’t have an understanding of Latin so this was a powerful way of communicating the message of Jesus to the masses. This gives them great authenticity.
They were originally painted using a ancient technique of egg tempura – this results in giving off a certain calm vibrancy in the colour. (Remember different colours give off different light energy frequencies).
The words in icons are an integral part of the design. Hands and fingers have a special symbolism; they either bless, pray or point to God. Heads are never painted in profile and often represent the Divine Presence in the human being – (represented in the form of a halo – Divine pure spiritual energy!).
Images of nature are often found and there is also great use of mathematical symbols – circles, rectangles, triangles etc.
Just like the love of God, the study of these magnificent Icons could go on ad infinitum so all I can say is there is far more to them than meets the eye. Give them time and enjoy the revelation of their hidden mysteries.
• Next week I am going to write about ‘What is Faith?’