Iconography: The Persuasive Gaze

I am so glad to welcome Rev. Dr. Sandy Wylie back to preach and teach at UUMC this coming Sunday.  The topic of Sandy’s sermon and lecture after church will be something of great interest to me as well—Art and Faith.  One of my most treasured experiences of Seminary was the opportunity to learn the art of iconography.  Over the next two weeks, I’ll use this space to articulate two great things I’ve learned about experiencing God from iconography: the “persuasive gaze” and the “constitution of the divine window.”

In the Spring of 2003, I went out on a limb and asked Bonnie Gillis, the wife of our seminary writing instructor, (he was a Greek Orthodox priest, and I had heard that she was a very talented iconographer) if she would have the time to teach me this great art.  Soon we began the learning process in the tradition that stretched back 1900 years (or more) to the beginning of our religious tradition. Bonnie is pictured here with a smaller version of myself 🙂 and the icon I painted under her tutelage.)iconwithBonnie (2)

The process of painting an icon became for me a devotion—a spiritual discipline.  Every week, I would sit in Bonnie’s kitchen or backyard and learn how to paint the details of the face of Christ.  The process started simply, with three colors.  As I became more comfortable with the brush in my hand, we continued to paint finer and finer detail, until finally I had painted a tiny glint in the eyes of Jesus.  One aspect of the devotion of painting an icon is the mediation on the imagio dei.  In order to construct a representation of this image, the painter must first spiritually prepare him or herself.  We begin with simple shapes, painting the outline of the image.  Like our experience with God, our experience becomes more detailed as we grow in our understanding.  Eastern Orthodox spirituality is progressive—we slowly uncover the realization that the imagio dei is within us.

Instrumental to the notion of Process theology (the theological tradition that guided my own seminary training) is the idea that God acts persuasively, not coercively.  I believe the icon symbolizes this kind of relationship with God through the use of the two dimensional nature of iconography.  I was told by Brother Aidan, (a Greek Orthodox hermit monk and iconographer I stayed with for a week in the hills of Shropshire, England, while I studied abroad during undergraduate school) that that the third dimension of the icon is not realized until the viewer engages the icon.  Icons are painted in two dimensions because the painters desire the third dimension to be in front of the face of the icon, not behind it.  Instead of expressing depth, the icon expresses reverse depth—the icon invites you to participate in it.

Unlike much art in the Western tradition, the icon’s face is devoid of any emotional expression.  This is because the Greek ideal is impassibility (the ability to be unaffected by base emotions), but also to encounter the viewer’s own emotions and thoughts without foisting a particular emotional valence on to the devotional use of the icon.  In other words, it persuades instead of coerces a particular response.  It doesn’t “tell you what to feel” by representing agony or ecstasy.  The persuasive gaze “draws you in,” instead of “pushing you” toward one thing or another.  This doesn’t mean that the icon is to be received impassively.  I have seen people weeping in front of icons, and it is fairly common to see people kissing the icon as they pray in front of it.  This is the interior power of the expressionless face.  It persuades an emotional response instead of presenting it.