Brendan McAnerney, O.P.
Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, Graduate Theological Union
"Holy Icons - Holy Churches"
Minor Hall / University of Virginia
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMEBER 30, 2009, 7:00-8:30pm
"In the study of revealed truth East and West have used different methods and approaches in understanding and confessing divine things. It is hardly surprising, then, if sometimes one tradition has come nearer to a full appreciation of some aspects of a mystery of revelation than the other, or has expressed them better. In such cases, these various theological formulations are often to be considered complementary rather than conflicting" (Second Vatican Ecumencal Council)*.
Fr. Brendan McAnerney, O.P.--a Dominican priest with additional priestly faculties in the Melkite Greek Catholic Church --visited the University of Virginia on September 30-October 1, 2009. Trained as an artist and art historian in the Byzantine tradition, with a deep reservoir of experiences as a Dominican, former gallery employee and director, and in his present position leading DominICON Ministry in Sacramento, Fr. Brendan exposed his UVA audiences to the theology, history, grammar and techniques that comprise the holy art of icons, from its origins in the Eastern Roman Empire through its development in the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
Icons, Fr. Brendan made clear, are not created by artists as immediate forms of self-expression or commodities for self-promotion. By contrast, artists associated with the iconographic tradition see their efforts as a form of service to the Church and their artistic "property" as the property of the community. Icons, moreover, are not simply painted pictures of Christ, saints, or Biblical figures. Instead, icons are part of a tradition of knowing whereby both the narrative and meaning of Scriptural stories are captured and learned, and also a medium in which the material world becomes transparent of its ultimate origin and future. For example, this Burning Bush icon depicts not only a familiar Biblical event, but also the relationship between the Divine and humanity in terms of Moses's willingness to heed God's command to remove his earthly sandals as he approached, thereby ensuring the transcendent contact and character of his experience.
Icons, thus, do not exist as mere representations of the material world or to evoke fleeting emotional responses from their audiences. They, rather, are revelatory experiences for the artist and the audience in that they offer foretastes and transcendent glimpses beyond the present moment and space. Properly understood, the effect is transformative and restorative because the new and ultimate nature revealed necessitates a radical reviewing of the rest of the material world and, especially, of humanity. The iconographic tradition sees this process as a vicarious experience that is open to all,but its underlying metaphysics demand a lot of heavy lifting for unfamiliarized audiences--especially in the West --who seek to think their way back to this fascinating and still vibrant part of the Christian tradition.
Following Pope John Paul II's call for promoting greater unity between the Western and Eastern Churches in Orientale Lumen (1995), Fr. Brendan further encouraged his attentive audience to become more familiar with and appreciative of the artistry of sacred icons and the interpretative grammar and vocabulary of the iconographic tradition. As an aide to a fuller understanding of icons, Fr. Brendan explained how the lack of external light sources, the simultaneous representation of different events, the idea of luminous darkness, and the use of reverse perspectives, shallow spaces, and gold were common iconographic techniques that were intended to reinforce the transmaterial and transtemporal purposes that all icons aim to effect. To conclude his talk, Fr. Brendan also explained the meaning of several of the most common iconographic hand gestures.
* Second Vation Ecumenical Council, Decree on Ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio.