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

Recollections and Reflections
March 26, 2020 Updated: March 26, 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.

Basilica_of_St._Lawrence,_Asheville_stained glass
A stained-glass window in the Basilica of St. Lawrence. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Some of my students were Roman Catholics, and some were unaffiliated with any 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.

Christ_Pantocrator_Russian_icon
Russian icon of Christ Pantocrator, late 19th century. Tempera on wood panel. (US-PD)

Western European Religious Art

Like their Russian counterparts, for over a thousand years Western European painters largely devoted themselves to religious themes, producing paintings, statuary, glass, and even volumes of literature like the “Book of Kells,” psalters, and Bibles, all as objects whose beauty reflected what they took to be the glory of God.

Some of us might consider these artists obsessed by religion, but that was not the case. No—they lived in a culture we can barely imagine today, an age when faith encompassed all of life, commanding morals, setting out the calendar of feast days, and formalizing cultural rituals ranging from coronations to baptisms, marriages, and funerals.

Book of Kells, Christ Enthroned
“Book of Kells,” Folio 32 v, Christ Enthroned, from “Treasures of Irish Art, 1500 B.C. to 1500 A.D.” From the Collections of the National Museum of Ireland, Royal Irish Academy, & Trinity College, Dublin. (US-PD)

This art also served to educate a pre-literate people in biblical tales and the life of Christ. Giotto’s “The Kiss of Judas,” Gentile da Fabriano’s “The Adoration of the Magi,” “The Dead Man Before His Judge” by the Master of the Rohan Hours; Jan van Eyck’s “Annunciation,” Rogier van der Weyden’s “Deposition”: Here were visual stories for king and commoner alike, lessons and carols in paint rather than in music and words. In the last 500 years, the secularization of culture diminished this passion for sacred art.

Adoration of the Magi by Gentile_da_Fabriano
“The Adoration of the Magi” by Gentile da Fabriano. (US-PD)

We still see some moderns producing religious works—St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Front Royal, Virginia, for instance, boasts four paintings by Henry Wingate depicting scenes from John’s life—but for the most part, representational artists now turn to landscapes, portraiture, and other subjects rather than exploring religious topics.

Art and Contemplation

Anyone—not just those of a particular religious faith—can use art as a tool to enhance meditation, a focal point for wandering attention. The mysteries found in Giorgione’s “The Tempest,” the beauty of Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” Rembrandt’s “Self-Portrait, 1629”: When we sink into such paintings, they can lead us away from ourselves and into contemplation of the sublime and the beautiful. The Rembrandt “Self-Portrait,” for instance, might arouse in us thoughts about the triumphs and defeats accompanying a life fully lived.

Self-portrait of Rembrandt in 1659
A self-portrait of Rembrandt, 1659. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Public Domain)

And we needn’t visit a gallery to explore this option. Both online and in our libraries, we can find beautiful reproductions worthy of such mediation.

Let me end with a personal example of this power of art. This month found me sitting in a chair in the office of Dr. Hsu, an ear, nose, and throat specialist here in town and a man of excellent reputation. Because I had a growth in my throat—the growth turned out to be real, but harmless—I was nervous. Across the room from me was a handsomely framed reproduction of Millet’s “The Angelus.” While awaiting the doctor’s arrival, I studied that lovely piece: the soft colors, a man and a woman standing in a field, heads bowed in prayer. As my eyes absorbed that painting, a calm came over me.

I found peace.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.