The fine line between idol and icon is one that is often difficult to walk for us viewers, and comes with distinct theological consequences. Jean-Luc Marion makes this incredibly clear in his work, The Crossing of the Visible, putting forth his ideas on what constitutes an icon as opposed to an idol. He writes, “The libido vivendi…determines a world where everything is reduced to an image and where every image is valued as a thing. The equivalence is an absolute tyranny” (Marion 54–55). Marion warns us not to stoop to this libido vivendi in such a pure surrender to our desire when looking at an image, describing such ogling ‘pornographic,’ clearly an undesirable lens through which to view art that so often carries theological and beautiful value. It takes away from the ability of the icon to allow us to gaze upon the original, which then in turn would gaze back at us, the observer. When we take this other route, the one in which we approach an image or representation on bended knee with intent to encounter the original reality mediated by that image, as described by Marion, then we can truly gaze into a theological truth. We can see past the visible image and all the excitement that may draw us toward that libido vivendi, and see the invisible, or veiled, reality behind the icon.
Marion explains, “But Christ Jesus came to earth only to glorify the Father and in no way to draw attention to his own glory…Christ Jesus offers not only a visible image of the Father who remains invisible but even a (visible) face of the invisible itself (the Father)” (Marion, 57). We find the purest comparison to icons here through the humility of Christ, not seeking to draw attention to his own greatness, but ‘channeling’ the invisible God the Father, even allowing his own body to be destroyed in a great self-effacement which allows us to gaze upon him as that visible link to the invisible.
However, this is not to just reduce Christ Jesus to the status of ‘icon,’ as he is so much more beyond that (though he does help us to understand). But taking the lessons we learn from viewing him this way, we can begin to look at artwork with a more understanding eye and with fuller awareness of the way not to reduce theological images and artwork to mere stimulation for its own sake. Msgr. Timothy Verdon addresses a more contemplative way of seeing art in Art and Prayer. He points out, “…the images are upside-down in relation to the text, so that — as the deacon read from the high pulpit — the parchment that unrolled before the eyes of the faithful allowed them to see the images that gave the sense of the text” (Verdon, 125). Here, Verdon describes a way in which the images can be used to achieve a more fundamental understanding of the reality and truth depicted in the iconography of the liturgy. While I do have some doubts about the singular directionality of the statement that the images help make sense of the text without the text also helping make sense of the images, the idea of more informed understanding of the images beyond face-value attraction to something exciting being shown is integral to understanding icons.
Chloe Reddaway argues for contextual understanding helping to elevate an image to icon in her work, Transformations in Persons and Paint. She writes, “The corporeal analogies suggested by the frescoes highlight their systematic nature, in the sense that they represent and relate key elements of Christian theology, and reflect the way in which these are related as parts comprehensible only in terms of the whole, and vice versa, the whole being more than the sum of the parts” (Reddaway, 151). A lengthy quote to be sure, but one that is very informative to the manner in which art can be engaging to its viewer. When the viewer truly knows what he or she is looking at, they can appreciate the many details through which the artist attempts to represent the original truth and reality of his or her theological subject, as discussed by Marion in his work. Only then can a viewer truly engage with an icon and achieve the theological enlightenment attainable by gazing at the piece of art, and being gazed at by that very art, in the proper manner.
Now to put all this in practice. Looking first at the Ghent Altarpiece, there is a lot going on. One might focus on the regally dressed image of Jesus Christ in the center, or the nude bodies of Adam and Eve, or the violence of Cain above them, or the lamb bleeding profusely. This is all an easy way to fall victim to the libido vivendi if we do not continue to contemplate the art. But we will. We can address the colors of Christ’s robes, perhaps red to represent his sacrificial blood, or the images of Adam and Eve with Cain overhead to represent their distance from, but still relation to, Christ in the center, having come so far to protect us from their sin. We can address the sacrificial lamb, maybe the easiest of these symbols to understand as not just any old lamb, but as the Lamb of God, Christ, whose blood is poured out for all of us flocking to him from all over to be in His light, represented by the Sun just above that lamb. Of course, there is always more that a sophomore business major might have missed but maybe that’s a good start.
We could also look at the Florentine frescoes, such as Fra Angelico’s St. Dominic Adoring the Crucifixion. One can look past the obvious halo behind St. Dominic and the cross behind Christ’s head. You might notice the way Jesus looks down upon him and feel some connection to St. Dominic as though you were the one Jesus looked at, and who was clutching the cross so reverently. You might notice the blood dripping from Jesus Christ’s hands and forearms, so that you might better understand the fullness of his self-effacement, allowing his blood to run down his own wrists and forearms. It wasn’t a clean event by any measure, and his willingness to let himself be so brutalized may further the effect of the Eucharist on you. Maybe you notice the little stump on which Christ’s cross rests, and ascribe some better explanation for it than I have because I’m not quite sure mine is that great. I would imagine it serves to elevate him in some nearness to Heaven, or to insinuate that he acts as a pseudo-tree, the Tree of Life perhaps? Maybe with some of Verdon’s or Reddaway’s historical context, I might be able to see a little more clearly.
Finally, we move to the Madonna altarpieces and how we might engage with them as icons. With respect to the Firescreen Madonna, Beth Willamson, in Altarpieces, Liturgy, and Devotion addresses details that escape most gazes. She writes, “The floor is inlaid with valuable colored stone, the bench and fireplace are rich, and the hem of the Virgin’s robes and the clasp of her book are decorated with jewels” (Williamson 394). She talks about the significance of these particulars because they do not adhere to a previous notion of sole humility. In fact, she causes us to rethink some of our notions of the Virgin and the Son because they appear to have some semblance of status in the work. Beyond this, however, there appear to be skilled carvings in the wood of the table to the Virgin Mary’s left as well as a floating page in her book despite her hands not being near the pages. Perhaps it is just a breeze from the window. Perhaps it is something more.
In any case, these images become that much more engaging when contemplated and viewed with a much more deeply invested eye. After analyzing these works, I look at other works of theological art, and even art that hangs from the walls of my room, and I wonder just how much I’ve been missing all these years when I looked at them for their own sake. I still have some work to do in refining this intersection between my physical and spiritual senses, but I must say, this is one of the most intriguing and evocative inspections of old habits that I could change. Is this goodbye, libido vivendi?