The Christianity of the South is very much a child of John Calvin. Nevertheless, in some ways, she has sensed the limitations of his system and tried to reach out beyond it. Given this, together with what we have looked at before regarding Protestantism and its breaking of images, would icons find a welcoming home in Dixie?
First, it is worth looking at the Orthodox teaching on icons, especially in relation to John Calvin’s critique of them. For this we turn to Gabe Martini’s essay ‘An Orthodox Response to John Calvin on Icons: Icons and Idolatry’:
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In response to these initial claims, Orthodox Christians have much to say.
The scriptures tell us that Jesus Christ is the image or “form” of God (εἰκὼν τοῦ θεοῦ): “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15). While the Father and Spirit are both formless and invisible (1 Tim. 1:17; Heb. 11:27; 1 John 4:20), the ὑπόστασις or person of the Son is revealed to us in the God-Man Jesus Christ: “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (John 1:18).
God “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), as the prophetic Emmanuel indicates (Matt. 1:23). When we look at Christ, we see the Father, and Jesus Christ is the “exact counterpart of [the Father’s] person” (Heb. 1:3). This word translated by the EOB as “counterpart” is χαρακτὴρ, implying something like an image stamped into a wax seal. Through the Incarnation, God made himself known to us as a circumscribed, touchable, breathing person—a person that was born, grew old, ate and drank, suffered, was buried, and resurrected after three days.
So when Calvin and his followers claim that depicting God in any way detracts from his glory, we must only point to Christ, for it is in the person of Jesus Christ (most importantly, at least) that we see the face of God. When we praise, worship, and magnify Jesus Christ, we are offering praise, worship, and honor to the all-holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Similarly, when we pay honor to the image of the Son of God in icons, we are paying honor to the prototype—to Jesus Christ himself. And when we honor the Saints, we are honoring the God whose uncreated light shines through their halos. The uncreated light of the shimmering gold leaf as it reflects the light of our oil lamps and candles—symbolic of the faithfulness of God shining forth in their saintly and Christ-like lives (which is, incidentally, why Orthodox Christians pay such close attention to the lives of the Saints).
Calvin’s arguments on this point seemingly presuppose that the Incarnation never happened; that the dispensation of the new covenant has yet to take place, and that there has been no Emmanuel or “God with us,” a God we can hear, see with our own eyes, and touch (1 John 1:1). These sorts of arguments are fitting for a religion such as Islam, but they are not the Christian Gospel; the Gospel of God made flesh, dwelling among us for our salvation.
Also missing from this presentation is any mention of the times when God commands his people to relate to him through an intermediary such as the bronze serpent, a relic that even miraculously healed people of their infirmities (Num. 21:9).
The flaw in Calvin’s viewpoint rests not only in Christology, but also in anthropology (as the two are inextricably linked). Mankind is created “according to the image of God,” as in the Greek translation of Genesis—κατʼ εἰκόνα θεοῦ (Gen. 1:27). And that image of God is Christ. Being created in the image of Christ, human beings are oriented towards a teleological purpose of transformation according to God’s likeness in him. This is our destiny, and why we are created: To become like Christ; to become like God. To be anything less is to be less than fully human, as Christ is the true and final Adam (1 Cor. 15:45).
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Source: http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/75661.htm, posted 6 Dec. 2014, accessed 10 Nov. 2015
Elsewhere, on the subject of beauty, he says this:
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Before we even begin to think about how the sacred arts of the Orthodox Church bring light from above—and at the same time raise our hearts from below—it has to be asked: Is beauty what God requires—or even desires—of us?
This was a struggle equally for the disciples as it is for some today. They wonder why thousands of dollars are spent on gold-laden temples, adorned from floor-to-ceiling with the most beautiful frescoes and panel icons, filled daily with the aroma of expensive, fragrant incense. Should not this money be donated or given to the poor?
And yet, in the Gospel we read:
Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head, as he sat at table. But when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for a large sum, and given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. —Matthew 26:6–11
Not wanting to downplay giving to the poor, we must understand that the purpose of expensive adornment in the Church is not mere waste, excess, or vanity, but is rather the apocalyptic glory of God. In the sacred arts, whether architecture, iconography, or the careful craft of beeswax candle-making, the Church is anointing the Body of Christ. In her sacred beauty, the Church is carving out a space of heaven on the earth here below.
In iconography, the Church proclaims the changeless faith through the artful replication of changeless forms. Even in the midst of our modern abandonment of both Truth and Goodness (as Solzhenitsyn mentions above), the Beauty and faithfulness of the iconographic form refuses to be silenced; indeed, it cannot be. A craft dependent not on the genius of the artist or boundless imagination, iconography is an art homeless in both the Renaissance and the post-modern world. A picture speaks a thousand words, and the steadfast fidelity to the story in each icon testifies—in our chaotic and dysfunctional present—to the eternal and changeless One.
In saying that icons point to the eternal—to that very place—we are speaking to their role as ‘windows into heaven.’ The eternal as imaged by the transitory. As master iconographer Aidan Hart has put it:
Liturgical art and worship, when well executed, is a fragrance of paradise that beckons us to find its divine source.2
In early Christian theology, the communication of this ‘divine source’ with us creatures here below was identified with the divine Logos of God. On this, Andrew Louth notes:
God, as he communicates himself, does so as logos. This Greek word covers reason, meaning, communication—something that in popularized Stoic thought made the cosmos precisely kosmos, that is, ordered, harmonious, beautiful (kosmos is the root from which the modern word ‘cosmetic’ is derived). What Christians claimed about Christ could be put in this way: that in Christ we encounter the meaning of the universe, or better, the one who gives meaning to the cosmos.3
It only makes sense, then, that he who orders the universe itself would be a God of order; a God who ‘expresses himself’ with the aesthetic trinity of order, harmony, and beauty. And if these three qualities have a hierarchy from the divine Logos himself, then they are eternal. In other words, if our God is he who set the stars and galaxies in their place, then our God is also a God of beauty. And if beauty is ‘of God,’ then beauty itself has an eternality; a changeless form, much like our sacred icons.
From the very beginning, God’s people were oriented4 towards a worship that is “a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary” (Heb. 8:5). And in Christ, the ‘copy’ is both fulfilled and truly revealed.
This celestial hierarchy is at the heart of what it means to worship as Orthodox Christians. But beyond this, such an hierarchy of order and beauty is also at the heart of what it means to be truly human. In Christ, and in the sacred image, the eternal, changeless beauty is more fully revealed.
Beauty will save the world, not because beauty is something ‘extra,’ but because it is essential. It calls our spirit to heaven, and brings the eternal to the present.
If there is an identifiable ‘aesthetic’ of the Orthodox faith, it must begin and end with the express image of the Father; that is, with Jesus Christ, the divine Logos of God.
Source: ‘The Beauty of Logos: Towards an Orthodox Aesthetic’, http://blogs.ancientfaith.com/onbehalfofall/the-beauty-of-logos-towards-an-orthodox-aesthetic/, posted 11 May 2014, accessed 17 Nov. 2015
The keys for understanding icons from these essays are a love for
-man in his fulness;
-fairhood (beauty); and
All of these the South embraced warmly prior to the War, and in some measure still does so.
-The South in years past and on into this our own day continues to be a place where Christ remains on the mind and in the mouth (which to her shame too often means that his Holy Name is used roughly and foully), though perhaps not always united with the souls and bodies of Dixiemen (Christ-haunted, even if not Christ-centred, to use Miss Flannery O’Connor’s wording).
-Bringing man to the fulness of his stature has been a constant concern of Southerners from John Taylor of Caroline to Richard Weaver to Wendell Berry.
-The longing for and veneration of visual beauty, as we have noted before (‘A Clear-Eyed Look at the Old South’, posted 13 July 2015), was especially marked among the planter class, and also among men of letters like William Gilmore Simms and Sidney Lanier.
-The understanding of the creation as a sacrament, a mystery, in which we may behold the supernatural through the natural (as Andrew Lytle put it) is likewise a mainstay in Southern thought.
With such a foundation, one can imagine icons being welcomed into Southern life quite easily. But John Calvin’s anti-Incarnational Godlore (theology) remains a serious stumbling block. So many Protestant churches across the South still bear its imprint: four bare walls and a sermon, as the saying goes. If Southerners will seek the truth about their beloved Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, however, and about the cosmic significance of His taking on human flesh, then perhaps one day soon it will be otherwise:
But again, the Orthodox objection to this artistic fundamentalism is in its denial of the Incarnation. If God could become truly man—being the very image of God—then true depictions of other images of God are not only possible, but also acceptable. Without image-making, there is no salvation. God fashioned an image according to his own for our salvation.
Source: Martini, ‘An Orthodox Response’
(Source: http://orthodoxwiki.org/images/5/5a/Russian_Iconostasis.jpg; available along with others here: http://orthodoxwiki.org/Category:Iconostasis)