I spent part of my childhood in a denomination that shunned liturgical art and Christian iconography. Followers of this sect, though well-meaning in their zealotry, had me convinced that “praying” (their words, not mine) to artistic interpretations of Mary or the saints was idolatry, pure and simple. And idolatry, they taught, was a sin. They could back that up with Scripture.
While I do not condone prayers to any man-made object, only now as an adult have I come to understand the irony in their iconoclasm. These believers adhered to a strict interpretation of certain biblical passages about dress. This, in turn, bound them to a suffocating form of fashion and personal appearance. One which they believed was an outward sign of righteousness in a feckless and sensual world.
Even as a kid, there was something unsettling about these churchgoers obsessing over the hem and shirtsleeve lengths of their glum, unadorned clothing. I guess they didn’t get the point about idolatry, because their dogmatic dress code was more about Holiness Couture than modesty.
I travel a lot with my day job, particularly in Latin and South America and parts of Europe. When I am on the road, I like to hunt for old churches in my free time. But I’ll be honest, it has taken some time for me to finally shake my disdain for orthodox iconography because of all the childhood exhortation against “idolatrous art.”
In her book, Walking on Water, Madeline L’Engle wrote “An icon is a symbol, rather than a sign.” When I read that the first time, it felt like L’Engle articulated something that was stirring in me for a while.
One thing that I learned in my travels is that Christian iconography is vernacular. This is art that speaks to the local culture in a visual language.
Near Houston, I once saw an icon of St. Thomas in an Indian church. Instead of an oil-flame soot icon, this doubting disciple was painted in rich and vibrant colors.
Thomas is revered in this exotic strand of orthodoxy because lore has it he founded the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church (Indian Orthodox church) around A.D. 50 during a mission trip. In some Malankara icons, Thomas looks like he could be from the sub-continent.
Even in tough-as-nails Texas where hardy Swedish immigrants in the 19th century founded the New Sweden Evangelical Lutheran Church; Christ looks pretty Viking-like with his lantern jaw and powerful hands. Orthodox iconography has also found a place in the UK where church attendance is in decline. The Fleet Street St Dunstan-in-the-West church in London has been co-opted by the Romanian Orthodox Church (La Biserica Ortodoxã Românã din Londra – Parohía Românã Sf Gheorghe/St Dunstan). The churchgoing Romanian community’s rich iconography helps to give a certain flair to a church that can trace its roots back to medieval London.
I’m not looking to change anyone’s view on icons or Christian art, but I want to show some of the more memorable icons and liturgical paintings found on my church hunting expeditions. See for yourself.
TOM DARIN LISKEY, FEATURES EDITOR
Tom Darin Liskey is an author, poet and photo-journalist. More than twenty years of international journalism and business experience gives Tom a unique perspective. That experience abroad has given him a keen eye to appreciate different cultures and locations. His fiction, non-fiction, and poetry has been published in literary magazines, both in the US and abroad including two published books.