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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Icon insights

Archbishop of Canterbury looks at four images of Christ

The ancient practice of creating and praying icons continues as an essential part of Orthodox Christian practice. But Christians of other traditions also can enrich their faith through contemplation of icons. Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury and a noted theologian, explains how in The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ (Eerdmans, 2004; www.eerdmans.com). 

Williams offers refreshingly simple and direct commentary on four themes: the Transfiguration; the Resurrection; Christ as member of the Trinity; and Christ as judge and ruler of the whole world (Pantocrator).

He addresses a specific icon, pictured in the book, for each. But he also discusses other icons on the same theme, and he explains how a particular subject developed over time. He explores the meanings of dark and light, why particular colors are used and what certain gestures represent.

He emphasizes that viewers aren't venerating the icon but seeing through it to the reality it suggests. God is working on a viewer through the icon. Williams makes the important point that viewers are to look at an icon prayerfully — not analytically, which also is the icon creator's approach.

He doesn't suggest viewers shouldn't try to interpret the story or idea the icon communicates. But he points out that instead of being an object of study, the icon is in dynamic interaction with a viewer. If viewers open themselves to the icon, God's energy can flow through the image.

This idea can be applied to other types of art as well. Approaching a piece prayerfully, rather than analytically, viewers are more likely to encounter any religious meaning and energy it may hold.


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