Within the Eastern tradition of Christianity, the eikon, or religious image, has long held a place of honor. In the greater part of Western Christianity, however, discomfort with images in worship, both statues and panel icons, has been a relatively common current, particularly since the Reformation. In the Roman Catholic Church, after years of using religious statues, the Second Vatican Council's call for "noble simplicity" in many cases led to a stripping of images that in some ways helped refocus attention on the eucharistic celebration itself but also led to a starkness that has left many Roman Catholics unsure of how to interact with the saints or with religious images at all.
Today, Western interest in panel icons has been rising, yet we lack standards of quality or catechesis on what to do with them. This book makes the case that icons should have a role to play in the Western Church that goes beyond mere decoration. Citing theological and ecumenical reasons, Visel argues that, with regard to use of icons, the post Vatican II Roman Catholic Church needs to give greater respect to the Eastern tradition. While Roman Catholics may never interact with icons in quite the same way that Eastern Christians do, we do need to come to terms with what icons are and how we should encounter them.
"This lovely book by Sr. Jeana Visel offers a remarkably fresh approach to the sacred iconic art of the ancient Church and shows how it can be a spiritual resource to renew worship across the traditions: Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant. It wears its (significant) learning lightly. It takes the reader through a well-rounded history of iconography, and basing itself in the Western Christian tradition of response to that (for the West was always a little more wary of ascribing sacramental value to the icons) it shows how, although conflicted in some respects (such as wishing to restrict the role of religious art more to a didactic function), the Western iconic tradition has been wider and more nuanced than often presumed. The study has a very interesting set of theological reflections on the sacramentality of art following Vatican II. The conciliar call in the sixties for a `noble simplicity' to be introduced into church furnishing and liturgical fabric sometimes led to a crisis of banality in the artistic decoration of churches. Visel argues powerfully here that deep iconic art has the charisma to bring grace to contemporary worship, just as it did in times past, and can serve as an ecumenical rapprochement, with Catholicism's iconic tradition standing in a median role between the Orthodox and the Protestant worlds in their different understanding of icons as gateways to divine grace. Fifty years ago, icons (excepting Our Lady of Perpetual Succour) were hardly ever seen in the Catholic Church. Now they are a dominant form of spiritual expression. They have begun to make a more familiar appearance in many of the Reformed churches too. It has been a remarkable, unplanned, ecumenical outreach from the East, partly initiated by an unlikely evangelist, Stalin, selling off his Russian Church's great treasures to fund his machine of oppression. These quiet exiles brought their grace to the West once more and whispered a word of ecumenical grace and peace. Visel's book continues that `secret ministry.' The text has been produced by Liturgical Press with a deep artistic sensibility: its numerous illustrations make it a beautiful thing to possess. A little treasure. Highly recommended."Archpriest John A. McGuckin, Nielsen Professor of Byzantine Christian History, Columbia University, New York