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The Image as Icon

The worship which we render God and the honor we offer to the saints enable one to see past the icon and to persons which they represent. When we truly see the persons whom the images represent, we see them for who they are, leading us to the proper disposition towards the persons. The painting of the Holy Trinity discussed by Verdon in Art and Prayer beautifully displays the way in which an image can become an icon and an aid in our worship. In the Eucharist, Christ comes among us under the appearances of bread and wine. Believers must see past what their eyes perceive and see with eyes of Faith to know that they look upon God Himself. The eyes of Faith enable the believer to perceive in the Sacrifice of the Mass and to see also the Sacrifice of the Cross. The image shows a priest offering Mass and elevating the Host, surrounded by numerous priests kneeling in adoration. Above in the Heavens Christ crucified, indeed His Sacrifice of the cross, is being presented to the Father and between them hovers the Spirit. Some of the priests below are looking towards the congregation which would one day look upon the painting. Others are looking at the present offering of the Mass. Finally others are looking in adoration above to the past, to the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, which is made present in the Eucharist. To have looked upon this image in its Eucharistic context as it would have sat above the altar provided an incredible opportunity to engage with it as an icon, to see past the figures and the colors, to hear its message, and to meditate on the wonders of which it tells.

Another masterpiece of liturgical art work, the Ghent Altarpiece, also enables one to enter into profound worship-filled meditation. When one looks upon The Adoration of the Lamb, it reveals to the observant viewer the beauty of the Mass. For in the Mass, we have the opportunity to join with the heavenly choirs in the singing of the divine praises of the Trinity as depicted in the upper panels telling of the Eternal Liturgy. The Central panels shows all peoples gathered together to offer the sacrifice of the unblemished Lamb, as we do daily in the Sacrifice of the Mass with “Christ’s perennial sacrifice.” (Vested Angels, 102) The harmony of the images enables us to enter into profound theological contemplation during the Mass of the divine liturgy before us, not merely in image, but present upon the Altar.

The Florentine frescoes by Fra Angelico also are filled with deep liturgical meaning. Fra Angelico often places the scenes from the lives of Jesus and Mary in the setting of the convent of San Marco. He places as well St Dominic oftentimes meditating on the biblical scenes. it is clear looking at the images the deep meditation of these events so central to our Faith which Fra Angelico is trying to promote. His paintings encourage his brothers in the Order to meditate in such a manner not as on some legend or story, but as on an event which was as real as the walls and column of the convent present not only in reality but also in the paintings. Within the paintings, Fra Angelico also placed theological lesson. For example, in one of his paintings of the Annunciation he shifts the loggia to the side of the painting, showing on the left-hand side a garden referencing both Nazareth (meaning flower) but also the Garden of Eden, bringing to mind the sin of disobedience of Eve in contrast to Mary’s humble obedience.

The many Madonna altarpieces throughout the Europe discussed by Williamson also reveal much to the meditating viewer. The Lactating Virgin by van Eyck shows Our Lady nursing the baby Jesus. However on closer look the Eucharistic symbolism in the image becomes very visible. The baby Jesus is holding an apple, showing how he is the second Adam. The Virgin is clothed in regal garments, as if an altar, seated on a throne. Williamson says “the lap of the Virgin is presented both as the Throne of Wisdom and as the altar of Christ.” (Williamson, Altarpieces, 352) The mother feeds her Child as we are fed by the Eucharistic feast. Christ first came to us held by the womb of the Virgin Mary, just as now he comes to us held upon the altars of our churches. All of the altar pieces tell of different rich truths of our faith, and especially of the Eucharistic celebration and our sacred liturgies.