Don Lemon's essay
Icons for Mennonites is a fine account of his understanding of key icons in the Orthodox Church, but I am left puzzled as to what any of what he says has to do with Mennonites, or rather with Anabaptist theology and worship. Other than in the title and in the last sentence there is no connection made to Mennonites. Is Don Lemons suggesting that Mennonites should start incorporating icons into their worship spaces? His reason as stated in his concluding words is more mystifying than it is clarifying. Within the past two decades at least, many Mennonite congregations have included imagery in their worship spaces and services, some of which might deserve the word
art in the case of commissions from Mennonite artists who work with integrity. What we do need to discuss and critique is our current, largely unchecked indulgence in visual stimuli, a symptom of which is this fascination with Orthodox icons. What we need to discuss is the necessity - now that we have allowed
art in - to encourage a form of visual art that has grown from an Anabaptist/Mennonite faith experience, and along with that we have the responsibility to teach visual literacy, involving judgments of quality and authenticity, at the same level at which we have taught and are upholding musical literacy.
Why this sudden infatuation on the part of Mennonite Church USA administrators and editors with Orthodox icons and icon
writers? How can one explain this phenomenon? Is it a spill-over of a much broader trend in American mass marketing of religious
kitsch that also accommodates a taste - on the part of the somewhat more sophisticated consumer - for the slightly
exotic look of an Orthodox icon? Is there such insecurity as to who we are that we need to decorate ourselves with
For example, upon opening the website of the Mennonite Church USA's Executive Board Office of Congregational Life one sees Andrey Rublyov's icon known as The Old Testament Trinity (Three Angels Visiting Abraham), painted some time between 1410-20 with tempera on panel which measures 55 ½ inches by 44 ½ inches. The icon on this website remains however unidentified in terms of artist, date and cultural context. Today Rublyov's icon hangs in Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery, and countless copies exist, either in monumental scale as frescoes in apses of Orthodox Churches or reproduced in smaller sizes on wood. The purpose of this image is to represent the dogma of the Trinity. I learned that Anabaptist theology is not dogmatic. If there needs to be an image to symbolize the mission of a Mennonite Church office, why not an image that is authentically Mennonite in terms of author and subject? Why do we need to borrow images from another faith, another culture and pre-Reformation era when Rembrandt. for example, has produced a vast body of deeply moving - that is, spiritual - Old and New Testament images that capture the essence of Protestant discernment of the Word of God and the teaching of Jesus?
This same icon, that is, a small reproduction of Rublyov's Trinity, was set up by that same Office of Congregational Life as a worship focus on a table surrounded by candles and gold-colored fabric on June 27 and 28, 2003, at the occasion of morning devotions for the conference on
Ritual in Anabaptist Communities. Since when is an altar and the veneration of a Russian Orthodox icon central in Anabaptist worship? If we want to add visual imagery to enhance our worship experience, why not show works by today's Mennonite artists, many of whom have created religious images which reflect Anabaptist prophetic imagination, images which inspire contemplation and prayer, but also images which are calls for peacemaking and social and economic justice, for implementing the Kingdom here on this earth.
Then there is the
Anabaptist Icons Site of the MC USA Historical Committee. Non-Mennonites who might open these sites in order to learn something about Anabaptism must be mightily confused. At least I am, and I have been a Mennonite for almost half a century now. It is beyond my understanding why Jan Luyken's etching of the Dirk Willems story needs to be re-fashioned into an
icon in order to attract a market of Mennonites. Why not sell reproductions or restrikes of this print? Restrikes of a selection of Luyken's Martyr's Mirror etchings were successfully sold to raise funds for Kauffman Museum's Mirror of the Martyrs traveling exhibition project, under the direction of Robert S. Kreider. But there must be enough Mennonites who want something to show when they spend money for art, they want
gold, and a sizeable work that will show up on their living-room wall. Why could the MC USA Historical Committee not invite Mennonite artists to submit works in a print medium (to allow for an edition of multiples, each of which constitutes an original work) that would address or illustrate core tenets of Anabaptist belief or significant moments in Anabaptist history, a history that is not exclusively situated in 16th century Northern Europe? And whose heros include women as well as men? (The website lists only men as subjects for projected portrait icons.) Such a work or works would have the authenticity and integrity that is lacking in the Dirk Willems
The iconographer altered Jan Luyken's rendering of the story considerably. He cropped the composition by two figures and a tree to the right, and the format is now vertical instead of horizontal. The dramatic rescue scene is framed within a round arch whose spandrels (corners) are filled with the sun and the moon respectively, thus lending cosmic scope to the story. In Christian iconography, the sun is symbolic of Christ (Malachi 4:21)
But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings. The occurrence of the sun and the moon together in one image is often seen in scenes of the Crucifixion to indicate the sorrow of all creation at the death of Christ. (George Ferguson, 1966:45). Thus the iconographer suggests perhaps that Dirk Willems' martyrdom and his forgiveness of his persecutors is Christ-like. I do not object to what the iconographer has done with Jan Luyken's original conception of the story. But I question the validity of the MC USA Historical Committee's leadership caving in to the Grabers' business enterprise of exoticised religious art, without processing this idea first with its committee members and wider constituency. The cost is loss of integrity and authenticity. Furthermore, the creation of icons is not
one of the world's oldest artistic traditions, as the website claims. The known history of art reaches back to at least 35,000 BCE. From that vantage point, the creation of icons in the Christian/Byzantine context is a fairly recent phenomenon.
Lest anyone thinks I do not like icons, I do. I teach Byzantine art. I take my classes to Orthodox churches, including St. George's in Wichita. My students chafe under the task of learning to pronounce, spell, and explain
Anastasis. I have lit candles in Orthodox churches in France, Russia, and Hungary. And I can join Don Lemons and Robert Rhodes, and Marlene Kropf and John Sharp and unpack my icons in public. In our living room stands an authentic icon of the Pantocrator, painted in the finest tempera medium on a gesso ground that covers a one-inch thick wooden board, a gift from Russian friends in Tula who had found it while scouring the ruins of village churches in the countryside in search of religious relics during the years of perestroika, just prior to the fall of the Soviet Union. Over my desk I fastened an image of the Madonna as Queen of Heaven, an intercessory prayer printed on the back in Kinyarwanda, a picture I discovered in a heap of rubble in a destroyed pharmaceutical laboratory in Rwanda, after the 1994 genocide. I treasure these objects, and others like it, because they embody significant memories and friendships across political and religious boundaries. I understand their historical and theological meaning. But these are not works of art that would serve as a catalyst for understanding Christ's redemptive message as does, for example, Rembrandt's painting The Prodigal Son (in the collection of the Hermitage), a painting our Sunday School class has now discussed for several Sundays as we try to understand Christ's parable. The work of icons of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the work of great paintings such as Rembrandt's - or those of today's Rembrandts - is of equal importance in affecting encounters with the Spiritual. But we must remain mindful that they represent two very different visual traditions or languages, rooted in different understandings of what it means to follow Christ.