Titlu: Windows to Heaven. Introducing Icons to Protestants and Catholics
Autor: Elizabeth Zelensky & Lela Gilbert
Localitate: Grand Rapids, Michigan
Editura: Brazos Press
Anul apariţiei: 2005
Nr. de pagini: 142
Elizabeth Zelensky and Lela Gilbert have written a book intended to be useful to both Protestant and Catholic believers. As a Protestant and an Eastern European theologian I might have expected some kind of triumphalistic presentation of icons. This commendation is different. I was a little disappointed because Romania, a country with a strong Eastern Orthodox majority and a Latin based language, is not mentioned at all, but you cannot satisfy all readers. However, both the direct message about the advantage of using icons as a means to approach divinity and the subliminal one which revolves around the advantage of being an Eastern Orthodox believer come across quite well.
Understandably the two authors do not want to overwhelm the reader by giving a strong and in-depth theological study of icons, or by exploring the disputes around them. Instead, they prefer to present just five icons and an altarpiece from an Eastern Orthodox Church. The cover gives an immediate definition of icons: windows to heaven.
The book is organised into seven chapters with an interesting introduction and a brief but well-written epilogue. While undermining common prejudices and misconception about icons in western society, the authors take us on a short but stimulating ride through the history, art and geography of Eastern Europe, with particular emphasis on Slavic Orthodoxy. The reader receives an impression similar to that from watching a „Lord of the Rings” movie. Legends, myths and tradition uncover Eastern Orthodox mysticism encapsulated in the icons of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Taking this bird’s-eye view approach, which is what the book has to do, allows things flow smoothly and naturally towards the conclusion, and the authors’ aim of introducing icons to Protestants and Catholics seems to be fairly well realised. Things are made more complex for Protestants and Catholics who spend their whole lives in countries where icons are not seen as windows of this kind.
Windows to Heaven does not distinguish between Protestants and Catholics despite the clear differences between them which most of us are aware of. The book thus cannot be categorised as a classic polemic. It presents one of the major differences between the Eastern Orthodox tradition on the one hand and Protestants and Catholics on the other. Generally it makes many good points in favour of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
The first chapter sets out the basis for the book and tells the reader how, why and where an icon comes into being. It presents salvation in words and images and makes a connection between Christ’s incarnation and the meaning and understanding of icons. As the holy text uncovers the miracle of Jesus Christ’s incarnation, so the holy icons (written by devout iconographers) are a means by which the iconographer and the worshipper participate in the realm of eternity.
The next chapters deal successively with the most representative icons in the Eastern Orthodox Church: those of the Holy Trinity, the Mary Theotokos (mother of God) icon, from the Russian town Vladimir, the icon of the transfiguration of Christ painted by the artist Theophanes, the Dormition of the Virgin and the Sinai Pantocrator. The seventh chapter presents the altar of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Washington D.C. and explains why icons are placed in certain positions in a church.
All the chapters deserve equal attention, but perhaps the second, which presents Andrei Rubliov’s icon of the Holy Trinity, is the most intriguing one for me. Andrei Rubliov, a disciple of one of St Sergius’ disciples, created a unique icon of the Holy Trinity and one which might cause some Protestant and Catholic believers ask questions about the way in which all three of the divine persons are given an angelic, that is winged, representation.
Despite the impossible task of presenting the flavour of Eastern Orthodoxy in a brief description of just a few icons, Zelensky and Gilbert touch a sensitive nerve which might be able to make Protestants and Catholics open up to understand and accept their brothers in Christ despite all dissimilarities over the centuries.
The authors’ use of italics for personal testimony and the description of the icons resemble the storyteller’s small voice whisper in a fairy tail. In conjunction with the colours and the explanation of the Eastern Orthodox tradition this completes the task of a good iconographer: that of writing the above-mentioned icons. This insertion of Eastern Orthodox colour to support Protestant black and white evidence sets out to reformulate rigorous and exact Protestant dogma for the digital era of theology. From an aesthetic point of view this is much better; but are the authors giving us the whole picture about icons introducing us to the Truth beyond any reasonable doubt?
The authors’ use of theological terms (one among the most frequent being „Christ, the second person of the Trinity”) displays a basic non-eastern orthodox understanding quite common among Protestants. From a strict dogmatic point of view statements like „Theotokos …being the first of all creatures” and „Christ is the first born of all creation…” seem rather out of place in Orthodoxy and need clarification. Among other negative aspects of the authors’ discourse are such theologically problematic statements as „the Holy Spirit descended upon the world” instead of upon the church; this would have caused the universe to become one vast church or temple after Pentecost and is clearly a classic case of confusion of categories.
However this lack of academic precision and theological nuance deserve to be forgiven in view of the use of positive, but not aggressive, arguments in favour of icons.
The authors’ commendation of their theme and the quality of reproduction of the five well known Eastern Orthodox icons could persuade some Protestant and Catholic believers to respond. They could open the book, read it and perhaps contemplate an icon or two. Or they could look for other icons. The only question they should ask (from their particular perspective) is whether Elizabeth Zelensky and Lela Gilbert’s book really opens windows to heaven.