Gold leaf, handmade paper
This piece, based on the original icon by the 15th century Russian icon painter Rublev, is from a collection entitled Protestant Icons. Built, rather than written, with layers of paper, these icons replace the flesh of the saints with pages from an 18th century bible.
Orthodoxy holds that the enfleshed human body is the vehicle through which the mystery of salvation was accomplished. The prominence of icons within this tradition can be understood as an extension of a worldview that places the enfleshment of God, the Incarnation, at the very heart of the Biblical story.
The visual emphasis of Orthodoxy stands in stark contrast to the Protestant emphasis on word revelation as the primary source of God’s truth. Since the Reformation, Protestants have critiqued, often with sabers waving, the practice of venerating Christ and the Saints through icons as a form of idolatry. In the reformed tradition, where the Bible as written word became the domain of the Protestant Imagination, this was translated into a rich literary tradition which, in the words of John Calvin, formed mental images far superior to the “perception of our eyes” (John Calvin, Institutes, xi, 12).
It is telling, and of no coincidence, that the invention of the printing press and the first stirrings of the Protestant Reformation occurred at the same historical points. With this new technology, Reformers were not only able to foster their ideas through a distribution of the story into the vernacular of the people, but were able to re-scope the horizons of theology within the hearing, structuring mind. For many Protestants the idea of a corporeal Christ was replaced by concepts or dogmatic principals in which Jesus is referenced in the abstract as a keystone in a theological formulation. One can speak, for example, of the iconoclastic prohibitions in the Westminster Confession where Protestants are forbidden from even imagining the incarnate Christ, let alone bringing these mental pictures to the canvas. Many of these formulations rejected the corpus verum in favour, of what Hans von Balthasar called an “invisible Christ of faith”.
Of course, the line between icon and idolatry is one that can be crossed in any tradition. The “magical” quality some Protestant traditions assign to the words of scripture comes very close to bibliolatry. This exhibition explores this tension between icon and iconoclasm by re-writing the great icons of Orthodoxy as layers of biblical text and paper.
The full collection of Protestant Icons will be on display at the Heart of the Hammer café in Hamilton, Ontario during the month of May 2010.