The Cathedral was a place where the illiterate peasants would learn of the Divine not through speech, for Mass was said in Latin, and certainly not through reading, but through the images that surrounded them on all sides. The West overthrew that order in the name of Enlightenment, of course – the power of image was replaced with what was to be rational discourse, where men talked to each other and were not talked to by their surroundings.
In the East, the power of image continues to this day. Perhaps it should be looked at as a corrective for us. After all, we yak and yak and yak. Words are piled on top of words because if we say enough things, we might say something that is true and we will have apprehended Truth in that case. Congress’ constant piling of useless law on top of useless law is an extension of this phenomenon. More speculatively, Western art, with its emphasis on literal representation (or even, in the moderns, “form”) seems also to be an attempt to get at Truth through drawing a lot of lines.
An icon has features we would consider strange: gold skies with stylized features of people and things. Form is always distorted for symbol or style. In two dimensions, no one is depicted as moving in a way we would consider real. An icon is depicting sacred space – stories of the saints and the Bible – and thus is really a “window into the divine” (Louise Cowan’s words).
The image, then, is the Truth. Attempts to “hit at” the truth are not what the icon is about. The icon is always perfect. It offers us the clarity and power of belief, of the knowledge that there is something above us. Our attempts should be not to understand, but to be awed, to observe, and then, finally, to listen.