This unit, “The Worshipful Aesthetics of Vision,” has been a breath of fresh air cutting through the staleness of quarantine, where I always find myself turning to the idolatry of social media in an attempt to experience human connection. Reading the works of Marion and Verdon in particular have made me realize that it is through icon, especially in the context of worship, that we can grow socially and spiritually. Christian worship is enhanced by the use of iconic images, such as the Ghent Altarpiece, the Florentine frescoes, and the Madonna altarpieces, which enable believers to better understand God by encouraging contemplation of divine mystery.
The celebration of the Eucharist, a central component of liturgical worship, is illuminated through the iconography of the Ghent Altarpiece. The altarpiece encourages a deeper consideration of the mystery that is the transubstantiation through symbols that are “…made to reinforce…the central theme of Christ’s perennial sacrificial offering of Himself to His father in heaven…” (McNamee 102). As this piece was created during a time period where many did not understand transubstantiation, details such as grapes, the pelican, and the presence of the fallen Adam and Eve make the worshipper aware of Christ’s eternal and saving presence in communion. The bottom half of the altarpiece is perhaps most relatable to the worshipper: in discussing an Italian altarpiece, Verdon states, “When mass was still said before this altarpiece…at the elevation of the host a double image took shape: a real celebrant at the real altar before real worshipers in the real church, and then the same persons…shown in adoration in the painting!” (120). In a similar way, those gathered to celebrate the Eucharist in front of the Ghent Altarpiece would be able to see themselves in the painted worshippers of the bottom half: people who despite their differences are united in joyfully venerating Jesus Christ who is symbolized in the form of a lamb. In sum, while it is in the top half of the Ghent Altarpiece in which we as worshippers encounter divine truth, it is in the bottom half where we learn how to appropriately reflect upon it.
The Florentine frescoes illuminate the scriptural aspect of Christian worship by depicting a multitude of Biblical scenes with origins in the past. In his frescoes, “…Hood argues that Angelico ‘developed methods of representing the inner life of the mind and heart that broke down the barriers separating images from beholders,’ to evoke the memory of the early friars and pour that memory into the lives of the present friars” (Reddaway 134). Angelico achieves this in his Annunciation fresco by both placing this ancient Biblical scene in a setting familiar to the friars, and posturing the angel delivering the good news to Mary in a position the worshipper was supposed to imitate. The rich colors, enthralling settings, and emotional figures within the frescoes would draw the friars into a gaze that pulled them “…simultaneously outside and inside of time: while they seek the testimony of the past and a hope for the future, in reality they walk in the present” (Verdon 125). Living in a place where religious iconography is around every corner, the friars, as well as worshippers who engage in Christian scripture today, are compelled to contemplate the history that shapes Christianity and the subsequent future of salvation that awaits them by viewing these frescoes.
Iconic images such as the Madonna altarpieces may also help enhance the worship of one in devotional prayer in both private settings and during liturgical celebrations. The Madonna altarpieces that we studied both “…[confirm] [the Virgin’s] physical motherhood of Christ and the reality of his incarnation,” as Williamson states regarding the “Virgin and Child with Sts. Jerome and Dominic” altarpiece (385). The “Firescreen Madonna” promotes this idea by portraying Christ as a sacrifice: he is positioned helplessly over a sheet resembling an altar cloth, the fire behind the Madonna alludes to sacrifices made by Old Testament prophets to God, and the former inclusion of his genitals in the painting reemphasize his humanity. As Williamson puts it, “The multiple sacrificial and sacramental references mean that the painting can act as a focus for contemplation of the nature of the Eucharist…” (403). Furthermore, Jesus’ direct gaze with the viewer is striking: Marion states that “…if he demands that I lift my eyes to him, this not at all so that I see him, him only, but so that I might see also and especially the Father…” (57). The combination of Jesus’ helplessness with sacrificial symbolism is made manifest in his gaze that in turn shocks and saddens the worshipper, prompting them to reflect upon Jesus’ eventual death and resurrection upon the cross in personal prayer.
Therefore, iconic images act as physical manifestations of the understanding Christians seek through worship, and in this way promote contemplation of the divine mysteries they depict. In engaging with religious artwork as icon, we are not only forced to ponder our spirituality but also experience the invisible gaze of God.