I love sacred art, and Eastern Icons hold a particular special place in my heart. I'm no Sister Wendy Beckett at any stretch of my sometimes extremely over active imagination, in fact my art knowledge is so limited, that it equates to being able to tell the difference from Monet and Manet, purely by the first vowel of their names.
Nonetheless, I, like many of us can be deeply blessed as appreciative admirers. In both the East and West we have a deep and rich heritage of sacred art, and yet their paths have developed so very differently. When we look at some of the great works, say of the superb Caravaggio we see the artistic realism and perspective and know what is being presented to us. We immediately recognise what the centrality of the theme is and how everything else leads to that in varying importance. We can know and grasp the understanding and meaning and they stimulate both our senses and passions. Eastern sacred art is quite different, which I will explain, but first a little about the beautiful Icon above.
I'm sure most of us will immediately sense that the above Icon is our Lady of Sorrows, and be very familiar with the seven sorrows that pierced the heart of Our Lady. Perhaps like me, you have spend time reflecting and meditating on her Sorrows, whilst praying through the powerful Scripture passages. For those not quite as familiar her Sorrows begin with the Prophecy of Simeon (Luke 2:34-35); The flight into Egypt (Matt 2:13); The Loss of the Child Jesus in the Temple (Luke 3:43-45); The meeting with her Son on the Way to Calvary (Luke 22: 26); Our Lord's Death on the Cross (John 19:25); 6) Receiving His precious body in her arms. (Matt 27:57-59); And our Lord's body being placed in the Tomb (John 19:40-42)
Yet perhaps we are not quite as familiar with this specific beautiful Icon known by our Orthodox brothers and sisters as the Softener of Evil Hearts. Perhaps we are even less familiar with the heart swelling depth of reverence and beautiful liturgy found in the Akathist to the Mother of God. Below is the beginning of the Akathist, called The Apolytikion.
"Soften our evil hearts, O Theotokos, and quench the attacks of those who hate us and loose all straitness of our soul.
For looking on thy holy icon, we are filled with compunction by thy suffering and loving-kindness for us, and we kiss thy wounds; we are filled with horror for the darts with which we wound thee.
Let us not, O Mother of Compassion, according to the cruelty of our hearts, perish from the cruelty of heart of those near us, for thou art in truth the Softener of Evil Hearts."
The beauty of the Eastern Tradition of Icons lay in the harmony, colour and composition and their very apparent flatness, leads us on into the stillness. Unlike Western art we cannot immediately seize their meaning, so we must allow the meaning to come to us. One needs to disengage the mind, and begin to see with the heart. Holy Icons exert a calming influence, allowing us to stand (or sit) peacefully before them, so that we may be drawn into the stillness and then into contemplation.
It is here that we are freed for a few moments from the worries and concerns of everyday life, and from the materialistic world that surrounds and impacts us all, as we are drawn deeper and higher towards the spiritual world. Perhaps this is why Icons are known as doors to Paradise. And with the Softener of hearts Icon, it is our Mother who leads us deeper in prayer and into contemplation of the divine mysteries of our Lord.
Pax - Caral