Worship makes it possible to engage with an image as an “icon” by expanding the way one looks at a piece of art. Approaching a piece of art worshipfully is precisely what differentiates between viewing something as an idol and as an icon. To only seek surface level enjoyment or beauty from art is to make it an idol and, as Marion states, “the viewer thus maintains a perverse and impotent relationship with the world” (Marion 50), but worship transforms the idol into an icon by inviting a deeper understanding. Not only does the icon encourage a more involved meditation, but it also acts as a mode of communication with God and Christ. “The icon is given not to be seen but to be venerated, because it thus offers its prototype to be seen,” says Marion, showing this clear distinction between iconicity and idolatry (Marion 60); the icon is not meant to be appreciated for its physical trappings, but rather utilized as an interface with God. Through the art one can gaze upon Christ’s literal image while also being gazed back upon through the image. To me this seems to embody Balthasar’s connection between physical and spiritual senses very well while also tying into Gadamer’s message of spending long times meditating on the deeper meaning of art.
When looking at the Ghent Altarpiece, there is a great deal to take in and many components of the piece to meditate upon. Personally, I found the lamb being offered as one of the most striking parts, especially in the revitalized restoration. The wideness of its eyes was startling as it seemed very much alive despite gushing blood from its neck, and somehow so calmly aware. The lamb doesn’t appear to be in a state of frantic panic though it will surely die. Though mine is an untrained eye, it made me think of how Jesus too was aware of his sacrifice and went forth to the crucifixion willingly for the sake of mankind. In this way, I think the Ghent Altarpiece reflects on how icons transcend time and recount moments from the past and make us contemplate our present and remain with us into our futures. This seemingly violent act is striking, but the composition alludes to the necessity and appreciation of the sacrifice. It allows a much deeper gaze into that same moment for Jesus, as if he were the lamb communicating it to you, the viewer, via the altarpiece.
Contemplating the Florentine Frescoes, I was quite fond of the third theory presented by Spike regarding religious formation. I liked the frescoes “[add] to the sense of progression identified by Hood in his analysis of the difference between the novices’ and clerics’ cells and situating the friars’ development within a ritual structure moving from purification to illumination to perfection” because it engages the deeply contemplative nature necessary for a work to be looked at iconically and relates to how one must train their eye to truly appreciate the deeper meaning in art (147). Balthasar’s previous point about attuning the physical and spiritual senses seems abundantly present here especially when discussing the progression of one through the priesthood. In a lifestyle where worship is so deeply ingrained, it seems right that these iconic frescoes model their path and become an integral part of how they worship through practices meditation.
Finally, the Firescreen Madonna is wonderfully iconic by inviting the viewer to come to their own interpretation of the piece through meditation. As Williamson puts it, “it would seem that this openness was built into the image in its production and that the viewer was expected to make leaps of imagination during private meditation on the image and its implications” (Williamson 404). If attitude and intention are indeed the distinction between seeing a piece as an icon rather than an idol, then it is the openness of the Firescreen Madonna that makes it an icon. My individual experience with it can be entirely unique as I interpret the piece and another viewer can meditate and have their own interpretation, but we are both still connected in the worshipful act of meditating on the same piece even if our individual experiences are unique.