A Comment on Icons

From “Saints at a Cultural Crossroads” by Holland Carter (NY Times, 19 November 2009):

We see it in the very last painting in the show, a 1603 oil study for a “Coronation of the Virgin” commissioned by the Hospital of Charity in the town of Illescas. The composition has an iconlike symmetry. The figures, in their expressive abstraction, are as much Byzantine as Mannerist. And the picture scintillates with light, illusionistically painted rather than reflected from gold. Even cherubs tumbling around like kittens can distract from the picture’s nuclear focus: this is an image meant to promote, as music can, time-suspending, space-vivifying contemplation.

Exactly this psycho-sensual dynamic lies at the heart of how icons, as spiritual utensils, function. I wish the exhibition made something of this; had taken, as its third theme, the reality of these objects, not just as historical artifacts illustrating the progress of a culture or a famous career, but also as living and interactive energy sources, designed to embody and radiate charisma.

It sounds like a great show on Domenikos Theotokopoulos (“El Greco”) and other Cretan artists of the Mannerist period. If you’re in New York and have the time, check it out: “The Origins of El Greco: Icon Painting in Venetian Crete” remains at the Onassis Cultural Center, 645 Fifth Avenue, near 52nd Street, through February 27.


  1. I think I’m just going to start referring as a matter of course to ‘the hopeless urbanites, bereft of the light of Christ’! Especially in communications with Bishop Savas!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *