Tag Archives: Doors of Perception

Pile #15 “Doors of Perception: Icons and Their Spiritual Significance” by John Baggley

30 Jan

Doors of Perception: Icons and their spiritual significance / John Baggley. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. 1988.  xi, 160p. Includes Bibliographic References and Index.

Worship with the Senses

We Christians of the 20th and 21st century live in a highly visual culture – while relying for the most part on oral and written testimony to learn of, and know God in Jesus Christ mostly through proclamation.  And yet, Christian Faith and Worship is a more than merely verbal and mental, it is a sensual experience: utilizing sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell; through these God-given senses we bring all of ourselves as an offering to the Lord each Sunday when we gather, and ideally in our daily lives when we turn to the Lord in prayer and thanksgiving.

Of all the senses the one most honed throughout most of human history is that of sight (which means it is also the sense most easily debased) To aid this understanding and appropriation of the Spirit, a long and rich tradition of Christian art exists, one that has not always remained in chancel or chapter house. The down side to this is that Western religious art, like academic, scholarly study of the Scriptures has often become divorced from the Faith and Church that such studies and practice were meant to serve.

To See or Not to See, That is the Question…

And yet our contemporary (western) liturgical and devotional forms are in a sense vestiges of a much richer approach to worship  that relies less on a realism so prominent in our Western Christian art and theology, than on expressing the inner spirit in visible form. This alternative to artistic realism is found most readily in the Orthodox (and Coptic) East, and in their primary expression of religious art -the Icon.

Icons are an integral aspect of corporate worship and devotion of the Eastern Church, bringing the Communion of Saints to mind in a highly visible format, as well as teaching the faith without words. They are also a legacy of faith from the undivided Church. My own parish, Our Saviour is privileged to possess no less than three Icons  from different liturgical backgrounds and styles within the Church grounds:  two in the Lady Chapel after the Byzantine fashion and an Ethiopian Icon that hangs in the parish hall.

Sadly, though, they are not often utilized for their proper devotional function. This may have something to do with our lack of understanding of the force, and influence of Icons. Many books exist that introduce Icons for a Western Christian, but most are written for an Eastern audience by Eastern writers, and don’t always address Western concerns. Happily, the parish library once again comes to the rescue, for its shelves hold  the Doors of Perception: Icons and their Spiritual Significance by Fr. John Baggley.

Opening the Doors…

Doors of Perception is a book on Icons written for a Western audience by a Anglican priest (at the time of writing, Fr. Baggley was serving as Team Rector of the Bicester Team of Parishes in Oxfordshire) who is a sympathetic outside observer of Orthodoxy, and published by a venerable American Orthodox publishing house to introduce the discipline, decorum, and devotion of iconodulia -the veneration of holy Icons. It explores the history, theology, and spirituality of Icons for the Western audience, without taking prior experience or knowledge of Orthodoxy or Icons for granted.

Fr. Baggley offers 8 Chapters, an essay on the painting of icons by Richard Temple, a section of color plates with meditations, and two appendixes.  The first 98 pages of text covers the general historical and theological introduction, as well as  the spiritual tradition that surrounds Icons.  The second part, pages 99-105, consists of an essay by Richard Temple of The Temple Gallery, London (which is a centre for the “study, restoration, and exhibition of Icons”, specializing in Russian Icons) about the nature and techniques of Icon painting, and the third section is a collection of 18 Icon plates with provenance  and commentary and meditation.

After the introductory chapter, two chapters deal with a historical overview of the use of Icons, two chapters cover biblical language and imagery, and as well as it’s interpretation, and two chapters cover the Orthodox spirituality (especially the monastic setting) that forms the background for Icon painters (actually most of the book is a primer on Orthodox spirituality as the making, and use of Icons owes so much to this spiritual theology), and the last chapter situates the Icons in their liturgical and devotional context.

For Beginners, and Well-Seasoned Travelers

Fr Baggley does not presume that we know anything about Icons, other than the fact that they are a style of Eastern liturgical and devotional art (if indeed we know that much), so shies away from lots of technical jargon, unless the terms are first explained.

Having myself read a number of earlier books on Icons (including the two volume Theology of the Icon by the late Léonide Ouspensky -my first fora into Icons) I wasn’t expecting to learn many new things about Icons and their use but, found myself pleasantly surprised at the depth of information, as well as the integration of theology and spiritual aesthetics which Fr. Baggley and Mr. Temple offer. I can honestly say that this book has done much to increase my love of the Icon.


 

The next complete Pile  (#16) I am preparing is Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan’s Mary Through the Centuries, which marks a milestone of sorts for me, as it marks the last Amazon Book Review that I submitted way back when I was consumed with climbing the ranks of Amazon reviewers -said fervour has since died down somewhat. I mentioned in a previous Pile that I thought it best to savor Mary Through the Centuries only when placed alongside it’s predecessor, Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the  History of Culture. I have since rethought that position, not least because I have read so many other books in the meantime without returning to Jesus Through the Centuries and now think it best to actually finish the review, so  along with my Select Reading Project of Foreground Reading for additional university degrees, I am putting the finishing touches on Mary. Until then my friends, keep reading, learning, and loving.