Matthew had a good post on his experience of the Icons of Sinai exhibit. I, too, enjoyed this exhibition. The second time I went, I took the Exhibition Tour, which begins at 3 p.m. daily. That gave me some context in the composition of the icons, though the meaning of the images themselves is accessible only with knowledge of the Bible and hagiography, the latter of which I don’t have much background in.

One icon I particularly found interesting and which was more palatable to my evangelical tastes was one of Moses near the sanctuary doors. The curators of the exhibition created a space that mimics the space of the actual church from which the icons came in Egypt. Just inside the “doors” of the church, a quite young Moses is depicted both receiving the Law from the hand of God and removing his sandals in front of the burning bush. Sadly, I couldn’t find an image on the exhibition’s excellent website, but one might still wonder why the artist would put these two anachronistic events in one painting.

Here is my rough interpretation: the artist wants the church-goer to reflect on how his experience imitates that of the life of Moses. The fact of being in the church, looking at the nave, into which only the priest can go because of its holiness, reminds the believer that he is in the presence of God, just like Moses before the burning bush. During the liturgy the believer also experiences the Law of God from the reading of the Scriptures that take place during the Orthodoxy liturgy. Since I’m not Orthodox, perhaps I err in my understanding of the attitude of the churchgoer, but I suspect that the experience is analogous in any liturgical church.

Matthew wrote that he is suspicious of the use of icons in prayer. I share his suspicion, but I also think that Protestants will find the icons useful for remembering great saints of the past and their devotion to God. We should look to those images as a useful way of getting the goodness, truth, and beauty of those stories into our souls.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

One Comment

  1. Thanks for your thoughts, Andrew.

    I went to see the exhibit yesterday with some Wheatstone friends and I’d like to share the story of a brief interaction between the tour guide and one of the crowd that simply made my day.

    By way of preface, I went with a group of evangelical protestants. I count myself among their number, and yet, as you know, my education at Biola and my ongoing investigations into the big questions of life, knowledge, theology, salvation, and sanctification have effected a significant change in my worldview such that I find I resonate strongly a Roman Catholic on issues of how structured I like a church service to be, how important I think images are, etc. Partly because opposition is needed to carry on a good conversation, and partly because I wanted to test some of the insights I’ve been exposed to recently, I spent most of the day arguing with my friends about the veneration of Mary, the proper way to depict Christ in art (whether humbly, as a man, or strongly, as God, or neither, or both at the same time, or both at different times, or something else) and in a variaty of ways making myself seem in their eyes like a hyper-catholic, far-too-liberal-yet-far-too-conservative madman.

    Now, our admirably eloquent and confident tour guide was about 20% into the tour, pointing out how the icons came to be at St. Catherines, how they were preserved, how old they are, etc. etc., when she said, “Catherine died protecting these images, which were very important in the worship of the saints.”

    I turned to those with whom I had just concluded an hours long debate about whether or not the saints can even hear us let alone whether we should pray to them, or talk to them asking them to pray for us. I had tried to dispel the notion that the saints ought to be “worshipped”, and here the tour guide had undone all my exerted breath. My friends nodded knowingly and I just shook my head.

    Then an old lady in the front leaned forward conspiritorily and said to the tour guide, “‘Venerate,’ honey. The word is ‘venerate.’ ‘Worship’ is for Jesus.”

    The tour guide thanked the lady, saying, “I group up Episcopalian, so this is all new to me!” and she corrected herself several times as she finished out the tour. I turned back to my friends and nodded knowingly.

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