So real they scratched out their eyes

Icons | Courtauld Gallery
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The Courtauld Gallery has secured the loan of 18 superb icons from two very different sources: the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, and the remote and ancient Monastery of St Catherine in the Sinai desert, in Egypt. The eastern European works date from the 11th to the 15th century and so are concurrent with the transition from the medieval to the Renaissance world in western Europe. This occidental story is pretty familiar to us, and is usually told as the triumph of realism, but the narrative in Orthodox Christian Europe is very different, and is one which has far-reaching implications for how we understand visual images today.

The Courtauld Gallery has secured the loan of 18 superb icons from two very different sources: the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, and the remote and ancient Monastery of St Catherine in the Sinai desert, in Egypt. The eastern European works date from the 11th to the 15th century and so are concurrent with the transition from the medieval to the Renaissance world in western Europe. This occidental story is pretty familiar to us, and is usually told as the triumph of realism, but the narrative in Orthodox Christian Europe is very different, and is one which has far-reaching implications for how we understand visual images today.

Whereas in those parts of Europe under Roman Catholic and then Protestant control, we have come to think of images as merely likenesses rather than presences of what we see, in the east of Europe the belief was that the painting (icon means "image" in Greek) actually contained the reality. This smacked of idolatry to the West, and the Reformation made this anxiety even more explicit by often banning visual imagery altogether, insisting that God could only be known through His word. This neutralisation of the power of images has continued into the secular age and is now at the very heart of our response to art.

Anyone who has visited a Russian or Greek Orthodox church will be aware of the consequences of this difference. The dozens of paintings glowing mysteriously in the candle-lit interiors are meant to be venerated. This can take dramatic forms, with the result that many icons become severely damaged as devotees kiss or caress them, or attach votives to their surfaces. Sometimes the damage is of a more malicious kind, as iconoclasts scratch out eyes and other significant features, or tear them from their position in the church. Add to this the more normal wear and tear wrought by candle smoke and incense, and the result is that many icons today are in a sorry state.

In the case of Russian icons, many of which were looted from churches during the Revolution, the ravages of history are carried quite clearly on their surfaces; the wood on which the images are painted is chipped and cracked, the gold leaf is missing in many areas, and the whole work may be blackened with smoke. It is difficult not to read in these surfaces the tragic history of Russia, and this feeling is made even more pronounced when you contrast them with the fantastic icons from St Catherine's. These look as if they have fared much better; and of course they have, sealed off from a changing and progressively more godless age in a monastery deep in the desert.

Nearly all icons are not only anonymously painted but also based on pre-existing prototypes, which in their turn are copies of the archetype - the subject itself. Because of this, it is not considered improper to entrust the repainting of icons to another painter when they are in need of it, and there is clear evidence of this in a particularly striking work in the exhibition - a two-sided icon made for procession. On one side we see a magnificently radiant image of St Sergios and St Bacchos on horseback, while on the other there is the wreck of a painting, a sadly neglected image of the Mother of God.

Such fundamental differences in attitude to images between eastern and western Europe should make it quite disorienting to look at icons, but the presentation in this exhibition goes a long way towards neutralisation. They hang encased in vacuum-sealed containers, looking something like the corpses of aliens put on display and protected from the toxic atmosphere of an atheistic modern age. These sacred objects were the focus of intense worship. This dimension was eternal, and the icon was designed to embody it through its special visual language. But we bring to them now entirely different expectations. We want them to be art, objects of aesthetic contemplation - to be beautiful - and their detached position within the space of the art gallery provides the context within which this transformation can take place.

Am I alone in being nagged by a certain regret? Do we not now respond to images in ways that make them far less powerful than they once were: tame and reasonable and ready, alas, to be commodified?

'Sinai, Byzantium, Russia: Icons at the Courtauld', Courtauld Gallery, WC2 (020 7848 2526), to 4 February, 2001

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