Friday, July 18, 2014

Book Review: Tales of Glory, the Stories Icons Tell

Tales of Glory: The Stories Icons Tell.  Matthew W. Gaul, Phoenix, AZ: Leonine Publishers, 2013. 176 pp.

On July 15th, the Ukrainian Church celebrated the feast of St. Volodymir, Equal-to-the-Apostles, and on that day I told my daughters the well known legend of how the saint decided what religion to establish among the Rus'.  Having sent emissaries to various monotheistic religions, St. Volodymir heard the reports from each.  It was the emissaries returning from Constantinople, in the end, who carried the day.  They declared:
The Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendour or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty. Every man, after tasting something sweet, is afterward unwilling to accept that which is bitter, and therefore we cannot dwell longer here.
The author of this book, Tales of Glory, had a similar experience when he walked into the the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church of St. Nicholas in Watervliet, NY.
St. Nicholas Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church
Watervliet, NY
 Mr. Gaul describes his experience in the preface to this unique book:
When I first arrived at St. Nicholas, I felt hesitant and even unworthy, for the presence of God was so obvious that I almost did not know how to handle it.  It was an honor simply to be let in the door....The overwhelming glory of the Lord shines forth in the beauty of the chant and icons, in the passionate language of the texts, and in the humble reverence of the kisses and prostrations.
Having had such a profound experience, Mr. Gaul wrote this book as a way to make that experience accessible to others.  In Tales of Glory, he takes the reader through a visual tour of St. Nicholas Church.  The book is laid out according to the structure of the parish.  Chapter one offers a consideration of the vault and the sanctuary, chapter two the iconostasis, then the side shrines, the feasts and scenes depicted along the sides of the vault, and at last a considerations of the icons on the walls of the nave.  As the reader pages through this treasure, he is given a little taste of that glory that converted the Rus' and astounded Mr. Gaul and many a visitor since.

Fundamentally, this book is an evangelical book.  The reader is offered vibrant pictures of each icon in the Church, and then the author adorns these pictures with the liturgical chant that surrounds them during the Liturgy celebrated within that temple.  Thus, whenever an icon is discussed, Mr. Gaul offers us a sidebar with an appropriate liturgical text, so that we march not only through the physical space of the Byzantine temple, but also are carried through the time of the liturgical year.
This page depicts the evangelists Matthew and Mark, with the side bar noting their respective feast days and quoting the Troparion for each saint. 
 Mr. Gaul also takes the time to explain, where applicable, the reason for the placement of the given icons.  Thus, for the evangelists, he offers:
Although the Church has a vault ceiling, the images of the evangelists are painted where the pendentives would be in a domed church.  Architecturally, the pendentives hold up the weight of the dome, and thus the placement of the evangelists reminds us that they support the weight of the Church.
Throughout the book, Mr. Gaul also offers other aids to the reader, so as to enable us to better enter into the spirituality of these icons.  At the beginning of each chapter, he offers us a picture of the part of the Church in question, and then offers a patristic quote to help frame our meditations. For example, the following page on the iconostasis introduces Pseudo-Dionysius' writing from The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy. Like Pseudo-Dionysius, the reader is invited to penetrate the meaning of the veiled symbol, the revealing screen, so as to comprehend the invisible mysteries.

  At the end of the book, the author includes an index of feasts so that one may read this book in the order of the liturgical year.  As the appropriate feast arises, one can flip to the back of the book and discover what images to contemplate throughout the year.  Also included is a helpful glossary for readers who may not be familiar with some of the technical words of the Eastern tradition.  Combined with the helpful guidance Mr. Gaul offers the reader in interpreting the actual icons themselves and his translation notes which invite the reader to delight with him in the vibrancy of the liturgical language, the book is both easy to use and a beautiful introduction to the liturgical use of icons in the Byzantine tradition.  For those who would like a more thorough preview, you can look at these sample pages.  

One thing to be kept in mind, however, is the goal of the book.  It is an evangelical work, written by an amateur in the truest since of the word.  Mr. Gaul is an amateur, that is, one motivated by love and not by profession or profit.  He wishes the reader to enter into his love affair with the Byzantine icons and their liturgical use.  As a result, readers hoping to find detailed considerations proper to art historians or experts in the development and theology of the icon should look elsewhere. And while Mr. Gaul will occasionally reference particular theological questions: donations for sacred art in relation to charity for the poor, the role of glossalia in the Church, etc. readers will be disappointed if they expect adequate treatment of those debates.

If instead, however, a reader wants crisp images of lovely parish icons arranged according to a liturgical devotional order in an attempt to recreate the wondrous experience of attending a Byzantine liturgy in a well-adorned temple, all well bound and capable of serving as an elegant coffee-table book, than look no further.  And perhaps, as is Mr. Gaul's hope, Tales of Glory will rise from your coffee table and become an evangelical invitation to both the already converted and those still awaiting the Gospel, to breath that incense filled air of Eastern spirituality, and to ascend through the images of grace, on a journey to the Word that all icons speak.

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