Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Book Recommendation: Festal Icons by Aidan Hart

Festal Icons by Aidan Hart is a beautifully produced book, richly illustrated and well thought-out. It contains descriptions of the 12 Great Feasts of the Byzantine liturgical year, together with Great and Holy Friday, and the Resurrection for a total of 14. In discussing these feasts and their icons, Hart writes in a clear and easily readable style, even when dealing with difficult theological concepts. This book is recommended as much for readers who worship in the Roman Rite as it is for those from the Byzantine Rite churches. It is available on Amazon, here and on Aidan Hart's site here

In each case, he describes why the feast is celebrated, the history of its celebration, and then the history of its iconographic representation. I am not aware of another book that does so in such detail. In doing so, he draws on the writings of the Fathers and the Ecumenical Councils, the words of the hymns of the feast (primarily the Troparion and Kontakion), and the Scriptural readings for the day. In the final part of each chapter, he draws all of this together with a detailed explanation of the content of the icon as it is most commonly represented today. Contained within the descriptions of the theology associated with the celebration of each feast are many of the basic principles of the Faith. We learn through this book, therefore, the principles themselves and their basis in Scripture and apostolic teaching, together with the visual vocabulary by which they are communicated in imagery.

In order to help us understand this dialogue of image and word, Hart devotes the first chapter, The Icon Tradition East and West: History and Renewal, to a description of the general development of the iconographic form. I have read many overviews of the iconographic tradition, but this was especially interesting for its focus on the development of style over time. He takes us from the starting point of pagan Roman art, and then recounts changes that occurred subsequently due to the influence of various regional artistic styles as Christianity spread. In order to illustrate the general principles by which change can occur over time once Christianity is established, he focuses on the story of the particular development of the Western variants of iconography in the British Isles through to the 13th century.

Hart lives and works in England, and the style of his own work, of which there are many wonderful examples shown in the book, is a contemporary development that picks up and continues that line of British iconography. This work of Hart and other contemporary iconographers constitutes the renewal referred to in the title of the chapter.

Through this he demonstrates the wide variety of styles that are nevertheless authentically iconographic, and therefore have more in common with each other than non-iconographic styles such as the Gothic or the Baroque.

Furthermore, to a degree that I have not seen before in any book describing such themes, the focus is not primarily on the understanding of theological concepts or even of an artistic vocabulary, rather it is liturgical. As Hart puts it in the Introduction:
The profound meaning of festal icons is to be found not primarily in a book, but in living the Church’s liturgical life in the beauty and holiness and desire for God.
In each case, he directs us to apply what we read by participating in the feast itself through the liturgy. He explains how those feasts form a coherent whole so that each celebration simultaneously builds upon and directs us to consider every other, while leading us to the still center, the portal of Pascha - Easter. To the degree that we pass through that portal, where heaven and earth meet in Christ, it deepens our capacity to worship the Father, through the Son in the Spirit, with an ultimate end of loving union with God, and partaking of the divine nature. This is the path of a joyful life and it is this path that Hart is encouraging us to take.

This book is recommended to those of the Roman Rite for a number of reasons. Firstly, many of these feasts are celebrated in the Roman Rite too, and regardless of the style of art used, the content of these festal icons can be used in paintings intended for Roman Catholic churches. Second, the logic that underlies the symbolism of this content can be extended to paintings for feasts that are unique to the Roman Rite, and so further enrich our artistic heritage. This is desirable because, since the Baroque period in the 16th-17th centuries, the Roman Church has lost many of the fundamentals that connect theology and our liturgy to art, and the study of this book could help re-establish an authentic culture of faith that might re-establish that connection.

I attach some photographs, the majority are from the 40-page chapter on the Nativity of the Lord.

My intention is to do occasional features on these feasts as they occur through the upcoming year based upon the contents of this book.

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