Italy’s former Orthodoxy is attested by the ancient icons and Greek icon-style murals and mosaics to be found in many old Latin churches there to this day.  Rome itself has at least one icon said to have been painted by St. Luke the Evangelist (like a few in Orthodox hands, or rather, graced to Orthodox churches and/or persons), called the Hodegetria style meaning the Mother of God holds and points to the Child Jesus, in the famous St. Mary Major (Santa Maria Maggiore in Italian*) basilica, to which ancient miracles are attributed like many icons in Orthodoxy.  Its traditional account is here, but none of the images on that webpage are it.  This page of a scandalized Protestant seems to bear a copy of the icon, as well as a couple links to the University of Dayton (a Catholic school despite the name!).  The icon is nicknamed in Latin Salus Populi Romani, literally “Health of the Roman People” – that’s people in the singular, aka nation or populace – although often rendered “Salvation of the Roman People,” even more scandalously!  Don’t tell him that the icon itself may be what is called that, not just Mary!

In his diocesan newspaper column this week, Philadelphia Catholic Cardinal Justin Rigali notes that after Rome was spared heavy World War 2 damage, this icon was brought out and processed around the streets in thanksgiving.  (Rigali served 24 years in the Vatican curia in Rome. NB: He’s Italian [and Irish] American, not Italian-born.)

As noted on the linked pages, she and it are also called “Our Lady of the Snows,” for the miracle – a 4th century August snowfall – that inspired the construction of the original church on St. Mary Major’s site.

Despite the quote from a very old and prejudiced (iconoclastic) Protestant source, I’m pretty sure most Latin Rite Catholics don’t think of Mary, angels, saints, statues, or icons the same way they think of God, and certainly Orthodox don’t, even if sometimes flowery, devout, theologically imprecise, nonpedantic language is used.

As for iconography itself, Orthodox traditionally have preferred painted icons to statues because statues are incapable of representing the person or scene ‘in Glory,’ that is, radiating God’s Uncreated Energies or Divine Light, like icons do in rays (which is what haloes are, and why they properly surround the head or body, not float above it like the mystical bowl of oatmeal in that old TV commercial!).  If you tried to have a three-dimensional statue with rays, they’d obscure the image itself.

I’m not aware that iconostases – the icon screens that separate the altar area from the rest of an Orthodox church – were ever used in most of Western Europe, though older Episcopal churches at least (speaking of here in the U.S.) preserve the traditional “rood screen” enclosing the altar, from which was sometimes hung the cross (the “rood”) and possibly one or two other things.

Finally, traditional Orthodox icons are heavy in gold coloring, covering not just haloes but also the space surrounding the holy persons depicted.  Some Slavic traditions have incorporated Western influences different from this, including some icons indistinguishable from Western “naturalistic” paintings of holy persons and scenes, with little of the traditional Eastern indication of Uncreated Light.  But the late Fr. Seraphim Rose, a California convert revered by some Orthodox but who is not uncontroversial, counseled against what might be called neo-iconoclasm:

“There is a case (one of many) in which a church had old, original Russian icons—some good and some in rather poor taste, painted in a relatively new {ie, Western} style—and a zealous person took them all out and put in new, paper icon prints in perfect Byzantine style. And what was the result? The people there lost contact with tradition, with the people who gave them Orthodoxy. They removed the original icons which believers had prayed before for centuries.”

At the same time, Greek / Byzantine-style iconography is starting to be seen more among Latins and even Protestants, in what some Orthodox consider a mixed blessing – though I can’t remember why, and can’t find it again on the WWW.

(*–“Major” refers to the church; it’s dedicated to the Theotokos, not to some saint named Mary Major.)

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  1. asimplesinner

    “I’m not aware that iconostases – the icon screens that separate the altar area from the rest of an Orthodox church – were ever used in most of Western Europe, though older Episcopal churches at least (speaking of here in the U.S.) preserve the traditional “rood screen” enclosing the altar, from which was sometimes hung the cross (the “rood”) and possibly one or two other things.”

    As the icon screen does not date to greater antiquity, this is no suprise.

    Iconscreens as we use today are a rather late development. Previously templons were in place that slowly came to be adorned with iconography… They were never found in some Syriac traditions – that used only curtains and do so even to this day.

    It could, I suppose, rightly be said the communion rails served the same function of altar seperation for a long period. Efforts to consider “rood screens” a “proto-icon screen” would, I believe, be misplaced.

  2. asimplesinner

    I am not really certain that your thesis “Italy’s former Orthodoxy is attested by the ancient icons and Greek icon-style murals and mosaics to be found in many old Latin churches there to this day.”

    With all due respect to some of the pious Lukan traditions, I am not sure how the presense of iconography alone attests to Orthodoxy – however much iconography is associated with the Greek tradition (and later Slav) it can’t rightly be said that icon veneration was a total hallmark of orthodoxy before seperation of East, West & Orient. Western traditions and Oriental traditions are largely different and always have been. The Church of the East has no discernable school of iconography, and many understand it to well predate most schools of iconography…

    So it would be more accurate to say these images attest to greater Byzantine influence in Italy – not “Former orthodoxy of Italy” per se.

  3. Leo Peter O'Filon

    Dear asimplesinner,

    Welcome!

    I didn’t know anything about the history of the iconostasis, so thanks for enlightening us. I don’t remember now if I was considering Rood Screens proto-Icon-Screens as such when I wrote it, but you have to admit all that the two have in common – enclosure, imagery, etc.

    I believe I am not alone in considering Byzantine / Balkan / old Slavic Iconography ‘typical,’ in every sense, of o/Orthodoxy. IIUC the reason for holding this has to do with a number of things (in no particular order). First, as I pointed out, “Orthodox” Icons depict the holy persons or scene not as fallen eyes see or saw them, but the eyes of faith, in the Glory of God. Statues are physically hard-pressed to imitate this effect, and Western painting from the Rennaissance and later has largely eschewed it. Second (and perhaps rightly so, in this case), the West has lost all but the most basic, barest Conciliar, Theology of Images, ie, that they’re permissible, that veneration given to them passes to the Ones depicted, that they may help educate the illiterate and the young and all of us, etc. It has no sense that they are, eg, Energetically in touch with the holy persons depicted and ultimately with God Himself (minimally, because the West no longer distinguishes between e/Essence and e/Energies), or even that they are the oft-repeated (among Orthodox) “windows / gateways to heaven.” The West lacks the o/Orthodox consensus that Images are actually necessary (minimally, lest Christ’s Incarnation be implicitly denied), witness the late-20th-century-built or -“renovated” Latin churches without even traditional Western statues or paintings, and with abstract stained glass windows if any at all – as Andrew Greeley complains, just like a ‘plain’ (iconoclastic) Quaker meetinghouse or Congregationalist church! The West rarely uses its “images” during or alongside official liturgical worship, whereas Orthodox incense theirs during certain services, light candles in front of them before Liturgy, kiss them before and/or after Liturgy, etc. Some Western Catholics may be seen praying before statues in their churches before Mass or after Confession, otherwise they are used during less-official public and private devotions in or from church or at home (as with Orthodox icons). Having a statue or painting there may well be considered a way of honoring the holy person depicted, but that’s about all as far as official use goes. The West has very little sense that its church imagery represents the joining of its worship with that and those in heaven; mostly I can say it’s treated as decoration, and little more. After writing all this I’m conscious that I may be describing Western Catholicism in the Northern-European-inhabited world, and mostly in my own lifetime. Other parts of the RCC may still be more sentimental about their statues and paintings, and perhaps even more meaningful; but at least officially in the RCC there as everywhere, it lacks the theological integrity and ascetic dispassion that are o/Orthodox ideals.

    Historically, certainly, the Byzantine / Balkan world was not always universally devoted to its icons; hence the Iconoclastic Controversy. But leaving aside the t/Traditions of Lukan and other-Apostolic-Era and similar authorship, even the apparent ages of some of the icons, say, at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai – AD 500s – impress. Does all o/Orthodox iconography have to be “Byzantine”? I presume not, just like the Orthodox Churches outside Byzantium didn’t always worship according to the Byzantine Rite. IMNSHO it’s hard for Western Rites and old Orthodox Western non-“Byzantine” mural art to compete with the Byzantine, but that’s probably just me! 😉 For the record, I certainly believe that evangelization of Westerners needs to plumb the depths of historic Western Orthodoxy, humbly corrected and improved by the living, continuous Orthodoxy on which we will depend for such evangelization. I don’t pre-judge what the Orthodox West will look or sound (or smell!) like a thousand years from now. But certainly the Byzantine is the vehicle which has protected and nurtured Orthodoxy and brought it to the present and to the West (again); God knows we don’t need another archaizing Rennaissance, even this time of unimproved first-millennium Western Orthodoxy, closed-off from living, continuous Orthodoxy to the East.

    I know little about the Oriental Churches’ art, but – and not to pick you to death with trivia! – I did read a few years ago about the Assyrian “pagoda” in China from 700-1,200 years ago (I forget exactly) that contained what even the author didn’t realize was a large relief icon, that is, a raised two-dimensional carving, so to speak, of a holy scene. It was described in the book The Jesus Sutras.

    Anyway, thanks for your comments! And speaking of icons, I hope you had a blessed Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy!

  4. asimplesinner

    I believe I am not alone in considering Byzantine / Balkan / old Slavic Iconography ‘typical,’ in every sense, of o/Orthodoxy.

    On this matter you are certainly not alone. I don’t think you are with total consensus though either Peter. Churches maintianing ritual praxis of equal or greater antiquity – praxis at one point deemed fully orthodox – simply did not develop in the same fashion as what is found among Greco-Slavonic Christians today. The Assyrians are without a distinctive school of iconography today, and certain of the Syriac (Orientals) are similarly lacking. Those that aren’t lacking, can’t always be understood to share in exactly correspondant theologies.

    First, as I pointed out, “Orthodox” Icons depict the holy persons or scene not as fallen eyes see or saw them, but the eyes of faith, in the Glory of God.

    And your argument rings true in defense or explination of these images and pieties from a Greco-Slavonic standpoint. It is accurate and right to say they are wholly orthodox, but I would say they are not Orthodox wholly.

    Statues are physically hard-pressed to imitate this effect, and Western painting from the Rennaissance and later has largely eschewed it. Second (and perhaps rightly so, in this case), the West has lost all but the most basic, barest Conciliar, Theology of Images, ie, that they’re permissible, that veneration given to them passes to the Ones depicted, that they may help educate the illiterate and the young and all of us, etc.

    The west has largely allowed some of the Byzantine forms to fall into disuse, in some places. In other places great interest has been evinced. As Joyce said of the Catholic Church “Here comes everyone” The notion that “The West” is a monolithic singular place… Well having studied for the priesthood with a religious order, I think you can appreciate there is much diversity there.

    It has no sense that they are, eg, Energetically in touch with the holy persons depicted and ultimately with God Himself (minimally, because the West no longer distinguishes between e/Essence and e/Energies), or even that they are the oft-repeated (among Orthodox) “windows / gateways to heaven.” The West lacks the o/Orthodox consensus that Images are actually necessary (minimally, lest Christ’s Incarnation be implicitly denied),

    The same or similar arguments might be made against some of the non-Byzantine Easterners whose patrimony is as ancient or more so than current Byzantine forms and praxis.

    The strong and abiding Eucharistic devotion and theologies rather preclude a true loss of the Incarnation being denied. Rather simply, there is more than one approach to safeguarding this truth.

    witness the late-20th-century-built or -”renovated” Latin churches without even traditional Western statues or paintings, and with abstract stained glass windows if any at all – as Andrew Greeley complains, just like a ‘plain’ (iconoclastic) Quaker meetinghouse or Congregationalist church! The West rarely uses its “images” during or alongside official liturgical worship, whereas Orthodox incense theirs during certain services, light candles in front of them before Liturgy, kiss them before and/or after Liturgy, etc.

    I don’t know why you put “images” in quotes. They are images all the same – just not Byzantine icons. Your litmus test as to the course and types of veneration practiced seemed arbitrarily self-serving in that they favor a Byzantine approach… Just because western liturgies did not in the same or correspondant fashion enshrine and canonize image veneration in liturgy or types of veneration common to Greco-Slavonic Christians (in the same way the Church of the East did NOT) again really speaks not to a lacking theology, but the fact they are not Byzantines.

    Some Western Catholics may be seen praying before statues in their churches before Mass or after Confession, otherwise they are used during less-official public and private devotions in or from church or at home (as with Orthodox icons). Having a statue or painting there may well be considered a way of honoring the holy person depicted, but that’s about all as far as official use goes.

    And again, that is a ritual difference. But the Church in its antiquity allowed for the development of manifold orthodox approaches.

    Essentially what the West lacks in “Byzantineness” but is that a case for its lack of orthodoxy?

  5. Leo Peter O'Filon

    Dear Sinner,

    (Better late than never, eh?)

    Christ is Risen!

    You raise an interesting question, one we probably won’t resolve merely between ourselves(!): where o/Orthodoxy is to be found in time and/or space. Obviously as an enthusiastic convert to what is commonly referred to as The Orthodox Church, I believe o/Orthodoxy’s home is and always has been here, whatever virtues other churches might possess. As a Greek Catholic (that is, a person of a religious tradition with roots in Constantinople New Rome, but in communion with Old Rome), you seem to be asserting that o/Orthodoxy may also be found, at least, in the Byzantine and non-Byzantine traditions in communion with Rome, ie, Latin, Armenian, Syriac / Indian, Assyrian / Chaldean, and Alexandrian / Coptic / Ethiopian, especially in their ancient traditions from when they were still in communion with The Orthodox Church (for purposes of the current discussion at least).

    Without prejudice to certain ongoing theological dialogues, I believe the following reflects o/Orthodox teaching and Tradition, “that which was believed at all times, in all places, by all.” Orthodoxy is a living Tradition. We’re known for a certain ‘conservatism’ and for citing the antiquity of our most important practices and word-choices. We do this not because we are “backward” or “pre-modern,” antiquarians or archeologists, but because the Saints among us have experienced that they are correct and helpful on the Path of Repentance, Purification, Illumination, and Glorification (Theosis or divinization), ie, for Salvation. We also consider that The Church is and must be visible, generally knowable. Those who say, “We know where the Spirit is, but we don’t know where He is not” — He is “everywhere present, filling all things”!! But The Church is not yet everywhere, the Body of Christ, the Spirit’s proper home so to speak, now as for 33 years, a couple millennia ago. And we consider Communion with the Orthodox Church necessary, if not sufficient, for Orthodox correction and guidance on that Path. Certainly in the End many with the name Orthodox may be lost, but being separated from the Orthodox Church is an additional risk. Without its correction and guidance, literally who’s to say about the evolved practices and formulae of non-Orthodox churches?

    As for their ancient practices and formulae, I think it’s fair to say that between icons and no icons, statues, or other kinds of religious or liturgical / ecclesiastical imagery,* between iconostases and rood screens and altar rails and nothing – “pseudomorphosis” aside – for many centuries of experience before the 20th, the Orthodox Church had spoken. There have been numerous schools of iconography in Orthodoxy; numerous kinds of iconostases in fully-adorned temples, from barely-there to complete walls where the altar is practically another room; numerous styles of architecture with theological and liturgical significance; several usages of the Byzantine Rite; more than one Traditional Typikon; many styles of music; etc. As you say the West is not a monolith, neither is Orthodoxy! And in the last hundred years, Orthodoxy has even been looking with some favor – not without internal controversy – upon more than one approach to Western Rite Orthodoxy and to incarnation of Orthodoxy among Westerners. Whether Orthodoxy could recommend practices and formulae it has Traditionally believed associated with doctrinal error and/or schism from The Church, even from times before such error or schism were discerned, I cannot say. The Middle Eastern Orthodox (Ephesian, Chalcedonian) Patriarchates did not “Byzantinize” immediately after their brethren separated, but continued to observe their Traditional rites and practices, and only gradually adopted versions of those of Constantinople. Latin expatriate parishes in Constantinople under the omophorion of the local Ruling Hierarch, the Ecumenical Patriarch, operated all the way up to the eve of the 1054 split, and even after the 1066 Norman Invasion of England, English Orthodox refugees had at least one parish there (though what Rite it used I do not know). Whether these more recent traditions within the living Tradition of The Orthodox Church, even more than the ancient ones you mentioned, commend these usages today or for the future, I cannot say.

    But I don’t think ancientness by itself can be considered automatically or presumptively o/Orthodox, at least for Orthodox use today. As I said, we aren’t in the first place antiquarians. One way to look at the question would be to say that if it was good enough for the Undivided Church, it’s good enough for us. Another would be to wonder whether this or that or these or those differences from the historical, continuous, living Tradition of The Orthodox Church contributed to non-Orthodox becoming non-Orthodox. Certain Orthodox are t/Traditionally “sticklers” on practices and formulae because Orthodox consider everything in the Faith interrelated: pull one out and it may become like the loose thread that unraveled the whole sweater. Rome has made its peace with Eastern traditions, at least as it has found them since Uniatism began in the 1600s (though not without alleged bouts of Latinization) — and vice versa. But as Orthodoxy does not (yet) consider Rome itself o/Orthodox, we can’t say the same.

    Long story short, the fact that Orthodoxy for a thousand years or so was exclusively “Byzantine” may – or may not – be an accident of history. Whether non-Byzantine Orthodoxy has a future beyond the theoretical, we can’t say at this time.

    (*–Sorry, I don’t remember why I put images in quotes. Maybe in recognition that not all Western Church images are two-dimensional, the common understanding of the English word today.)

  6. Vicky Kindla

    Good Post. Thank you.

  1. 1 Orthodox Iconography in Italy

    […] sufi786 wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptItaly’s former Orthodoxy is attested by the ancient icons and Greek icon-style murals and mosaics to be found in many old Latin churches there to this day. Rome itself has at least one icon said to have been painted by St. … […]




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