On the shelf, around the neck

The Museum of Russian Art is in its last week of an exhibit of Russian Orthodox icons, ”Icons: Windows to Heaven.“ The 50-icon exhibit is on loan from the Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, Massachusett. On Saturday I attended a lecture, "Icons and Orthodoxy in the Soviet Union" by Wendy R. Salmond, PhD, Professor of Art History, Chapman University and author of two books on Russian Icons.

Salmond lectured from slides of artwork. One of the paintings she showed was The Sick Husband by Vasily Maksimov, 1881. (I tried to find an online link to this but was unsuccessful). The painting shows a poor peasant woman praying at the bedside of her dying husband. Above the husband is a shelf holding the family’s collection of icons. This was an example of her point that icons were ”a divine witness of human affairs, a reminder that the divine is present in the most secular aspects of life.”

Back to the Rilke book, Stories of God, that I’ve referred to several times on this blog in recent months. “The Song of Justice” is one story in the collection and takes place in the Ukraine. Here are a couple sentences from that story that would be another example of what Salmond was saying.

"In all directions, everything seems limitless. Even the houses are no protection against this immeasurableness; their little windows are full of it. Only in the darkening corners of the rooms the old ikons stand, like milestones of God, and the glint of a tiny light runs over their frames like a lost child through the starry night. These ikons are the only hold, the only reliable sign on the way, and no house can endure without them."

It makes me wonder about the cross around my neck. Would I use such strong words to describe it? A milestone of God in the immeasurableness of life? The only reliable sign on the way? No promise of endurance without it? A divine witness to my life? Of course there are many differences between the icon as a piece of canonical artwork painted according to ancient spiritual practice by an avowed and monastic icon painter and a piece of jewelry I bought in a gift shop but it’s worth wondering, What power does a sacred symbol really hold? Or even, What power does a symbol hold just by virtue of it being a reminder of a higher and divine reality?