Thursday, 22 May 2008

Book Review: Rowan Williams, 'The Dwelling of the Light. Praying with Icons of Christ.'

It is because the uttermost of death and humiliation cannot break the bond between Jesus and the Father that what Jesus touches is touched by the Father too... Because of his relation with the Father, a new relation is made possible between ourselves and this final wellspring of divine life. (p. 41)

This is a beautiful little book. First, it is tastefully set out and illustrated. Second, it provides an excellent guide to four key icons of Jesus. Third, it allows Rowan Williams to explicate a number of theological points, and especially allows him to talk about the point of the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation in terms not reliant on philosophy or esoteric theological knowledge. an example:
And what is true about Jesus is - if we really encounter it in its fullness - shocking, devastating: that his human life is sustained from the depths of God without interruption and without obstacle, that it translates into human terms who and what God the Son eternally is. The shock comes from realizing this means that God's life is compatible with every bit of human life, including the inner terrors of Gethsemane (fear and doubt) and the outer terrors of Calvary (torment and death). (p. 12)
In the introduction he provides a helpful summary of the theology behind the iconoclast controversy that raged in the Orthodox world over a thousand years ago. Indeed, Williams makes the point that the fruit of this debate provides us with the justification for any Christian art and imagery. Essentially, he says that the supporters of icons argued that icons "were actually a natural consequence of the way the God of the Bible worked." (p. xiii) He means here the Incarnation: the opponents thought that depicting Jesus was contrary to Chalcedon by depicting the human Jesus, and thus potentially splitting his divine and human natures; in reply, the proponents of iconography said that icons depicted the human Jesus without separating the natures because the human in Jesus is utterly "soaked through with divine life." (p. xvi)

The four icons he chooses to examine are: the Transfiguration, the Resurrection, the Hospitality of Abraham, and Pantocrator. His discussion of the Transfiguration and the Resurrection are particularly good, although that might just tell you my two favourite icons! It is worth reading his discussion of the first icon, the Transfiguration, for itself, but also because he introduces a number of features common to iconography. Especially important is the mandorla of darker colour representing the depths of God from which Jesus comes and brings with him the depths and power of the creator. The meaning of the icon hinges on this, but it doesn't follow that humanity (Jesus' and ours) and the rest of creation are excluded. This is the whole point of the Incarnation, and the icon of the Transfiguration.

The second icon he examines is the Resurrection:
  • This is not an icon of the resurrection - the resurrection was a 'private' event. This is an icon of the effects of the resurrection.
  • Jesus is in the centre of the icon, and framed by a mandorla

  • The icon is of the victorious Christ standing over the broken down gates of the underworld.

  • The defeated Satan is visible under his feet, and

  • The dead have been liberated, standing behind the main action we see various figures of biblical history

  • In the foreground with Jesus stand Adam and Eve, and Jesus is re-introducing them to one another.
The effect of the resurrection is the liberation of those who have been frozen in death without Christ, and through this a new and revitalised life of reconciliation. But more than this, Jesus has been to the very beginning of human sin and estrangement from each other and God.
'Adam and Eve' stand for wherever it is in the human story that fear and refusal of God began - not a moment we can date in ordinary history, any more than we can date in the history of each one of us where we began to forget God... The icon declares that wherever that lost moment is or was, Christ has been there, to implant the possibility, never destroyed, of another turning, another future; in his resurrection, he brings all those possibilities to reality.(p. 38)
Williams has a good discussion about the need to read all of Scripture through the lens of the resurrection (pp. 33-35) and our re-introduction to one another and all of creation (pp. 30-36)

I could keep going on the next two icons but you get the idea. This is a profound book, well worth reading, and if you have the opportunity, run a session on these icons in your local church.

A quote on the resurrection to finish:

The Christ of this icon, standing on the bridge over darkness and emptiness, moving into the heart of human longing and incompletion, brings into that place the mystery out of which his life streams, represented in the mandorla against which his figure is set. The locked gates of death, the frozen lives cut short, these are overcome in the act of new creation which we are witnessing. (p. 41)


  1. I think he has another book on icons as well.

  2. Yes he does, and I reckon I might do something on it as well. It is about Mary and Jesus I think.