The World is full of Icons — buildings, people, and moments:
Icons are a powerful part of everyday reality — our desktops are covered with them.
When people who don’t often go to galleries see a painting, the first question they ask is “What is that supposed to be?” The only answer for any half decent work of art is “a load of stuff.” Things stand for other things, tell stories and enrich the whole picture. You can, of course, always do a Dawkins and say “it's only canvas, wood and paint. There’s nothing else to it ultimately.” Doing that’s stupid, but it explains everything to its own satisfaction, and it's always an option.
Human beings create icons all the time from significant events. King Charles II, after the Battle of Worcester, hid in an oak tree. The actual tree probably fell over years ago, but it birthed various realities, intentionally and unintentionally, including hundreds of pubs, a suburb of Detroit, and a World War II Battleship sinking:
The battleship picture is historically telling rather than photographically accurate, from a Belgian fascist comic (honestly!) of 1939.
The glory of Alton Abbey for me, increasingly, is the great contemporary Icon in the Church, of Christ and the patrons (Our Lady, John the Evangelist and Benedict), written by Dom Anselm Shobrook OSB. I've been getting to know it, year by year, over many years. When I first met it, I was amazed to discover that real icon writing is still alive, with its own language. It draws you into a way of praying that books don’t. Some Christians have banned icons because of their fear about turning them into idols. One answer to something abused is to ban it and accept the impoverishment— another is to learn how to use it properly. The majority view has developed among Christians that if Jesus took real flesh in every way, finding him visually can be as authentic as through the printed word.
This icon centres on the Mystery of the Incarnation — Christ born among us and in us. Saint John the beloved disciple proclaims that love is the medium through which the word comes to us and happens in us. Benedict (with his rule) brings a holding framework of order and stability. His staff represents hard pastoral care, engaging with real need without deception or pretending. The whole vision is literally based on the sequence of four panels along the bottom of the icon, expressing the process of the word coming to Our Lady and Saint John, and being worked out in their lives.
What’s distinctive, though, about this or any real icon, is that the more you pray with it, the more doors it opens. A real icon doesn’t reduce what it’s about, it captures something bigger than itself, and expands it. The more time you give it, the more there is to explore...