Monday, February 8, 2010
From time to time, certain words and phrases emerge in our media age and catch on, almost like hit songs on the pop charts or the latest ninety second video on YouTube. Once obscure, coming from a more scholarly or literary source, the single word goes viral. It catches on in print and on the air with an aura of sophistication, as though the writer or speaker is documenting in the narrative that he or she has indeed been matriculated in some elite graduate school.
An example emerged way back when G. W. Bush ran for his first term as President. Everyone asked, “Yes, but does he possess the gravitas to be the President?” I tried to uncover who was the first to use this high sounding noun: gravitas. I never did identify the source. Back then, it was a new word to most of us. Not even my spell check would recognize “gravitas.” But that has all changed. It became a standard line. Gravitas emerged a primary qualification for high office. (Definition: seriousness, dignity) My electronic dictionary soon included it, thanks to an Internet update to my software.
These days, the word “icon” has achieved similar status. We tuned in to the Grammy Awards the other night, and I heard the word repeated again and again to describe musicians who achieved “iconic” status. He is an “icon.” They even had a segment called “Salute to Icons.” But what is an icon?
Yes, thanks to WYSIWYG computing, we all know what an icon is. We click on it to open a program or a folder or a file. Every day. What would we do without icons?
Simply stated, an icon is a symbol.
But before Bill Gates borrowed the term for his new graphical interface, it had a much broader meaning. In fact, icons are largely responsible for the first major church split – East and West went their separate ways. The resulting mega-factions of the emerging religion called Christianity: Eastern Orthodoxy and the Roman Catholic Church. Icons were central to the debate that never got resolved between the two. Rome had their statuary. Constantinople had their icons. Never the twain shall meet.
At the entrance of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (the old Constantinople) is the oldest extant image, a mosaic fresco, of Jesus Christ. It stems from the Constantine era, at a time when it was an extreme controversy to attempt to reproduce an likeness of the Son of God. Not only was it an exercise in speculation, fraught with the danger of misrepresentation, but many considered such a portrait to be a blatant violation of the Commandments handed down to Moses on Sinai; specifically, the prohibition against idolatry. Icons were doubly offensive because, as was the custom in the ancient city, they were gilded in pure gold. Theologians argued long and hard over the question. Some postulated that the image was a simple aid to worship, and since it was a representation of Jesus, it was certainly not an “other god.” But that did not satisfy horrified critics. Idolatry was forbidden in any form. Pure and simple.
The Eastern Church went back and forth on the question. Some bishops accepted the proliferation of “icons” as fine art and objects of adoration, reminders of the saints who had gone before and modeled purity and piety. But others wagged and clucked their tongues and warned of harsh judgment. It was the “iconoclastic controversy.”
The Eastern Church eventually accepted icons as an essential part of community life. In the absence of written books, biblical stories would be preserved and told in a series of iconic imagery. Heroes of the faith would be remembered from generation to generation. Bright colors and gold edges enhanced the remembrance, and made houses of worship seem sacred. Holy ground.
I cringe a bit when I hear rock stars and country legends called icons. Even Mick Fleetwood. But it goes further. On the news, a way to pay tribute at the passing of a nearly forgotten celebrity is to call him or her an icon. “An icon of the civil rights era…” “An icon of literary moment…” “An icon of the industrial age…” Well, you get the idea.
I prefer legend. Or even luminary. Or star. Then are the variations on the star theme – mega-star; super-star. We are a nation enraptured by the superlative.
But “icon” goes beyond hyperbole. It connotes adoration. Worship. The sacred.
It really ought to be reserved for just that.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2010