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For most Christians in the West, icons are intriguing but opaque, enigmatic and perhaps a little frightening. In an accessible and loving introduction to the ancient devotional art form, the late Martin, who studied art history at Oxford University, manages to make icons intelligible without denuding their mystery. Part reference work and part inspirational meditation, the book opens by sharing little-known characteristics of icons. Next she offers a helpful chronology, usefully chronicling the various periods of Byzantine art, and limning the history of Russian icons. One very concrete chapter catalogues the materials and techniques of icon-making, explaining the role of egg tempera and gesso in producing the often dark, matte pictures. The most eloquent and capacious chapter is that on prayer. Icons, Martin tells us, are not merely inspiring works of art, but are "made for the distinct purpose of prayer." Indeed, this chapter goes beyond instructions about icons to a moving meditation on prayer itself. The small but densely packed volume is rounded out by an appendix of international icon collections, and a helpful bibliography. Only occasionally does the book turn didactic and over-encyclopedic; chapters five and six, which define basics like "iconostasis" and "diptych," feel plodding. Martin's work, which nicely complements Henri Nouwen's classic reflection on icons, ought to become an indispensable part of any Christian library.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Many appreciate and admire icons while failing to understandthem, which isn't surprising because iconography is a complex subjectwith thousands of years of history. Martin aims to increaseunderstanding of what icons convey. She defines icon and describesan icon's purpose; examines the visual language that is iconography(according to her, the earliest surviving icons date from the sixthand seventh centuries) as it developed during successive Byzantineeras and thereafter in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, theso-called golden age of Russian icons; and discusses the artists andcraftsmen who created icons and the donors and guild members whoenabled their creation. She also comments on the materials andtechniques used to fashion icons and on the spiritual significance ofindividual types of icons, such as those of the Virgin Mary and ofscenes from the New Testament--the Annunciation, the baptism ofChrist, the raising of Lazarus, the Crucifixion, and others. Inconclusion, Martin offers a short list of important icon collectionsthroughout the world. June Sawyers
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