One of the most charming and fun games I’ve had the pleasure to play recently was The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, a sort of sequel/remake to the celebrated A Link to The Past. Taking place in the familiar land of Hyrule, the plot starts off when a villain called Yuga begins turning people into paintings and collecting them. When our hero, Link, steps in, Yuga attempts to do the same to him, but instead winds up giving Link an unusual power: the ability to phase into walls and become a living painting that can scurry along them.
The difference between the paintings Yuga creates and Link’s dynamic painting got me thinking about icons and our society’s relationship towards beauty.
When you visit an art gallery, you will find people admiring various works, perhaps even being moved by them. But there is a distance always present: the art exists in its own preserved world, often separated from patrons by glass or other forms of security. By contrast, if you go to a Catholic or Orthodox Church, it’s not uncommon to find people interacting with the icons and statues in seemingly unusual ways: touching them, kissing them or other physical expressions of devotion. Even though this means that the image will be ‘used up’ by all the physical contact it gets.
This is because the icon does not exist for its own sake, but rather to turn the churchgoer towards contemplation of the divine reality that it represents. It is a similar dynamic to how we keep pictures of our loved ones around us – it isn’t to appreciate the picture, but because we want to keep our friends and family close to our hearts. This is, in turn, seen as a consequence of the Incarnation. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it,
[t]he sacred image, the liturgical icon, principally represents Christ. It cannot represent the invisible and incomprehensible God, but the incarnation of the Son of God has ushered in a new “economy” of images[.]
All the signs in the liturgical celebrations are related to Christ: as are sacred images of the holy Mother of God and of the saints as well. They truly signify Christ, who is glorified in them. They make manifest the “cloud of witnesses” who continue to participate in the salvation of the world and to whom we are united, above all in sacramental celebrations. Through their icons, it is man “in the image of God,” finally transfigured “into his likeness,” who is revealed to our faith. So too are the angels, who also are recapitulated in Christ[.] (CCC 1159, 1161)
The icon is thus seen by the Catholic Church as relating to the deepest truths of the Faith. This is also why icons look so weird at first and seem to violate a lot of the tacit rules we associate with paintings. They are meant to be evocative, and mysterious – the mysteries of Christ cannot be summed up in representation, and so the icon instead beckons the viewer to contemplate these mysteries.
What has this to do with Yuga’s paintings? For that, I need to talk a bit about beauty.
The beautiful, along with the Good and the True, is one of the three Transcendentals, recognized as such because they are valued for their own sakes, and are ultimately aspects of the Divine nature. Often, when Christians critique modern society, it is often through the lens of the Good and the True. But it is also worth asking how we approach beauty, and what that says about our relationship to God.
Our culture places a premium on physical beauty and youth, to the point where, for many, the pursuit of physical perfection is approached almost as a kind of asceticism. But while physical beauty is indeed a gift, it is short lived, as we are short lived. Rather than seeing it as a faint reflection of the beauty of God and turning our hearts in that direction, we idolize it. The paradox is that by making it too big a thing we wind up making it rather small and paltry – like Yuga’s paintings, the full dignity and reality of the person as an icon of God becomes obscured.
In contrast to that, our architecture is often drab and utilitarian. And, while our buildings themselves also one day expire, their relative permanence and size in comparison to us makes them, to some extent, into a reflection of how we view the world we live in. If they call attention to anything in that regard, it’s to a picture of the world as cold and indifferent to us. How often is it that we notice something about a modern building that brings our mind to think of God and heaven?
A church, and the holy images within it, however, is designed to help turn us towards prayer, contemplation and adoration. Churches and their images are meant to help us become more receptive to the graces that Christ wants to give us. It may be a stretch, but something about how Link uses his painting powers to save those imprisoned in paintings reminded me of that – a Savior who uses even the walls of our buildings to reach out to us.