Temple Gallery

Established 1959

ICONS Divine Beauty

by Richard Temple

Hardback with 220 pages, 31 x 25 cm
158 colour illustrations
Publication date: 1st March 2004
Price: Check with bookseller.

Published by Saqi Books
26 Westbourne Grove, London W2 5RH
Tel: (020) 7221 9347 / (020) 7229 7492
ISBN: 0863565662

We announce with pleasure the publication of Richard Temple's Icons Divine Beauty.This lavishly illustrated volume provides a concise but thorough tour through the ages of the icon, tracing the art from its origins to the 19th century and beyond. The 150 colour illustrations come from the photograph archive of the Temple Gallery of icons that have passed through our hands since 1959. From this material, with only a few images taken from other sources, the story of the different schools, styles and periods can be told. The commentary begins with the second century Fayum portraits and the sixth-century icons at St Catherine's Monastery on Sinai, then goes on to Constantinople and the Byzantine world, extending to Venice, Cyprus and Crete. From here we cross the Balkans to Kiev, visit Novgorod, Pskov, Vladimir and Suzdal; and arrive at Moscow in the 15th century. From this point we observe how early Christian Byzantine religious imagery recreates itself after the fall of Constantinople and flourishes as a peculiar and unique expression of the Slavs without ever breaking the continuity of the tradition.

"This beautiful book provides us with a rare opportunity to gaze with delight on good reproductions of icons so that we engage with their great beauty and powerful mystery. I here record my gratitude to Richard Temple." SISTER WENDY BECKETT

This book is no longer available direct from the Temple Gallery, but may still be obtained from online booksellers.


BOOK MARK - In the first in a new series about books, art connoisseur, hermit and broadcaster, Sr. Wendy Beckett, shares her thoughts on Icons: Divine Beauty

When you buy this book, as I hope you will, you will find a Foreword which I have written. In it I express my gratitude to the author, Richard Temple, for alerting me to the power and beauty of icons and for this majestic book which enables all of us to understand them better. I hope nobody will consider this a conflict of interests. It is rather, my attempt to waken us Westerners, for whom the icon is an untraditional form of art, to what we have been missing.

The icon is woefully underestimated by those who write about art. (Mea culpa!) It is both too prayerful to fit neatly into any art categories, and too artistic to loom large in books of spirituality. This may be changing. Rowan Williams, the charismatic Archbishop of Canterbury, has recently written two small books that use icons, in the first one of Our Lady, in the second one of Our Lord, to make profound and practical theological statements. What these small books insist upon is that the icon is a valid way into prayer, a means of surrendering ourselves to God, a sacramental.

Richard Temple, though more obliquely, says much the same. His text, unemotional and dignified, makes it radiantly clear that icons are not only beautiful but divinely beautiful. They have a purpose, they exist only to draw us closer to God and affect us with the pure power of holy grace. It is obvious that we are far away from curatorial expertise and questions of attribution. Yet these questions are not wholly alien.

Icons - this is their lovely paradox - are genuine works of art, and all scholastic norms apply. But it is their minimal level of existence. At their heart they are works of ardent faith, and their whole significance is spiritual.

The artist, in this unique case, does not set out to make a 'work of art': that will happen as a happy side effect. The artist sets out to create a human artefact that will unite the viewer with Our Lord. He or she prepares by prayer and fasting. The painter's soul must be pure, quiet and silent before God so as to convey an image of His Mystery. All movements of the ego are abjured. As Temple says: "In accordance with the icon tradition, the painter works strictly within a set of established rules. He invents nothing from his subjective imagination. He is not more free to introduce novelties than the priest celebrating the liturgy. Like the priest, he regards himself as the channel through which the unchanging tradition passes." One need only imagine Giotto or Michelangelo or Rembrandt faced with such constrictions to realise how totally different is the art of the icon painter's origin.

Temple explains its development, its modifications - slight under various cultures - its central themes. But the overpowering importance of this book lies in its illustrations. I always distrust generalisations about art that are not very closely linked to illustrations. Here is the book's special triumph. All that Temple avers, he proves, by showing us, in glorious reproduction, what he is talking about. Since he runs one of the world's great icon galleries, he has been able to take examples from his own stock, either present or past.

When we look, and continue to look, at these pictures, the meaning of the subtitle, Divine Beauty, becomes clear. I say 'continue to look' because the icon is not meant for the casual gaze. Every icon is painted to be an object of prayer. Of course we do not pray to the icon but through it. It is a gateway, a meeting place where the mystery of God and the eagerness of the believing heart meet. Here God blesses us, here we accept that blessing, here allow it to change us. It seems almost a vulgarity to say more. Read the book and give thanks, as I did.