Jeana VISEL, Icons in the Western Church: Toward a More Sacramental Encounter, Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2016. Pp. 174. $19.95 pb. ISBN: 97808146601. Reviewed by Walter N. SISTO, D’Youville College, Buffalo NY.  


Jeana Visel’s text makes a convincing argument for the need of icons in the liturgical and devotional life of the Roman Catholic Church. Visel argues that not only do icons provide a vehicle for articulating theology vividly, but they remind us “how to see again with recognition and appreciation for the presence of the sacred.” (106) Icons are images of hope that affirm that sacramental reality of the world that invite us to encounter mystery. (150) For Visel, this is particularly important today, as Western culture inundates people with images that tend to depersonalize, degrade, or foster one-dimensional thinking.  The result is a type of “symbolic illiteracy” amongst the Catholic faithful. Following the teaching of St. Pope John Paul II, Visel argues that this is no small problem, as “the Church needs art to communicate the message of Christ.” (114) Art and more specifically the icon is a valuable catechetical tool as it has the ability to convey a mystery of faith without reducing that mystery to something that can be comprehended completely.

This thesis orients her text. Chapters one to three offer an intriguing introduction to icon writings, the history and theology of the icons (particularly in the West), and the role of art after the Second Vatican Council. Chapters four and five examine the Roman Catholic Church’s engagement with icons as well as how the theological, liturgical, and devotional importance of icons. Chapter six provides an intriguing glimpse of the ecumenical implications of icons.

For any reader unfamiliar with icons or the Roman Catholic perspective on icons this text provides a succinct, well-written overview of these topics. Drawing from authoritative documents like the conciliar teaching of the Council of Nicaea (787 CE) to the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy (2001 CE),  Visel argues that whereas in the East the Orthodox Church developed the modus operandi for overseeing  and vetting religious art, in the West the Roman Catholic Church was much more inclusive. Although icons are growing in popularity, Catholic artists and pastors of parishes have relative freedom in selecting art to aid in the worship of the Church.

Chapter six was one of the best chapters in the book. Visel’s work in this chapter provides a meaningful contribution to the Orthodox-Roman Catholic ecumenical movement. Visel perceptively notes that reunion between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches may be much more difficult than many Catholics think.  One of the main reasons is the Orthodox perspective on the icon. Orthodox veneration of icons is indicative of a different liturgical and theological ethos. Therefore, it is important for Catholics to be aware of how Orthodox Christians perceive the behavior of Catholics towards icons. (125) Catholic production of icons that do not follow the tradition of icon writing and devolve into simply creative pursuits as well as a failure to appreciate the theology and mystagogy involved in each ecclesiastical sanctioned icon may be offensive to Orthodox. Nevertheless, not all hope is lost. The inclusive approach of Catholics towards religious art and the growing popularity of icons allow for ample opportunity for effective ecumenical dialogue. Not only are icons a part of the Catholic tradition but the masters of icon writing are the Orthodox. More fully embracing the icon in the context of the liturgical and devotional life of the Roman Catholic Church will help bridge the gap in culture, and more specifically help foster a grassroots ecumenism between both traditions. The ecumenical implications of icons are not limited to the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, for churches in the Reformation tradition are also witnessing a resurgence in interest in icons. Learning about the theology of the icon and the icon writing process offers a fabulous opportunity for dialogue between these three traditions.   

Although Visel offers a well-argued and concise expose on why the Roman Catholic Church should more fully embrace icons, Visel’s argument never fully takes into account the Eastern Catholic traditions. In what little dialogue there is, Visel does not consider the effect (or perhaps lack thereof) of the Eastern Catholic iconographical emphasis on the Catholic tradition or on how they might help the ecumenical movement. Perhaps a second edition might address this lacuna. Moreover, Visel mentions the need for catechesis on icons as well as her hope that the Roman Catholic Church establishes a modus operandi for evaluating icons. However, she does not consider how to go about doing this. This book may not be the place for a proposal, but without a proposal, her good ideas might be construed as wishful thinking.

Despite these minor shortcomings, I highly recommend this text. This text is an original work that would be well-situated for students of art history, iconography, or Orthodox-Catholic ecumenism.