The Byzantines believed that painted icons were literally conduits between this world and the heavens. The belief was based on a simple logic: the depiction of something is a depiction of its form, a form that is inseparable from the original, as there is only one of it. By depicting the divine, the artist realized its form in the material paint, creating a real connection with the world beyond. Thus an icon of Saint Mary was truly sacred in that it was believed to be a real part of its subject, a materialization of its form not in a human body but in paint or mosaic.
This Byzantine thesis may not stand on strong ground, and indeed it was challenged during the life of the empire, but to me this belief highlights something very important when I think about the role and influence that craftsmen or creators of any kind have in this world.
What materials does the craftsman work with? Iron? Stone? Wood? Ink? Pixels? Code? The material at hand is always different, but the source and destination is always the same, for the craftsman ultimately works with the nature of being itself; that is, by giving the material world form the craftsman imprints the form back onto those who inhabit it. Simply put, we are the material.
Our everyday language consists of terms, phrases and ideas that surround us in our given culture. Our whole being is submerged in a sea of cultural artifacts and social constructs – songs, music, stories, books, clothing, food, architecture, and an endless number of other man made objects and customs – all acting as a lens on everything we see and do, refracting and transforming the fabric of our existence as sentient beings. All our thoughts and actions are guided by this lens.
By itself, a single artifact, a single man made product or idea, has very little effect on the culture it is created in. Their aggregate, however, fully surrounds us, fully shapes and moulds our being. Certain artifacts act as catalysts for new trends, setting off major changes and developments that grow in influence as a tiny seed grows into a tree, while others simply imitate the current around them, flowing like the body of water down the carved path of the river.
The material the craftsman works with is not the material they have at hand, but the material of being itself. By giving form to the external world, we consequently reflect the form back onto ourselves, transforming the very nature of the sentient mind that experiences the world around in, and in turn changing the way it will experience this world in the future. As Heraclitus says, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
In a sense, the Byzantine conduit between the material world and the ideal world exists in the works of man, but in an even more radical form. In shaping the world around us we do not build a bridge to the divine, but rather, we project the ideal onto ourselves, changing the nature of our existence.