The remit of the Divine Dimensions project is not only to exhibit icons in a faithful setting, but also to educate the public in the icon’s role in British history and heritage. Evidence of that role, and of our Byzantine heritage, was largely removed from the walls of English churches by the Reformation and later under Cromwell. But our medieval monasteries and churches had once been highly decorated by art that made use of some of the techniques.
Pilgrims would travel with icons as gifts and talismans. Many icons placed in the churches and monasteries of the early Christian world were brought by pilgrims, amongst them clergy. This medieval practice persists in the Byzantine tradition. Pilgrims on their way to Canterbury would have stopped at the Maison Dieu in Ospringe, for example. In fact, pilgrimage – as well as trade and conquest – reduced the isolation of cultures within Britain and therefore had a part in the great exchange of ideas within the heritage of human culture. The icon was an instrument of this transmission of ideas, and particularly of the events of the Gospel narrative. In medieval England, very few persons were literate. Imagery served as the ‘painted word’.
Bede reports that the clergy who arrived from Rome in the sixth century A.D. to preach the Gospel at Thanet brought an icon of Christ with them. Robin Cormack’s Painting the Soul highlights this and other examples. We do not need Bede, however, or scholarly art historians, to reveal this, because the imagery of a painting of ‘Christ in Majesty’ found in the western section of the nave vault of St. Gabriel’s chapel within Canterbury Cathedral and a similar painting in St. Thomas’s Hospital in Canterbury replicate the icons of the Pancrator (Christ in Majesty) that typify Byzantine iconography in the Orthodox churches. The visual evidence, although faint in colour, creates a confirmed link, because icons in particular carry a code that serves to transmit ideas. They thus sustain heritage, and this is exactly what the Divine Dimensions project has tried to do. Recent excavations at Syndale, Stone Chapel, Deerton Street, and Bax Farm have revealed Byzantine finds. It is easy to forget that Britain was part of the Byzantine Empire. Inasmuch as Christian ideas would have been conveyed by means of illustration, icons and similar images would have been on the walls of local churches in Kent and in places pilgrimage and along the routes of the pilgrims such as the ancient paths and waterways that joined ports and market towns.