by Muriel Porter
4 January 2023
Alison Asquith first experienced Orthodox icons while on holiday in Greece several years ago. On entering an Orthodox church, she recalls she felt almost overwhelmed, surrounded by the blaze of colour from the priests’ vestments, the icons and frescoes that adorned the walls and ceiling.
“I was drawn to a huge screen covered with rows of icons,” she said. “It was mesmerising. From that day my fascination with icons, of how they are created, from where they have come and what they are used for, has never waned.”
The Melbourne Anglican parish where Dr Asquith worshipped had a number of icons, so she found herself fascinated by how Anglicans encountered them. She took classes in icon painting, before her interest led to academic research. She has recently been awarded a PhD from Deakin University for her thesis, “Anglican worshippers’ experiences with icons in their everyday devotional lives”.
At 82, Dr Asquith is one of the oldest recipients of a doctorate from the university.
A sociologist by training, she interviewed 15 people – 11 lay people and four clergy – from several Melbourne parishes about their experiences with icons. Some had taken up icon painting, learning the painstaking specialist process at local icon schools. Others she interviewed used icons for personal prayer and meditation.
“Icons have been a part of worship in Orthodox churches for more than 1500 years, but until recently, most Western Christians did not think Orthodox icons could play a role in their faith traditions,” she explained. “They seemed foreign and outside Western Christianity, but in recent years there has been a surge of interest in them in Anglican churches”.
Icons are most certainly not just religious art, Dr Asquith said. The icon painters she interviewed often described what they believed was a personal spiritual journey during the painting process. The others, the “admirers of icons” as she termed them, also discovered what they believed were authentic spiritual encounters with God, particularly when using icons in personal devotion. “Icons open the door to a spirituality that fulfils a deep, religious need that numbers of people still seek out,” she said.
The fruits of her study are already experienced by her fellow parishioners at St Bartholomew’s, Burnley. The parish has a number of icons, and regularly uses icon reproductions on the Sunday order of service, so Dr Asquith is frequently called on to provide a brief description of the icons, and their meaning.
And there is more to come. Dr Asquith is now beginning work on a book based on her research, to offer many more Anglicans the opportunity to deepen their spiritual lives through icons.