I have noticed over the course of my life increased Roman Catholic usage of Orthodox style icons. Of course, the West also once had traditional Christian iconography. A trip to the early Italian Renaissance section of your local art museum will show you just how late such iconographic tendencies survived in the West, with one last sudden blossoming after Greeks fleeing Turks settled in Italy’s cities in the fifteenth century.
I have a quirky theory that accounts for the increased interest in icons among the papists. The common explanation, I believe, is that the use of icons is an ecumenical overture to the East—a gesture of cultural and spiritual goodwill. “See, we recognize the beauty and majesty of your ancient traditions, and we are happy to celebrate it ourselves.” I suspect that such ecclesial multiculturalism may have been the origin of the renewed interest in icons, but I think that Roman Catholics’ intra-ecclesial culture war has turned the ecumenical gesture into a matter of domestic tranquility.
After the Second Vatican Council, Rome’s people experienced a turbulent ride. Odd forces were unleashed, from sources not entirely known, that sought to transform the Roman Catholic religion into something that it was not before. Modernist, Protestant, iconoclast, and even pagan influences became mainstream currents in the Tiber, at least as it flows in America. Not everyone took these changes easily, and, hence, there began the Roman Catholic culture war, which is still being waged. The controversies resulting from this war are legion, but some of them involve religious—and specifically liturgical—art and architecture.
In this divisive climate, I propose that Orthodox style iconography has become an acceptable common ground for both parties, though for different reasons. The Roman renovationists, for lack of a better word, harbor deep hostility for their own tradition. They speak disparagingly of the dark times before the council (and they only talk about one council). Everything else is regressive, oppressive, and simply a perverse desire to live in the past (of dead white men, clericalism, moral self flagellation, catechetical fideism, empty ritualism, the Index, gaudy statues, and beaten house wives). However, the renovationists crave the new, and they tend to be, politically and culturally, of the multiculturalist Left. What is alien is familiar and dear; they find redemption in the “otherness” of foreign traditions. They also support ecumenism enthusiastically. After all, why should their own religion claim special status? That is so absolutist and anti-egalitarian.
The Roman traditionalists, however, do not think that their religion popped into existence in the 1960’s. For them, the continuity of Roman Catholicism with the past is one of the things that they most value. For such continuity links them back to Christ himself and to the Hebrews before the Incarnation. Having a revulsion against modernity, they take solace that their faith predates the time of errors and confusion that they find in the secular world. They retain the classical sense of truth—for it is eternal and does not change. Why, then, should they be eager to see their religion change, as religion is a matter of truth?
Given these two parties and their commitments, I ask you to see how Orthodox icons meet the needs and desires of both factions. The renovationists like icons because they find them foreign and exotic. Such modern, multiculturalists can glory in their broadmindedness and cosmopolitan tastes by admiring and adopting a religious art style that they find to be alien. Besides, the stylized aspect of iconography must appeal to their primitivist tastes. The man who likes African and Polynesian art is prone to like Byzantine iconography, as he has developed an aesthetic appreciation for the symbolic. The traditionalists like icons because they acknowledge their antiquity and the spiritual patrimony that comes with them. Having seen what secularized religious art has become in the West, they may have concluded that it would be better to go back to the source.
Icons, therefore, are acceptable to both competing groups, and such explains their prevalence in Roman Catholic churches, hospitals, schools, and monasteries.