Since its inception, Christian iconography has always been closely connected to the cultures in which it developed. In fact, the basis of how we understand church art today is grounded in the secular artistic traditions of the Graeco-Roman world. Christian artists have been using pagan iconography and visual rhetoric ever since Christian art began to emerge.1) They borrowed heavily from both the pictorial and verbal elements that they found useful for the spreading the gospel message. For example, Christain artists adapted the figure of a sovereign God (characterized by a long hair and beard) such as Jupiter, as a representation of Christ because it expressed an idea of eternity to that culture.2) Similarly, the pagan image of the shepherd—a symbol of philanthropy in pagan Roman art—became the representation of Jesus Christ.3) This was probably due to its striking similarity to "the Good Shepherd" passage from John 10:11-16. The reasoning behind this process is that these familiar, if pagan, images were a better tool for preaching the gospel than creating a wholly new and unfamiliar set of images of a "purely" Christian origin. This enabled Christians to give new meaning to already familiar images and to thereby further an on-going cultural conversation. We would do well to learn from their example and truly engage our own culture.
This means that the Church must continue preaching its gospel, but do so in the artistic language of its culture. In order to do this and remain distinctivey Christian, Church art must also honor the traditional elements of its own iconography. These elements have been transmitted through a stable process of recension. Nevertheless, even if it is recensional, iconography is never sterile, closed off, or fixed, but always incorporates new elements in addition to the ones it has inherited from the tradition. As Lester L. Bundy notes: "It has always been characteristic of Orthodox iconography that the desire to maintain an historically dictated consistency in style, form, content, etc. exists in tension with the natural inclination for individual style and techniques."4) Iconography grows through a dialogue between the old and the new in the form of a commentary or what art historians call "text-and-gloss." Personal taste plays a large role in this dialogue: every generation adds a new layer of meaning, a new style in painting, and a new kind of figure to those already venerated in the tradition. New schools of iconography, show-casing their own regional traditions, have emerged as examples of this phenomenon.5) Thus, to continue the fucund tradtion of the Church we must create an original North American iconography that refelects the culture of North America and communicates the gospel to it. After all, iconography is supposed to be an expression of an authentic faith and not simply a copy of someone else's religious experience.6).