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The Icon and the Fire

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There was a fire this weekend at a Greek Orthodox church [2]in Knoxville, Tenn. The church was seriously damaged. The icon above survived without damage, even though the fire was so hot it melted the glass in the frame. Amazing, innit?

(H/T: Frederica Mathewes-Green [3])

UPDATE: Well, maybe not so amazing. Reader MH writes:

Glass melts at temperatures above 1000 °F, so if it is glass that’s pretty amazing.

But that covering looks like a plastic to me. When glass melts it flows downwards, while melting plastic shrinks and can flow upwards like it did at the bottom of the frame.

Also, plastics melt at 248 to 356 °F, while wood and paper combust at around 450 °F, so the damage is consistent with it being a plastic like acrylic.

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26 Comments To "The Icon and the Fire"

#1 Comment By Athanasius On April 15, 2015 @ 1:01 am

I’m surprised that Knoxville has such an impressive church.

I hope that thinks take a turn for the better in Montreal: [4]

#2 Comment By Eamus Catuli On April 15, 2015 @ 4:09 am

From Athanasius’ link:

Nicholas Pagonis, president of the Hellenic Community of Greater Montreal, was devastated to see the Parc-Ex church engulfed in flames.

“It was almost a total loss. We don’t have access to the interior of the church yet, but from what we can tell, the interior was destroyed. The interior was a jewel of a church. Iconography, frescoes, artifacts, you name it. I can tell you it was the most beautiful Greek Orthodox Church in Quebec and the entire country.”

Very sad. Also points up why you don’t want to put too much stock in an icon surviving a fire. Because lots of other times, they don’t — and it’s a seriously bad idea to try to account for the difference by looking for some kind of theological or supernatural meaning in it.

[NFR: A classic illustration of the difference between our ways of looking at the world. You see something like an icon that was unharmed though the flames were hot enough to melt the glass around it, and think, “This didn’t happen to every icon in every Orthodox church fire ever, so it couldn’t be evidence of the divine.” I look at it and think, “Thanks be to God!” Maybe it was a miracle, maybe it wasn’t. But against the odds, the icon is safe, and for that I thank God. — RD]

#3 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On April 15, 2015 @ 6:41 am

Glass melts at temperatures above 1000 °F, so if it is glass that’s pretty amazing.

But that covering looks like a plastic to me. When glass melts it flows downwards, while melting plastic shrinks and can flow upwards like it did at the bottom of the frame.

Also, plastics melt at 248 to 356 °F, while wood and paper combust at around 450 °F, so the damage is consistent with it being a plastic like acrylic.

#4 Comment By JohnE_o On April 15, 2015 @ 7:40 am

Have you ruled out the possibility that was not glass, but instead some sort of plastic or plexiglass?

#5 Comment By adh-dhariyat On April 15, 2015 @ 8:18 am

Very cool. I kinda hope they would keep the painting as is… testament to miracles or somesuch that it survived like that. (Unless of course, the melted glass poses a risk to the painting itself).

#6 Comment By Liam On April 15, 2015 @ 8:30 am

That layer looks like it was plexiglass, the melting point of which is below the temp at which the icon would have caught fire.

#7 Comment By JohnE_o On April 15, 2015 @ 10:15 am

[NFR: A classic illustration of the difference between our ways of looking at the world. 

Indeed… 😉

#8 Comment By Grumpy realist On April 15, 2015 @ 10:15 am

Rod–sure the covering on that icon isn’t plastic?

I’d be more likely to look for that as the explanation–and the fact that the fire indeed did not get that hot–rather than the assumption of something supernatural.

#9 Comment By Matt On April 15, 2015 @ 10:25 am

Bummer. Hope they can get the plexiglass off the icon without destroying it.

#10 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On April 15, 2015 @ 10:53 am

Cool I made the update! So here’s the over the top materials geek out explanation.

Ever put plastic cutlery in a dishwasher and have it come out smaller? Or shrink plastic window insulation with a hairdryer? That’s weird because most materials expand when heated, but plastics have a negative coefficient of thermal expansion, so they shrink!

But why?

The reason is that they’re long chains of atoms, and when heated bonds form between formerly unbonded atoms that are adjacent. This shortens the polymers and the plastic shrinks. In some plastics these bonds persist and the shrinkage is permanent, while in others they break when cooling and it is reversible.

Soda-lime glass is like a metal and has a positive coefficient of thermal expansion, so it expands slightly when heated. So it would become soft and flow downward instead.

tl;dr atoms and atomic bonds.

#11 Comment By Kristen On April 15, 2015 @ 11:25 am

I totally trust all the science geeks explaining this. But c’mon people, can’t it be (1) entirely scientifically explainable and also (2) pretty neat and a sign of hope? And sure it doesn’t always work out that way (e.g. the Quebec church) but sometimes it does and yay, thanks God.

#12 Comment By JohnE_o On April 15, 2015 @ 11:36 am

Did anyone else make Shrinky Dinks as a kid? That’s what the edges reminded me of.

Thanks for the longer explanation, MH!

#13 Comment By Charles Cosimano On April 15, 2015 @ 11:45 am

A real miracle would have put out the fire before it started.

#14 Comment By grumpy realist On April 15, 2015 @ 12:24 pm

P.S. What I find fascinating is that Rod immediately jumped to the supernatural explanation rather than hold back and say to himself: “wait a minute–maybe there’s something else going on here. What am I assuming that might not be true? Maybe this thing isn’t covered with glass, but plastic.”

So why was it so easy for Rod to look for a supernatural explanation rather than a commonsense one?

(This is of course assuming that Rod was serious above when he claimed this an “amazing” survival and not just yanking our chain.)

#15 Comment By JonF On April 15, 2015 @ 1:13 pm

My church had a major fire in 1970 (long before I was anywhere near Baltimore of course). We have two icons still that survived the fire, one of St Andrew, our patron, the other of St Nicholas. Both have some smoke damage on them, but they are still intact.

#16 Comment By Anglican Peggy On April 15, 2015 @ 1:45 pm

The cover on the icon may have been plastic but I am sure that paint is far more delicate than wood. The paint on the icon seems unharmed.

#17 Comment By Eamus Catuli On April 15, 2015 @ 2:25 pm

You see something like an icon that was unharmed though the flames were hot enough to melt the glass around it, and think, “This didn’t happen to every icon in every Orthodox church fire ever, so it couldn’t be evidence of the divine.”

That’s not what I think, though. I think if you want to celebrate God’s benevolent providence in saving this icon, that’s fine — no harm in that in itself. What’s dangerous is taking the next logical step: “If God is deciding what burns up or doesn’t in fires, then God is deliberately consigning some things to the flames. There must be some unseen moral reason for that.” This leads to speculation about what that reason is; maybe there was something wrong with the theology taught at the Quebec church; maybe the priest there is secretly guilty of some terrible sin; maybe God is upset with Canada for some reason, etc. etc. This becomes a search for scapegoats, and the next thing you know you’re Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell irresponsibly bloviating on TV about how 9/11 was punishment for America’s tolerance of gays and pagans and feminists. God permitted it, after all, so there must been some good reason.

A really horrible disaster, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, helped most Western people [5] although it’s been a long and obviously incomplete process. So, maybe that was God’s purpose in leveling Lisbon.

#18 Comment By Rob G On April 15, 2015 @ 2:46 pm

“A really horrible disaster, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, helped most Western people finally give up on this whole way of thinking, although it’s been a long and obviously incomplete process. So, maybe that was God’s purpose in leveling Lisbon.”

You really, really need to read D.B. Hart’s The Doors of the Sea, in which he discusses both the Lisbon earthquake and the 2004 tsunami in terms of theodicy.

#19 Comment By Tony D. On April 15, 2015 @ 2:56 pm

“Did anyone else make Shrinky Dinks as a kid?”

Oh my goodness! I haven’t thought of those in at least a couple of decades. [6]

#20 Comment By Liam On April 15, 2015 @ 2:58 pm

Anglican Peggy

Paint is tougher than plexiglass in that regard. You can do a lot to plastic for brief period of time at normal oven temperatures that would not harm paint that’s bonded to a sturdier material unless it was for a longer time.

#21 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On April 15, 2015 @ 3:13 pm

@JohnE_o, pleased to be of service.

@Kristen, I’m happy for the parishioners that their icon survived. What meaning they, Rod, or you want to assign to this is not for me to decide.

Anglican Peggy said:

The cover on the icon may have been plastic but I am sure that paint is far more delicate than wood. The paint on the icon seems unharmed.

I wouldn’t assume that the paint is more delicate than wood. There are many kinds of paints and some are damaged by temperatures below the combustion point of wood, others would be fine until the wood under them burst into flames.

#22 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On April 15, 2015 @ 4:49 pm

@Tony D, if I get my hands on the Doctor’s Tardis I’m going back in time to when that Shrinky Dinks commercial was filmed. As soon as the kids say “It’s magic” I’m going to launch into my explanation of why plastics shrink when heated.

#23 Comment By Peterk On April 15, 2015 @ 9:15 pm

“plastics melt at 248 to 356 °F, while wood and paper combust at around 450 °F”

just remember Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

#24 Comment By Giuseppe Scalas On April 16, 2015 @ 6:37 am

Rod says

“Well, maybe not so amazing”

Why not? I always thank God for His Physics and for the marvels it bestows on us.

Physically explainable and pointing to transcendence aren’t in conflict, but in harmony.

#25 Comment By Daniel (not Larison) On April 16, 2015 @ 11:22 am

I don’t mean to be crass (well, maybe I do), but looking carefully at the top of the icon, right above the images head, there appears slight scorching and s slight distortion. We also don’t see how the icon looks underneath the plastic.

It wasn’t destroyed, which itself is remarkable–but it was slightly damaged. But this, like weeping statues and bleeding paintings do not impress me, any more than invisible healings and being “slain in the spirit” in a Pentecostal meeting.

But what do I know? I’m just an evil Calvinist. 😉

#26 Comment By Mark Perkins On April 19, 2015 @ 3:44 pm

Rod,

That the icon was saved by “natural” means rather than a miraculous suspension of natural laws doesn’t really make it less amazing or less beautiful.

If you’re looking for a kind of eery proof of something otherworldly and spooky, it might be disappointing to learn that the icon’s survival can be explained scientifically.

But I’d say that, for most of us, learning to perceive the hand of God at work in his created order is more important than hunting for moments where he interrupts the natural order.

The icon is beautiful. It’s survival is a small gift amidst tragedy. That’s amazing and worth celebrating all on its own.