Some Thoughts on Icons
What is an Icon?
Icon is a Greek word meaning image and usually refers to the traditional art form of the Early Church depicting the image of Jesus, Mary, the saints or other biblical scenes or themes. They are painted in a highly stylized manner, rich in allegory and symbolic colours. However, icons are much more than a religious motif to adorn a church wall or home. They can act as a link between the worshipper and God. And so, they have been described as “windows to heaven”, “theology in colour”, “prayer in pigment”, and “doors to the divine”.
Theology in Colour
"In the icon, religious contemplation is clothed in image, form and colour. Visions of the spiritual world are not revealed through abstract ideas, but in the language of the corporeal world." -Sergij Bulgakov,Orthodox Scholar
The source of the icon begins with the presence and creative power of the Holy Spirit in the life of the icon painter, or iconographer. Through prayer, fasting and Christian living, the iconographer is inspired in the depth of his or her heart by the Holy Spirit to bring forth the image of the divine. Through the iconographer, God’s Holy Spirit guides the mind and hand to create an image of himself that will bless and edify the faithful who pray with it and who will be enlightened by it. In this way the icon is a form of divine revelation. As the Holy Spirit inspired the Word of God in scripture and in the great theological works of our Church Fathers and Mothers, so too the Holy Spirit guides the mind and brush of the iconographer to aid the Christian in prayerful union with the Holy Trinity. It is for this reason, it is said, that like scripture and inspired theology, icons are not painted but “written”, and that the iconographer is an icon’s “author”. Traditionally, iconographers do not sign their name to their work as a recognition that they are but vessels through which the Divine has been spoken in colour and form. Icons are a visual Gospel to meditate and pray upon. St. Basil (AD 329-379) said, “What the word transmits through the ear, the icon silently shows through the image, and by these two ways together each accompanying each other …we receive knowledge of one and the same thing.”
"When the Invisible, having clothed Himself in the flesh, becomes visible, then represent the likeness of Him who appeared…When He who, having been the cosubstantial Image of the Father, emptied Himself by taking the form of a servant. ..having taken on the earthly image, then paint and make visible to everyone He who desired to become visible. Paint His birth from the Virgin, His baptism in the Jordan, His Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor…Paint everything with words and colours, in books and on boards." - St. John of Damascus (c. AD 675-749)
The Incarnation is the very heart of iconography. The Incarnation of Christ, when God became human, and thus visible, is the theological basis of the icon which seeks to reveal the divine through visible means.
Christ, the Word made flesh, is our very first icon of the Father. As St. Paul wrote, “Christ is the image [eikon -icon] of the unseen Father. God made all his fullness to dwell in him.” (Colossians 1:15,19.) By Christ’s incarnation God has transformed the physical matter of our world into something sacramental - outward and visible signs have become inward turning spiritual graces. Water becomes new life in baptism, bread and wine become the incarnational presence of Jesus at every Eucharist, and oil conveys the soothing touch of Jesus’ healing hand. Through faith and prayer icons, simple outward and visible images of (and inspired by) the divine, can lead us to an inward and spiritual vision of the kingdom of God within and around us. The icon expresses the view of the church that God wants to interact in tangible ways with his children created in his image.
In Eric Newton’s book, "Two Thousand Years of Christian Art", he writes, "But from the moment when God sent his only begotten Son to dwell on earth, born of a mortal woman, to preach, to perform miracles, to suffer death…and to be resurrected, the situation for the artist changed, for the new religion contained within itself the fact of the invisible made visible, the Deity made human, the supernatural made physically manifest. At last there was no reason to forbid imagery, for if God Himself became incarnate there could be no possibility of the artist’s image leading to idolatry.”
The Incarnation transforms our own humanity. St. Irenaeus (c. 125-203) said, “The Son of God became the Son of Man so that humanity might become children of God.” The icon has the same transformative power if we approach and “use” them with a seeking heart and the true desire for union with God in prayer. St. John of Damascus wrote, “..through His image, we contemplate the physical appearance of Christ, His miracles, His passion. This contemplation sanctifies our sight and, thereby our soul. We consider ourselves fortunate and we venerate this image by lifting ourselves as far as possible beyond this physical appearance to the contemplation of the divine glory.”
Form and Beyond
Icons are painted within the context of a tradition of representation. Although certain details differ from icon to icon, their general composition has essentially remained the same since the ninth century when the rules, or canons, for icon painting were established.
The simplicity of icons and their unique stylizations are intentional and not due to the inability to portray realism. Rather, the person praying with the icon is to look beyond the representation in the icon to the divine reality behind it. Icons are referred to as “windows to heaven”. One doesn’t look at a window but through it, hoping to see what’s on the other side. A “realistic” religious painting has the potential of freezing the artist’s own interpretation in the Christian motif, thereby preventing the worshipper from having his or her own experience and exploration of its meaning. A realistic picture of Christ or the saints also has the potential of having the worshipper caught up and distracted by the details of the painting of Christ instead of Christ himself. That is why the features in icons are often distorted or exaggerated (e.g. oversized eyes, elongated fingers, and the apparent lack of perspective). Iconography’s unique stylizations point the worshipper to look beyond the pigment and form and to see with the eyes of faith the person they represent. The Orthodox scholar Anthony Coniaris describes this in his book "Introducing the Orthodox Church." “By omitting everything irrelevant to the spiritual figure, the figure becomes stylized, spiritualized, not realistic but supra-realistic.”
This stylization is also symbolic of spiritual transformation. The exaggerated features in iconography are symbolic of what happens to the people when touched by God.They become a new creation. The aim of this style is to portray not the natural likeness of Jesus or a saint, but their spiritual essence. Sergij Bulgakov said, “The icon of the Mother of God, as those of the saints, portrays humanity saved and redeemed in Christ, humanity made manifest, glorified and deified. The icon of the saint portrays his blessed face, transparent with the Spirit, not as he was on earth but as he is now, in the glorious splendour of heaven.” Hence, their eyes are painted large with an intense gaze as they have beheld the face of God. Their ears are elongated for their soul has listened and received the good news of Christ.
Colour is a significant part of the language of icons each with its own meaning. Red and gold, for example, denote the divine, heaven or the power of the Holy Spirit. Blues, greens and earth tones represent the earth and our humanity. An icon of the Saviour wearing a red tunic covered by a blue mantle may represent Christ’s divinity (red) enveloped by his humanity (blue). The gold halo or background of the icon represents Christ’s divinity pervading the universe. The contrast of the dazzling gold background with the simple image of the Jesus the man is in itself a meditation on the nature of Christ and his incarnation.
In icons, as in scripture, we are challenged to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” (Collect, First Sunday of Advent, Book of Common Prayer ) their message to us. The symbolic language of icons are meant for us to reflect and pray upon. Their meanings aren’t always spelled out for us. We may spend a lifetime praying with the same icon. As we journey in our life of prayer aided by the icon, the Spirit may reveal to us symbolic elements within the icon we may never have noticed before and which may have profound meaning for us in our life with Christ.
Icons are full of allegory, allusion and symbols drawn from both the Old and New Testaments. A tree, a rock, a door, plants, the fold of a garment, a chair or a building all have a profound biblical symbolic resonances. Body gestures and postures also help us to read an icon’s narrative. Facial expressions in icons tend to be subtle and subdued. As icons stress the inward spiritual life of their participants, we do not see the intense emotionalism as in Western art. The subtlety of the icon image’s emotive quality prompts the worshiper to wonder and reflect upon what it means to have a relationship in the stillness of one’s own being with the Divine. Sergij Bulgakov wrote, “The icon painting aims to convey not the face but the gaze.” The gaze is, of course, ever seeking the face of God.
The goal of every Christian’s life is to become one with God. This begins at our baptism when by water and the Spirit we were reborn in Christ’s likeness. Through living a life faithful to our baptismal covenant we may, like an icon, reflect the inner light of Christ to others. By our persevering in the way of Christ, others may see and respond to the Christ indwelling in us. We can be icons in our world by carrying the image of Jesus present in our hearts and lives to others.
We must also remember that every person too is a living icon of Christ, for Christ is also present and comes to us in our brothers and sisters. (see Matthew 25:31-46) As we treat each living icon, so we treat God.