Understanding Icons

by Fr Maximos Constas
(transcribed and edited by Fr Matthew C. Dallman)

Editor’s note: The transcription tracks closely, but not exactly, with the presentation in the video above. Occasionally the transcription varies slightly for clarity of presentation. Particular remarks by Fr Constas upon images in the slideshow that accompanies his lecture have not been included below. The paragraphs are numbered for ease of reference, and also note that Section II on Iconology begins at 14:50 of the video. For a longer exposition of iconology, see Fr Constas’ book The Art of Seeing: Paradox and Perception in Orthodox Iconography.

I. An Introduction to Iconography

1. The separation of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches was a long and complex process not unlike the unravelling of a marriage. Theologians tend to focus on, well, theology and doctrinal matters, which engage only one level or one aspect the life of the Church. But this is rather like trying to use algebra to gauge the moment when one’s affections for his wife or husband have died.

2. Though historians and anthropologists are keenly aware of it, theologians and those engaged in ecumenical dialogue often ignore the fact that the Christians of the East and the West are people of two different cultures; but which I mean, religious cultures. To be sure, theological differences are important, and these have dominated ecumenical dialogue for centuries. Yet they tend to be relatively abstract compared to the world that most of us live in.

3. This is probably why agreements reached by theologians do not travel well or translate well to their respective constituencies. Of course, culture is a slippery thing, and difficult to define. But most of us living as we do in an age of rather intense cultural wars will not doubt the power of culture. And part of the power of culture, as well as its problem, is the fact that modern culture is essentially or largely secularized cult. That is, a deracinated, degenerated form of religious cult; a secular liturgy, if you will, which serves as a religion and a system of values for those without religion or values, and this is not a new idea. A long time ago, the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard famously said that in the Middle Ages, everything looked religious, but was actually political. And in modernity, everything looks political, but is actually religious.

4. This brings us to the question of liturgy, and its deeply informing presence in our lives. For Orthodox Christians, liturgy is not reducible to a particular rite, which a priest or a community might choose to practice and discard at will, like putting on a costume or a mask. But to the contrary, liturgy is at the core of Orthodox identity. Liturgy is the medium, or the mode, through which and in which we find our salvation. To invoke an old cliché (which is not to say that it is true or that I subscribe to it): if Protestants are saved by faith, and Catholics by works, then the Orthodox would say they are saved liturgically.

5. I would like to think that all western Christians could or would say the same thing, but the degree of diversity in modern Christian worship has made that increasingly difficult to see. Liturgy and worship in the Orthodox churches, on the other hand, despite their linguistic differences, is highly uniform; so that what the Orthodox call the Typicon, or the Ordo, of the Church—that is, the outward uniformity of the liturgy—for the Orthodox, that is precisely the visible manifestation of the Church’s unity across time and space; in other words, the outward uniformity of the liturgy, of worship, across time and across space, is the external physical manifestation of the unity of the Church.

6. One of the places where changes in liturgical culture has been evident is in the various ecclesiastical arts, especially in the forms and functions of sacred art and religious iconography. Through the late Middle Ages, Christian iconography in both east and west exhibited a high degree of uniformity, both in content and style. The iconographic forms used the east and west had their common origins in the late antique pilgrimage art of the Holy Hands, from where they were diffused throughout the Christian world by pilgrims returning to their respective homes. It was thus that the artistic program of a celebrated Italian painter such as Giotto, who died in 1337, was highly consistent with the iconography of the east. But this is not because Giotto was simply copying eastern iconographic prototypes, but as I said, because both the eastern and the western were working out of a common iconographic tradition that, as I said, was established in the Holy Lands in Christian antiquity. The same was true for the Sienese School, which flourished from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, and which adhered very closely to iconographic forms that had been the common visual vocabulary of the Christian world from antiquity.

7. All of that changed during the Renaissance, when traditional iconographic forms, and in many cases their content, were replaced by models either derived directly from, or inspired by initially, ancient Greek art, which was being rediscovered in the west at that point, so that the values of humanism and naturalism, which you see on display in the Raphael painting on the right, came to prevail in the religious painting of the west.

8. But for Orthodox Christians, it is difficult not to see the seismic cultural shift known as the Renaissance as introducing something like the secularization of sacred art, which included (again, to what appears to Orthodox eyes to be) a kind of carnalization of the bodies of the Saints, along with a new preference for three-dimension figures modelled along the lines of antique statuary, which, again, was being rediscovered in the west. And again, to Orthodox eyes, the new figures appeared corpulent and fleshly, with a physical volume and mass that seem to lack any overt signs of transcendence. And this new naturalist representational aesthetic created various artistic problems, which unintentionally altered the theological nature of what up until then had been traditional Christian iconography in east and west. Such as: the reduction of the halo to a kind of dinner plate, floating over the head suggesting, unintentionally, a disjunction between nature and the supernatural, so that divine grace appears as something outside of, or external to, nature. And of course, without those halos, there would be little left in the image to distinguish the figures as sacred.

9. In the earlier tradition, the dead body of the Man of Sorrows could be depicted in an upright posture—is a corpse in an upright posture—which must have been as striking in the Middle Ages as it is for us today. On the one hand, the visible artistic subject would seem to be a human death. Yet this death is depicted in the framework of a human impossibility, namely verticality, suggesting that the Man of Sorrows is not simply the son of Mary, but also the also the Son of God. But once that body is depicted in a more naturalistic form of representation, it requires props: in this case, two angels, to explain or account for the otherwise impossible upright posture.

10. Now the renaissance discovery of classical artistic forms was never a factor in Eastern iconography, because the Eastern world was always a Greek-speaking world, and it was always a world in contact, and often conflict, with ancient Greek culture and Hellenism, because it never lost the knowledge of that ancient culture. For Greek Christians who were living in the East, one of the reasons there are no statues in Orthodox churches, is that in the Greek tradition the cult statue was something that had always been associated with paganism. The Greek world was filled with temples that had three-dimensional statues in them, and these became for Greek Christians the par excellence image of pagan religion, and so they were just banned. “This is what the Greeks had, we don’t have these things in our churches.” So they were banned from use in Greek Christian houses of worship. Statues were also rejected as obstructing the movements of the Byzantine liturgy; if you have a large, three-dimensional statue somewhere in your church, it takes up a lot of physical space, and that space was required for the Orthodox liturgy, which had and has not a whole lot of room from the presence of monumental sculptures. So there is a practical reason for the exclusion of statues, as well.

11. Not least, the Orthodox Church did something that the western Church never did. Namely, it dogmatized its sacred images, so that Icons and images in the East were never understood to be simply works of art or merely decorative, neither were they ever said to be merely pedagogical tools, as if they were books for the illiterate (you hear that a lot). But that is not what they were understood to be in the East. On the contrary, they were understood to be visual, artistic expressions of the Church’s theology. And in the same way that Church doctrines could not be changed, neither could the image in which those doctrines were embodied. So thus the iconography of the Annunciation could be tampered with no more than doctrine of the Incarnation. There was always a degree of artistic freedom, on the one hand, for the artist and his particular style. But the content of the image could not change.

12. In what follows, then, I would like to offer a general introduction to the Orthodox theology of the Icon, because it is not something that everyone knows, including members of the Orthodox Church. So, to begin.

II. A General Theology of Icons, or Iconology begins at 14:50 of the video

13. In Greek, the word “icon” simply means image (εἰκών is the ancient Greek form of the word, εικόνα is the modern Greek version of the word.) The word simply means “image,” and today the word “Icon” normally designates a devotional portrait: an image of Christ, such as the one you see on the screen, the Theotokos the Mother of God, or a Saint, painted in egg tempera, on a gold covered wooden board. But an Icon can also be a mosaic in the dome of a church, or a monumental wall painting, or fresco, or an image engraved on the side of a chalice.

14. These Byzantine mosaicists were so clever and so sophisticated; they would actually embed the mosaics on the wall on different kinds of angles to catch and reflect sunlight at different times. So you might have a place up in the dome that never received a whole lot of light because of the structure of the building, but they could actually set the mosaics on an angle in this dome to reflect (because the cubes are made out of glass, they are reflective of light) and so the image appears to actually generate light, and not simply reflect it.

15. So we said, an Icon is an image in the dome of a church, a painting, a fresco painting in a church, or an image engraved on the side of the chalice, or a story from the Bible painted in the margins of a book. An Icon can be elaborately fashioned, embellished with precious gems and stones, or it can be simple and unadorned, rough-hewn, even crude-looking, and mass-produced on inexpensive materials.

16. This is because what ultimately defines an Icon has nothing to do with the artistic medium or style, but rather depends on how the image is used, and most importantly, what it is believed to be. And every Icon is a means of spiritual encounter and dialogue. It offers us the possibility of such encounter, because it shares in the holiness of the sacred figure whose life it bears. The Icon is therefore not a work of a art (is not reducible to a work of art) but rather is a work of witness, an encounter with the sacred, that makes use of art. Through the use of wood, gold, colors, lines and forms, the Icon seems the beholder beyond the limits of ordinary sense perception, inviting us to perceive a new reality and to partake of a new creation.

17. The Icon has a distinctively charismatic function, we would say. It bears the energy and the grace of the sacred person whose image it projects. Elder Aimilianos whose was mentioned earlier, the former abbot of my monastery, used to say that an Icon is like a fire, he would say, and how can you walk by an Icon and not be warmed by it? It was this gracious, charismatic presence that the image radiates. In this way, again, Icons are not simply portraits, but manifestations of human persons in their new, heavenly condition. They are images of the spiritual character of human beings reborn, as it were, in the womb of eternity.

18. It is often said that Icons are like windows. When we look at an Icon of Christ, we do not say, “Now I am looking at an Icon or picture of Christ,” but rather we say, “Now I am looking at Christ Himself, contemplated by means of art.” As if through a window, or in a mirror, I see the human face of God. So Icons are windows, they are doors, and thresholds, too: meaning that they are spiritual places of passage and encounter, a place where I am raised up to the beauty of the archetype, and where the archetype is revealed to me, entering deeply into my senses and into my consciousness. The Icon has the ability to evoke within me the memory of the forgotten depth of my own being. It enables me to see my true face; it orients me toward my destiny in God, and this vision, this remembrance, this knowledge, fills me with unspeakable joy and profound consolation.

19. These may seem like extravagant claims, but they are fully consistent with the teaching of Scripture and the Church, especially the Church’s understanding of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and the world that came into being through Him. So I will say a few words about the Church’s christology (its teaching about Christ) and about creation (or “cosmology”), those being the two principle elements that go into the theology of the Icon.

20. Icons affirm and celebrate the central affirmation of the Christian Faith: the Word became flesh. As a consequence of this affirmation, salvation is not an abstract theory, but a particular Person: the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Who entered our world and lived a fully human exist in the concrete and palpable form of the human body. “That which was from the beginning,” writes the Evangelist, “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and touched with our hands . . . that is what we declare to you.” Heard, seen, touched – salvation in Christ is specific, visible, and tangible. And it is this tangibility, this reality, which the Icon of Christ guarantees and makes manifest. In Christ, God entered into human life. He took human nature to Himself, formed of the same physical elements as our nature and bodies are. Because Christ has assumed a true and integral humanity, it is possible to depict Him in Icons as God Incarnate. Indeed, the Church teaches that it is not only possible to do this, but necessary to do this. Because to refuse to make an Icon of Christ is to imply that His human nature is somehow unreal. If He truly became human, then He can be depicted. To deny His depictability, on the other hand, to deny the Icon, is to deny the reality of the Incarnation.

21. Critics of Icons, whether in ancient or modern times, have regularly appealed to the second of the Ten Commandments, which forbids any visual representation of God. But what this argument overlooks is precisely the intimate connection between the Icon and the Incarnation. The prohibition of images was entirely reasonable in the period before the Word became flesh, but everything has now been altered by what took place in Nazareth and Bethlehem. In the words of S. John of Damascus, “If we attempted to make an Icon of the invisible God, that would be sinful indeed. . . . For it is impossible to make an Icon of that which has no body, shape, or form. For how can that which is not seen but depicted? But, while no one has ever seen God, yet the only begotten Son, Who is in the bosom of the Father, has made the unseen God manifest. And so with confidence I make an Icon of the invisible God, not is so far as He is invisible, but in so far as He become visible for our sakes by partaking of flesh and blood. . . . Israel did not see God (there is a pun there, because ‘Israel’ means ‘he who sees God’), but we with unveiled faces behold the glory of the Lord as through reflected in a mirror.”

22. What was impossible before the Incarnation, has now become possible. Christ the Word-made-flesh is the Icon of the invisible God (Col 1:15), and by virtue of His Incarnation, we can make Icons of Him who is Himself the Icon. In Him, the whole fullness of the Deity dwells bodily (Col 2:9). In Him, God has become entirely human, thereby enabling us to depict the human Face of God. And if we can do so, then we must. Otherwise we undermine our confession of the Savior’s true Humanity.

23. The second point is closely related to the first point. At the Incarnation, God took a human body, using physical flesh as the means for our salvation. This says something about the nature of matter (about the possibilities of matter) to serve as a vehicle for the Spirit, a medium for the divine, to be transparent to God. Similar to the Incarnation, creation (the material world) is a theophany of God. It is a material manifestation of expression of God’s love, of God Himself. Creation came from God, and looks toward Him, and is returning to Him.

24. I heard an analogy once; there are people who think that the world is a random kind of place, and it has no meaning to it. A big bang set it all in motion, and everything happened just by chance. I suppose if you do not believe in God, maybe the world does not have meaning for you. The person who said this said, “Think about something like a porcelain vase. You could take a porcelain vase, and give it to a team of scientists. They could analyze it, and study it, and they could tell you what sort of materials it was made out of; how it is was mixed, and at what temperatures it was fired; what pigments were used to give it the color that it has. They could print out reams of information about that porcelain vase, and all of that information would be perfectly accurate. But there is one thing those scientists could never tell you, and that is that the porcelain vase was a wedding gift.” So if you do not see as a gift, then maybe it is meaningless for you. Maybe that is the correct deduction to make. But once you see the world as a gift from God, then everything changes. So creation has a purpose, God-given, and an aim. God saw everything that He made, and behold it was altogether good and beautiful (to tease that meaning out of the Greek). All created things are intrinsically good, and all therefore have Spirit-bearing potentialities.

25. To this essential goodness and beauty of the material world, the Icon bears joyful witness. In the Icon, we see matter restored to harmony, and so fulfilling its true vocation, which is to reflect and transmit the divine glory. The Icon, then, safeguards not only the authenticity of Christ’s physical Body, but also the true value of creation in its unfallen state, as created by God. Inherent in the very fact of the Icon is an optimistic, affirmative vision of the material creation. As Spirit-bearing matter, the Icon has what we would call “eschatological significance.” The Icon anticipates the final transfiguration of the cosmos at the Last Day, when the created world will be delivered from its present bondage to corruption (to quote S. Paul), and will enter into the glorious liberty of the children of God.

26. Earlier I mentioned that Icons are often compared to windows (you hear that all the time: that they are windows into Heaven, through which we see Christ or the Saints). But there is another way to think about Icons: not as windows, but as mirrors, and I think this is the better way to think about them. Like an image reflected in a mirror, or like the shadow cast by a body, the Icon is understood not simply as an artistic depiction, or representation, of something, but rather as the living and dynamic reflection of its source.

27. As an example of this dynamic process of reflection, and not representation but reflection, we might think of a tree which just by being what it is, is reflected in the waters of a lake. The subject of that reflection, the tree, itself creates the image upon the surface of the water. The appearance of the reflection of the tree involves no act of making, no planning, no deliberation, and no movement of discursive thought. It requires no act or deed of hand or mind on the part of the tree for its realization. The tree has simply to be what it is, and to be where it is, rooted there for the image to occur. So the image that proceeds from its source in such manner remains in dynamic continuity with its source, offering the viewer an immediacy and intimacy of presence: what we might call the gift of participation, and the creative self-diffusion of the Eternal.

28. We might also think of the Icon as a kind of trace or sign, like a fresh track or trail which one might come upon in the woods or on the seashore, and which one would recognize, perhaps with delight, or perhaps with alarm, or perhaps a mixture of both; because the trace, the track, shows us that whatever made it is still very much in the neighborhood. The Icon fascinates us, it delights us and sometimes alarms us; not through artistic techniques of representation, but through the reflected, tangible presence of divine beauty.

29. Yet another way to think about the difference between representation and reflection is to consider the difference between suddenly seeing a painting or drawing that is a representation; the difference between suddenly seeing a painting or drawing of a lion, and suddenly seeing the reflection of a lion in the mirror. These are very different things. The former (the representation) does not require the presence of a real or living lion. But the latter most certainly does. And in the same way, the Orthodox faithful do not understand Icons to be mere representations of things that are absent, lifeless, or ineffective. Instead, Icons are viewed, approached, and embraced as the reflections of living and life-giving persons, who are close at hand, and whose beloved faces we behold as if in a mirror.

30. The evocation and presentation, the reflection, of the transfigured self is achieved by altering the natural symmetries and proportions of the body, especially the features of the face. So I will say a few words about why Icons look the way they do, anatomically incorrect some people might say. But there is a reason for that.

31. For example, the face of the Icon is never depicted in profile, but is always turned more or less directly toward the beholder. The facial expression is serene and controlled. The Icon’s eyes and ears have often been enlarged, while the nose is often elongated and reduced in width. The mouth tends to be small and is always closed. What do these changes signify? How do they serve to project the spiritual qualities of the individuals depicted?

32. In the visual language of the Icon, the full frontality of the face represents the wholeness, completion, and perfection of the person depicted. Frontality also makes the Icon dialogical and relational. You cannot communicate with an image if it is turned away from me; so there is an obvious devotional function. That frontality is at once the sign and the vehicle of communion. The Gospel is addressed to the whole world, and the person in whom Christ dwells is turned toward others. Such a person lives for others. The profile, on the other hand, suggests fragmentation. It breaks communion and inaugurates a fading-away into non-being. It is the absence of the person. It implies a certain double-mindedness, of being two-faced. As a rule, it is reserved for the figure of Judas (who betrayed Christ with the kiss). That profile is reserved for figures like Judas and other figures, with whom the viewer is not invited to commune.

33. Looking at the face we are attracted to the eyes. The eyes are the highest organs of sense perception, and have been called the windows of the soul. They are that part of the face in which spiritual life most intensely concentrates. In many cultures, vision and sight function as metaphors for knowledge and understanding. In common parlance, to see is to know – “if you see what I mean,” “if you don’t see what I mean you are blind.” The enlarged eyes of the Icon represent increased wisdom, heightened awareness, and spiritual insight.

34. Hearing can also represent a mode of perceiving and experiencing God. The Mother of God, in both East and West (this is an ancient tradition), was herself said to have conceived the Word of God through her sense of hearing. What better way to conceive a word but through the ear or through the sense of hearing? In the case of the Saints, holy ears are attentive not only to the still, small voice of God, but to the prayers of the Church and to the cries of victims and the oppressed. The enlarged ears of the Icon signal an acute inner hearing, which can perceive the unspoken and the unconscious. It has been said that a person who is deaf to the Word of God is deaf to all voices, but the person who hears the Word of God can hear every voice.

35. The solemnly close mouth and pursed lips assure the beholder that the Icon does not laugh frivolously, wounding the sorrowful. So the faithful draw near to shed their tears before it. Though silent, the Icon speaks, comforting the downcast, reconciling those in discord, and urging all to put nothing in the world before the love of Christ. Divine truth, the Saints tells us, does not consist in talking but in silence, in remaining within the heart in long-suffering. The language of this world consists of words and speech, but the language of the next world is silence.

36. As mentioned above a moment ago, the nose of the Icon is thin and elongated, reminding the viewer that the transfigured person no longer breaths the perfumes and fragrances of this world, but only the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit. The fragrance of Jesus Christ, who like a flash of precious and sweet-smelling ointment, emptied Himself upon the wounded world. In the words of Paul, Christ was a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. The Apostle sensed that he himself was surrounded by an aura of sacred smell (2 Cor 2:15). For we are the odor of Christ; to some we are the odor of life, but others we are the odor of death; the death of unbelief and judgment.

37. In the Icon, the body and its senses have been restored to their true function as modes of relation with both God and the viewer. Through such communion, the self is energized and transformed, so that the body, which Plato called the prison of the soul, now becomes the living temple of the Holy Spirit. This transformation is described by Anthony the Great, who in a letter to his friends, promised them that “the Holy Spirit will teach you to keep your body the way you should, from your head to your feet. The Spirit will teach your eyes to look purely, your ears to listen patiently and with peace, your tongue to speak only good, your hands to be raised in prayer and to works of mercy, your feet to walk in the ways of righteousness in harmony with the will of God. Having thus submitted yourself to the power of the Spirit, you will change; and you will take on the qualities of the spiritual body which you will receive at the resurrection of the just on the Last Day.”

38. In a remarkable passage written more than one thousand years after Saint Anthony, S. Mark of Ephesus envisioned some of the qualities of that resurrected body. “Our eyes will see, and we will understand both ourselves and the beauty of God. In place of food, we will be filled when we see the glory of God. Our ears will receive the divine voice with joy, as it is written, make me to hear joy and gladness. We will taste with our lips and know that the Lord is good. And we shall breathe the fragrance of the spiritual myrrh which poured itself out for us. Although the tongue shall cease from its natural work, there will nonetheless resound the song of those keeping festival, and the sound of joy in the dwellings of the just. Together with the curious disciple, we shall touch the Word-made-flesh, and we shall know His wounds, and the reason for His Incarnation and Passion. And the stomach, when it accepts the nourishment of the Word shall give birth, for the body will become entirely spiritual, and its members will be spiritual, and the foci of spiritual energies; and thus the body will find its proper use.”

39. I recently found another passage like this, which is Saint John of Damascus’ description of the Mother of God in his homily on the birth of the Virgin, and it seemed a good idea to share it. This is what he says, speaking of the Mother of God: “Your eyes are continually before the Lord, seeing eternal and unapproachable light. Your ears hear the divine words and delight in the harp of the Spirit. Through them the Word entered that He might become flesh. Your nostrils are charmed by the scent of the Bridegroom’s ointments, who is Himself a divine ointment, which is willingly poured out to anoint His own Humanity, for your name is ointment poured out. Your lips praise the Lord and are attached to His lips. Your tongue and throat discern the words of God, and are filled with divine sweetness. Your heart is pure and unblemished, seeing and desiring the unseen God. Your womb contained the uncontainable God. Your hands carried Him. Your knees become a throne that is higher than the Cherubim. Your whole being is a bridal chamber of the Spirit.”

III. Conclusion

40. In light of creation and Incarnation, Icons reveal and convey the vision of the divine glory in which our world is immersed, and of which our world is a reflection, as if all things were enfolded within some great living being, whose tracks we see everywhere, of which we ourselves are the tracks and traces, because we too are images of the unimageable. We too are images and icons of that for which no image or icon can be made. There are no shadows within Icons, because the Icon is not illumined by the light of this world. The light of the Icon is an uncreated light that knows no evening. It is the grace of the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is the light which emerges from within the sacred space of the Icon, from the radiant faces of the Saints. It is a calm, restful, and joyful light. The shining Icon is like a light which illuminates and guides you, and you can see it comforting and clear, whether it is day or night, whether you are joyful or sorrowful, it fills you with a sense of consolation. Whether you live or whether you die, its grace is there and keeps you cradled in life incorruptible.