Word Magazine June 1959 Page 9



By Aristeides Papadakis

Holy Cross Orthodox Theological School

“I have seen the human image of God, and my soul is saved.”


The Eastern Orthodox Church is par excellence the worshipping Church. Faith without worship can have no meaning for an Orthodox Christian, since he is called upon to lead a Eucharistic life under the pale of the Church — the Liturgy being the center, the nucleus of one’s whole spiritual existence. Thus, the richness and beauty of the Byzantine Liturgy are characterized as “metaphysical lyricism” by pere Louis Bouyer.

The holy icons are part of the worship of the Church and as such are of tantamount importance to the individual, theologically and spiritually. As a spiritual force, they are part of one’s prayers, a link between the soul and the spiritual cosmos; a place of meeting between the Christian who venerates them and the holy personage depicted in them. In other words, the icon is a means of communion as Father Bulgakov notes, unlike the Latin statue which is a means of evocation and teaching. Doctrinally it is intrinsically Orthodox in its conception, for it speaks of the piety and devotion of the Orthodox world and of the hauntingly wondrous miracle of the Incarnation proclaimed by the Church of Christ. It is not a quixotic symbol used by the Church, but a valid object through which are made manifest many of the dogmas of the Church: Through the face of Christ the icon perpetuates the incarnation; through the icons of the saints is revealed the sanctification that a believer is capable of achieving. In this sense, many icons (such as the Old Testament Holy Trinity of Rublev) are theological masterpieces. For through color and design they depict the doctrines of the Church.

In order to understand the paragon of Christian art — Eastern icon — one must realize that the Church, from its inception, defended the very existence of the icon. Furthermore, through the 2nd Council of Nicaea (787), the Church has canonized the significance, holiness and theology of the icons. And she thus displayed in actuality, the excellence of her aesthetical and theological judgment. Consequently, icon veneration cannot be attacked without heresy.

It is true that the Eastern Church has only a limited number of dogmas, formulated in order to suppress certain heresies and misconceptions. Whatever truths have not had occasion to be disputed remain in the realm of theologoumena — upon which theologians are free to develop. The iconoclastic controversy of the eighth century was an occasion upon which the Church was called to denounce certain heresies and define what had always been upheld by her. Is not the use of icons a violation of the precept of the Decalogue which states that no graven images are to be made (Exod. 20,4)? This was the crux of the controversy upon which the Church was called to give her an apologia.

It was stated that the cult of the icon can be considered neither a breach of Law nor idolatrous. The Synod proceeded to explain that the honor paid to the image goes over to the prototype. Hence, upon honoring the icon of the Theotokos, or any of the other Saints, we are not paying honor to the icon before us per se, but to the person depicted thereon. The honor traverses to the Heavenly World. In addition, the icon, said the Fathers, is not a resemblance (unlike the Latin image) but an abstract scheme devoid of any earthly reality, partaking of the glory of the prototype.

The Church Fathers went further in their explanation. With profound insight they revealed the connection between the icon and Christological dogma, that is, the basing of the icon on the Divine Incarnation. The Kontakion, sung on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, illustrates admirably the relation of the two:

“The indefinable Word of the Father made Himself definable, having taken flesh of Thee, O Mother of God, and having re­fashioned the soiled image to its former estate, has suffered it with Divine beauty. But confessing salvation we show it forth in deed and word.”

Through the Incarnation, the kenosis of Christ, God made Himself describable. Through the Holy Virgin it was made possible for Christ to have a representative form — visible and tangible. Saint Athanasius says: The Image of the Father came and dwelt in our midst, in order that He might renew mankind made after Himself.” The “obliterated” image of man, according to the Bishop of Alexandria, was renewed in us. Thus, not only can we paint God the Son, since he took a human form but the Saints as well, seeing that, in their lives we have a mirror of the new image, the image Christ restored. Accordingly, in the icon of the Saint we have a visible revelation of the redemptive activity of Christ. Precisely, the patristic formula, “God became man in order that man should become god ,“is what the icon of the saint declares to the worshiper. As a deduction, therefore, the denial of the icon of Christ is a denial of the fact of His becoming man, let alone of His whole oikonomia.

Before closing a few words should be said concerning the “art” of the icon. We have already referred to the abstractness of the Eastern icon, of its puritanical hostility to reality, but not of its intrinsic spirituality. This, above all is what makes the Byzantine icon unique in the realm of Christian art.

Unlike the secular painter, the iconographer’s main purpose is to spiritualize nature, to portray a certain truth in all its spirituality. The imitation of nature is unimportant. His icon must have a transcendental character in that it may evoke the piety of the Christian. For example, the icon of our Lady with its solemn calm, its mystical silence, its inner peace and absence of passion, emanates an atmosphere that is prerequisite for a prayerful soul. The world the iconographer portrays is an eschatological world, not of Raphael’s but of the Gospels.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that the painting of the icon is not a craft, but a liturgical art. Because of this and of the purely spiritual task of the painter, Byzantine art cannot be judged by the criteria of secular art. “Art criticism” cannot and should not be applied to the icon unless one has in mind all the above presuppositions. For unlike profane art, it is not an object of aesthetic admiration. The sole criterion is its content; its dogmatic character determines both its form and style.

The only contention of this brief essay is to bring to the fore the importance of a unique symbol in Orthodoxy. But more important to present the holy icon as time development of tradition and piety as well as theology. And finally, to show that for an Orthodox Christian an icon means more than just a picture.