Word Magazine March 1987 Page 8


by Father Nicholas Ozolin

Why do we Orthodox like to speak about “theology in color” and what does this expression stand for?

Concerning “theology,” things seem to be rather clear. For an Orthodox Christian this word means the knowledge and teaching of the Church about God, mankind, and the whole creation, as well as what we have to do to restore their original communion.

But what about color then? Does it merely stand for red, white, yellow, and blue? Certainly not! Color, I would say, stands here for all elements composing an image — be it painted, carved, or put together out of small pieces of glass, as mosaics are. Actually whenever we use the expression “theology in color,” we speak about theology expressed through images — meaning, “icon theology.”

Those who authorize and encourage us to use all these expressions are the defenders of the holy icons: St. John of Damascus, St. Theodore the Studite, the holy patriarchs of Constantinople: Herman, Tarasios, Nicephoros, and the fathers of the seventh ecumenical council (787 AD.). Against those who attack the divine image, i.e., against the iconoclasts, the seventh council declared firmly: “we preach the gospel in two ways, by words and by images.” Now everybody knows that by words one can preach not only the Gospel, but also heresy. The same may be said about images.

There can be, and definitely are, images of Christ, the Mother of God, feast days and the saints depicted in a way that by no means corresponds to what the Church teaches about them. Such images do exist, and not only in Italian renaissance or baroque art. Unfortunately, quite a number of them are still used in our Orthodox churches, and often we do not even recognize them because we are so accustomed to them.

An Orthodox icon is an image that shows in its own pictoral manner the true faith and teaching of the Church. In its own manner, because the icon is always more than a servile literal illustration of a sacred text — be it a liturgical hymn or holy scripture itself — there may even occur something like a fictitious contradiction between them, as for instance, the representation of St. Paul in the icon of Pentecost. Of course, St. Paul was not there, but since the icon of Pentecost shows among other things the apostolicity of the Church, St. Paul is depicted facing St. Peter because no one could imagine apostolicity nor even the ministry of St. Peter without the complementary ministry of St. Paul.

We preach by words and by images, the fathers say. Preaching is part of our liturgical services, so “preaching images” obviously would have to be “liturgical images.” In fact, liturgy appears to be the main key to a correct understanding of icons. Liturgy always is prayer, and an icon is a “liturgical image” because it is used in prayer. As we have seen, the task of icons is not mainly to illustrate and certainly not merely to decorate. The essential task of any icon is to function in prayer. Therefore nothing alien to or inconsistent with the spirit of prayer, which is “the peace of God that passes all understanding” (Ph 4:7), may be expressed by an icon. The liturgical function also implies that the icon never exists for its own sake. In a way, it is accepted only in as much as it points and leads to the prototype. While praying, our attention must not be captured by the effigy we see. Consequently, a certain transparency obtained by a clear composition, simple forms and harmonic colors, as well as an accurate faithfulness to the traditional features of the saints are required.

In conclusion, let me quote Prince E.N. Trubetskoy who wrote in February 1918: “The fate of the icon parallels the fate of the Russian Church. The flowering of icon painting reflected the high spirituality of the generation that matured under the influence of the great Russian saints; later the decline in icon painting reflected the impoverishment of religious life “If our Orthodox faith is now experiencing a real renewal in this country, it certainly means that icon painting will come to a new flowering as well and that the Orthodox icon “theology in color” — will manifest and show the truth and beauty of the Church to all and everyone.

Fr Nicholas Ozolin is an Orthodox priest and iconographer in France.