What Can An Icon Tell Us?
Matthew J Bellisario 2011
Matthew J Bellisario 2011
The world today is largely iconoclastic. The image of God and all that is His is despised by the secular culture. Sadly, even those who proclaim to be Christians often scoff at sacred imagery, not realizing that when they oppose it, they actually oppose Christ and His incarnation. Iconography is one constant affirmation of the incarnation by every ancient apostolic Church world wide. The Catholic, Orthodox and Oriental Churches share the praxis of using the sacred image in worship, while Protestantism largely rejects it. Why did the Church fight so hard to retain the use of sacred imagery against the heretics who sought to destroy it?
The Church has always affirmed that the confrontation over sacred imagery was doctrinal to the core. Christ’s incarnation was at the center of the contest, but it goes even deeper. What good is sacred imagery aside from underpinning a core doctrine of the Church? It can be said that what was preached by the apostles, and then later written down in the Scriptures, is certainly amplified by sacred imagery. Not only do our ears hear, but the eyes see as well. We are taken in by the life of Christ in all of His glory when we embrace the gospel. As we participate in the Church’s liturgical worship, we realize that we as Christians are immersed in the life of Christ. It can be said that unless one has proper liturgical worship, then one cannot have a proper private prayer life or devotion to Christ.
Christ in the liturgy, made present in the Eucharistic sacrifice, is the central focus of Christian worship. From that central point everything else revolves. Those who do not share in Christ’s liturgical sacrifice are seriously deficient in their worship of almighty God. The entire liturgical year engages the Christian in the very life of Christ. The sacred image illustrates this important fact quite well. Just how much can one sacred image tell us? I will look to one icon from The Holy Mother Of God Church in Conyers, Georgia to answer this important question. I will use the icon of the crucifixion to illustrate the depth of the sacred image. As we will see, the icon is much more that just
an artistic Biblical snapshot of particular point in time. The sacred image transcends time. It brings to life the past, the present, the future, and ultimately eternity.
When we engage this particular icon of the Crucifixion, we immediately see Christ, God made man, as the central figure of the image. Almighty God is the center, the Alpha and the Omega, the God-man repairing the breach between God the Father and the fallen human race. We see Christ above the tomb, conquering death. As the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom proclaims in the East, “By death He trampled death!” We do not have merely a past event remembered as a historical event, but we see here an eternal transcendence of Christ conquering death. Around the Saviour is the halo with the traditional symbols which appear to be an ‘O’ ‘W’ ‘N’. The symbols actually stand for “I Am Who I Am.” There is no question as to Who it is being depicted in the central figure of this particular icon. We then observe the head piece above Christ in which the Greek symbols etched into it abbreviate, (Iésous o Nazóraios o Basileus tón Ioudaión) or “"Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews."
As we move out from the center of the image, side to side, we then observe the contrast of good and evil in mankind; those who will receive eternal life, and those who will receive eternal damnation. It is a contrast of life and death, light and darkness, man’s yes to God, and man’s no to God. To the right we see light and life, and to the left we observe darkness and death. If we observe closely, this reality is largely depicted by the good thief and the unrepentant thief on each side of Christ on the cross. We see on the right of Christ, the good thief’s soul being carried away to heaven by the angel, while on the left side of Christ we see the demon pulling the soul of the unrepentant thief down into the abyss of hell. Likewise we see the sun over the good thief and the moon over the unrepentant. One soul is bright and full of life, the other darkened.
We then observe the traditional depiction of the Blessed Mother of God and Saint John the Evangelist at the foot of the cross, meditating on Christ’s sacrifice. Of course we see the halos around the Theotokos and St. John. Next to the Theotokos we see an inscription of the symbols which look like an MP-OP, which actually stands for ‘The Mother of God’, or ‘God Bearer’. This is yet another core doctrine of the Christian faith, and it is also observed by every ancient, apostolic Christian Church. We then are able to contemplate the words of Christ as He gave the Theotokos to St. John, and in turn to us as well, as a central part of our family. “Jesus saw his own mother, and the disciple standing near whom he loved, he said to his mother, "Woman, behold your son". Then he said to the disciple, "Behold your mother". And from that hour, he took his mother into his family.” Here it is illustrated that we have the communion of Saints in the bosom of the Church. We also witness the sorrowful Mother grieving for her child, and hence we reflect on the 5th sorrow of Our Lady’s Seven Sorrows. On the far left of Christ’s side we also see the soldiers gambling for Christ’s robe, while we see the rest of the figures of those contemplating Our Lord’s crucifixion to His right. This one icon has amply illustrated several core doctrines of Christianity.
As we can see just from this brief explanation, there is a ton of theology packed into the sacred imagery of one icon. When you have an entire church adorned with many icons, as is common in most traditional Christian churches, you then have the entire gospel of Jesus Christ presented in sacred imagery! The central theological teachings of the Church are all presented in some form from within the sacred image. The icon is the gospel of Jesus Christ presented in a visual form, and that is why sacred imagery is so important to the Church. Those today in the Catholic Church who are iconoclastic, and wish to discard the sacred images from church architecture are tools of the devil, whether they realize it or not. For example, anyone who understands sacred imagery could never purchase an iconoclastic monstrosity like the ‘Crystal Cathedral’, which the Diocese of Orange has recently done. Do they realize that the Saints gave their lives to defend the sacred images? Yet today we still have heretics in the Church who oppose them with an obstinate and perverse attitude. Pray that these wretched tools of the devil may be converted to the true faith, or cast out of the Church. Iconoclasm is a heresy, and it should be opposed with as much vigor and tenacity as any other heresy.