This post is the final part of my series, 'The Splendor and Glory of the Sacred Image' and covers the theology of the sacred image and the restoration of the Roman Iconographic Tradition.
The Theology of the icon
Renown Iconographer and iconographic historian Aiden Hart writes, “Perhaps the most essential aspect of any sacred art is that it mediates between a higher divine realm, and our realm.”
I will briefly cover how an icon is composed and the theological underpinnings which give the icon its unique Christological locus. Everything pertaining to the icon revolves around Jesus Christ. Saint Athansius once said, “He became man in order that we might become God.” This central theme of deification, or commonly called theosis in Greek, is the heart and soul of the icon. It leads man to an encounter with God through meditation, in which God, through His grace transforms him. In other words, we should all be climbing the ladder of divine ascent, and the icon helps us to do just that. Father Daniel Montgomery writes, “An icon seeks to make visible the borderline between heaven and earth. Its subject matter may be “in” this world but not “of” this world.” I hope that the second part of this lecture will inspire you to make the icon a more integral part of your personal devotion and prayer life both inside and outside church.
Metropolitan Hilarion spoke rightly when he said, “The icon’s purpose is liturgical; it is an integral part of liturgical space, which is the church, and an indispensable participant in divine services... Certainly, every Christian has the right to hang an icon at home, but he has this right only in so far as his home is a continuation of the church and his life a continuation of the liturgy... The icon participates in the liturgy along with the Gospel and the other sacred objects. In the tradition of the Orthodox Church, the Gospel is not only a book for reading but also a liturgically revered object: during the liturgy the Gospel is solemnly brought out for the faithful to kiss. In a similar way, the icon as “Gospel in color” is an object not only to be contemplated but also to be venerated with prayer.” Catholics along with the other apostolic Churches (Orthodox Churches), give reverence to the Gospels and Sacred Images. We should understand that the veneration we give to the Gospels, the Saint’s relics and the Holy Images is not the same as the worship we give to God alone, which is known by theological scholars as latreia. The veneration of icons is known as proskynesis. This is the special honor we give to the Saints and the Mother of God. Although the type of “worship” that we give the Saints and Almighty God is certainly different, God still remains the center focus of devotion. When the Christian engages in the tradition of proskyesis, he or she is really honoring the work of God’s grace in man. In our Latin theological Tradition we hold three modes of worship, latrea which is the worship due to God alone. Hyper-dulia which is the high devotion or veneration to the Mother of God, for she is, “More honorable than the cherubim and truly more glorious than the seraphim.” Finally we have dulia or the veneration of the Saints.
Most icons in churches are either grafted as frescoes or mosaics onto the walls, are on panels attached to walls, or are panels installed into an iconostasis which separates the sanctuary from the nave. In the Eastern Church the icon of the particular Church Feast of the season, or an icon of Christ or the Theotokos is kept in the front of the church in front of the sanctuary for veneration. In the West this type of icon veneration is also practiced, although the icons are usually near the entrances of the church, and they did not usually correspond to a particular liturgical season. This Western practice of icon veneration has been almost extinct in American Catholicism. If you go to Rome for example, this practice is still alive and well. In the West, usually only an altar rail or rood screen was used to separate the nave from the sanctuary, while in the Eastern Church the separation developed to bring the sacred image to a place of prominence before the worshipper.
The iconostasis of the East began with a low wall containing one row of icons, and it developed quickly to contain more images. The pinnacle of iconostasis construction is found in the Russian tradition where the iconostasis can span from floor to ceiling containing many rows of icons. This engages the worshipper with images of Christ and His Saints, putting before him or her in image what is actually happening in the liturgy. It is nothing short of the kingdom of heaven brought to mankind as described in Revelation 21:1-3, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth...And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God... and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men.” There is a proper order in which the icons are traditionally placed on the iconostasis. The royal doors at the center contain the four evangelists and a depiction of the Annunciation. Christ and the Theotokos flank the royal doors, the archangels flank Christ and the Theotokos, and the Saints, usually the patron Saints of the Church flank the Archangels. Above, there are usually depictions of the Feast days of the Church along with other Saints.
Although the Western Church did not develop in the same way as the Eastern Church did in regard to iconography, it is not accurate to say that icons are an exclusive product of the Eastern Church. This is a mistake made by many today who ignorantly attribute iconographic images as a product of the Eastern Church. Both the East and West share a mutual love and heritage for the sacred image. In fact iconographic scholar and historian Hans Belting says that the original concept of the icon is best understood in light of the churches of Rome. Note, I did not say the the icon is a product of Rome. In the Roman churches however we see the same setting, in which most of the early iconography was displayed, which was on the walls of the church rather than what we see with the development of the iconostasis in the East. There are many splendid Western churches such as Saint Mark’s in Venice, San Vitale in Ravenna, Santa Maria Maggiore and Santa Maria en Trastevere in Rome which have their interior walls, apses and domes covered with mosaic iconography. Although most Western Churches do not make use of an iconostasis as such, the apse and walls on each side of the apse facing the nave, have iconographic depictions, and engage the worshipper to the liturgical setting of the West. This setting for the icon is earlier than that which developed in the East with the iconostasis. I personally consider Saint Mark’s in Venice to be the pinnacle of Western Iconography. I had the wonderful privilege of celebrating Easter Vigil in 2007 there, and it was nothing short of remarkable. The West may have indeed kept this traditional Roman use of the icon, and it may have even developed further had the Renaissance not interfered. The Renaissance in the West marks a departure away from traditional icon depiction in the Western Church.
The beautiful and inspiring work of Giotto di Bondone can be viewed as the dividing line between the more purely theological image of the icon, and the more secular artistic styles that would soon follow him. We begin to observe movement in Giotto’s image, which had been traditionally absent from the icon. The following renaissance painters broke completely from the traditional form of producing sacred images, in favor of more realistic depictions. Catholic priest and iconographer Monsignor Anthony La Femina calls this later art “religious art” rather than “sacred art” being that it depicts only religious events rather than the more theological composition which the icon depicts, aiming at devotion rather than events. The later efforts at depicting a more “realistic” image, was a misguided one when looked at in the context of liturgical and devotional use, since more corporeal aspects of religion began to dominate over its eternal mystical realities. The more important spiritual aspect of the sacred image was eventually replaced with the corporeal. Although religious art can certainly be beautiful, and have its place in Catholic culture, it should certainly not completely take the place of the sacred image or icon. Here my criticism is not aimed at the quality of the Renaissance art itself, but is aimed at the deficiency of its ability to inspire meditation beyond itself. This same secular movement would come into play theologically in the West as well when secular humanism became to take hold of many in the Church, eventually playing a part in the later Protestant rebellion.
If we examine the traditional icon, we do not see an image of an exact representation of a Saint, the Theotokos or even Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, as they were when they walked the earth. Nor do we see an attempt at a purely realistic depiction of a Biblical event. The Biblical depictions are not rendered in motion, but as eternal events. The icon does not show the Saint in motion, but intends to convey glorified Saints, who are fully deified by the grace of God. Hence you do not see an attempt at a three dimensional depiction. Father Daniel Montgomery notes, “There is no depth to the picture, and that is just what disturbs us about it at first glance. The picture seems primitive. A closer study reveals, however, that the picture is often exceedingly complex. The flatness, for example, is sometimes achieved by drawing perspective in reverse. The artist expects us not to look at his picture, but through it.” Notice that there are no vanishing points which give the impression that you are seeing the image from front to back. Again I refer to Metropolitan Hilarion for further explanation, “The icon of a saint shows not so much a process as a result, not so much a way as a destination point, not so much a movement towards a goal but as a goal in itself. In an icon we see someone who does not struggle with the passions but has overcome them, who does not seek the Heavenly Kingdom but has already reached it.” The icon also illustrates heavenly traits unique to different Saints and there are also traditional iconographic models for each Saint which makes them recognizable. For example you can always recognize Saint John Chrysostom due to his slightly enlarged forehead, representing his great wisdom and holiness. The icon opens the door to the Saint, letting us know that Christ is the God of the living, and that His Saints are interceding for us as they stand before Him in heaven.
For those who are not familiar with the icon, again it is important to understand that the icon is not concerned with a perfectly “realistic” depiction of a Saint in his fallen earthly form. The iconographic scholar Constantine Cavarnos again stresses this point, “Iconography represents persons who have been regenerated into eternity.” Likewise Christ is depicted as an eternal figure, with both His divine and human natures, rather than with only His human nature, which would be stressed in later Western religious art. We can see in an icon of the crucifixion, that the icon retains a focus on not only the crucifixion event, but also on Christ as the eternal Son of God. The viewer is not distracted, but drawn into contemplation. The crucifixion event is not one of movement, but of an eternal nature, it leads one beyond the image. Metropolitan Hilarion says, “The Byzantine icon is not merely an image of the man Jesus but precisely God become man. This is what distinguishes the Orthodox icon from Renaissance religious art which represents Christ “humanized”. The later Western religious depiction of the crucifixion such as Titian's depiction in Venice, although certainly striking and beautiful, somewhat obscures the divine realities, and therefore does not draw one as easily into contemplation. Instead it pulls him to and fro examining the many figures at the foot of the cross. As we meditate on the warm, glowing, and radiant icon, the idea of both the human and divine natures of Christ come to mind, and we begin to see ourselves in the process of deification. The icon does not distract, but leads one beyond itself. As Catholics we struggle to achieve, by the grace of God, the pure state in which we will be glorified in heaven. When we enter a Church to worship the one true God, to receive His Body and Blood, we are essentially entering into eternity, and when we see the sacred images before us, we become more aware of this elusive, yet extremely important reality. So the icon mirrors the priority of the spiritual over the corporeal. Bishop Auxentios writes, “...the spiritual and the physical exist in a hierarchical relationship in man's restored state, the spiritual enjoying the ascendancy. Ideally, then, the body serves, and does not hinder, the spirit, as the latter worships, prays, psalmodizes, and performs good works or acts of asceticism and self-denial.” Therefore, the icon also follows this theological model by bringing asceticism to the forefront of the viewer’s mind.
This central role of God deifying us does not stop when we leave the church doors, therefore it is important for the sacred images to be present in our homes. In the West, we are more familiar with having statues or forms of religious art in our homes rather than icons to help us in our private devotions. Many of them are indeed beautiful, and I have many myself. Although I believe that statues retain the attributes of the sacred image in a three dimensional presentation, most Eastern scholars would disagree with me on this by the way, I do think they still tend to lack the mystical element of the icon. So I propose that it is best to compliment the use of sacred statues with that of the icon. As far as religious art goes, they make great decoration, and they can help teach us about past religious events, but they are certainly no substitute for the icon. They simply lack the mystical element to draw man beyond itself.
Bishop Auxentios illustrates the importance of icons in the traditional Russian Christian household, which I think may be useful to us as Western Catholics. “In Orthodox homes, the eastern corner of a centrally located room is always dedicated to the display of icons. There are usually many such icons on display (twenty-five to thirty icons would constitute a conservative average), and this "icon corner" always features at least one vigil lamp hanging before it, religiously and perpetually kept burning by the members of the household or, in the event of their absence, by someone hired or appointed for this task.” Now obviously I am not implying that you should leave candles or lamps burning day and night, or that you go out and hire yourself an icon keeper to keep the vigil lamps burning 24/7. What I am stressing here is how important these people think it is to maintain an iconic presence of God in their homes. Extreme?; perhaps. But no more extreme than what the average American does weekly such as viewing syndicated television programs or sporting events, over eating our rich foods, spending lengthly amounts of time on the internet, putting ourselves in immediate occasions of sin partying down at the local club, consuming massive amounts of alcohol or drugs, or the many other forms of escapism many indulge in today. In other words, the things we are “extreme” about are the things we truly love. Where we spend our time, and what we spend our time doing, in essence tells us what or whom we truly love. Although I have used an example here of how the Russians in the East venerate icons in their homes, we should not think that private veneration of icons is an Eastern phenomenon. In fact, Hans Belting explains that Christians in the early centuries from the West often carried relic boxes with icons on them when they went on pilgrimages to holy sites. Likewise the use of small icons for personal devotion in the household was common. This is one devotional practice that urgently needs to be restored in the West.
There are five core characteristics of an icon.
The icon first leads us into prayer.
- The icon gives us a portrait of holiness as well as a historical truth of the person depicted.
- The icon gives us a theological truth, which of course varies depending on the event, person or persons depicted.
- The icon has didactic meaning, one which gives us a religious or moral teaching.
- The icon contains an anagogic meaning, which unites the earthly with the mystical heavenly realm, and the afterlife.
If we look even closer at the icon we can see what separates it further in its composition from secular forms of art. Certainly the methods in which the icon has been produced, has developed with time. The icon has been traditionally made with mediums such as encaustic wax, plaster, mosaic tile and egg tempera. The earliest sacred images were certainly simple productions made with pigments from the earth in the form of frescos, and soon after mosaic tiles. Likewise today’s traditional iconography, although more theologically advanced, maintain a similar practice which makes use of earth pigments, mixed with egg, creating a medium known as egg-tempera.
There are three characteristics of the iconographer as he engages in writing an icon.
They are, ‘theory’, ‘practice’ and ‘contemplation’.
- Theory is the vast amount of time the iconographer spends in prayer, in researching, studying and observing the icon and the iconographic process.
- Practice is the actual icon writing itself, in which the iconographer uses prayer, a physical medium, a theological framework and a recognizable iconographic model to write the icon.
- Contemplation is the important internalization of writing the icon, which bonds the person with the eternal Godhead through the icon writing process. This is also known as theoria. In a sense, the icon speaks to the iconographer during the process of its creation. In essence, the icon itself becomes a prayer.
If we examine a panel icon, we see that it is painted where light is brought out from darkness. Acrylic paints are now being used by some iconographers today, but even when using this medium, the same process of applying the color from dark to light is the same. The image begins with preparing a board with gesso, a mixture of plaster and glue. It is sanded smooth and then an image is either drawn or transferred onto the board. After this is done the image is incised, or scribed into the board with a sharp object like a scribing tool. Once this has been done the painting can begin. The background and halo is done first, usually with a clay base, which will be covered in gold leaf. Then a color medium is used to paint the clothing or other objects. There are several layers of highlighting done, and some schools separate them with veils of a thin medium. The highlighting brings the image out of the darkness into the light. As the process continues, we begin to see the grace of God radiating through the icon. All of these steps have a theological meaning, which give the image a unique bond with both the iconographer, and all those who will meditate on it. Through the many steps of writing the icon, it slowly becomes a window, or more accurately, a doorway to heaven.
We traditionally say that the iconographer does not “paint” an icon, but “writes” it, noting the difference in how the icon is created compared to other art. It is written in much of the same way as Scripture is written, in other words it is the gospel in image. Just as technique is of crucial importance to the creation of an icon, so is the choice of pigments. There are general principles in choosing what colors are used on an icon, but it must be stressed that there have been various schools of iconography which have varied in practice, separated by time and geographical area. So, as a general rule we have the following color explanations.
- Gold symbolizes God’s divine light, grace or the splendor of the celestial kingdom. Hence we see the back ground and halos in gold. Notice how the halo is different fro that of later Western art.
- Purple symbolizes royalty, we see Christ and some Saints in purple.
- Red can depict the passion of God’s love, and divinity. It is also used to depict the blood of martyrdom as is often seen in the icons of the Saints who were martyred.
- Green may also used to depict martyrdom in icons.
- White is the symbol of the heavenly realm, and is also the color of holiness and cleanliness. Sometimes we see Christ in white such as in the icon of the Descent Into Hell.
- Blue is a symbol of eternity or heavenly participation. In some instances it also depicts humanity. For example in many icons you see the Theotokos often wearing blue with red on the outside, showing her humanity covered by divinity. Christ is often shown the opposite, wearing red on the inside and blue on the outside symbolizing His divinity clothed with His humanity.
- Brown is used to depict the earthly realm or human nature. It also depicts poverty and many monks are depicted wearing brown.
- Black usually denotes death, or eternal darkness. Demons are always depicted black in iconography.
There are six traditional categories of icons.
- The Lord Jesus Christ, or Christ the Savior. Christ is depicted in many forms, such the Pantokrator or the Teacher.
- The Theotokos, or Mother of God, often called the All Holy One or the Panagia. Likewise there are many forms in which she is depicted, such as The Guide, Tender Mercy, or the Oranta. (explain 3 stars- virginity)
- We have the angels, such as Saint Michael or Saint Gabriel.
- We have the Feasts of the Church such as the Annunciation, the Descent into Hell or the Epiphany.
- Then we have the many Saints of the Church of which the most famous include Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Nicholas and Saint Gregory the Great.
- Finally we have didactic icons which are aimed at specific teachings. We have the icons of the Old Testament for example such as Abraham and Isaac, The Old Testament Trinity, or the Three Holy Youths in the Furnace.
It would be a mistake before we close not to recap on how the sacred image helps us to grow in the love of God. I would like to expound on a few thoughts with Aiden Hart’s perspective on some spiritual aspects of the icon.
- Sacred art participates in what it represents- Thus the icon helps us to realize the eternal world we enter into when we enter a church. The building, the art and everything material is consecrated for the purpose of worshipping the one true God.
- Sacred art aids repentance- The way the icon depicts divine realities inspires in us to turn towards the light of grace which is depicted in them. The icon also helps us to remove ourselves from the egocentric world we find ourselves regularly immersed in. I would add, that we need the sacred image, to go beyond ourselves and contemplate the eternal.
- Sacred art is liturgical- When we enter the church we see sacred images before us. They help us to engage in the liturgical functions more fully. Likewise the sacred images should be venerated, kissed or processed with. We see the procession in the West most frequently with statues of The Blessed Mother, on the Feast of the Assumption for example, while in the East a panel icon is frequently processed with during a Feast. When we honor the icons in our homes, we are actually extending what happens in the liturgy into our homes.
All three of these attributes of the sacred image bring us to love God more fully. The sacred image brings before our eyes the most beautiful divine realities of the incarnation of Christ, and thus our deification and salvation.
I will leave you now with a few thoughts about the icon, and what it means for us as Catholics today. The great iconographer Leonid Ouspensky writes, “The fundamental principle of this art is a pictorial expression of the teaching of the Church, by representing concrete events of sacred History and indicating their inner meaning. The art is intended not to reflect on the problems of life but to answer them, and thus, from its very inception, is a vehicle of the Gospel teaching.” Furthermore the icon is not a side option of our Christian faith, it is an integral part of our spiritual life. Ouspensky continues, “the doctrine relating to the image is not something separate, not an appendix, but follows naturally from the doctrine of salvation, of which it is an inalienable part.”
I propose that along with the loss of many of our traditional practices in the Catholic Church, the loss of the sacred image has been one of the most damaging in our era. The Eastern Church won their battle over the iconoclasts and have since developed their own iconic tradition. In the West, our war has yet to be waged against our present day silent iconoclastic movement. The bishops who facilitate this desacralization do not have to outrightly come out and formally condemn the use of icons in word as the heretics did in the eighth century, but their actions are very similar. Many, certainly not all, bishops and their minions have marched into churches, whitewashed the images, jackhammered out altars, many adorned with sacred images and discarded them as yesterday’s garbage. The sacred image has also been prohibited from being placed into new churches, instead being replaced with deformed, profane images. The loss of the sacred image in Western Catholic culture has been detrimental to the Church and society. This decline has come along side of theological errors which have crept into the Church, coming to its full iconoclastic pinnacle over the last 50 to 60 years. The era of modernism following the Second Vatican Council has now almost done away with the sacred image in our Western Catholic worship, both in liturgical and in private devotion. It is not acceptable that many of our Catholic churches today can’t be distinguished from a secular auditorium or business park. Silence should no longer be tolerated when it comes to the profanation of sacred images and the ongoing onslaught of church wreck-ovations today.
Yes, at Christ the King we are somewhat insulated now from the rest of the Western Church. We have six wonderful stained glass windows, a beautiful icon of ‘Our Lady of Perpetual Help’ and beautiful statues of Our Lord, Our Lady, St. Peter, St. Paul and the angels. Obviously I am certainly not advocating that we abandon these sacred image traditions we have developed in the West. What I am calling for however is that we not abandon the traditional iconographic model of the Roman Church as a whole. In other words we have lost some of our Roman iconographic heritage. It is up to us to revive the sacred image by introducing them back into our Western Catholic tradition. They must be a part of our public and private devotion. We can each choose to reintroduce this practice into our homes and pass it on to our children. Many of us stand in awe after the re-election of one of the most heinous men to ever fill the presidential seat. Should we be surprised? As the Church goes, the world goes. When the Church gets watered down with secularization, society also degenerates. Society is not going to fix itself without the shining beacon of Christ, His Church and His Saints. May we have the courage and holiness to stand up today like those many Saints who came before us, who sacrificed everything they had to save the holy icon. If we listen closely we can still hear the chants of the faithful as they processed through the streets of Constantinople glorifying God and His Saints.
I now close with the troparion which is sung in the Eastern Church in veneration of Saint Nicephoros of Constantinople, to whom I ask for intercession so that we may win our war in the West against these wretched iconoclasts.
Your inspired confession gained victory for the Church, O holy Hierarch Nicephorus.
You suffered unjust exile through reverence for the icon of God the Word.
O righteous Father, Pray to Christ our God to grant us his great mercy!
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