on Icons: their origins, meaning and use


For two years my wife and I had the great privilege to live in the Orthodox Theological Academy in St Petersburg. We were sent from 1993-1995 by the Church Mission Society, an Anglican mission agency, to establish links with the Orthodox Church which was beginning to emerge from 70 years of persecution under the communist regime.

When we went, I had a very western and Protestant suspicion of icons; and yet by the end of our time I had come to cherish both icons and the tradition for which they stand. I could, did and do now venerate icons (the Orthodox make a clear distinction between the veneration of an icon and the worship which is due to the divine person which they may represent). Occasionally, when I am away from home, I may take out a photograph of my wife and kiss it. I do not confuse the photograph with her, but it is a way of expressing my love for her.

We became very aware of how significant icons were to the people among whom we prayed. We were taken to icons that ‘wept’ and to miracle working icons (I never was completely comfortable with that!). We heard stories of how God had brought about great deliverance through icons, and about the part that they played in the history of Russia.

And we also shared in the horror of those we were among when we heard about the destruction of the churches and of images venerated by the faithful for hundreds of years.

Video clips of the destruction of the Church of Christ the Saviour and icons http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uoAEKHBtNIA&feature=related
This is an attempt to give a glimpse into the origins, meaning and use of sacred icons. It is by no means original, although may contain some original ideas. This was initially presented as a lecture at St Edmundsbury Cathedral. I have tried to use images which are in the public domain. However, if images that are not have crept in, I apologise, and sincerely hope that people will go to the sources of the documents to which I draw attention, where these images can be seen clearly.

The first part considers the earliest origins of Christian icons, and the second part considers four icons in detail: an icon of Christ, of Mary, of the descent of the Holy Spirit and of the Trinity.

The first Christian images appear about 200AD. They are found mainly in the catacombs and on sarcophagi (from 230). There are also the remarkable images from the church at Dura-Europos, which we can date with some confidence at about 230AD.

But we can go back a little further: The earliest Christian symbols seem to be the image sign of the Tau-rho and Chi-rho

example from the Gospel of Thomas of the tau-rho being used in the word stauros, cross. Larry Hurtado argues that this is a sign that is used to refer to the crucified Jesus.
[see The staurogram in early christian manuscripts: the earliest visual reference to the crucified Jesus? Larry W. Hurtado, accessed at http://www.era.lib.ed.ac.uk/handle/1842/1204]

For instance: the chi-rho, anchor, fish, ship and dove

Sign images:
People and stories: often associated with catacombs. Images of salvation from the Old Testament dominate: Daniel, Noah, Jonah. Also Christ healing the paralysed man and the raising of Lazarus. [The catacombs and sarcophagi of C4th multiply miracles of Jesus]

Faithful: Adoration of the Magi [catacombs, C3rd Sarcophagus?]. Orants (people with their hands raised in prayer), communal meals (these are often ambiguous. They could refer to multiplication of loaves, to last supper or to heavenly banquet), fish and loaves, baptisms (again, these are ambiguous: do they show us the baptism of Jesus or of a new disciple?).

Early images of Jesus
Based on Christian Iconography, A study of its origins, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969, Andre Grabar, http://www.amazon.com/Christian-Iconography-W-Lectures-Bollingen/dp/0691018308

The Good Shepherd [in ancient Roman art the figure of the shepherd carrying a lamb was a symbol of philanthropy]. To the left: Good Shepherd, Vatican museum, late C4th

The philosopher. Christ is represented in the same way that ancient philosophers were represented in pagan images. [The church moved away from representing Christ as a philosopher, and focused instead on the pastoral images and on the image of the Saviour. In more recent times there has been a resurgence of the wisdom tradition, and people are rediscovering Christ the philosopher. This could be a positive impulse driven by a desire to make the teachings of Christ known in a multi-faith world, but it could also lead to a downplaying of the uniqueness of Christ for our salvation]

The clean shaven and young Jesus (Grabar shows how the earliest Christian images were using the language of images of the time, and often the hero figure was represented in pagan art as a child).

The semitic Jesus, with beard (this image is taken from a wall painting in the the Commodilla Catacomb, C4th)

Grabar is open to the suggestion that there might be some connection with the historical Jesus (or that some of the images of the apostles are connected with the historical apostles. The earliest known images of Peter and Paul appear around C4th).

He quotes Eusebius (263-330), who was no fan of images: “They say that the statue is a portrait of Jesus .. Nor is it strange that those of the Gentiles who, of old, were benefited by our Saviour, should have done such things [that is, erected statues], since we have learned also that the likenesses of his apostles Paul and Peter, and of Christ himself, are preserved in paintings, the ancients being accustomed, as it is likely, according to a habit of the Gentiles, to pay this kind of honour indiscriminately to those regarded by them as deliverers.” (Historiae ecclesiasticae, VII xviii; Quoted Grabar, 68)

The apocryphal Acts of St John the Evangelist (C2nd) speak of how an image was made of St John the Evangelist, although in the Acts of St John, the apostle disapproves of images and forbids the veneration of images.

There is also the tradition, although purely based on a legend, that when Veronica offered Christ a towel on his way to the cross, the imprint of his face was left on the hand. And so it became known as the image of The Saviour, not made with human hands.

Certainly by early C5th, image makers grew increasingly conscious of the idea of a more personal image of Jesus, and Augustine and Chrysostom speak of the multiplication of images.

One of very few surviving pre-iconoclastic icons of Jesus (from St Catherine’s monastery, Sinai)

As the images multiplied, so different traditions began to develop. For instance the Constantinople tradition is more severe, while the Russian tradition is much softer. But there is, within all the traditions, a faithfulness to a particular image.

1. Reluctance to use images, based on the Jewish prohibition on images
2. Eschatological hope. If the return of Christ was imminent, why was there a need for images?
3. The early Christian communities were often poor (compare poverty of images in Christian church with complexity of images in Jewish synagogue at Dura Europus)
4. The early Christians may have used more images, but these were destroyed in the period of the iconoclasts.

1. Grabar argues that they were there from the beginning, but become much more popular as Christianity grew in significance and began to compete seriously with other religions.

2. My own suggestion is that they appear with the theological focus on Christology.
The theology of icons is tied in with the theology of the incarnation. We cannot make any representation of God because God is unseen and beyond all our categories. But if Jesus Christ was God made flesh, then he can be portrayed in an image.
The period of Iconoclasm and destruction of images (730-787AD), ended with the 2nd Council of Nicaea)
... we declare that we defend free from any innovations all the written and unwritten ecclesiastical traditions that have been entrusted to us. One of these is the production of representational art; this is quite in harmony with the history of the spread of the gospel, as it provides confirmation that the becoming man of the Word of God was real and not just imaginary, and as it brings us a similar benefit. For, things that mutually illustrate one another undoubtedly possess one another's message. ... we decree with full precision and care that, like the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, the revered and holy images, whether painted or made of mosaic or of other suitable material, are to be exposed in the holy churches of God, on sacred instruments and vestments, on walls and panels, in houses and by public ways; these are the images of our Lord, God and saviour, Jesus Christ, and of our Lady without blemish, the holy God-bearer, and of the revered angels and of any of the saintly holy men. The more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration. Certainly this is not the full adoration in accordance with our faith, which is properly paid only to the divine nature, but it resembles that given to the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, and also to the holy books of the gospels and to other sacred cult objects”.[13] (2nd Council of Nicaea)

St. John of Damascus. In his treatise "On the Divine Images" he writes: "If we've made an image of the invisible God, we would certainly be in error... but we do not do anything of the kind; we do not err, in fact we make the image of God incarnate Who appeared on earth in the flesh, Who in His ineffable goodness, lived with men and assumed the nature, the volume and the color the flesh.”

"Since the invisible One became visible by taking on flesh, you can fashion the image of Him whom you saw. Since He who has neither body nor form nor quantity nor quality, Who goes beyond all grandeur by the excellence of His nature, He, being of divine nature, took on the condition of slave and reduced himself to quantity and quality by clothing himself in human features. Therefore paint on wood and present for contemplation Him who desired to become visible."

[I am focusing on the four icons which Henri J.M. Nouwen selects in his book, Behold the Beauty of the Lord, Ave Maria Press, Notre Dame, Indiana; http://www.amazon.com/Behold-Beauty-Lord-Praying-Icons/dp/0877933561 The following comments use some of his notes as my starting point for reflection.]

1. Rublev’s image of Jesus: the Saviour of Zvenigorod

Nouwen draws our attention to the fact that the icon is damaged, and the image scarred. And yet despite the damage that humans have done, there is something still astonishingly powerful about this image.

The face is shown as having a long nose and small mouth. The icon does not portray exactly the historical person, but the person as they are when glorified. The long nose and small mouth were seen as ideal characteristics, and the pinnacle of human beauty.
Christ is shown as having a thick neck. This is the image of the breath of God. He turns towards the observer. You look at him, but actually he is looking at you.

He wears a blue covering over a red undergarment. This is similar in Rublev’s icon of the Trinity (see below). Red is often the colour of martyrdom and blue the colour of divinity.

When looking at this icon, the observer is struck by the eyes, which see you, the observer, but which also see GodThey are also often struck by the mouth, which is the centre of the image. It is small, closed and beautiful (at first you think that Christ has his tongue out, but on closer inspection realize it is his top lip). Even though he is silent, he speaks. Often icons of Jesus show him with an open bible and a text, often with the words: ‘Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden’, or ‘Judge not that you be not judged, for the judgement you give will be the judgement you receive’)

2. Images of Mary
There are three different types of icons of Mary, 'the mother of God', or God-bearer, which find their roots in early Christian images (for many Orthodox a denial that Mary is the 'mother of God' is heard as a denial that her Son was truly God)

1. Virgin of the sign

Image of unknown woman and child from catacomb of Cimitero Maggiore, Rome. Note how the C13th icon of our lady of the sign from Yaroslavl follows the very early tradition.

2. Hodegetria
The Virgin of Tikhvin. She points to Jesus.

3. Virgin of tenderness 
The Virgin of Vladimir is one of the best known examples of this style. Mary regarded as Holy Protector of Russia, partly because of the icon. Notice the similarity in this style with the with the pagan sarcophagus, S, Sebastiano, Lapidary Museum (right).

This is one of the most venerated Russian icons, which originated in Constantinople. In about 1131 the Greek Patriarch gave the icon to the Grand Duke of Kiev. The icon was moved to Vladimir and then to Moscow. For an account of how a tradition and legend grows up about an icon, go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theotokos_of_Vladimir

Reflections on the icon.
     1. The robe/mantle. She is robed in red. Red is the colour of martyrdom. The mantle with the stars point to Mary’s virginity, suffering and the fact that she is ‘God-bearer’ (theotokos)
2. The eyes: There is a profound sorrow in her eyes which reflects the pain which she had to bear: the scandal surrounding Jesus’ birth, the misunderstanding and at times, sense of rejection, that came from his ministry, and of course the pain that came to her from his death on the cross. Perhaps there is also the pain that she sees when she looks out at the world.
In Vassily Grossman’s, Life and Fate: Viktor’s mother says: “I’m used to looking into people’s eyes for symptoms of diseases - glaucoma, cataract. Now I can no longer look at people’s eyes like that; what I see now is the reflection of the soul. A good soul, Vityenka! A sad, good-natured soul, defeated by violence, but at the same time triumphant over violence. A strong soul, Vitya!” (ch 19)
The eyes look in to herself: “Mary pondered these things in her heart”. In the Feast of the Nativity we sing: ‘Why do you wonder, O Mary, and why do you ponder so within yourself?' The icon gives a sense of profound stillness

But the eyes also look out, but not at you the viewer. Henri Nouwen, in Sacred Images, writes of how he, as a child of our psychologised society, longs to be looked at. As he stands in front of this icon, he wants Mary to look at him. But she doesn’t. She does not look at you the viewer, but she does see you. She is looking at your heart. And there is a profound challenge to us: what does purity see when it looks in your heart?
3. Her hands: Her right hand is supporting the child, while her left hand does not point to the child, but invites us to come closer to him. This is not exclusive between mother and child. Many images we observe from the outside. What makes this different is that the viewer is invited to be part of this.
4. The child: At first we think that this icon is about Mary. But the more we look at it, the more we realize it is about the child. He is fully robed in gold. His face, while being that of a young man, also reflects timelessness and wisdom. His arms embrace her neck (they are well out of proportion). She does not hold him. He holds her. His eyes look to her eyes. Her mouth is almost an extension of his mouth, and her head is an extension of his head (the way that the golden ribbon on the edge of her mantle merges with the royal robe of her son; the thickness of his neck). He is the one who breathes life into her.

In fact Mary always appears with Jesus (apart from historic icons, and icons in which she is praying to the Saviour)

So what is going on here?
At a simple level, this icon says something about mother and child, and particularly mother and son. The relationship between a Russian mother and her son could, we discovered, be quite complex. But it is more than an icon to stand in front of with a prayer list, or an icon to process around a city. It is a window into eternity. It is an invitation to communion, to intimacy with God.

It reveals the eternal relationship between the Mary, the God-bearer, and her son. We might pray to Mary, but what Mary is saying is that we should come to her son.

Mary is revealed as the type, the image, of the church, the people of God (cf Revelation 12).
She hears the word of God, she obeys, Christ is born in her. The church, beloved of Christ, is the focus of his gaze. He looks and he sees. The task of the church is to know him (and to know him is to love him), to be still in him, to suffer, to invite people to come to him.

3. The icon of the Descent of the Holy Spirit (15th Century Russian)
We cannot separate icons from the worshiping community, the church.

1. The layout of the Orthodox Church
Porch - place of outsiders, narthex - place of catechumenates, nave (navy, ship = ark) - place of faithful, sanctuary - place of God.
The liturgy is a drama. It tells the story of creation, fall, redemption and salvation.
There are three movements:
1. A movement of closing and opening of the doors to paradise (the central ‘royal doors’). Vespers begins with the doors open; they close, and they remain closed until Jesus goes into the sanctuary and communion is distributed. The gates to heaven and intimacy with God were closed at the fall, but are now opened with the death and resurrection of Jesus.
2. A movement of divine grace: the small entrance (gospel), and the great entrance (elements). Both come out from the sanctuary to the people and back into sanctuary. It represents the self-offering of God.
3. A movement of the faithful: from the porch, through the narthex, to the nave and the place of receiving communion in front of the royal doors, which are now open. God and man meet at the royal doors surrounded by the iconostasis. The faithful on earth and the saints in glory gather together.

2. The Iconostasis

There is a pattern to the iconostasis. In this portable iconostasis (Russian mid C16th), the top row is the row of prophets who ‘presage’ Christ. The middle row is the festival row (the Holy days of the church, beginning here with the birth of the Virgin and finishing with the Trinity), and the lower row is the deisis row: a row of icons of saints facing in to Christ the ruler of all with their hands raised in prayer.

Sometime there is a fourth row, called the local row, in which icons of the saints who are important for that church are located.

We are focusing here on the festival row. This is the row of icons which tell the story of Christ. There is not a pattern that all follow. However, they often begin with the annunciation (or conception of Anna) and end with the Trinity or transfiguration or assumption of Mary (these three icons speak of the final communion of God and humanity)

The icon of the descent of the Holy Spirit draws on earlier graphic traditions. There is, for instance, an image of Aristotle surrounded by a semi-circle of disciples. Early cathedral churches would also have had the bishop seated on a throne at the apex, and the clergy seated in a semi-circle in the sanctuary (still reflected in the shape of many of our chapter houses). In this early wooden icon from Mt Sinai, we see the Holy Spirit proceeding from Christ.

Looking at the 15th Century Russian icon we notice that it appears that the disciples are meeting in the open air surrounded by buildings. This is a traditional way of presenting what is going on in a building. An inverse perspective is also used. The figures of the disciples get larger the deeper you go into the picture.

At the top of the image is a circle. God is often represented by this circle, and you will notice that in other icons, such as the transfiguration, the circle is often depicted behind Jesus on the mountain top, and in the icon of the harrowing of hell, the circle is behind Jesus, but now right among us.

The rays represent the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father, and you can see small tongues of fire on the head of each of the disciples.

This icon is not a depiction of the actual events of the first Pentecost (which, from the account in Acts 2, was quite chaotic), but at the inner meaning. God for us, who became God with us in Christ, is now God within and among us. The Spirit comes and the apostles confess Jesus as Lord, cry out Abba Father; they are given words to speak, wisdom to guide their decisions; the Spirit empowers them to forgive sins and bring good news of God’s love.

But first, the Spirit creates the church.
We live in a world of individualism. I worry about my prayer life, my ministry, my fruitfulness, my faith. Here it is very different. The 12 (although we note that the 12 include Paul, Luke and Mark - Pentecost is an event which transcends time and is for the whole church) are shown both in community and in their individuality and uniqueness.
On the left are Peter, Matthew, Luke, Andrew, Bartholomew and a very young Thomas
On the right are Paul, John, Mark, Simon, James and Philip
Each is an individual and each has story to tell. For instance the four gospel writers and Paul hold a bible in their hands.

But if they are shown as specific individuals, they are united not by the compatibility of their personalities, but by the absent but present centre, and by the rays of divine Spirit.

Standing at the door, and holding in his towel 12 scrolls is the figure of Cosmos, who now represents the multitudes who come on the day of Pentecost. He stands outside, and ‘represents all the people living in darkness to whom the gift of the apostles teaching has been brought’. (Henri Nouwen). The white of the scrolls is in contrast to the black behind him. [In icons, black is the symbol of death and sin and the tomb. It can also be the symbol of the place of meeting with God].

4. The icon of the Trinity
The church followed a very ancient tradition which saw the three visitors to Abraham in Genesis 18 as the three persons of the Trinity. That is represented in both early writings and also in early images. The image to the left is a wall painting on catacombs under the Via Latina, Rome.

Over time those images became more complex.

However, Andrei Rublev (c1360-c1427) gave the image a profound simplicity as he focused on the three figures.

These three figures are angels representing the three persons. This is the nearest that traditional iconography comes to representing the Father (elsewhere His presence is represented by a hand reaching down from the sky or the divine circle.)

However, the angel on the left represents the Father. He is wearing gold. Behind the angel is a house: ‘In my Father’s house are many rooms’. Behind the angel representing the Son (wearing the red of martyrdom and the priestly stole) is a tree: the tree of life, the tree of the cross. Behind the Spirit, who wears green, is a rock: the wilderness, the place of meeting with God.
And yet, although there are differences in the figures, there is also a unity. They are the same age; they have the same face and hairstyle (apparently quite a chic hairstyle in Byzantium!)
They all wear the blue of divinity, and hold a staff of authority.

This is not a static icon. There are movements within the icon.
There is a movement of love. The son and the Father gaze at each other. The Spirit looks at the Father, but also has that inward look that we have seen above.
There is a movement, a circle, of submission. The Spirit and the Son incline their heads to the Father (and the tree and the rock are inclined toward the house)
There is a movement, a circle, of blessing, beginning with the hand of the Father, going through that of the Son and proceeding out to the observer through the Spirit. .

And this is where this icon becomes so powerful. Rublev uses an inverted perspective, so that the focus of the image is not in the distance (as we are normally used to see), but in the person standing before the icon. This is not just an image of three, but an image of four. The observer becomes the fourth person. They can stand outside, or they can join in with the movement of submission, and in the movement of blessing, as they draw near in surrender. The small opening in the table around which the figures are seated indicates that this is a tomb, and offerings for the deceased would be placed in that opening. As we come forward to offer ourselves and to receive from the cup (and the outline shape of the Father and Spirit make the shape of a chalice in which we find the Son), so we too are invited into this relationship of love.

CONCLUSION: What do icons mean for the faithful?
For believing Orthodox, the images represented in the icons are not just images, but ‘re-present’ the person who they depict. When one stands in front of an icon of the Trinity, one stands in the presence of the Trinity.

But the images and icons that we have looked at are also:

A witness to the reality of the incarnation. They are only possible because God became flesh, and therefore can be represented.

Icons are a witness to how God can use matter. Because the invisible became visible and God became matter and used matter to save us, so things of matter can acquire the power to bring his salvation to us.

Icons are a witness to the tradition of the church: to the scriptures and writings and traditions of the church. Much more recent art rejoices in the triumph of individualism. I am invited to stand before an empty canvas and express myself. But painting (it is called ‘writing’) an icon is of a completely different order. The writer has to follow tradition: prepare themselves with particular prayers, use a well established formula of wood and paints, and follow the tradition for the particular icon which they are writing. There is a place for some individuality, but it is limited. Icons are a witness to the fact that the church, the people of God throughout time and space, is a bigger reality than any individual.

Icons are a witness to another world: a world of beauty (although we might find the figures strange, to the classical world the figures represented humanity at its most glorious), and of intimacy with God. They also witness to a world that is so much bigger than the world that we conceive of around us. The flat perspective that we find in many icons, and certainly the reverse perspective that we have seen, take us through the image to a world that either goes beyond us for eternity or grows bigger and bigger. And yet it begins with a concrete person, Jesus Christ. CS Lewis imagines this in an astonishingly powerful way in his The Last Battle. As the children journey further and deeper into the real Narnia, beyond the last battle and the final judgement, so they discover it gets larger and larger. This makes the world of the tardis look positively tame

      Icons are not just a vision of another world. They are a window and a door into that world. As we stand and pray to the reality of Christ represented in the image, so that world breaks into this world. We glimpse that world, but we are also offered an entry point into that world. In the end it really is all about communion, a relationship, with God.


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