Standing before the icon of Christ in the front of St. John Orthodox Church, I prepare to offer my confession at the Sacrament of Forgiveness. The Holy image of the One Who Forgives comes forth to meet me, as the father comes forth to welcome home the prodigal son in the familiar gospel passage (Luke 15:11“32). The love of Jesus pours forth from his prototype (the icon), sees the offering of my broken heart, and raises it to the heavenly realm.
After receiving the priests counsel and absolution, I remain in the nave (the large part of the temple, called the sanctuary in Protestant churches) to give thanks and to let Gods grace and peace fill my heart. Surrounded by icons of Christ, his Mother, the angels, saints, biblical scenes and church feasts, I think about how Prince Vladimirs envoys must have felt when they walked into Hagia Sophia Orthodox Cathedral in Constantinople near the end of the tenth century. Their mission was to find a religion that Prince Vladimir could embrace and offer to the people of Russia. In their report they said, We didnt know whether we were in Heaven or on earth. Shortly thereafter, Orthodoxy became the official religion of Kievan Russia, infusing the lives of peasants and princes, artists and writers, with the Orthodox vision of beauty. Nine hundred years later, the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky penned the famous words, Beauty will save the world.
I dont think Prince Vladimir or Dostoevsky had in mind the kind of worldly beauty that todays fashion and entertainment industries worship, or even the beauty of secular art and architecture. I think they were both swept off their feet by true spiritual beauty¯in Vladimirs case, the beauty of the Orthodox temple (church), adorned with icons .
In his book Icons: Theology in Color , Eugene Trubetskoi said that the beauty of the icon is spiritual . Our icon painters, Trubetskoi said, had seen the beauty that would save the world and immortalized it in colors.
We are innately creative, because we are made in the image of a creative God. As the twentieth century-abstract painter Vassily Kandinsky said, we all strive to make beauty and order from the chaos of the fallen world. Our Creator has given us the freedom to do this, but sadly many artists and writers abuse this freedom. The results of that abuse are often pornographic, or at best self-serving exposes masquerading as art or literature.
Good secular art, music, literature, and architecture serve to refine and form our souls and make them better disposed to spiritual or liturgical art, music, literature, and architecture. In an essay called Forming Young Souls, Fr. Seraphim Rose encouraged parents to expose their children to what he calls the Dushevni Diet¯that which feeds the middle part of the soul . The education of youth today, especially in America, is notoriously deficient in developing responsiveness to the best expressions of human art, literature, and music. His premise is that people raised on such a diet would be better prepared to receive the higher, or spiritual foods. Perhaps they would have developed an appetite for the patient work of prayer, worship, and yes, venerating icons.
VENERATION VS. WORSHIP
When I converted to Orthodoxy from a Protestant faith (a seventeen-year process culminating in 1987), I embraced the veneration of icons unreservedly. An important distinction needs to be made here between veneration and worship¯one better made by St. John of Damascus in his On the Divine Images ). St John used the term latria for the absolute worship reserved only for God, and the word proskinesis to describe the relative worship, or veneration, given to the Mother of God, saints, and sacred objects such as relics and icons. Maybe an analogy from everyday life will help make these definitions easier to grasp.
My father died in 1998. For forty-nine years my parents shared a strong Christian faith¯an adoration of God¯and a strong love and respect for one another. During the last few years of their marriage, they developed a morning ritual. Upon waking, they would greet each other with the Psalmists words, This is the day the Lord has made, and the response, Let us rejoice and be glad in it. After my fathers death, my mother continued the tradition, greeting instead his photograph¯an image of her husband¯often with a kiss, and would say both the greeting and response they once shared. The love and veneration she shows to the image is passed on to the prototype, in this case her husband, whom she sees as being very much alive and waiting for her in heaven.
So it is with the veneration of icons. A worshipper enters the church and approaches an icon. Maybe its the icon of the saint who is commemorated on that particular day, or of Jesus or the Mother of God. Making the sign of the cross, followed by a metania , a bow from the waist, the person then kisses the icon, passing on her love and veneration to the prototype it represents. She is not worshipping the image, any more than my mother worships a photograph of my father.
SANCTIFYING THE SENSE OF SIGHT
Icons point to beauty and art as a means of experiencing God. In a time when our senses are bombarded with the base things of this world at every turn, now, more than ever, we need for those senses to be sanctified. Saint John of Damascus called sacred images the books of the illiterate, and asserted that icons sanctify the sense of sight for those who gaze upon them.
Suppose I have few books, or little leisure for reading, but walk into the spiritual hospital¯that is to say, a church¯with my soul choking from the prickles of thorny thoughts, and thus afflicted I see before me the brilliance of the icon. I am refreshed as if in a verdant meadow, and thus my soul is led to glorify God. I marvel at the martyrs endurance, at the crown he won, and, inflamed with burning zeal, I fall down to worship God through His martyr, and so receive salvation.
If this description of a first-millennium saints experience seems too removed from our contemporary life, I wonder if thats because we have lost the concept of the Church as a spiritual hospital? Or because, in our fast-paced lives, we have forgotten how to slow down and let the beauty of Gods house touch and heal our fragmented psyches?
I have a dear friend from a life-long evangelical background who has been visiting my parish for several years. Although she usually goes with her family to their Presbyterian church on Sundays, she frequents St. John for some of the weekday services. She has told me that, as much as the prayers themselves (usually Third Hour, a short service of Psalms and prayers observed at nine on weekday mornings) bless her, its the icons that are having such a powerful effect on her heart. Sitting alone in the nave after the prayers, gazing at the icon of Christ on the cross¯the one the priest carries in procession on Holy Friday¯she is sometimes moved to contrition. At other times, she feels a longing for a deeper relationship with Christ. She is almost always filled with a sense of his love and peace, on a deeper level¯one that transcends emotions. And yes, sometimes her eyes are filled with tears.
Anton Vrame would say that my friend has had an encounter with icons , that the icon actually invites a response: There is a psychological dimension to the icons in that they sanctify vision, and through it, all bodily senses, pointing to a holistic approach to knowledge and Christian living.
So why doesnt everyone have the same reaction to icons that Saint John of Damascus and Prince Vladimirs men and my friend had? I have another friend who became Orthodox in his seventies, and, as much as he loved and embraced the Orthodox faith, he always struggled with icons. A few years ago, I returned home from an iconography workshop at which I had completed an icon of the Holy Apostle Paul. My friend was house-bound, so I was glad to have something other than library books to take with me on one of my visits to his house. But when I showed him the icon, he confessed that he didnt really like looking at them.
They always look so sad , he said. I thought the Christian life was supposed to be joyful.
I tried to explain that the bright sadness in the faces of the saints depicted in Byzantine icons wasnt like the superficial happiness or romantic beauty found in classical religious art. Icons have a quality that Constantine Cavarnos called hieraticalness or spiritual solemnity. The expressions on the faces of the saints depicted in the icons often reflect the gravity of mankinds circumstances. As Frederica Mathewes-Green says: No wonder an icon looks so serious. Our condition is serious.
MIRACULOUS AND WEEPING ICONS
Two very mystical examples of Gods response to the serious condition of fallen man are miracle-working icons and weeping icons. There are countless stories of people who have been healed by icons, flooding rivers diverted by icons, and cities protected by icons from invaders. Thousands of faithful Christians make pilgrimages to venerate these miraculous icons all over the world. Some are seeking healing; others are offering thanksgiving to God for his protection and grace given through the icon.
My first personal experience with weeping icons took place in 1997. I had the blessing of accompanying several nuns from Holy Dormition Orthodox Monastery in Rives Junction, Michigan, to Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church in Livonia, Michigan, to venerate four weeping icons. Each of the icons of the Mother of God had been in the home of a pious woman who brought them to the church as they began to exude myrrh or oil. When these miracles occur, a number of church hierarchy are called in to verify the legitimacy of the claim. Once confirmed, the icons are usually placed in the church, and pilgrims are invited to come and pray before the icons and receive anointing with holy oil from them.
Nothing could have prepared me for this experience. As we entered the church, the nuns were immediately greeted by several parishioners and were invited up to the front of the nave. I followed their examples as they approached each icon, made three prostrations (kneeling and placing their faces on the ground), and then gathered as a group in front of the iconostasis. Then they began to sing hymns to the Mother of God. I tried to sing with them but couldnt stop crying long enough, nor did I want to detract from the celestial purity and beauty of their voices. For me, the spiritual presence of holiness overwhelmed the physical signs¯the sweet smell of the myrrh and the visual image of the oil dripping from the icons into containers placed beneath each one. But the physical signs were also indelibly etched into my soul.
A couple of years later, I joined three other friends from my parish in Memphis for a weekend pilgrimage to Chicago for the purpose of venerating several miracle-working icons at three different Orthodox Churches. One of them was the Tikhvin Icon of the Mother of God (attributed to St. Luke), which had been brought to this country from Russia in 1949 to save it from the Communists and Nazis who were destroying icons in Russia. (The Tikhvin Icon was returned to Russia in 2004.)
But it was another miraculous icon, one that has received less attention than the Tikhvin icon, that touched me. Another icon of the Mother of God, it adorned the iconostasis of St. Nicholas Albanian Orthodox Church and began weeping in 1986. What struck me most about our pilgrimage to this particular church wasnt the icon itself. It was the love and devotion expressed by another pilgrim. I didnt talk with this woman, so I dont know her story. But I watched as she knelt at the back of the nave, and then walked on her knees the entire length of the center aisle of the church and crawled up the steps of the solea (the raised platform in front of the iconostasis) to light a candle and venerate this icon. I could hear her praying in another language . . . and I witnessed a humility and love for God that humbled and inspired me.
BEYOND THE SHATTERED IMAGE
Henri Nouwen was at a retreat in France in 1983 and found that someone had placed a copy of Rublevs icon of the Trinity on a table in his room. At the same retreat, a year later, an icon of Our Lady of Vladimir was waiting for him. Nouwen entered into a time of spiritual reflection with each icon. The following year, Nouwen added the icons of Christ of Zvenigorod and the Descent of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost) to his experience and wrote a reflection on all four icons, which was published as Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying With Icons .
Like my friend who struggled with the icons solemnity, Nouwen found that icons are not easy to see. He even called them rigid, lifeless, schematic and dull at first. But he gazed at these four icons for hours at a time, and, after patient, prayerful stillness on his part, they began to speak to him. As a man who loved the art of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Marc Chagall, he could have chosen any of these Western treasures for his meditations. But he chose icons. Why?
I have chosen icons because they are created for the sole purpose of offering access, through the gate of the visible, to the mystery of the invisible. Icons are painted to lead us into the inner room of prayer and bring us close to the heart of God.
My favorite section of Nouwens book is chapter three¯Seeing Christ. Rublev painted his icon of Christ in the fifteenth century for a church in the Russian city of Zvenigorod. It was discovered under the steps to a barn in 1918, along with two other famous Rublev icons, where they had been hidden for five centuries.
Nouwen saw, through a prolonged period of prayerful attentiveness to the face of Christ in this damaged image, a most tender human face, and eyes that penetrate the heart of God as well as every human heart. With further contemplation, he realized that Christs sad but still very beautiful face looks at us through the ruins of our world, as if to say, O what have you done to the work of my hands?
We are the works of his hands. We are stewards of his world, his creation. Gregory the Theologian refers to the human person as an icon of God. John Chryssavgis wrote that someone who sees the whole world as an icon . . . has already entered the life of resurrection and eternity. John Climacus, the abbot at St. Catherines Monastery on Mt. Sinai , was convinced that, in the very beauty and beyond the shattered image of this world: Such a person always perceives everything in the light of the Creator God, and has therefore acquired immortality before the ultimate resurrection. As we Christians embrace this iconic way of seeing and living, perhaps we will become better vessels of Gods healing.
In the First Apology of Saint John of Damascus Against Those Who Attack the Divine Images, Saint John talked about Old Testament images like the ark of the covenant (an image of the Holy Virgin and Theotokos) and the rod of Aaron and the jar of manna. These are all visible things that aid understanding of intangible things. We read in Exodus 25“26 how God instructed Moses to use images in the tabernacle¯including angels woven on the veil of the holy of holies. Its true that later on God forbade the making of images because of idolatry¯because of mans misuse of something God intended for good. But that was before the Incarnation, as St. John explained:
It is obvious that when you contemplate God becoming man, then you may depict Him clothed in human form. When the invisible One becomes visible to flesh, you may then draw His likeness. When He who is bodiless and without form, immeasurable in the boundlessness of His own nature, existing in the form of God, empties Himself and takes the form of a servant in substance and in stature and is found in a body of flesh, then you may draw His image and show it to anyone willing to gaze upon it.
Gods Incarnation not only made it possible for us to draw and venerate his image, but also the images of men and women who have been transfigured by him¯the saints and martyrs. The Seventh Ecumenical Council (787), which upheld the doctrine of the veneration of images as an inevitable result of the Incarnation, said this about icons of saints:
These holy men of all times who pleased God, whose biographies have remained in writing for our benefit and for the purpose of our salvation, have also left to the catholic Church their deeds explained in paintings, so that our mind may remember them, and so that we may be lifted up to the level of their conduct.
The icons are visions of what we can become if we allow God to penetrate every aspect of our lives. Those who attain this God-likeness to the fullest extent recognized by the Church are saints. Their lives, their stories, lift us up to be all that we can be¯as we are transformed by Gods grace and love.
The Incarnation should cause us to take our humanity seriously, as Vrame says. And if we take our humanity seriously, we will not scorn the physical, material things that the Church in her wisdom has given us as aids for transforming that humanity, for restoring the image that fell in the beginning.
THE ETHOS OF LITURGICAL ART
Taking our humanity seriously also means being concerned about our responsibility to the world around us. Chryssavgis said that our generation is
characterized by a behavior that results from an autism with regard to the natural cosmos: a certain lack of awareness, or recognition, causes us to use, or even waste the beauty of the world . . . . We have disestablished a continuity between ourselves and the outside, with no possibility for intimate communion and mutual enhancement. The world of the icon, though, restores this relationship by reminding us of what is outside and beyond, what ultimately gives value and vitality.
Like the Incarnation, the icon pierces space and time, because a physical object¯a piece of wood with gesso and paint and gold leaf¯is shot through with Gods eternal presence. Christos Yannaras, in his essay The Ethos of Liturgical Art , says that Byzantine iconography does not decorate the church but has an organic, liturgical function in the polyphony of the Eucharistic event, existentially elevating us to the hypostatic realization of life. This is heavenly stuff for us mortals to wrap our minds around, but we all need to be elevated¯to be lifted up in order to see the world as God sees it¯as sacred and worthy of redemption.
In the end, icons are part of what we offer back to God, just as the priest at the altar lifts up the material elements of bread and wine, offering them on behalf of the eucharistic community¯ Thine own of Thine own . In a mystery, God receives our offering and offers it back to us as the Body and Blood of his Son. And so we offer our art¯in the form of liturgical music, prayers, architecture, and, yes, icons¯to the God who sanctified the world by his Incarnation, by becoming man¯by becoming matter.
WRITING AND READING: THE GOSPEL IN COLORS
Most iconographers refer to the work they do as writing rather than painting icons. Just as hagiography is the life of a saint written with words, iconography is the life of the saint written with paint. And just as one reads the written life, one also reads the painted life¯the icon. Again it was the fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council who clarified the value of icons as a medium of Gods revelation, on a par with the written gospel:
For, when they hear the gospel with the ears, they exclaim glory to Thee, O Lord; and when they see it with the eyes, they send forth exactly the same doxology, for we are reminded of his life among men. That which the narrative declares in writing is the same as that which the icon does [in colors].
Following the councils decree, Patriarch Nicephorus of Constantinople wrote: If one is worthy of honor, the other is worthy of honor also . . . . Either accept these [icons], or get rid of those [Gospels].
The Holy Apostle Luke is perhaps the Churchs unique example of one who carried out Christs great commission in both of these realms¯as the writer of the Gospel of Luke, and as the first iconographer. The earliest images of the Mother of God are attributed to him. To this day, iconographers entreat the Holy Apostle Luke, patron saint of iconographers, to guide and bless their work. There is even a special Iconographers Prayer that commemorates Saint Luke.
WORTH FIGHTING FOR
One of my favorite days of the church year is the first Sunday of Great Lent, known as Orthodoxy Sunday. This tradition was established in 842 in Constantinople by his Holiness Patriarch Methodius in memory of the overthrow of the last terrible heresy to rattle the Church, the heresy of iconoclasm. In many cities, the Orthodox faithful from different jurisdictions (Greek, Antiochian, Russian, etc.) join together and worship at one of the larger churches. The children all bring icons and process with the clergy and altar servers around the inside of the nave at the end of the liturgy, gathering in front of the iconostasis to face the congregation. The priest reads a proclamation, his voice gaining volume with each line. My heart leaps to join him as he proclaims: ” This is the Apostolic faith! This is the faith of the Fathers! This is the Orthodox faith!
After the priest enumerates some of the wonders of God illustrated in the holy icons, the people lift their voices in a song of victory over the iconoclasts:
Who is so great a God as our God?
He is the God who does wonders!
Much ado about . . . art ? No wonder the Church celebrates those wise bishops of the Seventh Ecumenical Council who proclaimed iconography to be an ordinance and tradition that is not something extra, something added to the life of the Church, but, as Chryssavgis says, a necessary expression of the reality of both God and the world .
Susan Cushman is a Byzantine iconographer and writer in Memphis. She is working on her first novel.