Icons: Word and Image Together

by Jim Forest

[a chapter for Beholding the Glory, edited by Jeremy Begbie, published by Darton, Longman and Todd (London, UK) and Baker Book House (Grand Rapids, MN)]

There is no better way to understand iconography than to connect these two passages from the New Testament:

And the Word (logos) became flesh and lived among us … we have seen his glory. (Jn. 1:14)

He is the image (eikon) of the invisible God, thefirstborn of all creation. (Col. 1:15)

Christ the Word is also Christ the Image: Logos and Ikon. He who became incarnate became the visible image of the invisible. And today we meet him not only with our ears but also with our eyes.

Historical Roots

In recent decades, icons have come back to life in the western Church after a long exile, though one must add that in most parts of the eastern Church they survived only in a decayed form from the late sixteenth until well into the twentieth centuries. Yet icons are as old in Christianity as the Gospels. ‘I have seen a great many portraits of the Savior, and of Peter and Paul, which have been preserved up to our time,’ Eusebius recorded in his History of the Church (1) early in the fourth century. Not only did he see ‘portraits’, but during a visit to Caesarea Philippi in Galilee he saw a centuries-old bronze statue of the Savior outside the house of the woman whom Christ had cured of incessant bleeding. His witness is all the more compelling as Eusebius was one of those who regarded religious images as belonging more to the pagan world than to the Church.

According to legend, the first icon was made when King Abgar of Osroene, dying of leprosy, sent a message begging Jesus to visit him in Edessa and cure him. Hurrying toward Jerusalem and his crucifixion, Christ instead sent a healing gift. He pressed his face against a cloth, making the linen square bear his image. The miraculous icon remained in Edessa until the tenth century, when it was brought to Constantinople. After the city was sacked by the Crusaders in 1204, it disappeared altogether. Known as ‘Not Made by Human Hands’ or the ‘Holy Face’, the icon has often been reproduced down to our own day. The original survives in countless copies with all their variations. In the western Church a similar story is linked with the name of Veronica, one of the women who comforted Jesus as he was bearing the cross. She offered him a cloth to wipe the blood and sweat from his face and afterward found the fabric bore a miraculous image. A building along the Via Dolorosa associated with Veronica is today home to a community of the Little Sisters of Jesus who, appropriately, support themselves by selling icon prints mounted on olive wood. The tradition reveals the theological principle that behind Christ himself, God incarnate and visible, is the basis of all icon-making.

The evangelist Luke, author of the third gospel, is credited with painting three icons, one of them on the wood of the table where Christ’s mother and Saint John had eaten their meals. One of the three is ‘The Mother of God of Tenderness’ in which the face of the child Jesus is pressing his face against his mother’s. Another, the ‘Hodigitria’ (‘She Who Shows the Way’),has a more formal arrangement, showing Mary presenting her Son to us. Finally, there is ‘The Mother of God Orans’ — Mary standing with outstretched arms and raised hands in prayer, a gesture that seems to say ‘Let it be with me according to your word’. (2) In time the Orans icon evolved into the icon of the Mother of God of the Sign. Within Mary, usually contained in a circle, her unborn child is revealed as Christ Immanuel, ‘God With Us,’ vested in golden robes and looking outward while his right hand offers a blessing. It is an image often seen in Orthodox churches above the altar, a reminder that Mary, like the altar, is a bridge linking heaven and earth. The icon echoes the words of Saint Paul: ‘it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.’ (3) As one sees when standing before the famous Vladimir Mother of God in Moscow, a gift from the Patriarch of Constantinople to the newly baptised Russian church nearly a thousand years ago, ancient icons often bear layer upon layer of paint as later iconographers restored work that had become too dark or damaged with the passage of time. But perhaps at the foundation level of the Vladimir icon or another ancient icon is pigment laid down by the hand of Saint Luke.

Nearly all ancient icons were destroyed either during times of persecution in the first three centuries of the Christian era or during the iconoclastic periods in the eighth and ninth centuries. Fortunately there are many Christian images from the age of martyrs which have survived, most notably in the Roman catacombs and similar places, from Asia Minor to Spain. These frescoes are simple and sober images, made with few brush strokes and a narrow range of colours, with such subjects as Christ carrying a lamb, the three young men praising God from within a furnace, the raising of Lazarus, and the eucharistic meal. The catacombs bear witness that wherever Christians prayed, they sought to create a visual environment that reminded them of the kingdom of God and helped them to pray. Early icons of a more developed style also survive in Rome, though they are chiefly mosaics and thus have a monumental aspect, a type of public Christian art that only became possible after the age of persecution ended. In one of Rome’s earliest great churches, Santa Maria Maggiore, there are two long rows of mosaics dating from the fourth century, but, as they are high up on the walls, the visitor needs binoculars to see them in detail. The large and vivid fifth-century mosaic icons above and behind the altar, however, are easy to see and deeply moving.

The remarkable freshness of this very early Christian imagery has hit many modern viewers like a bolt of lightning — not least when they bear witness to the One who became incarnate. Among these was the writer and monk Thomas Merton who came to Rome in 1933, age eighteen, and found himself yawning until he came upon the mosaics that predate the east-west division of the Church. ‘I was fascinated by these Byzantine mosaics,’ he records in his autobiography. ‘I began to haunt the churches where they were to be found, and … all the other churches that were more or less of the same period…Without knowing anything about it, I became a pilgrim.’ (4) The principal icons were windows through which he felt Christ’s gaze.’For the first time in my whole life I began to find out something of who this Person was that men call Christ… It is the Christ of the Apocalypse, the Christ of the Martyrs, the Christ of the Fathers. It is the Christ of Saint John, and of Saint Paul…It is Christ God, Christ King.’ (5 )

Because of the storms of iconoclasm, it may be that no original icon from the apostolic age has survived. Even so, in generation after generation iconographers have sought to make faithful, though not slavish, copies of earlier icons, a process that continues to the present day. Thus images of Christ and the Apostles are recognizable from century to century despite shifts in culture, style and aesthetic sensibility. We know, for example, that Peter had thick curly hair while Paul was bald. But most important, the memory of Christ’s face is preserved, the face of God incarnate — the Word and the Image of God, Logos and Ikon.


Just as there is still controversy about images in our own time, so were there disputes in the early Church, and to a large extent they were bound up with the theology of the incarnation. Early critics of icons included Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Minucius Felix and Lactancius. Eusebius was not alone in fearing that the art of the pagan world carried with it the spirit of the that world, while others objected on the basis of Old Testament restrictions of imagery. Christianity was, after all, born in a world in which many artists were employed doing religious, political and secular work. Idolatry was a normal part of pagan religious life. Thus we find that in the early centuries, in the many areas of controversy among Christians, there was division on questions of religious art and its place in spiritual life.

It is especially instructive to notice that those who were reluctant to accept that Christ was God incarnate were often also opponents of icons. The most burning question at the heart of the early Church’s many theological disputes was: Who is Jesus Christ? Some argued that Jesus was simply a man of such exemplary goodness that he was adopted by God as Son. Going further with this idea, others believed God so overwhelmed Jesus the Galilean that his manhood was gradually absorbed into divinity. There were those who argued that Jesus merely appeared to be a person of human flesh but was in reality pure spirit; flesh being subject to passions, illness and decay, they argued that God could never inhabit flesh. The orthodox answer — that in the womb of Mary the second Person of the Holy Trinity became a human being, thus that Jesus was both true God and true man — was both too simple and too radical for many people. How could the all-powerful God clothe divinity in that which can sweat, suffer and die? Discussion of this issue and its implications constituted the centre point for the Church’s Ecumenical Councils. Though we find the orthodox teaching already expressed in the creed of the first Council, in Nicea in 325, it took centuries for the Church to shake off the influence of heresies which, in a variety of ways, denied the incarnation. In fact, the ancient debate burns hot to this day.

Particularly significant is that each Church assembly which affirmed the icon was doing so primarily to affirm that God had become fully human, accessible and visible to us. For example, the Quinisext Council in Trullo, in 692, while condemning ‘deceitful paintings that corrupt the intelligence by exciting shameful pleasures,’ recognized the icon as a mirror of grace and truth. ‘In order to expose to the sight of all what is perfect,’ the Council declared, ‘even with the help of painting, we decide that henceforth Christ our God must be presented in his human form’. (6 )

The argument over icons reached its boiling point in the eighth and ninth centuries in what is known as ‘The Iconoclastic Controversy’. In the background was the rapid expansion of Islam in areas that had formerly been Christian. In 725 the Emperor Leo III, ignoring the opposition of both Patriarch Germanus of Constantinople and Pope Gregory II in Rome, ordered the removal and destruction of icons from churches and private homes. Leo may have hoped his order would help stop the spread of Islam, which was firmly opposed to images. Many iconographers from the Byzantine world fled to Italy, finding protection from the Pope. Many who upheld orthodox belief suffered loss of property, imprisonment, beatings and mutilation. Some lost their lives.

‘Iconoclasts’ – those who rejected the use of icons and sought their destruction – argued that images of Christ, representing as they did his physical appearance, diminished his divinity by revealing only his humanity. One beneficial consequence of the iconoclastic movement was that makers of icons searched for better ways to represent in paint the hidden, spiritual reality rather than merely the physical aspects of the person represented.

The theologian who most powerfully defended the use of icons in Christian life was Saint John of Damascus (676-749), a monk and poet kept safe from the power and edicts of the iconoclastic emperor through ironic circumstances: his monastery, Mar Saba, perched on a deep ravine in the desert southeast of Jerusalem, was in an area under Islamic rule. Here he wrote his essay ‘On the Divine Images’ in which he appealed directly to the incarnation, reasoning that

If we 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, if 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, the form, and the colour of the flesh. (7)

Saint John also responded to the arguments of those who regarded Old Testament prohibitions of religious imagery as applying to the Church:

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 a 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. (8)

The first iconoclastic period lasted until 780. Seven years later, at the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the bishops rose in defence of the icon. The Council affirmed that it is not the icon itself which is venerated but the prototype whose image is represented in the icon. A careful distinction is made between the image and the person to whom it refers, without denying the powerful connection between the two — a distinction not always appreciated by those outside the Orthodox tradition who too easily suspect idolatry.

Just as the holy and vivifying cross, similarly the holy and precious icons painted with colours, made with little stones or with any other matter serving this purpose, should be placed in the holy churches of God, on vases and sacred vestments, on walls and boards, in houses and on roads, whether these are icons of our Lord God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, or of our spotless Sovereign Lady, the holy Mother of God, or of the holy angels and of holy and venerable men. For each time that we see their representation in an image, each time, while gazing upon them, we are made to remember the prototypes, we grow to love them more, and we are even more induced to worship them by kissing them and by witnessing our veneration, not the true adoration which, according to our faith, is proper only to the one divine nature, but in the same way as we venerate the image of the precious and vivifying cross, the holy Gospel and other sacred objects which we honour with incense and candles according to the pious custom of our forefathers. For the honour rendered to the image goes to its prototype, and the person who venerates an icon venerates the person represented on it. Indeed, such is the teaching of our holy Fathers and the Tradition of the holy catholic Church which propagated the Gospel from one end of the earth to the other. (9)

Nonetheless, a second iconoclastic period, less severe than the first, was initiated by Emperor Leo V in 813. Resistance included an impressive act of civil disobedience — an icon-bearing procession in Constantinople by a thousand monks. With the death of the Emperor Theophilusin 842, imperial objections to icons ended. In 843, Theodora, widow of the former Emperor, who herself possessed icons, convened a Council which reaffirmed the teaching of the Seven Ecumenical Councils and confirmed the place of the icon in Christian life. The first Sunday of Great Lent was set aside henceforth to celebrate what came to be known as the ‘Triumph of Orthodoxy’, a custom maintained to the present day in the Orthodox world when the faithful bring their home icons to the Church. One of the texts sung on the Sunday of Orthodoxy declares:

The indefinable Word of the Father made himself definable, having taken flesh of thee, O Mother of God, and having refashioned the soiled image of man to its former estate, has suffused it with divine beauty. Confessing salvation, we show it forth in deed and word.

Rublev — Trinity and Incarnation

If in Byzantium the encounter with Islam initially had a devastating effect on icons, further north, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Tartar invasion and occupation was to have a disruptive impact on every aspect of religious life among the Russian people, themselves latecomers to Christianity, their conversion having begun in Kiev at the end of the tenth century. Little iconography of the first few centuries of Christian culture in Russia survives. But from the late fourteenth to the mid-sixteenth centuries, iconography was to reach heights in Russia that many regard as unparalleled before or since.

Russia’s most renowned iconographer is Saint Andrei Rublev, first noted in 1405 while working in a cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin as a student of the master iconographer Theophan the Greek. (In 1988, when the Russian Orthodox Church was celebrating its millennium, he was added to the calendar of the saints.) In 1425 Saint Andrei painted the Holy Trinity icon, widely regarded as the highest achievement in iconographic art. (Plate 1) The icon expresses in silence aspects of the nature of God beyond the reach of words. The biblical foundation of the image is the story of Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality to strangers by the oaks of Mamre near Hebron. Three nameless visitors who appeared in front of their tent were provided with food and drink, then promised the aged couple that barren Sarah would soon bear a son. (10 ) Finally Abraham and Sarah understood their guests were messengers of God:angels. The three acted in perfect unity and spoke with one voice. In this the early Christian community recognized a revelation of the Holy Trinity: a communion of three Persons as One God. Painted for the iconostasis of the principal church of the Holy Trinity Monastery north of Moscow, the icon mirrors the teaching of the monastery’s founder, Saint Sergius of Radonezh: ‘Contemplation of the Holy Trinity destroys all discord’.

The icon’s principal colours are gold and hues of gold. Azure blue is used in the garments of the three figures with many touches in their robes of a wash of lapis lazuli. The hardly visible staff each figure holds is a thin line of vermillion. There is a small area of deep green in the tree and a wash of delicate mossy green in the figure to the right. Apart from the colour of clothing, the three figures — all shown in the typical form of archangels — are identical. Each head is submissively inclined toward one of the others; none of the three assumes an imperial attitude. There is an atmosphere of love, freedom, rest and the most intimate communion. The sense of oneness is achieved primarily through the gentle, attentive engagement of the three with each other, the joining of eyes.

The structure of the icon contributes as well. Most important is the circle, symbol of perfection and eternity, created by the three figures; within the circle there is a sense of a slow counter-clockwise movement. There is also a triangle, the peak of which is the head of the central figure. Due to inverted perspective, the icon has no vanishing point. The three figures are not part of a disappearing plane but rather seem to move ever closer to the person viewing the icon. The effect of inverse perspective attracts us, drawing us toward the table and thus toward Eucharistic life.

This icon has enjoyed enormous popularity far beyond Orthodoxy as a symbolic representation of the Trinity and as an invitation to share in the divine life. At the same time it serves to deepen our understanding of the incarnation by portraying what makes possible the incarnation. It includes many reminders that we can participate in the life of God only because God has first engaged with us, supremely by becoming incarnate. There are the three symbols at the top of the icon. At the centre is a tree. What was the oak of Mamre becomes the Tree of Life planted by God in Paradise; beneath its branches Adam and Eve fell, but from it the life-giving cross was made. As a tree is linked with our downfall in the Garden of Eden, it is also linked with our salvation. Above the Son (the central figure) is a building without a door– the Church, open to all who seek sacramental life, in which we hear Christ through his word and receive him in the Eucharist. Over the Holy Spirit there is a mountain — at once Mount Sinai and Mount Tabor, places where men have witnessed the glory of God. Between the three figures is an altar on which stands a gold chalice containing, in miniature, a blood-red lamb’s body symbolising the sacrificial death of the Lamb of God. And the colours of the clothing of the Son is most substantial — deep red, dark blue, and a band of gold — an indication of the incarnation.

There is a sense of silent conversation among the three figures. The biblical text most often linked with their exchange comes from the Gospel of John, expounding the purposes of the incarnation: ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ (Jn.3:16-17)

The Word Made Flesh

The incarnation has consequences not only for humanity, but also for the whole creation, consequences vividly revealed in icons of the nativity. In the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, the Orthodox Church celebrates both the incarnation of the eternal Word, the Son of God, and the fact that the ultimate purpose of the incarnation was nothing less than the transfiguration of the whole created order. A prayer of the Christmas Vespers Service speaks of the whole creation joining in an act of gratitude and welcome to God incarnate:

What shall we offer you, O Christ, who for our sake has appeared on earth as man? Every creature made by you offers you thanks. The angels offer you a hymn; the heavens a star; the Magi, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, its cave; the wilderness, the manger; and we offer you a virgin mother. (11)

This rich liturgical material is reflected in a fifteenth century icon of the nativity from the Novgorod school. Around the newly born divine child in the centre, representatives of the whole
created world give thanks in their own way. Even animal creation joins in recognising the incarnation of the Son of God: the ox and the ass gaze down on the incarnate Lord, fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy: ‘The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib'(Is. 1:3).

There is no charming Bethlehem bathed in the light of the nativity star but only a rugged mountain with a few plants: a hard, unwelcoming world in which survival is a real battle, the world since our expulsion from Paradise, the world in need of transformation. In contrast to the homely nativity stable that would become familiar in nativity images in the West after the era of Saint Francis, Eastern icons depict Christ’s birth in a dark, rocky cave, though what happened in the cave is placed before the cave’s entrance. The rigorous black of the cave of Christ’s birth in the icon’s centre represents all human disbelief, all fear, all hopelessness. In the midst of a starless night in the cave of our despair, Christ, ‘the Sun of Truth,’ enters history having been clothed in flesh in Mary’s body: ‘The light shines in the darkness’ (Jn. 1:5) dispersing the darkness of the shadow of death over the world. We see that the Christ-child’s body is wrapped ‘in swaddling clothes’. In icons of Christ’s burial, we will see he is wearing similar bands of cloth, as does Lazarus in the icon of his raising by Christ. In the nativity icon, the manger resembles a coffin. In this way the icon links his birth and death.

The most prominent figure in the icon is Mary. Orthodox Christians call her the Theotokos: ‘God-bearer’ or ‘Mother of God’. As Eve is the ‘mother of all who live’ (Gen. 3:20), so Mary is the mother of the new humanity restored and transformed through the incarnation of the Son. Placed against a red mattress — the colour of life, the colour of blood — Mary is the supreme thanksgiving to God, humanity’s finest offering to their Creator. ‘By this offering in the person of the Mother of God,’ Leonid Ouspensky writes, ‘fallen [humankind] gives assent to its salvation through the incarnation of God.’ (12) The Virgin’s posture is significant. In some nativity icons, she is half-sitting, signifying her virginity and the divine origin of Jesus, refuting the idea that the humanity of Christ was not entirely God’s initiative. More commonly, she is lying down, exhausted after childbirth, which is intended to remind the worshipper of her full humanity. In the icon hers is not a joyful face. She lives with the mystery of a child with no human father and also the mystery of his future: a ruler, yes, but it is clear from the circumstances of his birth that his way of ruling is in absolute contrast to the way kings rule. The ruler of all rules in meekness from a manger in a cave. His death on the cross is implied in his birth.

Angels are an essential part of the nativity icon, bringing good news to the shepherds while praising and glorifying God. In our Novgorod version, two of them look upward while one looks downward. A shepherd plays a pipe, adding the human art of music to the angels’ choir. The wise men on the other side make their way toward Bethlehem with gifts, following the star which shows them the way. The star is not simply an astronomical object but a heavenly sign communicating news of the heavenly One born on earth. A ray extends downward from a sphere at the centre of the upper edge of the icon, an indication of heavenly world penetrating the ordinary. The shepherds represent the Jews, the Magi the Gentiles. Not the wise men but the shepherds were permitted to hear the choir of angels singing God’s praise. The wise men are portrayed as of different ages — revelation is granted independently of people’s experience.

Below the Virgin, midwives wash the child, a detail based on apocryphal texts concerning Joseph’s arrangements for the birth. They also are a reminder of the midwives who saved the life of the newborn Moses, who under the law of Pharaoh should have been murdered at birth. The midwife’s presence also underscores the humanity of the incarnate Son, refuting the heresy that Christ only appeared to be human.

We find Joseph crouching in the lower left hand corner. The old and bent figure standing before him represents Satan come to fill Joseph’s mind with doubt. This links with liturgical texts which speak of Joseph’s troubled state of mind. He cannot quite believe what he has experienced. Joseph has witnessed that birth, has had his dreams, has heard angelic voices, has been reassured that the child born of Mary is none other than the Awaited One, the Anointed, God’s Son. Still, belief comes hard. He cannot comprehend this event which transcends the expected order of the world. ‘In the person of Joseph the icon discloses not only his personal drama, but the drama of all [humankind] – the difficulty of accepting that which is ‘beyond words or reason’ – the incarnation of God.’ (13) But our eyes travel back to the Virgin, turned towards Joseph, a symbol of compassion for those beset by doubts and struggles of belief.

The angels, the heavens with a star, the mountain and cave, the Magi, shepherds, ox and ass, Mary, Joseph — the icon gathers them all into a stupendous vision of the meaning and implications of the incarnation.

Silent Icons in a Noisy Time

For Orthodox Christians and many others, icons not only witness to the process of transformation made possible by the incarnation, but provide a means through which this process is effected in and experienced by the worshipper. It is one of the more encouraging signs of the times that they have been making such a comeback in Christian life, and even become objects of fascination for many people resistant to Christianity or any form of ‘organised religion’. Perhaps in this age of words and noises, icons in their silence can help us find our way to the Holy Trinity through the incarnate Son.

Further reading

Jim Forest, Praying With Icons, (Orbis, Maryknoll, NY; Alban Books, Bath, UK; 1997).

Simon Jenkins, Windows into Heaven (Oxford: Lion, 1998).

Henri Nouwen, Behold the Beauty of the Lord (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1987).

Conrad Onasch and Anne Marie Schnieper, Icons: The Fascination and the Reality (NewYork: Riverside, 1997).

Leonid Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press,1992).

Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons (Crestwood, NY: SaintVladimir’s Seminary Press, 1982).

Michel Quenot, The Icon: Window on the Kingdom (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’sSeminary Press, 1991).

St John of Damascus, On the Divine Images (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s SeminaryPress, 1980).


1. Eusebius, The History of the Church , chapter 7, section 18.

2. Lk. 1:38.

3. Gal. 2:20.

4. Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, (New York, Harcourt, Brace, 1948) p. 108.

5. Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain , p. 109.

6. Leonid Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon, vol 1, pp 91-99 (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978).

7. St. John of Damascus, On the Divine Images (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1980).

8. Saint John of Damascus, ibid.

9. Leonid Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon, vol 1, 134-5 (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978).

10. Gen. 18.

11. The Festal Menaion, trans. Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware (London:Faber & Faber, 1969), p. 252.

12. Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1994), p. 159.

13. Ouspensky and Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, p. 160.