Praying with Icons: Integrating Body and Soul

Icons and the Mysteries: Meeting God in the Material World — second lecture

I finished yesterday’s lecture by noting that beauty itself bears witness to God. Beauty is very important to us — it motivates many choices and plays a major role in our search for heaven — yet it’s not an easy word to define. We look at certain people and remark how beautiful they are. More significantly, when we look at anyone we love, we see beauty there even if others fail to see that beauty. The beauty we are privileged to glimpse in another person is the image of God — the icon — in the other. As we advance in the life of grace, we see the icon of God in more and more people and this increasingly influences the way we respond to them.

We tend to carry photos of those whom we love. Such photos are beautiful to us. It would greatly distress us if someone where to destroy those photos. It might seem to us a form of iconoclasm.

We recognize beauty in works of art. Beauty draws us to visit museums of art and also hang pictures on the walls of our homes — pictures that are, because of their beauty, spiritually refreshing.

We make it a point to visit places where the beauty of God’s creation is unspoiled by less fortunate activities of human beings. Alaska pulls in many thousands of visitors every year who are here to see a kind of beauty that’s not easily found in more crowded — more “developed” — parts of the planet.

We know beauty when we see it yet who can describe beauty in words? In the case of icons, I find it impossible to define in words what makes a good and beautiful icon. It becomes still more difficult to draw the border between good iconography and that which is second-rate or simply bad — for, just as there can easily be bad Bible translations, there can be badly made icons. An icon is not beautiful simply because it’s an icon, no more than a particular apple is good to eat simply because it grew on an apple tree.

Nonetheless certain general comments about what to look for in iconography may be helpful to those who are new to icons or want to develop a deeper appreciation of them.

Perhaps a good place to start is to point out that, no less than the written word, an icon is an instrument for the transmission of Christian tradition. Tradition is such an important word. It comes from a Latin word, traditio, which means the handing over of something from one person to the next, not only the handing on of an object but also of information, instruction or doctrine. It could be a gold coin or it could be words of wisdom. Why do we do certain things, Tevia asks in “Fiddler on the Roof.” He answers with the single word, “Tradition!”

One of my favorite examples of tradition is bread baking. Perhaps it is possible to learn bread baking from a book but the main way the tradition survives is through apprenticeship. One person teaches another — a master teaches a novice. Mainly it is teaching by doing. How to add the leaven. How to know the moment when the bread is ready to be kneaded. How to kneed the dough, what it should feel like, how to keep it from sticking. All the thousand and one details, many of which cannot be put in words but only can be shown or felt. Gradually the apprentice becomes a skilled bread baker. Her teacher says, in effect, “Axios!” She is worthy. But she will never bake a loaf of bread with only her own hands. All the bread that will ever come from her hands also contains the hands of her teacher, whose hands in turn contain the hands of her teacher, back and back until at last we touch the hands of There is an apostolic succession of bread bakers as well as of bishops.

It’s like that with iconography. Just as the hands of many thousands of bakers, and centuries of bakers, stand behind each loaf of bread, the icon is more than the personal meditation of an individual artist or the work of only one person’s hands. Each icon is the fruit of many generations of believers, a chain of continuity uniting us to the actual witnesses of the resurrection. Through traditional sacred imagery, the Holy Spirit speaks to us, revealing truths that may not be evident to those using only the tools of word and reason.

Let me give an example. Here is a very famous icon, sometimes called simply the Vladimirskaya, or more formally the Mother of God of Vladimir. It is one of several icons which, according to tradition, was painted by the Evangelist Luke, who is regarded as the first iconographer. We live in a skeptical time in which inevitably the question is raised: Is it really the work of Luke? The answer is I don’t know but it wouldn’t surprise me. If we get to heaven, we can ask Luke. Perhaps it will turn out to be an ancient copy of an icon he painted which was lost in the age of iconoclasm — or perhaps not. Meanwhile you will excuse the Russians for believing this is one of the original icons, a treasure handed down from the first generation of believers to our own generation.

What we know for certain is that the icon was given by the Church in Constantinople to the young Russian Church in about 1131. It was no small gift. Every movement and use of the Vladimir icon has been chronicled ever since. Among the people of Rus’, it was first in Kiev, the city through which Christianity entered Russia in the tenth century. There was a mass baptism in Kiev in 988, when St Vladimir was ruler of Kiev. It remained in Kiev until that city was attacked by the Golden Horde. Following Kiev’s destruction, in 1155 it was carried to the city of Vladimir in the north, which became the center of Russia for two centuries. In 1395 the icon moved once again, this time to Moscow, a river town which by then had grown into the principal city of Russia.

As you can see even from a photo, it’s not an icon that has always lived a sheltered life. It has seen many wars, much suffering. Before this icon rivers of people have prayed from the depths of their hearts. It is an icon associated with many miracles.

There are many good printed reproductions of the Vladimir icon but none I have seen does justice to the original. Partly this is because the surface of the icon, having suffered much damage down through the centuries, reveals level upon level of the overpainting of those who restored it. Restoration used to mean painting a similar icon over an older one when it was too dark to see. We see portions of earlier painting in one area, later retouching in others. The rough terrain of the icon’s surface is lost in prints.

The Vladimirskaya lives a sheltered life these days. At present it is placed within an enclosure of bulletproof glass in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery. Yet it has had at least one outing in recent years. In a moment of national crisis in 1993, when the head of the country, Gorbachev, was put under arrest by the organizers of an attempted coup, the icon was carried out of the museum by the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexis, and used to bless the city and nation — precisely the kind of action long associated with this icon, the national icon of Russia.

Even in the museum, it is normal to see people in fervent prayer as they stand before this battered image. Many people come to them museum for no other reason than to pray in front of the Vladimirskaya. Even before the museum doors open, the staff has placed fresh flowers on the floor in front of the icon.

Notice in the icon how Christ’s attention is directed to his mother. There is also the detail of Christ’s bare feet, a vivid symbol of his physical reality: he walked among us, leaving his footprints on the earth.

Christ’s face is pressed against his mother’s, his arm is around his mother’s neck. We are reminded that his flesh has its origin in her flesh. It was in her body that He who was bodiless became man. The icon emphasizes the unity of mother and child and the love that binds them.

In contrast to Renaissance religious paintings with a similar subject, we notice in the icon that while Christ is a child in size, his body’s proportions are those of a man. A child’s head would be much larger. This is intentional. The timeless and noble face we see pressed against Mary’s face is revealed to be the Lord of Creation and the Glory of God. He wears adult clothing, an imperial tunic and coat woven from gold, the element iconography uses for the imperishable and all that is associated with the Kingdom of God. In these details the icon reveals the real identity of the son of Mary.

Over her dress, Mary wears a dark shawl which circles her head, has a golden border, and is ornamented with three stars — though one star is hidden by Christ’s body. The stars symbolize her virginity before and after her son’s birth. At the same time they suggest that heaven has found a place in her.

The icon’s triangular composition not only emphasizes the stillness of the two figures and gives the icon an immovable solidity but is a reminder of the presence of the Holy Trinity in all things.

The center of the composition is at the level of Mary’s heart. A much used Orthodox prayer declares, “Beneath your tenderness of heart do we take refuge, O Mother of God.” As anyone discovers in coming to know the Mother of God, her heart is as spacious as heaven.

There are many sightly different versions of this icon, all icons that can be called the Mother of God of Tenderness. The Vladimir icon is only the most famous example. In all of them we see Mary’s perfect devotion, a devotion so absolute that God finds in her the person who can both give birth to himself and who will ever after serve as the primary model of Christ-centered wholeness — the woman whom all generations will regard as blessed. In her assent to the angelic invitation, Mary said not only on behalf of herself and all her righteous ancestors but for all generations, “Yes, Lord, come!” Through her all humanity gives birth to Jesus Christ, and through Christ she becomes our mother.

Because all such icons portray the profound oneness uniting Mary and Jesus, they are a eucharistic icons: they remind us that, in receiving the Body of Christ, we too hold Christ, and are held by Christ.

In the Gospel, an anonymous voice praises Mary for having given birth to Jesus and having nursed him. Christ responds by remarking on what is still more important about his mother and all who follow him wholeheartedly: “Rather blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it.” She who gave birth to the Word of God also keeps it eternally. She was his first and best disciple.

It was at Mary’s appeal that Christ performed his first miracle, changing water into wine at the marriage feast at Cana, and at Cana that we hear her simple appeal to each person who would follow her son: “Do whatever he tells you.” These few words would serve well as another name for icons of this type.

All icons of this type tell us a lot about living tradition. No two are identical yet all offer a similar composition, all communicate a similar message. All create a place of prayer, whether in church or at home or wherever we happen to place such an icon.

On to a second point, a point which has already been suggested by the icons we have been looking at: Icons are an aid to worship, and such worship involves both body and soul. No icon is meant simply to be decorative or an item for a collection. An icon is intended to help us believe and help us pray. Wherever an icon is set, that place tends to become an area of prayer. The icon is not an end in itself but assists us in going beyond what can be seen with our physical eyes into the realm of mystical experience. “The icon,” the French theologian Paul Evdokimov comments, “is the last arrow of human eros shot at the heart of the mystery.”

Consider this photo of a child-carrying woman about to kiss an icon. It’s the Tikhvin icon on the Mother of God, another of the several icons thought to have been painted by the Evangelist Luke. In recent weeks it has been returned to Russia after a 55-year sojourn in the United States. In the photo we are witnessing a moment of intimate veneration but nothing in the least uncommon in an Orthodox environment. Orthodox Christians do this countless times every year. It’s as natural as breathing. The physical action mirrors a spiritual action. In that moment we are somehow aware of the unseen but living presence of the person represented in the icon. The kisses are given to an icon as letters are placed in a postbox. The postbox is not the destination — it is a gateway. The icon too is a gateway. The kisses given are not for the paint or wood, or the varnish or glass that cover the icon, but are destined for Christ or his mother or whichever saint whose image we are venerating.

We live in a culture which has to a considerable extent cut us into pieces. Home and work place are often divided: the family farm or the family trade are, for most people, long gone. Still more important, we live in a society in which the separation of the spiritual and the physical is normal.

But religious life is not all in the head. God made us physical beings and well as spiritual. The two are bound together — a unity of body and soul that God intends to be seamless. What we call the spiritual life is equally the physical life. A typical example is embracing the Cross spiritually while at the same time marking our body with the sign of the cross: a hidden action combined with a visible action. Without the inner action, the outer action is incomplete. The physical action, however, can be a powerful aid to achieving the inner action.

I recall being at a Liturgy in Moscow twenty years ago. It was still the Communist period. This was one of only 47 “working” churches in the huge city of Moscow in those days. It was a time when services were mainly attended by older women — they had the least to lose. On this occasion I was with a Swedish friend who belonged to a physically undemonstrative church in which there were few if any gestures made by the body in connection with worship. Margareta was both tall and colorfully dressed. In a church largely populated by relatively short Russian women in plain clothing, she certainly stood out. But even more striking to the Russian women around her was the fact that she stood so still and never made the sign of the cross. Finally a babushka standing next to Margareta simply guided Margareta’s hand as if she were her granddaughter, showing her how to make a cross on her body, touching her forehand, her belly, her right shoulder and her left shoulder. For the rest of the service Margareta regularly made the sign of the cross. I realized I was witnessing a small healing miracle — a paralytic being raised from immobility. I think Margareta wanted to do this from the moment she entered the church — it is such a simple and compelling and potent action — but the habits of a lifetime stood in the way. She was too embarrassed. It took the confident hand of a Russian babushka to reconnect Margareta’s spiritual and physical life. Had the babushka had the opportunity, I have no doubt she would have helped Margareta kiss icons instead of just looking at them as if they were paintings in a museum.

I recall another experience involving another Protestant friend, Hannes de Graaf, who taught for many years at the University of Utrecht. As a young man his interest in the novels of Dostoevsky led him to learn Russian, a language which he put to good use later in life, during the Cold War, when he would occasionally travel to Russia to make contact with Christians.

One day he was in an Orthodox Church in Moscow, quite possibly the same Epiphany Cathedral, standing in front of an icon when an old Russian woman approached him. She could see at a glance that Hannes was a foreigner. Few Russians could afford such clothing. And she could see he wasn’t Orthodox — he hadn’t crossed himself, he hadn’t kissed the icon. He was looking at it as one might look at a painting in a museum. “Where do you come from?” she asked. “Holland,” Hannes replied. “Oh yes, Holland. And are there believers in Holland?” “Yes, most people in Holland belong to a church.” But he could see the doubt in her face.

She began to cross-examine him. “And you also are a believer?” “Yes, in fact I teach theology at the university.” “And people in Holland, they go to church on Sunday?” “Yes, most people go to church. We have churches in every town and village.” “And they believe in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit?” She crossed herself as she said the words. “Oh yes,” Hannes assured her, but the doubt in her face increased — why had he not crossed himself? Then she looked at the icon and asked, “And do you love the Mother of God?” Now Hannes was at a loss and stood for a moment in silence. Good Calvinist that he was, he could hardly say yes. Then he said, “I have great respect for her.” “Such a pity,” she replied in a pained voice, “but I will pray for you.” Immediately she crossed herself, kissed the icon and stood before it in prayer.

“Do you know,” Hannes told me years later, “from that day I have loved the Mother of God.”

Another aspect of icons is that they have a hieratic character. Hieratic — a word few of us use in the average day. Hieratic means something concerned solely with the sacred. Through line and color, the iconographer seeks to convey the awesomeness of the invisible and divine reality and to lead the viewer to consciousness of the divine presence. The icon is theology written in images and color.

Consider this icon by St. Andre Rublev. It is a Pantocrator icon. Much of the image has been lost — damage suffered in the early years of the Communist revolution — but in the center the face survives. It is a kind of miracle. The icon, having been taken from the iconostasis of a monastery, was later found being used as a step in a barn. Now it is among the treasures in the care of the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Look at the face of Christ. We see how the iconographer has sought to convey the awesomeness of the invisible and divine reality and to lead the viewer to an awareness of the divine presence. This is certainly a man but more than any man we have yet met. He looks at each of us with absolute knowing, and also with absolute care. It is the face of the God who made us in his image, the God who is the source of all love. It is not a soft love but a love that demands great things of us, a love that awaits our conversion, a love that invites us to live our lives in the kingdom of God, and to do so not later on but today, this very hour. We cannot look at this icon and be unaware of God. The icon makes us think of ourselves in relationship to God.

Icons of the face of Christ vary a good deal. In some cases it tends to be more severe, as in this example from Hagia Sophia in Istanbul — a powerful reminder that we will, each of us and all of us, participate in the Last Judgment. We will be judged for what we did and what we failed to do. We will hear him say, “What you have failed to do to the least person you have failed to do to me.”

A third point: Icons guard against over-familiarity with the divine. For example, a Savior icon is not merely a sentimental painting but portrays both his divinity as well as his manhood, his absolute demands on us as well as his infinite mercy.

Here is a recently painted Pantocrator icon by a Bulgarian. This is definitely not “our dear friend Jesus” but someone who challenges all who meet him to live in a way that reveals the kingdom of God.

This may help us understand why no one is smiling in an icon. A cross-cultural history of smiles would make an interesting book. We Americans regard especially smiles as close to obligatory. The absence of a smile makes us worry that something is wrong: depression, illness, grief. A contender for the White House must be able to flash a bright smile at the blink of an eye. In some cultures it’s very different. I recall when I was first traveling in Russia in the early eighties being surprised that portrait photos displayed in windows of photo studio windows never, I mean never, showed anyone smiling. At first it seemed to me this revealed Russians were just as unhappy as Americans imagined. Later I discovered Russians were baffled and somewhat alarmed that Americans smile so much — for them smiles in photos are at odds with the solemnity that standing before a camera requires. This is a small example of very different cultural attitudes. I’m not sure which culture has the larger share of wisdom.

In icons the basic idea is to show a person transfigured by Christ. This is a blessedness beyond happiness. It’s something like standing before God. It doesn’t mean that sanctity is at odds with joy but that the joy involved is beyond smiles.

Icons also serve to summon the person who stands before them to enter completely into life in Christ, to take up Christ’s cross and to die to self and to the world — in the shallow sense of the word: the world as a place with no link to heaven — in order to enter into Paschal life.

A fourth point: Icons are not intended to force an emotional response. Here is one of the major differences with later forms of religious art. In icons there is a conscious avoidance of movement or theatrical gesture. In portraying moments of biblical history, the faces of participants in the scene are rarely expressive of their feelings at the time as we might imagine them, but suggest virtues — purity, patience in suffering, forgiveness, compassion and love. For example, in crucifixion icons, the physical pain Christ endured on the cross is not shown; the icon reveals instead what led him to the cross, the free action of giving his life for others. There is no superficial or exaggerated drama. There is also understatement regarding the people standing at either side of the Cross. It isn’t that we are not supposed to be aware of the pain Christ endures for our sake, or the grief his mother and disciples experienced. In some instances — for example this Byzantine icon that was already centuries old when St Francis prayed in front of it in the ruins of a chapel in Assisi– it seems as if Christ, though bleeding, is resting on the Cross. Such an icon emphasizes Christ’s free gift of himself “for the life of the world.”

A fifth point: The icon is silent. No mouths are open nor are there any other physical details which suggest sound. But the silence is not empty. St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, the disciple of St. John the Evangelist who was devoured by lions in Rome in the year 107, made the comment: “He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence.” The stillness and silence of the icon, in the home no less than church, creates an area that constantly invites prayer. The deep and living silence which marks a good icon is nothing less than the silence of Christ. It is the very opposite of the icy stillness of the tomb. It is the silence of Mary’s contemplative heart, the silence of the transfiguration, the silence of the resurrection, the silence of the Incarnate Word.

A sixth point concerns the flatness of icons and inverse perspective. Icons avoid artistic techniques intended to create an illusion of three-dimensional space. The icon suggests space without attempting to escape the two-dimensional plane of the panel. Even slight violations of this two-dimensionality damage the icon’s meaning, just as a spoken word violates pantomime. The lighting of an icon is never explained by a single light source; light is within the image as well as exterior to it and illumines whoever stands before the icon. The image is reduced to a minimum of detail.

This Annunciation is a good example. It comes from the iconostasis of one of the cathedrals within the Moscow kremlin. We see the most essential elements and nothing more. Mary to the right, the Archangel Gabriel to the left. To suggest that Michael is a bodiless being, he is shown standing on his toes or perhaps floating. Angel comes from the Greek word angelos, messenger. As God’s messenger, he goes instantly wherever he is sent by God. His quickness to go at once wherever he is sent is symbolized by wings. In the icon, Mary has already said, “Be it done to me according to your word.” Already the Word has become flesh — revealed within her body is the unborn Christ. There is also the small detail of Mary holding a blood-red skein of yarn: by assenting to bear Christ, she is weaving our Salvation. It is an astonishingly simple icon. There is either nothing at all in the background, as in this case, or, if a setting is required, as in this icon of the wedding at Cana, it is rendered in the simplest, most austere manner. “Inverse perspective” is used. There is no single vanishing point. Objects expand where, according to the rules of perspective, they should contract. Lines move toward rather than away from the person at prayer before the icon. The vanishing point is not in illusory space behind the image but rather the viewer’s own heart.

Because nothing in our world can do better than hint at the beauty of the kingdom of God, natural objects are rendered in a vivid but symbolic, even abstract, manner. It is only in modern times that artists like Chagall have begun to rediscover the value of icons in ignoring rules of perspective and figures that defy gravity. Thus Chagall is able to show in this painting something about the nature of marital love that could not be revealed with such immediacy in a realistic painting of a husband and wife together in their kitchen. But then Chagall, though Jewish, grew up in a world of icons — a Ukranian town.

“Spiritual reality cannot be represented in any other way except through symbols,” commented the iconographer Leonid Ouspensky. Thus persons may be shown smaller or larger due only to reasons of their condition. In a Dormition icon, for example, the roles are reversed: it is no longer large Mary holding small Jesus but the other way around. Mary appears twice in the icon — her falling asleep in death in the foreground, then in the background herself but baby-sized in the hands of Christ.

On the subject Ouspensky writes: “There are no words nor colors nor lines which could represent the Kingdom of God as we represent and describe our world. Both theology and iconography are faced with a problem which is absolutely insoluble — to express by means belonging to the created world that which is infinitely above the creature. On this plane there are no successes, for the subject itself is beyond comprehension and no matter how lofty in content and beautiful an icon may be, it cannot be perfect, just as no word or image can be perfect. In this sense both theology and iconography are always failures. Precisely in this failure lies the value of both alike; for this value results from the fact that both theology and iconography reach the limit of human possibilities and prove insufficient. Therefore the methods used by iconography for pointing to the Kingdom of God can only be figurative, symbolical, like the language of the parables in the Holy Scriptures.” [The Meaning of Icons]

A seventh point: The icon should be unsigned. Sadly there are iconographers who violate the rule, but traditionally an icon is not a work of self-advertisement. This is an example of the icon called “Unmade by Human Hands.” It represents an image that resulted when Christ pressed his face against a linen cloth when King Abgar in Edessa appealed for Christ’s help. The cloth eventually went to Constantinople but was stolen and lost when Latin Crusaders took the city but countless icons inspired by the original cloth have come down to us. There is no signature nor even the iconographer’s initials. And here is one of the countless versions of the Icon of the Sign, which takes its name from a prophecy of Isaiah: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. A virgin will conceive and bear a son and shall call him Immanuel.” It is a masterpiece yet unsigned. The iconographer was interested in nothing more than drawing our attention to the mystery of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity becoming human. An unborn child, invisible to the world but made visible in the icon, riles the universe from his mother’s womb.

The iconographer even avoids stylistic innovations intended to take the place of a signature. This does not preclude the names of certain iconographers being known to us, but we can say that the greater the iconographer, the less he or she seeks personal recognition. Similarly the icon painter does not use iconography to promote an ideology or a personal opinion. The iconographer, having been blessed by the church to carry on this form of non-verbal theological activity, willingly works under guidance of Church canons, tradition and the hierarchy.

On the other hand, iconography is not merely the slavish copying of work done by others, trying to reproduce in every detail the work of an earlier iconographer. “Tradition never shackles the creative powers of the iconographer,” Ouspensky writes, “whose individuality expresses itself in the composition as well as in the color and line. But the personal here is much more subtle than in the other arts and so often escapes superficial observation… Although icons are sometimes remarkably alike, we never find two absolutely identical icons, except in cases of deliberate copying in more modern times.”

A seventh point: The icon is an act of witness. As Thomas Merton explained to a correspondent belonging to a Quaker friend, whose church avoids religious imagery of any kind, “What one ‘sees’ in prayer before an icon is not an external representation of a historical person, but an interior presence in light, which is the glory of the transfigured Christ, the experience of which is transmitted in faith from generation to generation by those who have ‘seen,’ from the Apostles on down…. So when I say that my Christ is the Christ of the icons, I mean that he is reached not through any scientific study but through direct faith and the mediation of the liturgy, art, worship, prayer, theology of light, etc., that is all bound up with the Russian and Greek tradition.”

An eight and final point that connects with the last: icons are a revelation of transfiguration. We were made in the image and likeness of God but the image has been damaged and the likeness lost. Since Adam and Eve, only in Jesus Christ were these attributes fully intact. In every icon of every saint, each icon attempts to show the recovery of wholeness. Over centuries of development, iconographers gradually developed a way of communicating physical reality illuminated by the hidden spiritual life. The icon suggests the transfiguration that occurs to whomever, as the Orthodox say, has “acquired the Holy Spirit.” The icon is thus a witness to theosis — that is deification. As St Athanasius wrote: “God became human so that the human being could become God.”