Praying With Icons: Qualities of the Icon

extract from Praying With Icons by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Book, 1997, revised 2008; endnotes and illustrations have been removed

It is the task of the iconographer to open our eyes to the actual presence of the Kingdom in the world, and to remind us that though we see nothing of its splendid liturgy, we are, if we believe in Christ the Redeemer, in fact living and worshiping as “fellow citizens of the angels and saints, built upon the chief cornerstone with Christ.”
— Thomas Merton

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.
— Leonid Ouspensky

A good icon is a work of beauty and beauty itself bears witness to God. But who can define beauty in words? How can someone new to icons distinguish the pure beauty of good iconography and that which is second-rate or simply bad?

Perhaps for those beginning to form a deeper appreciation of icons, some general comments about the essential qualities of an icon may be helpful.

An icon is an instrument for the transmission of Christian faith, no less than the written word. Through sacred imagery, the Holy Spirit speaks to us, revealing truths beyond the reach of words.

Icons are an aid to worship. Wherever an icon is set, that place more easily becomes 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,” comments Paul Evdokimov, “is the last arrow of human eros shot at the heart of the mystery.”

The icon is a work of tradition. Just as the hands of many thousands of bakers stand invisibly behind each loaf of homemade bread, the icon is more than the personal meditation of an individual artist, but the fruit of many generations of believers uniting us to the witnesses of the resurrection.

The icon is silent. No mouths are open nor are there any other physical details which imply sound. But an icon’s silence is not empty. The stillness and silence of the icon, in the home no less than church, create 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 disciple of Saint John the Evangelist, Saint Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, made the comment: “He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence.” Saint Ignatius was martyred in Rome in the year 107.

The icon is 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 a deeper awareness of the divine presence.

The icon is a work of theology written in line, images and color. Part of the Church’s response to heresy has been articulated through iconography. For example, the bare feet of the child Jesus shown in many icons serve as a reminder that he walked the earth and left his imprint — that he was not simply a spirit who gave the appearance of being human.

The icon is not intended to force an emotional response. 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 rather suggest virtues — purity, patience in suffering, forgiveness, compassion and love. For example, in crucifixion icons, emphasis is not placed on the physical pain Christ endured on the cross. The icon reveals what led him to the cross: the free act of giving his life for others.

Icons guard against over-familiarity with the divine. An icon of the Savior is not merely a sentimental painting of “our dear friend Jesus,” but portrays both his divinity as well as his humanity, his absolute demands on us as well as his infinite mercy.

Icons rely on a minimum of detail. There is either nothing at all in the background or, if a setting is required, it is rendered in the simplest, most austere manner.

Icons have no single light source. Iconographers have developed a way of painting which suggests a light source that is within rather than outside. The technique builds light on darkness rather than the other way round. The intention is to suggest the “uncreated light”: the light of the kingdom of God. The icon’s light is meant to illumine whoever stands in prayer before the icon.

Icons avoid artistic techniques intended to create an illusion of three-dimensional space, suggesting space without attempting to escape the plane of the panel. Even slight violations of this plane always damage the icon’s meaning, much as a spoken word violates pantomime. Because of the inverse perspective of the icon, the image has no vanishing point. Objects — books, tables, chairs — 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.

Icons are on the border of abstract art. 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, at times abstract, manner. There is, as was noted by Leonid Ouspensky, “a minimum of detail and a maximum of expressiveness.” “Spiritual reality cannot be represented in any other way except through symbols,” Ouspensky observed. “To indicate that baptism is the entry into new life, the baptized, even a fully grown man, is represented as a small child.”

Each icon reveals a person who is named. An icon of the Savior or any saint is not complete without the inscription of his or her name, except in cases where there are numerous figures on icon. Names connote a person no less than visual representation. The icon reveals, notes Nicholas Constas, “not a world of things but a world of persons.”

Icons reveal a person in God’s kingdom. There are no depictions of the sufferings a particular saint had to endure: Sebastian shot full of arrows, Lawrence with the grill on which he was roasted, Anthony suffering temptations, etc. A common feature of western religious paintings is thus absent.

Icons are not captive of a single moment in time. For example in the icon of Christ’s nativity, we may see in the surrounding space events that happened both before and after the birth: the journey of the wise men and midwives washing the newborn child.

In icons faces are seen frontally or in a three-quarters view, the only exceptions being those, like Judas, who have abandoned the kingdom of God. Gazing at the face, we are drawn especially into the eyes, the windows of the soul. The enlightened eyes communicate wisdom, insight, and heightened perception. Meeting the Savior and the saints face-to-face, we find ourselves in a relationship of communion, while a face depicted in profile suggests disconnection and fragmentation.

Despite similarities, each icon is unique. Iconography is not merely the slavish copying of work done by others. “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.”

The icon is unsigned. It is not a work of self-advertisement. The iconographer 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.

The icon is not an editorial or a manifesto. The icon painter does not use iconography to promote an ideology or personal opinion. Neither do iconographers decide who ought to be regarded as a saint. The iconographer, having been blessed by the Church to carry on this form of non-verbal theological activity, willingly and humbly works under guidance of Church canons, tradition, and councils.

The icon is an act of witness. As Thomas Merton explained to a correspondent belonging to a church which avoided 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.”

The icon is a revelation of transfiguration. Like the Gospel texts, icons aim to transform the viewer. We were made in the image and likeness of God, but the image has been damaged and the likeness all but lost. Since Adam and Eve, only in Jesus Christ were these attributes fully intact. The icon shows 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 whoever, as the Orthodox say, has “acquired the Holy Spirit.” The icon is thus a witness to theosis: deification. As Saint Athanasius of Alexandria said: “God became human so that the human being could become God.”

A final caveat: Important though artistic skill may be, it is the faith of the praying person that matters most, not the quality of the icon. This is a lesson I learned from Dorothy Day, founder the Catholic Worker movement. It is not that Dorothy was lacking in appreciation for finely painted icons. She greatly admired those belonging to her Russian friend Helene Iswolsky and treasured a book of reproductions of the iconography of Saint Andrei Rublev and other masters. Yet she had an eye for qualities an icon specialist might easily overlook.

Having reached her early sixties, Dorothy was having increasing trouble climbing the five flights to her apartment on Spring Street in lower Manhattan’s Little Italy. A small apartment in a similar tenement on Ridge Street was rented for her. It was only one flight up, but was in appalling condition. A friend and I were went down to clean and paint the two rooms. We dragged box after box of debris down to the street, including what seemed to us a hideous painting of the Holy Family — Mary, Joseph and Jesus rendered in a few bright colors against a grey background on a piece of plywood. We shook our heads, deposited it in the trash along the curb, and went back to our labor. Not long after Dorothy arrived, the painting in hand. “Look what I found! The Holy Family! It’s a providential sign, a blessing.” She put it on the mantle of the apartment’s bricked-up fireplace. Looking at it again, this time I saw it was a work of love. While this primitive icon was no masterpiece, the ardent faith of its maker shined through. But I wouldn’t have seen it if Dorothy hadn’t seen it first.

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