Theology Without Words: Understanding the Language of Icons

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

I am one of those people who came to appreciate icons only very slowly. When I was a young man, I saw them as the primitive art of Christianity, sometimes as charming as children’s art but the kind of thing better attached with magnets to the refrigerator than framed and hung in the living room. Their claim to a place in museums was chiefly to mark a starting point.

Let me briefly list the objections I had to icons. I found them flat. The perspective and often the proportions were all wrong. There was no “there” in icons, only “here.” The figures in them were so still they seemed lifeless and paralyzed. The saints depicted seemed more or less the same, interchangeable people from heaven’s Central Casting Bureau. Far from smiling, the saints as revealed by icons seemed rather grim if not irate. The objects depicted weren’t realistic. Sometimes I was reminded of the art of Egyptian temples and tombs — monumental and intriguing but lacking all intimacy.

I was like a child trying to understand a foreign language. The problem was that I was looking at Byzantine art with a yard stick provided by art of the post-schism West, especially the art I met in the halls of museums like the Metropolitan in New York, the National Gallery in Washington, the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid. “Real” art was Rembrandt, Vermeer, Da Vinci, Botticelli, etcetera.

It was a long and complex process learning to see icons for what they are rather than what they are not.

One of the many steps along the way occurred about thirty years ago, while I was staying with friends in Birmingham, England. My host was the president of one of the city’s universities. Between lectures, I had time to visit the Barber Institute, a museum with a collection of masterpieces arranged in chronological order. Item number one was a Byzantine icon that was approximately eight centuries old. It was an image of one of the martyrs of the early church. I can no longer be certain who was represented in the icon but it may have been the Holy Great-martyr and Healer Panteleimon, a physician of Christ-like compassion and generosity, healing many through his prayers as well as his medicines, offering his services to the poor without hesitation or fee. His parents had named him Pantoleon (“in all things like a lion”), but because of his compassion he became known as Panteleimon (“all- merciful”). Arrested for his faith, after many tortures he was beheaded in 305. He is counted as the foremost of the Unmercenary Healers.

But whether or not it was Panteleimon, I cannot be certain. All I am sure of is that it was a young man. If ever I get back to Birmingham I will take a second look. The background was entirely gold leaf. The colors in the figure were intense: strawberry red, grass green, sky blue, a white like old ivory, burgundy purple. The gentle eyes of the young saint stared out of the panel toward me, neither condemning nor applauding. The icon was placed in a dark case very softly lit. The lighting was more appropriate than is often the case in museums, illumination that approximated candlelight, in other words something close to the minimal lighting — usually candle light — that the iconographer anticipates.

I still can feel the surprise that swept over me as I was drawn into that icon’s huge and magnetic silence. I eagerly looked forward to seeing other paintings I knew were in the gallery — Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Degas, Monet, etc. — but it was hard to go one step further. The most remarkable thing was that the icon made me want to pray. I don’t recall that ever happening to me before in a museum.

And here we come to point one regarding icons: it is an art that is intended to inspire prayer.

I had stood in front of many amazing paintings by the great masters of the Renaissance and been inspired and stunned by the beauty, the skill, the exploration of the human being both in body and soul, and — in the case of art with a religious theme — the insight into moments of biblical history. I owe a huge debt to such paintings. The best of them gave an extra dimension to reading the Bible. They helped me to see more deeply, to read a text with another level of perception. They refreshed by eyes and heart. Insofar as such painting brought one to a state of contemplation of the divine, they had a sacramental significance. Yet it never crossed my mind to pray.

One of my favorite examples of the kind of painting I am talking about is Vermeer’s study of Jesus with Mary and Martha. This is among the high points of Dutch art from the Golden Age.

It’s a profound reflection on both Mary and Martha’s loving relationship with Christ. At the top is practical, sensible Martha — Martha of the kitchen, Martha of the bread basket — who expresses her love for Jesus through acts of hospitality, not the least of which is preparing a meal for one’s guests, as Abraham and Sara had done under the oak of Mamre when angels visited them. In the foreground is Mary — Mary who avidly attends Christ’s every word. She is so eager to hear whatever Jesus has to say that everything else — all that is normal in life — is momentarily on hold. Martha is understandably annoyed — she has been left to care for their guest’s hunger while Mary feasts on the words of the master. In Vermeer’s painting, both of their faces are turned toward Jesus. His divinity is suggested chiefly by qualities in his face, though there is also the faintest sense of radiance. You recall the story. A moment before Martha had appealed to Jesus to rebuke her sister for forcing Martha to serve alone. We see them at the moment when Christ is responding, “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things. But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”

It’s a wonderful painting. The one time I saw the original — at a Vermeer exhibition in The Hague a few years ago — I stood for the longest time gazing at it. I could hardly breathe. Hundreds of people must have passed in and out of the room where this painting hung without my moving an inch. They were for me only a transparent blur.

Nothing had ever brought me so close to that episode in the Gospel or made it so plain to me that Jesus addressed Martha not with irritation but with the utmost gentleness and respect. In their encounter we get a glimpse of what comes later, when their brother Lazarus has died and been buried. Then the sisters trade places. Mary no longer wishes to be at the feet of Jesus — he has failed her by arriving too late to keep Lazarus from the grave. It is Martha, not Mary, who receives Jesus at the edge of Bethany. She too is disappointed with his late arrival, in fact calls him to account for being too late. It’s in that meeting that Jesus asks if Martha believes in the resurrection of the dead, and when she says she does, responds by telling her, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” It’s only after this exchange that Jesus ask Martha to get Mary — Mary who so far has avoided seeing him. Now it is Martha who has chosen the better part. Only after the two sisters are with him does he raise Lazarus from his grave.

The Vermeer painting, though its focus is on a brief moment in the Gospel, reveals something about who Christ is. We see not only his love and respect for these two sisters with their wildly contrasting temperaments, but for women as a whole. They are as important to him as men even though he is living in a world in which women were only very rarely allowed to be students or thought of having the capacity to sit at a teacher’s feet. Vermeer’s painting is a meditation on Christ’s respect for all women.

In fact it’s a painting not far removed from iconography. There is an icon-like quality of silence and stillness in the painting. Also nothing in the environment surrounding the figures distracts from the three people and what is occurring between them.

Though it isn’t an icon, Vermeer’s painting helps us read and better understand the Gospel. In talking about the language of icons, I don’t wish to be understood as comparing western religious art, such as Vermeer’s, with iconography, and finding the former as somehow less important. They are simply different. These different kinds of paintings play different roles in our spiritual lives, but the roles are complementary. We don’t need to denigrate one in order to value the other. In different ways each opens a door. Perhaps the door opened by the best western religious painting is the door of a more profound understanding of a moment in biblical history, a kind of visual meditation, usually shown in a relatively “realistic” way, while icons, a more abstract form art, challenge us to be aware of the divine presence and invite us to pray.

What are the obstacles to understanding the language of icons?

For many people, one of the obstacles is theological. Ideas that in the past have caused waves of icon destruction are still linger within many of us. Not infrequently during the past twenty centuries, any form of visual presentation of God and the kingdom of heaven has been a matter of boiling controversy among devout Christians, and that controversy is far from over. There are people here who were not raised in the Orthodox Church and can recall what a hard struggle it was coming to terms with icons. They know from the inside the attitudes that fueled intellectual opposition to icons and inspired their destruction — icons seen as idols, icons as an abomination.

The most frequently heard argument of iconoclasts is that icons are a violation of the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:3-6) Or in the same chapter of Exodus: “You shall not make gods of silver to be with me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold.” Then three chapters later: “You shall not bow down to their gods, nor serve them, nor do according to their works, but you shall utterly overthrow them and break their pillars in pieces.” (Exodus 23:24)

There are numerous passages in the Old Testament warning the faithful about false gods, the danger of graven images, the worship of idols, etc.

There have been others whose critique of icons arose from gnostic heresies, especially the belief that all matter exists in the realm of corruption and tends to draw us toward evil. Such people opposed not only icons but sacraments. There were gnostics who believed that, because of what they regarded as the unbridgeable abyss between God and matter, the Son of God could not possibly have become flesh. This led to the belief that Jesus Christ was either an ordinary human being who had been adopted by God or was a bodiless spirit who only seemed to be human of flesh and blood. Thus he did not die on the cross — a spirit cannot die. (Never imagine that the early Church enjoyed a degree of harmony and oneness that has since been lost. Most of today’s heresies are nearly as old as the Orthodox Church.)

In the eighth century, the first iconoclast emperor, Leo III, ordered the destruction of icons or at least their being covered with paint or plaster. The rapid spread of Islam in the east in areas that had previously been Christian may have been a factor in the imperial condemnation of icons — though according to another theory, iconoclasm was an idea absorbed by Islam from Christian heretics. Because of monastic resistance to the emperor’s command, many monasteries were closed. Iconographers were arrested and tortured. Some had a hand cut off. Some were tortured to death.

To get an idea of what a church might have been made to look like in order to please the iconoclast emperors, a church to visit would be Hagia Eirene in what was formerly Constantinople and is today Istanbul. After the city’s oldest church was gutted by fire after a calamitous riot, the present church was rebuilt in the time of Justinian the Great. Would that we could see its iconography, but all the original imagery of Justinian’s church was either destroyed by the iconoclasts or is hidden under plaster. The only surviving decoration from the iconoclast period is a large mosaic cross over the sanctuary. It is not very different in principle than many Protestant churches descending from another period of iconoclasm, the Reformation. fhaigaeirene.jpg(By the way, Hagia Eirene is one of Istanbul’s very few churches that was never turned into a mosque. During the period of Ottoman rule, the church — which stands just inside the walls of the royal palace — served as an armory. Now it is occasionally opened for use as a concert hall. Normally it is not open to tourists and pilgrims, but we managed to get in by making a small donation to the guard.)
St John of Damascus

Ironically it was within the borders of Islam that icons found their best defender, the theologian and hymnographer, St John of Damascus.

Because he was living in a desert monastery near Bethlehem in a period when the Holy Land was under Moslem rule, imperial decrees from Constantinople had no effect. This is the reason the ancient icons at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Desert, some of them 1500 years old or more, have survived into our own time.

At the heart of St. John’s several essays on divine images is this argument:

How could the invisible be depicted? How could the unimaginable be portrayed? How could one without measure or size or limit be drawn? How could the formless be made? How could the bodiless be depicted in color? What therefore is this that is revealed in riddles? For it is clear that when you see the bodiless become human for your sake, then you may accomplish the figure of a human form; when the invisible becomes visible in human flesh, then you may depict the likeness of something seen; when one who, by transcending his own nature, is bodiless, formless, incommensurable, without magnitude or size, that is, one who is in the form of God, taking the form of a slave, by this reduction to quantity and magnitude puts on the characteristics of a body, depicts him on a board and sets up to view the One who has accepted to be seen.

[treatise one, paragraph eight, translation by Andrew Louth from Three Treatises on the Divine Images, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003]

Here you see in paint — actually in this case pigment in wax — the One who desired to be seen. It’s the kind of icon of Christ that would have been familiar to St John of Damascus. Compared to icons of Christ from later times, it is almost photographic, though there is an amazing continuity of images century after century. Yet even in this very realistic style, the iconographer has managed to convey the mystery that Jesus Christ is both divine and human: Son of God and Son of Man. Such an image of Christ is called the Pantocrator: Ruler of All, Lord of Creation, King of Glory. In the Pantocrator icon we see the face of Jesus Christ, but we see more than would have been shown on film had cameras existed 2,000 years ago. It reveals who he really was. We are face to face with the Jesus Christ, Son of Mary, Son of God, our Savior, God incarnate, whose touch or word could heal the blind, raise the dead and drive out demons.

St John of Damascus stresses that such images are not idols. An icon is an image to be venerated, not worshiped. He wrote at length on the distinction between worship and veneration, giving many biblical examples. His crucial point is that it is not matter which is venerated but rather, as he put it, “the fashioner of matter, who became matter for our sakes.”

St. John’s writings gave courage to those within the empire’s borders who sought to preserve the tradition of icons no matter what the peril or penalty. He also solemnly warned those who obey man rather than God that they put their souls in grave peril:

Let everyone know… that anyone who attempts to destroy an image brought into being out of divine longing and zeal for the glory and memorial of Christ, or of his mother the holy Theotokos, or of one of the saints, or for the disgrace of the devil and the defeat of him and his demons, and will not venerate or honor or greet it as a precious image… is an enemy of Christ…

[ibid., treatise two, paragraph eleven]

He goes to remind his readers that the Emperor is not ruler of the Church:

It is not for emperors to legislate for the Church. For look what the divine apostle says: ‘And God has appointed in the Church first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly pastors and teachers, for the equipment of the saints,’ — he did not say emperors…

[op. cit., treatise two, paragraph twelve]

The first period of iconoclasm lasted from 711 until 780. There was a recess and then a second wave of iconoclasm, less severe than the first, initiated by Emperor Leo V in 813. Orthodox resistance steadily grew, ultimately including a courageous act of civil disobedience — an icon-bearing procession in Constantinople by a thousand monks. With the death of the Emperor Theophilus in 842, imperial objections to icons ended. In 843, Theodora, widow of the former Emperor, who herself possessed and venerated 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 the Triumph of Orthodoxy, a custom maintained to the present day throughout the Orthodox world when many of the faithful bring their icons from their homes to the church.

By the way, it was not only in Christian enclaves in the Moslem east that icons survived but also in the west. If you wish to see some of the finest icons of the early Church, go to Rome. A first stop might be the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. The mosaic icons that adorn the upper walls of the nave date from the mid-fourth century while the large mosaic icons behind the altar are from the fifth century. Many Roman churches are adorned with icons from the early centuries of Christianity. Even older icons survive underground, in the Roman Catacombs.

One of those who was bravest in resisting the iconoclasm was Pope Gregory II, patriarch of Rome from 713 to 731. In common with Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople, he resisted the commands of the emperor. When Gregory received a letter from Emperor Leo commanding him to destroy images at Rome and summon a council to forbid their use, Gregory replied with a lengthy defense of the pictures. Surprised that Leo did not already understand the distinction, he explained the difference between icons and idols. He went on to condemn interference by the emperor in ecclesiastical matters and, still worse, his persecution of those who made or reverenced icons. He told Leo that a council was not wanted and appealed to him to stop disturbing the peace of the Church. — all this in response to Leo’s threat that, should Gregory fail to obey, he would come to Rome, destroy the statue of St. Peter, and put Gregory in prison.

Gregory replied by pointing out that he could easily escape from Rome, adding that people in the West would never consent to destroy their icons. [Greg. II, “Ep. I ad Leonem”] The emperor answered, continuing his argument by saying that no general council had yet said a word in favor of images, and that he himself was both Emperor and Priest in one and therefore had the right to make decrees about such matters. Gregory wrote back regretting that Leo did not yet seen the error of his ways. As for earlier Councils, they did not pretend to discuss every point of the faith; it was unnecessary in those days to defend what no one attacked. The title Emperor and Priest had been conceded as a compliment to some sovereigns because of their zeal in defending the very faith that Leo now attacked. The pope declared himself determined to withstand the emperor’s tyranny at any cost, though he had no defense but to pray that Christ would send a demon to torture the emperor’s body that his soul be saved, according to 1 Corinthians 5:5.

We are fortunate, thanks to the sacrifice and suffering of many before us, that icons play a role in our religious life, in the church as well as the home and even when we travel.

No matter how much we know about the Bible, there is more to learn. The same can be said about icons.

To come closer to understanding their silent language, let me put on the screen one of the most famous of all icons, St. Andre Rublev’s icon known as “The Old Testament Holy Trinity,” an image that expresses in silence aspects of the nature of God that are beyond the reach of words. It was painted about 1425. Similar icons are widely used in the Orthodox Church every year, on the feast of Pentecost. Jesus’ first followers, all Jews, had known God the Father, creator of all things visible and invisible, from childhood. In Jesus Christ the Savior, they came to know God the Son. At Pentecost, they received the empowering gift of God the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, intangible and yet present everywhere.

The icon refers to the story of Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality to strangers by the oaks of Mamre near Hebron. This was indeed shown in earlier versions of the icon. 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. Finally Abraham and Sarah understood their guests were angels. Throughout the biblical account the three acted in perfect unity and spoke with one voice. In this the early Christian community recognized a revelation of the Holy Trinity: three Persons within the One God.

Pre-Rublev versions of the icon showed Abraham and Sarah waiting on their guests. Rublev drastically simplified the image. Only the angels remain plus three objects behind them: house, tree and mountain. What had been a table with several dishes in earlier icons here becomes an altar with a chalice in the center. In stripping away narrative detail, Rublev shifted the icon’s emphasis from a particular biblical event to a meditation on the dialogue of love within the Holy Trinity.

The icon was painted for the iconostasis of the principal church of the Holy Trinity Monastery north of Moscow. The monastery had been founded in the previous century by St. Sergius of Radonezh, one of the towering figures in the history of the Russian Church. Sergius left no books, but by word and example taught all who were drawn to his community in the forest that “contemplation of the Holy Trinity destroys all discord.” The icon was intended to convey this teaching.

In the chronicles of the monastery it is remembered how on feast days, when St. Andrei and his assistant Daniel rested from their work, they would “sit in front of the divine and venerable icons and look at them without distraction…. They constantly elevated their thoughts to the immaterial and divine light.”

No photo or reproduction does justice to the actual icon. It possesses an astonishing transparency, a serene, shimmering, heavenly beauty. It was quickly recognized as surpassing any previous icon on the same theme. In 1551, the Council of a Hundred Chapters cited it as a model, calling on iconographers “to paint from ancient models such as those made by the Greek iconographers and by Andrei Rublev.”

“One can say without fear of contradiction,” the theologian Paul Evdokimov has written, “that nowhere in the world is there anything like it from the point of view of theological synthesis, symbolic richness and artistic beauty.”

But the light of the icon slowly dimmed. As decades passed the smoke produced by thousands of candles blackened the image. Twice the image was re-painted but each time in darker colors and with the addition of new details. Finally the whole icon except the faces and hands was covered by a golden oklad — an embossed metallic sheet. What had once been visible in paint was rendered in cluttered relief.

It was only in 1904 that a restoration commission freed the icon from its oklad and began the slow and painstaking removal of the overpainting that masked Rublev’s work. What their effort finally revealed has ever since amazed those who have been privileged to stand in front of the actual icon. The uncovering of the Holy Trinity icon was a momentous event, doing much to inspire the return to classic iconography.

The miraculous grace of its colors and translucence defies even the most exacting efforts at reproduction.

The icon’s principal colors were pure gold or hues of gold. Azure blue was used in the garments of the three figures with many touches in their robes of a wash of lapis lazuli. A thin line of vermillion was used for the hardly visible staff each figure holds. There is a small area of deep green in the tree and a wash of delicate mossy green in the figure to the right. The colors for the clothing of the central figure are the most substantial: deep red, dark blue, and a band of gold.

Apart from clothing, the three are identical. They are neither male nor female. The long bodies suggest a male form while the faces might be those of identical sisters. 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, timelessness, 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, there is no vanishing point. The three figures are not part of a disappearing plane but rather seem to move ever closer to the person before the icon, showing that God is here and everywhere.

Which angelic figure represents the Father, which the Son, which the Holy Spirit? There has been much debate on the question. When painted by Rublev, each figure was identified but the names were lost in the process of overpaintings and restoration. Probably the Son is represented by the angelic figure in the center while the angel on the left represents the Father and the angel on the right the Holy Spirit.

The three symbols at the top of the icon are each angled to mirror the angelic figures below them. At the center 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, according to tradition, the holy and 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. To the left is a building without a door — the church, open to all who seek sacramental life, in which we receive Christ in the Eucharist. On the right is a mountain — Mount Sinai, 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 symbolizing the sacrificial death of Christ, the Lamb of God. (Later in life, Abraham was to sacrifice a lamb in place of his son Isaac.) The Father’s hand above the cup is extended in a gesture of blessing.

The image reminds us that, through the chalice, Christians are brought into communion with the Holy Trinity.

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: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God sent his son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

If one were to search for a single word to describe the icon, it is the word love. The Holy Trinity itself is a community of love so perfect that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one. All creation is a manifestation of God’s love. The Incarnation of Christ is an act of love as is every word and action that follows, even if at times it is what Dostoevsky calls “a harsh and dreadful love.” Christ’s acceptance of condemnation and execution witnesses to the self-giving nature of love. His resurrection is a sign of the power of love to defeat death. Christ invites each of us to participate in the love and mercy of God. “Love is the measure,” said St. John of the Cross, “according to which we will be judged.”

“Of all the philosophical proofs of the existence of God,” wrote the priest and scientist Pavel Florensky, who died a martyr’s death in the Stalin era, “that which carries the most conviction is not mentioned in any textbook. It may be summarized as follows: ‘Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon exists, therefore God exists’.” It is a way of saying: all beauty bears witness to God.