Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Icon Painting in the Orthodox Church

When we walk into an Orthodox Church many things attract our attention, whether it is the icon screen, the byzantine music chanted during the services and many more. However, a unique feature, by far, is the iconography that embraces the whole or part of the interior of the Orthodox Church building. Therefore, iconography is considered the art of arts. Its beauty is unique, whereby it endeavours to depict Jesus Christ, His mother the Theotokos, the Saints, the Angels, the Prophets and whoever is in communion with God.
Iconography is the original tradition of Christian sacred art, and has been an integral part of the worship and mystical life of Christians since the early centuries of the life of the Church. In Orthodoxy, icons are known as windows into heaven, inspiring and uplifting the faithful. In many instances they have been the instruments for demonstrating God’s miraculous intercession in the life of mankind.


Iconography is a form of art, following the artistic depiction of the Byzantine Tradition. However, it endeavours and accomplishes the unity between art and theology. Its objective is not just to decorate the interior, or in some cases also the exterior of the Church building, creating thus a pleasant atmosphere within the Church; but it also attempts to introduce the faithful to the transcendent place of worship. Iconography is, therefore, a theological narrative of the Divine Word; it is a means for redemption and salvation.
Iconography, also known as hagiography in Greek, is the depiction of saintly figures in a picture form, as an icon. An icon maintains a humble, devout character highlighting the spiritual and not the physical and material beauty. The forms and the faces depicted are rendered in incorruption with sweetness and strength. The Saints invite us to the uncreated light, to the Kingdom of the Heavens, promised to us by Jesus Christ. Additionally, the animals, plants, rocks and scenes are shown as they are in their heavenly form. The light depicted in iconography is the divine light, which does not have a specific source.
The participation of icons in the Liturgical life and expression of the Orthodox Church is necessary because they contribute towards the transformation of man, in order to perceive the invisible, through the visible depiction of the divine, through the iconographic tradition. Therefore, the iconographer maintains a number of roles; he or she is an artist, yes, but also maintains a spiritual office, as another preacher; an iconographer is distinct from a simple artist, since the art in hand is divine.
Many would say that we Orthodox are obsessed with icons and iconography. This is true in many respects. However, in order to understand this, we need to comprehend the purpose the icons have in our life, in our Orthodox existence. The early Fathers use the Greek word anagogic, which means to lead one upward. According to Photios Kontoglou, the well-known iconographer, ‘icons raise the soul and mind of the believer who sees the icon to the realm of the spirit, of the incorruptible, of the Kingdom of God, as far as this can be achieved with material means.’ The only way to comprehend the truths and the beauties of the iconographic tradition, is to perceive it as a liturgical art form, which is essentially spiritual.
Who can be an iconographer? Since the icon maintains such a spiritual and important feature within the Orthodox Church, then the iconographer must be a person of prayer. An iconographer is not just an artist, but a faithful who achieves to show the faithful the divine, the life of Christ and the Saints, who we all should have as examples in our lives. If his work is to inspire others and promote the faith via the work produced, then it is essential that he leads a life of prayer and fasting, in order to be inspired by the Holy Spirit. That is why iconography is considered a means of prayer, whereby during the process the icon-painter is praying. Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, had said once, any fool can take a photograph but only someone living in the light of the resurrection can paint an icon. This verifies the fact that the icon-painter lives a Christ centred life, achieving to bring the faithful and the Saints, and through them God, into a continuous dialogue of prayer and communion.
Icons are also known as the Bible of the illiterate. Today we can say that icons are the Bible for those who do not have time to actually read the Holy Bible. The depiction of important events from Christ’s life show the truths of His coming to this world. The depiction of Saints shows us the fact that we have ideal examples of people who have achieved the ultimate objective of every Christian’s life, meaning theosis, communion with God. These people who are depicted in our icons within the Church show that God’s commandments can be achieved by us, the Body of the Church. By following their example we may reach their stage, communion with God and entrance into the Kingdom of the Heavens. That is why it is important to have their icons in the Church. A Saint, depicted in an icon, is a representation of a person in prayer whether literally or not, in the sense of depicting someone in the act of praying, it is always a depiction of someone whose prayerfulness relates them to God and whose meaning, whose identity is finally provided in and through that relationship. It is a depiction of someone open to divine action and, as such, also capable of transmitting divine action.
Icons are never portraits, attempts to give you an accurate representation of some human situation or some human face as you normally see them. They are – like all our efforts in Christian living – human actions that seek to be open to God’s action . . . creating an icon is after all something ‘performed’ in a fixed way, with the proper preparation of fasting and prayers, in the hope not that you will produce a striking visual image but that your work will open a gateway for God.
Many Christians, here in Western Europe, following the Latin or Protestant Traditions, ask why we, the Orthodox, have so many icons and no statues in our churches. We can answer this by claiming that we Orthodox do indeed think of the statues as incompatible with the Commandments. A statue is very clearly an object that takes up a three-dimensional space; you can walk round it. An icon is a surface: you can’t walk round it but only look at it, and hopefully, through it. It insists that you don’t treat it as an object with which you share a bit of space. In the icon, what you see is human beings and situations as they are in the light of God’s action . . . It doesn’t seek for photographic realism . . . the lines of a diagram, the lines of an icon tell you what it is in the subject matter that is significant, that conveys God’s working.
One icon is said to have been made by Jesus Christ himself. During the time of His earthly ministry, Abgar, ruler in the Syrian city of Edessa, was afflicted with leprosy. Reports of the great miracles performed by the Lord extended throughout Syria (Matt. 4:24) and as far as Arabia at this time. Although not having seen the Lord, Abgar believed in him and wrote a letter requesting Christ to come and heal him. Abgar sent his court painter, Ananias, with this letter to Palestine telling him to paint an image of the Divine Teacher. Ananias was not able to go near Christ because of the great many people listening to His preaching. He attempted to produce an image of the Lord Jesus Christ from afar, but could not. The Lord called Ananias and promised to send his disciple in order to heal Abgar from the leprosy and instruct him in salvation. Then the Lord called for water and a towel. He wiped His face with the towel, and on it was His Divine Image. Jesus sent the towel and a letter to Edessa back with Ananias. With thanksgiving Abgar received the sacred objects and started healing. He continued healing until the arrival of the disciple Thaddeus, the Apostle, one of the 70. The Apostle preached the Gospel and baptized Abgar and all who lived in Edessa. The story is recorded by the 4th century Church historian, Eusebius of Caesarea.
Interestingly enough, icons have had a troubling history at points, referring mainly to the iconoclastic period, which greatly affected Byzantium. In the 8th century there was a dispute on whether the Orthodox Church should maintain the practice of venerating icons or even just having icons in our daily worship. This controversy between the iconoclasts and the iconophiles led to the Seventh Ecumenical Council. This victory of Orthodoxy is annually celebrated on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the first Sunday of Great Lent. The dominant theme of this Sunday, since 843 AD, has been that of the victory of the icons. This Sunday is also known as the “Triumph of Orthodoxy.”
The Seventh Ecumenical Council dealt predominantly with the controversy regarding icons and their place in Orthodox worship. It was convened in Nicaea in 787 by Empress Irene at the request of Tarasios, Patriarch of Constantinople. Almost a century before this, the iconoclastic controversy had once more shaken the foundations of both Church and State in the Byzantine Empire. Excessive religious respect and the ascribed miracles to icons by some members of society, approached the point of worship (due only to God) and idolatry. This instigated excesses at the other extreme by which icons were completely taken out of the liturgical life of the Church by the Iconoclasts. The Iconophiles, on the other-hand, believed that icons served to preserve the doctrinal teachings of the Church; they considered icons to be man's dynamic way of expressing the divine through art and beauty.
The Council decided on a doctrine by which icons should be venerated but not worshipped. In answering the Empress' invitation to the Council, Pope Hadrian replied with a letter in which he also held the position of extending veneration to icons but not worship, the last befitting only God.
The decree of the Council for restoring icons to churches added an important clause which still stands at the foundation of the rationale for using and venerating icons in the Orthodox Church to this very day: "We define that the holy icons, whether in colour, mosaic, or some other material, should be exhibited in the holy churches of God, on the sacred vessels and liturgical vestments, on the walls, furnishings, and in houses and along the roads, namely the icons of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, that of our Lady the Theotokos, those of the venerable angels and those of all saintly people. Whenever these representations are contemplated, they will cause those who look at them to commemorate and love their prototype. We define also that they should be kissed and that they are an object of veneration and honour, but not of real worship, which is reserved for Him Who is the subject of our faith and is proper for the divine nature. The veneration accorded to an icon is in effect transmitted to the prototype; he who venerates the icon, venerated in it the reality for which it stands".
An Endemousa (Regional) Synod was called in Constantinople in 843, under Empress Theodora. The veneration of icons was solemnly proclaimed at Hagia Sophia Cathedral. The Empress, her son Michael III, Patriarch Methodios, and monks and clergy came in procession and restored the icons in their rightful place. The day was called "Triumph of Orthodoxy."
St John of Damascus supported the icons, claiming that: “I do not venerate matter, I venerate the fashioner of matter, who became matter for my sake and accepted to dwell in matter and through matter worked my salvation, and I will not cease from reverencing matter, through which my salvation was worked.” Additionally, Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia, one of our Bishops at the Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain, has written that: ‘Orthodoxy regards the Bible as a verbal icon of Christ, the seventh Ecumenical Council laying down that the Holy icons and the Book of the Gospels should be venerated in the same way.’ Therefore, we can identify from this that icons are considered as important as the Holy Bible.
I will conclude by giving a hymn, which is sang during Vespers for the Sunday of Orthodoxy, showing the theology and significance of icons in our Orthodox worship:

“The grace of truth has shone out, the things once foreshadowed now are revealed in perfection. See, the Church is decked with the embodied image of Christ, as with beauty not of this world, fulfilling the tent of witness, holding fast the Orthodox faith. For if we cling to the icon of him whom we worship, we shall not go astray. May those who do not so believe be covered with shame. For the image of him who became human is our glory: we venerate it, but do not worship it as God. Kissing it, we who believe cry out: O God, save your people, and bless your heritage.” 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this clarification as to the importance of the Seventh Ecumenical Council and the distinction between worship and veneration. Icons are the art of art, and much more.

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