“As the Prophets prophesized, as the Apostles taught, as the Church has received, as the teachers have dogmatized, as the Universe has agreed….Let us declare, let us assert, let us preach in like manner Christ our true God, and honour His saints in words, in writing…. in Holy Icons, worshipping Him as God and Lord and honouring them as His true servants….This is the faith of the Apostles, this is the faith of the Fathers, this is the faith of the Orthodox, this is the faith that sustains the Christian oikoumene….”
In the Orthodox Christian tradition the great feast marking the triumph of the icons is celebrated on the first Sunday of Great Lent and is also known as the Triumph of Orthodoxy. It was on this day, that is, on 11 March 843, the first Sunday in Lent, that the reinstatement of icons was proclaimed in the cathedral of St. Sophia. Not only were all ancient heresies of the first common Christian millennium anathematised, but also the legitimacy of icons was affirmed. For this reason, entering the Lenten period, it would be timely to reflect upon the true meaning of icons in our Tradition.
The heart of the Christian Gospel is that the infinite and invisible God, who is also uncontained and uncircumscribed – to name only a few of God’s attributes – became visible and containable in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. Insisting on the central Scriptural truth that in the person of the incarnate Logos, the created world has had a vision of the invisible God, icons are nothing less than an affirmation that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” in reality, and that we “have seen his glory… full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Moreover, following St Paul, who in his second letter to the Corinthians, referred to Jesus Christ as the ”image” or ”icon [eikon]” of God (cf 2Cor 4:4) , the Christian tradition claims that in the humanity of Jesus, the faithful have been granted a vision of God himself – since Christ was the express image of God. Now, since Christ – who was not only the eternal Son of God the Father, but also ”true God from true God” – lived on earth as a real human person with a real body and soul, and was seen by people (cf 1John 1:1), he could now be depicted. Therefore, seen from the reality of the incarnation, the use of icons, in the Christian tradition, is believed to affirm that God really became human, took on human flesh and therefore could be portrayed and circumscribed. Furthermore, as we shall see, icons were also concerned with the attitude of the church towards matter and therefore the salvation of all things created, particularly the human person.
The theology and meaning of icons was eventually clarified in the eighth century when a tumultuous dispute arose in the church over the use of icons in worship. Known as the ”iconoclastic” controversy – since the word in Greek signifies, ”the smashing of icons” – this violent and heated quarrel gave rise to a council in 787AD, which came to be known as the Seventh Ecumenical Council, taking place in Nicaea. It was this council which came to shed light on the true meaning of icons outlining not only their legitimacy but also the propriety of venerating them. Simply put, the council claimed that, to deny icons inevitably meant a renunciation of the incarnation of the eternal Son of God – reducing this salvific event to a mere fictitious occurrence – thereby also bringing into question the salvation of the human person. One section of the doctrinal statement of the Council in Nicaea read as follows: We declare that we defend free from any innovations all the written and unwritten ecclesiastical traditions that have been entrusted to us. One of these is the production of representational art; this is quite in harmony with the history of the spread of the gospel, as it provides confirmation that the becoming man of the Word of God was real and not just imaginary, and as such it brings us a similar benefit.
From this passage it is clear that the existence of icons was deeply connected with a concern to preserve a full and proper doctrine of the incarnation upon which the salvation of the human person rested. Furthermore, it was believed that icons were nothing other than graphic expressions of the truth expressed in the Scriptures – the ”Word” in images. Just as the written words of the Scriptures brought the faithful into an immediate encounter with the very Word of God, so too could icons, as graphic images, do the same. Consequently, it becomes clear that the salvific contents of faith could in fact be proclaimed not only in words but also in images. Overall, the doctrinal statement of the council became a triumphant confession of the church’s faith that God had become human so that humanity could enjoy, by grace, all that God is by nature.
The icon was also seen as ”theological language in colour” highlighting the sacredness of created matter. Following the incarnation of the Son of God, which not only restored human nature, but radically regenerated it by offering a most intimate and personal koinonia with humanity and the material world at large, the entire created cosmos could now be transfigured and saved. Far from any type of dualism, which would want to affirm only the eternal veracity of spiritual realities at the expense of the material, Christianity afforded a place of salvation to God’s entire created world, spiritual as well as material. For this reason, no material element was to be excluded from the plan of God’s redemption. In this way, all material elements – in the case of icons, colour, pigment, wood etc – could act as windows giving the faithful glimpses of eternity – namely, an anticipatory in-sight of the world as it would be in the age to come. In a very instructive way, St John of Damascus, whose writings were afforded doctrinal status in the Seventh Ecumenical Council wrote: I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake; who willed to take His abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter… Never will I cease honouring the matter through which my salvation was wrought.
This was nothing other than a confirmation of the words of St Paul who in his letter to the Romans wrote: “ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (Rom 1:20). Accordingly the icon was seen as a joyful testimony of the innate goodness of the material world (cf Gen 1:1-28) and its potential capacity to reflect the divine. And it was for this reason that icons were seen as fitting recipients of Christian respect and veneration insofar as they could lead the faithful into the presence of the divine.
Now, as windows on eternity , icons are theological ”symbols” not only pointing forward towards future or transcendent realities, but actually directly participating in these as well. That icons serve as windows into eternity is seen from their inverse perspective – namely the elongated facial features and hands, the small mouth or the feather-like sketches of the body, the lines of which approach the viewer– which want to depict a radically transfigured world as it will ultimately be in the kingdom of heaven.
Accordingly, icons act as witnesses to God’s pledge of future victory when his joy and salvation will pervade the entire created cosmos. Furthermore, by the use of inverse perspective, the person’s gaze is drawn into the icon establishing, in this way, a direct encounter and a bond of communion with those eternal verities. The council of 787AD claimed that persons and events depicted in icons were mysteriously present and active in the icons, by which a faithful person could consequently really experience the impenetrable glory of, and fellowship with, Christ, together with the communion of saints. Interestingly, the Council fathers could speak in such terms, because they believed that God had really revealed Himself in human history, and totally identified with the human experience. However they also underlined that even though God had become manifest ”in the flesh” in history – thereby justifying the use of icons by the church – the fulfilment of that experience would be complete in the end time when God will be all in all.
For this reason, it has always underlined that absolute worship and adoration (latreia) can only ever be directed to God alone, whilst reverence and veneration (proskynesis) can be paid to icons. And so, it must be remembered that whilst it is true to affirm that icons open for us a boundless vision of the world as it was before the Fall and as it will be in its eschatological consummation, this is nonetheless a ”real-yet-partial” experience awaiting its fulfilment in the age to come. Making such a distinction, St Theodore the Studite in the ninth century wrote: “We say that Christ is one thing and His image is another thing by nature, although they have an identity in the use of the same name.” It was for this reason that the council also unequivocally affirmed that the honour given to the icon passed over to the prototype. That is to say, a radical difference was acknowledged between what the icon reveals and the One who will be fully revealed in the age to come offering the entire world an eternal koinonia in his communal mode of eternal existence. What can be said with certainty however, is that in a profoundly mysterious way, icons take the gaze of those viewing an icon into the ”beyond” offering them in this way a foretaste of the sweet hope and eternal brightness of the fullness of a life in God and the eternal contemplation to come of his glory in his eschatological kingdom.
Dr Philip Kariatlis , Academic Director and Senior Lecturer in Theology, St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College