The Role of Icons

St-Nicholas-DomeIcons are not about art. Icons are not about left-overs of Byzantine style. Icons are not about the idolatrous impulse within fallen humanity. Icons are about the very nature of our salvation. The history of Western theology, particularly the opposition to icons within the Protestant movement, has removed one of the most traditional components of Christian theology and handicapped the modern imagination and understanding of our relationship to God.

Our encounters with God, when icons are not present, are relegated to an imaginary world of “spiritual things,” or replaced by models of experience which can be highly delusional if not blasphemous (I am here speaking of some forms of pentecostalism). Thus the modern choice is between a God of the mental world or a God of the psycho-physical world – extremes that are brought about by the iconoclasm that has become inherent to our modern ways of thought.

Icons, as stated above, are not about art. They are a way of seeing and understanding many things – indeed the whole of the universe – in which God is not absent but has made Himself present – without at the same time becoming the universe. The theology which underlies the making and veneration of icons also provides a key to the Patristic understanding of Scripture that escapes the confines of literalism on the one hand and the emptiness of modernist forms of criticism on the other.

Icons are utterly distinct from the sacraments – though in modern non-Orthodox theology the terms “icon” and “sacrament” are frequently used in a less-than-accurate manner. The Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, in offering a precise definition of icons and their place in the Church, made it abundantly clear that the Holy Eucharist is not an icon (the iconoclasts had said that it was an icon, and the only one that could be venerated). The Fathers of the Council were clear that the Eucharist is not an icon, but the true Body and Blood of Christ. Thus a sacrament offers something more than an icon.

But what is it that an icon offers that is less than a sacrament and yet more than nothing?

In short, an icon offers a means of seeing, interpreting and encountering the Truth of things, that is somehow less than the thing(for lack of another word just yet) itself. It is not a sacrament of which the Orthodox faith says, “make this bread to be the precious Body of Thy Christ, etc..” The sacrament does not point to something (or someone) beyond itself, but itself becomes the Body of Christ.

An icon does not become other than what it is – but its existence points towards something (or someone) else – and makes them present in a representational manner. [The precise theological language of iconic representation is that an icon is a hypostatic representation – in the language of St. Theodore the Studite – but I will refrain here from such a technical discussion].

In pointing us towards the Truth, an icon shows us what we might not see otherwise. Thus the icon of a saint, more than mere biography or photography, points us towards the reality of the risen life in Christ. It bears witness to the glorification in Christ of a person.

In the same manner, it is possible to speak of creation itself as icon (rather than sacrament) in that, through the eyes of faith, all of creation points beyond itself and bears witness to the glorification which it will have in Christ (Romans 8). Some particular things, places, events, have a very potent iconic function. Thus the tomb of Christ, though clearly having a pivotal historical role in our salvation, also points to more than the small edicule within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

It is, on earth, the center of our redemption, the womb of the world to come – but it points to a fullness of Pascha that broke every confine and lifted the definition of space beyond anything we imagine.

The veneration of icons is not about art, much less, idolatry. Icons are, like many things that were given us throughout the history of our salvation, markers that teach us how to see, how to know and how to love. The veneration of the saints in the Holy Icons is a lesson to the heart of how to venerate Christ in every person (who is made “in His image” [icon] ). Without the holy altar, and all that surrounds it, we would likely never learn to see the True Altar which is in heaven, and within the heart of every person. We would not know how to enter that Holy Place and sup there with the Lord.

The icons of the Church are a school for the human heart, teaching it how to see the world and yet to see more than the world. We live in a society that is quite familiar with veneration – but directed in the wrong place and for the wrong reason. We venerate talent, sexual beauty, money, even criminality at certain times. We venerate what is manufactured and sold to us – often no more than an illusion. Thus even actors and actresses frequently resort to “body doubles” in order to appear to be what they are not. We learn to venerate what is effectively – nothing. Little wonder that such veneration leaves us empty: it has the substance of cotton candy.

Interestingly, those who oppose the proper, Orthodox veneration of icons, are frequently themselves the venerators of false images presented by the world. Captive to the passions, they oppose what is true (icons of the Truth) and easily accept what is false (the images that cater to our passions). Nothing good or holy is protected by such iconoclasm. Instead, without the proper and complete understanding of icons as taught in the Seventh Ecumenical Council, Christians stand unarmed in a world where images, most of them false, bombard us and our children at every turn.

I want my children to know the good from the bad. I want them to love the one and turn from the other. The Church has given us, by God’s grace, the proper instruments and understanding to school the hearts – both of our children and ourselves. Without the Holy Icons and the theology that supports them, Christians stand poorly armed to conduct spiritual warfare in a hostile world. May God give us grace to rightly see what is rightly depicted.

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29 Responses to “The Role of Icons”

  1. fatherstephen Says:

    Photo: the Pantocrator Icon in the Dome of St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral (OCA) in Washington, DC

  2. coffeezombie Says:

    Forgive me, this is a little off topic, but your speaking about sacraments brought up some questions for me.

    What, exactly, is a sacrament? I guess that’s the most basic question I have. When you spoke of the distinction between icons and sacraments, you seemed to be limiting the term ‘sacrament’ to Communion. But aren’t there other sacraments as well? If the sacrament is defined as becoming, itself, the body and blood of Christ, what, then, of Baptism and Chrismation, or Marriage?

    I guess I’m a little confused, because my understanding was that Orthodoxy does not, properly, limit the “number of Sacraments”, but that there is, rather, a broader view of what a sacrament is, so that, in some sense, our whole lives might be seen as sacramental.

    This leads me to my next question, because you referred to creations as “an icon (rather than a sacrament).” However, Fr. Alexander Schmemann, in For the Life of the World, seems to speak of creation as a sort of sacrament (at least, that this is the ideal, and the state of things before the fall).

    Again, I suspect that the root of my confusion is a misunderstanding of what the term ‘sacrament’ means. Have you, perhaps, written on this in the past, or do you have some suggestions of books/articles that would help my understanding?

  3. fatherstephen Says:

    The word gets used rather loosely – which causes confusion. Part of the problem is that the word and concept are not entirely native to Orthodox thought, though it is used and has been used for a number of centuries.

    The character of the Eucharist – in that it truly becomes the Body and Blood of Christ is quite distinctive from an Icon in which the icon does not become something other than what it is.

    But it has become a commonplace to speak of the character of created things and their ability to communicate God and, in some cases, make for varied forms of communion with God, as “sacramental.” It does not mean that all created things function in a manner similar to the Eucharist.

    I am suggesting here, that icon is a better term, or perhaps a bit more accurate to speak of how most things serve as a point of communion. We do not bless an icon and ask the Holy Spirit to “change” it (as we do in the Holy Eucharist). Nor do we ask God to change the trees, the clouds, the waters, etc. and make them to be something else. Although our prayer does reveal them to be more fully what they are.

    The Eucharist, the waters of Baptism, the oil of the Chrism, have always been treated somewhat differently – and it is a distinction worth thinking about.

    I will write more on this (though I’m under a time constraint today). It’s a very useful meditation. And a good question.

  4. coffeezombie Says:

    Thank you for your reply, Father. I’m looking forward to when you can write more on it.

    I suppose this may be another instance of where Orthodoxy is more “messy” than Western Christianity. I’m so used to there being particular definitions, rules, formulae, etc. for everything, and it seems so often Orthodoxy doesn’t bother with all that. The Eucharist is a singular thing. It’s the Sacrament. But there are other sacraments (Baptism, etc.) that are not like the Eucharist, but still something more than icons?

    Actually, what you said about the idea of ‘sacraments’ is not native to Orthodox thought is intriguing. I’ve heard before that the more common word in Orthodoxy is ‘mystery,’ but the concept itself is different?

    Again, looking forward to when you can write more on this. Thanks again.

    The more I learn, the more I’m confused.😀

  5. The Role of Icons « The Franciscan Mafia Says:

    […] Orthodoxy, Spirituality, Theology Another fantastic post regarding Icons by Fr Stephen, found [ HERE ]. Holy Prophet Job Lex […]

  6. MuleChewingBriars Says:

    “I suppose this may be another instance of where Orthodoxy is more ‘messy’ than Western Christianity. I’m so used to there being particular definitions, rules, formulae, etc. for everything, and it seems so often Orthodoxy doesn’t bother with all that.”

    I think the Latin genius was one of organization, governance, and jurisprudence, which makes it doubly tragic that a concerted effort wasn’t made to keep the Latin Church in the fold. Separated from any correction of the other genii of the other nations, it appears to have morphed into something entirely other. Whether the deprivation of that particular Latin genius was detrimental to Orthodoxy is better left as an exercise for the reader. My opinion is that, yes, it is

  7. bethanytwins Says:

    While Fr. Stephen is busy, perhaps a view from the West might help a little.
    We Latins draw a distinction between a Sacrament (of which there are seven) and a sacramental (of which there are countless numbers).

    A Sacrament (Baptism, Eucharist, Unction, etc.) has a kind of automatic performative function, i.e. it definitely does something – so if you are Baptised, then you are Baptised, no matter what state you are in, how you feel about it, or how holy (or otherwise) the priest may be.

    A sacramental (when the word is used as a noun) refers to something which may help bring us closer to God, if we approach it in the right way. So, holy medals, images, trees, animals, family meals, etc. etc. etc.

    Icons would fall into the second category. My understanding is that Orthodoxy makes a similar sort of distinction, but (as you say) it is not so strictly defined.

    I tentatively offer this article by a Russian Orthodox Bishop, which I have found helpful in the past (along with a good deal else on his website); but I’m not Orthodox, so I can’t say whether Fr. Stephen or others would consider it correct:

    http://www.fatheralexander.org/booklets/english/sacraments_e.htm

    By the way, the Latin genius for rules and definitions is not nearly so attractive when you are in it! One could argue that the increasing habit of the Church to regulate and codify every inch of people’s belief and faith was a major contributing factor to the Protestant Reformation, so that wasn’t a great blessing. And then, of course, the Protestants caught the habit…
    In the age-old way that the grass is always greener elsewhere, many Catholics would love a bit more of that mess and mystery which Orthodoxy does so well. And of course,
    ordinary faithful folk are not as greatly swayed by the definitions and formulae as you might presume. The wonderful mystery of day-to-day faith and life is probably as messy in Catholic Poland as it is in Orthodox Romania!

  8. Ryan Says:

    That genius didn’t begin to blossom til about 200 years after the schism, and with the Crusades occurring in between. Certainly the arrogance of Umbertus/Hildebrand on one side and Michael Cerularius on the other was indeed tragic. 1000 years later and we haven’t resolved the consequences. At least now the 2 sides are conferring with one another. God willing, one day, the Schism will be healed.

  9. fatherstephen Says:

    Coffeezombie,

    Sacrament is really a medieval Western concept – which was certainly taken up by later Orthodox writers – but always fails to fit very well. I look forward to writing a good bit more. Something to look forward to at the end of the week. We arrived safely this evening in Memphis, thanks be to God.

  10. elizabeth Says:

    Dear Fr. Stephen,

    You may be able to answer a question I have had for years. When I lived in Russia a little over 20 years ago, an Orthodox friend gave me two icons. Both were metal and dated from the XIV century. One was like one might suppose an icon from that era to look: a square piece of engraved metal. The other, though, had three parts held together by metal pins. There was the flat back part that looked similar to my one-piece icon, and then two little door-like piece, each half-sized, that closed to cover the icon. I have never since seen the latter kind of icon. Does it have special significance? (I don’t have the icons now because I gave them away to an Orthodox friend who I thought would appreciate them more — and did — than I since I was an atheist at the time.)

    No hurry for a response. I have waited 20 years. (I can be a patient sort.) Just curious and since you are writing on the topic of icons, I thought you might know.

  11. Sean Says:

    @coffeezombie:

    The confusion might also be attributed to the word ‘sacrament’. In greek, the word for Sacraments is ‘μυστήριον’, which literally means mystery. In that sense, everything that God does is a mystery: the turning of bread and wine into His Body and Blood, the lifting of guilt brought about by sin during confession, the nature of the oil of chrism as a seal of Holy Spirit, or even the bonding of a man and a woman during matrimony. In this regard, the creation as a whole is a sacrament, a ‘mystery’, for it was made by God in a ‘mysterious’ way, i.e. in a way incomprehensible to created beings among whom we are included. And it is also true that we should strive to lead ‘sacramental’ lives, in the sense that we allow God to operate through and in us to bring about our salvation – and others. The word ‘mystery’ was used in greek exactly because what God does, why He does it and how He operates is something we cannot know and should not try to understand and that was something the Fathers wanted to emphasize: that is the reason why apophatic theology – and thus the Orthodox theology – is ‘mystical’. I would not call it messy. It just does not proceed to analyze things it is not sure about.
    The difference between an icon and a sacrament ( a mystery) is that each refers on a different level and function in a different way. The world is a sacrament in that it was created mysteriously by God – it is an icon because as a whole it points up to its creator. If we lead a sacramental life – ie we allow God to operate through and in us – we become (better) icons that point up to Heaven

    Father Stephen, please correct me if I am wrong. Writing in english makes it harder for me to convey what I want to say easily and correctly.

  12. coffeezombie Says:

    By ‘messy’, I didn’t mean anything *negative*. Actually, the ‘messiness’ of Orthodoxy is something that I love about it. I guess you could say ‘messy’ is similar to ‘organic’.

    My thought on this is that Eastern Theology is like, say, a giant tree in a forest, whereas Western Theology is like a great building. The building is ordered and designed, the edges are squared, everything fits. The placement and size of each window was precisely determined. The building looks the way it does because it was built to look that way. Nothing apparently superfluous is added, except perhaps some ornamentation for aesthetic appeal, but even that has a distinct purpose.

    The tree, however, is less ordered, more “messy” than the building. Its branches and trunk curve according to what was the best way to grow at the time, but maybe that changed later, and they curve again in a different direction. Its current appearance wasn’t planned, designed, specified, etc.; it just grew that way.

    I guess this is how I see the difference between the Eastern love of Mystery and the Western love of definitions. Western theology, in both Catholicism and Protestantism, has lead to a continual purging of “unnecessary things,” a continual simplification, and a defining of the faith to almost a scientific level. Whereas in the East, what we have, today, is, well, simply what has been received. Do the clergy really *need* to wear Byzantine clothing, for example? Perhaps in some make-believe world, they could be clothed differently and little else would be different. But that’s just the way things have come to us.

    Anyway, thanks for the brief overview of ‘mystery.’ I must admit, I always thought mystery and sacrament were just the Greek and Latin terms for the same thing. Or maybe the Sacrament term got more ‘developed’ in the Middle Ages in the West? Anyway, still looking forward to Fr. Stephen’s write-up on the topic.😀

  13. Thomas H Says:

    “Western Theology is like a great building. The building is ordered and designed, the edges are squared, everything fits. The placement and size of each window was precisely determined. The building looks the way it does because it was built to look that way. Nothing apparently superfluous is added, except perhaps some ornamentation for aesthetic appeal, but even that has a distinct purpose.”

    The crystal palace in “notes from the underground”!

  14. coffeezombie Says:

    I haven’t read “Notes From the Undergound”, actually. The only Dostoevsky I’ve read so far is “The Brothers Karamazov.”

  15. Holy Icons « Journeying Home Says:

    […] that’s my personal experience with the icons. The catalyst for this reflection was a wonderful explanation of icons by Fr Stephen Freeman. Again, Fr Stephen hits one out of the park. While his post is not an […]

  16. Dana Ames Says:

    Elizabeth,
    the three-part icon you had was a triptych (“three plates/surfaces”) and they are still to be found. They are made this way as a means to take icons with you on a journey as the “doors” protect the images, and/or for a larger surface to depict groups, like the patron saints of one’s family, in prayer. Sometimes there are scenes on all three parts; sometimes the folding half-doors are strictly ornamental.

    Dana

  17. Perry Robinson Says:

    Icons are about matter. You can read physics till the moon turns blue from cold and not get an analysis of matter. There is great continuity between old Platonism and modern physics. Neither of them tell you what matter is. The iconoclasts thought matter to be “worthless” and the subtext of the debate was whether matter could be “God-bearing” or not. If not, then the incarnation was a sham of a Nestorian or docetistic variety. Can matter be redeemed? Is it truely created by God or some accident and waste product?

    Icons are about love. Its one thing to talk about loving your fellow Christians, it is quite another to get your body to express it.

  18. elizabeth Says:

    The folding doors on me did have scenes. Thank you for the explanation! It makes sense.

  19. Tiffani Says:

    Bethanytwins,

    Great explanation from the Latin end. Often, we are comingled in the minds of the Orthodox and they lump us with the Protestants, because they perceive us as being from the exact same geographic and cultural location (the Protestants who are forever protesting Latin Rome, so the connection is ironic and irritating). I find my beloved/yet often frustrating Roman Catholic Latin Rite faith to be messy in its own way as well. I have just come to the conclusion that half the world would have nothing to do if they could not point to Rome and say, “Heathens!” “Prodigals!” “Idolaters!”…”Westerners!”

    No matter that we are both East and West and are not confused by the role of Icons, as we use them too and in the exact same fashion. Eastern Catholics would not know how to pray a Rosary or eat meat on a Friday or understand who Therese the Little Flower was. They are East and they are Catholic and under Rome…but they are Eastern and would spit at the thought of being called Western.

    And so often I find myself angered/amused/and sometimes completely baffled at what little credit we Catholics are given in the Orthodox and Protestant world for any spiritual or religious good we have done, but our many sins and ignorances are piled upon us. Anytime we are “explained” I get to cheer a little bit.

    This may not have been your intended remark…but I went there and I loved what you had to say.

    Great post, Father. Truly. Bless:)

  20. Lady MacBeth Says:

    Tiffani:
    Do you mean Eastern Catholics are “under” Rome or “in communion” with Rome? There is a subtle, but big difference. I have many wonderful Catholic friends, and it is the desire of my heart for us to be united in faith. But, comments like the aforementioned statement makes the Orthodox uncomfortable.

    Great post, Fr. Stephen!

  21. Cheryl Says:

    Lady MacBeth:
    Hi! I grew up & am Orthodox Christian (OCA). Having lived all over the country, our family has visited many of the “Eastern Catholic” churches you ask about. Eastern Catholics are Christians with an Orthodox Service/Icons, but are “under the Pope.” In fact, if you were to attend an Eastern Catholic Church, you would notice that they have candles & icons, and a completely Orthodox service. I attended a Maronite (sp?) Catholic Service recently and it was quite obviously an Orthodox Service (but, again, UNDER the Pope) Eastern Catholics take communion in a Catholic Church because they are considered a Catholic Church. Confusing? yes! Just think how hard it was to explain to my young daughter about why we couldn’t take communion in a church she so readily accepted as another Orthodox Church. In many cases now, the Catholic/Eastern Orthodox Churches WILL give communion to regular Orthodox Christians. The problem is that the regular Orthodox churches do not allow their members to take advantage of this offer at this time. It’s confusing, and we’ve had to ask alot of questions during our military moves. Hope this helps to clarify… God Bless.

  22. fatherstephen Says:

    Cheryl, et al.,

    The Orthodox do not allow their members to receive elsewhere, even when it is offered, because we are not in communion with these other groups. The Eucharist, in Orthodox teaching, requires unity of faith and commonality of life and true communion. The “hospitality” eucharist that has become common among Protestants, and even from Romans extended towards Orthodox, is a denial of this essential truth of the Eucharist and makes of the Eucharist an act that is less than the fullness of the life in the Church. It is not wrong to desire communion with other Christians – only wrong to desire it in any manner that is less than the fullness of true communion (which is never something that happens on an individual basis). Forgive the analogy, but it is like desiring the fullness of the communion of marriage without the benefit of marriage.

    It does not matter how Orthodox a service may seem – this is not our argument or failure of unity with others. Indeed, Western Rite Orthodox would look less Orthodox than an Eastern Rite Catholic, though being truly Orthodox. What matters is the truth of the fullness of communion. One faith, one doctrine, one ecclesiology, one communion. Not a plurality of faiths or plurality of doctrines under a heading of “less just get along.” Only the truth in its fullness. Nothing less. This is extremely hard and very demanding (just as chastity is demanding for couples before they marry). But only through the demanding discipline of accepting nothing less than everything can we have the fullness of what God intends for us – both for the Orthodox and for others. It is for our mutual salvation.

  23. Tiffani Says:

    Father,

    They are “in communion with Rome”, but with complete allegience to Benedict the XVI as their Holy Father. We pray for him several times at every Divine Liturgy. We are equal to Roman Catholics. I can take the Eucharist in an Eastern Catholic parish or in a Roman Catholic parish if I am, either, Eastern Catholic (Byzantine) or Roman Catholic. Eastern Catholics consider Rome the head of the Church.

    I apologize if my “under Rome” comment (really just poor wording from a quick and lazy typing method:) made any of my Orthodox brethen uncomfortable. I must admit, I am not completely clear on every Orthodox/Catholic disagreement, so I can easily step on toes unaware.

    Thank you for the request for clarification. Again, I apologize if I offended.

    Blessings to all.

  24. Tiffani Says:

    The above comment should have been addressed to “Lady McBeth”…Falling asleep at the keyboard here:)

  25. Cheryl Says:

    Tiffany,

    I appreciated your comments and took no offense to them. While many Orthodox are uncomfortable with this situation, many are not. I must say it is frustrating. Being in the military, we are often in states that have a total of 2 Orthodox Churches in the whole state!!! It is difficult to have to take communion only when traveling “home” to where I grew up (NY – lots of Orthodox Churches!) This happens only a few times a year. When there is an Eastern Catholic Church, or Catholic Church available, it becomes an even more difficult choice. I have concerns taking communion so infrequently and wonder whether Jesus himself would approve of my decision? All I can think of is the healing He did on the Sabbath…breaking a rule, for a commonsense & compassionate reason. Comments?

    Also, Father Steven, I have recently begun reading you blog. Thank you for all your thoughtful posts. They have given me a much needed connection with Orthodoxy. More importantly, the subject matter always gives me pause to think, and pray.

    Cheryl

  26. Tiffani Says:

    Cheryl,

    I feel for your predicament. I live in the Northeast and I am sincerely distressed at the state of my Catholic diocese. It sent me toward Orthodoxy for a while, but due to my respect for the Holy Father, I cannot embrace Orthodoxy fully, and frankly, I don’t think the Orthodox really wanted me:). During that time when I was worshipping with the Orthodox, it was so difficult to be as close to the Eucharist as I was in a Catholic church, but I could not receive. Eventually, I decided to drive some distance and receive the Eucharist in an Eastern Catholic parish. I am switching Rites within the Catholic Church. I am nearly half Russian, lived in Russia for a while, and I am not unfamiliar with Eastern Catholicism. Hopefully, my bishop will agree:)

    I completely understand the longing for the Eucharist, and the desire to do what your Church requires of you at the same time – to NOT take the Eucharist where you are NOT in communion. I lived through the same predicament. My diocese had embraced some ideas and actions that I, as a devout Catholic, could not accept. It was completely against the Magisterium, and so no longer Roman Catholic. I related much more to Orthodoxy, but I could not receive there – even though the Roman Catholic Church considers all seven Orthodox Sacraments as valid. Conversion was a full year away, as was the Eucharist. This is hard for a lifelong Catholic who has been receiving the Body and Blood of Christ for years. Eventually, it was my longing (and my family’s longing) for the Eucharist that sent me on a drive towards an Eastern Catholic Church. I cannot live without the Body and Blood of Christ. None of us can.

    I have no advice for you though, as I am not a priest and cannot speak with any authority on the subject. Ask Father Stephen for his advice and thoughts. He can answer your question so much better than I ever could. I, in my ignorant Roman thoughts however, believe that your faithfulness to the Eucharist through Orthodoxy will be a blessing for your soul in the long run. I have to assume, again in my lay ignorance, that Our Lord will bless your faithfulness to Him. You are in my thoughts and prayers. I will add you to my Daily Decade.

    Pax Christi

  27. Cheryl Says:

    Tiffani:
    Thank you for the thoughts and the sharing of your own struggle. I appreciate your prayers on the subject and in general. Sincerely, and with much warmth,
    Cheryl

  28. luciasclay Says:

    Tonight I had experience with the power of icons, I understood it in a way I hadn’t before. It was not technically an icon in the eastern sense, rather it was a statue of an angel.

    I moved it to a childs room to remind them of the presence of the angels around us to protect us from the devil. There were two other statues of angels there.

    The experience of doing this, and seeing the result that seeing the image of the angel versus simply the idea of the angel was profoundly instructional to me. I come from a firmly iconoclastic background growing up.

    Tonight I learned by experience what had been explained to me countless times. I think tonight I understood by experience much better than would be possible with all the words in the world.

  29. Robert Says:

    Not bad for a recovering heretic 😀

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