Eastern Orthodox Christians and Iconography
By Cindy Egly
There are approximately five million Eastern Orthodox Christians in America (Nabil, 2000). A minority in a nation dominated by Protestants and Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox culture has maintained strong familial and cultural identities. Understanding something about them, being able to lay aside preconceptions and ethnocentricity to view life from the Orthodox Christian’s perspective will allow the onlooker an opportunity to increase in understanding not only of the Eastern Orthodox Christian but of human nature. It is this author’s intent to introduce the reader to an insider’s perspective of iconography in the life of an Orthodox Christian, in the hope that understanding will increase.
A legend passed down for nearly 2000 years describes the first icon. At the time when Christ was traveling to Jerusalem where He would experience the trial and crucifixion, King Abgar of Edessa sent for Jesus. Christ could not go to the King, so instead He sent a linen cloth on which He had dried His face. The story continues that the cloth carried to the King had an impression of Christ’s face on it. The King’s illness was healed when the cloth was taken to him. This first icon, “not made by human hands”, began a tradition of portraying Christ and the saints in pictorial fashion. (Benz, 1963). The entire town of Edessa treasured this first icon, that is the linen cloth with Christ’s face imprinted on it. It was widely acknowledged throughout out the East and still written about in the eighth century (Ouspensky, 1978).
So what is an icon? Webster defines an icon as an image (Webster, 1966). In the Orthodox Church an icon is a sacred image, a window into heaven. An image of another reality, of a person, time and place that is more real than here and now. More than art, icons have an important spiritual role. Michel Quenot says it well in his book, The Icon: Window on the Kingdom, an icon is “theology in imagery, the icon expresses through color what the Gospel proclaims in words”.
For this reason the rules regarding the creation of an icon are rigorous. The iconographer must prepare himself for the task of painting an icon by following a strict discipline of fasting and prayer. He must quiet his spirit and submit himself to God. The icon he creates will not be signed. He will not expect accolades or applause when the icon is completed. The icon will be created to inspire and lead others into worship. Painting the icon is not a use of imagination. Instead, the icon will be painted using the prescribed regimen and style that has been passed down through the centuries. Everything from the facial expressions to the colors used is predetermined. The following is a prayer recited by an iconographer prior to starting to work:
O Divine Master of all that exists, enlighten and direct the soul, the heart and the mind of your servant: guide my hands so that I might portray worthily and perfectly Your Image, that of Your Holy Mother and of all the Saints, for the glory, the joy, and the beautification of Your Holy Church. ( Quenot, p.13)
The primary purpose of the icon is to aid in worship. Its design follows that purpose. Through lines and color the iconographer conveys the awesomeness of the invisible, divine reality (Evdokimov, 1990). The creation of an icon is defined by tradition. That is a 21 st century iconographer would not decide to change the shape of Christ’s face. It is understood that a person who saw them in the flesh painted the first icon of an individual. St. Luke is accredited with painting the first icons of Christ and Mary the Blessed Virgin. Each subsequent iconographer will use the original icon as a guide. There is room for a small amount of stylistic change but tradition limits the options for that change ( Forest, 1997).
Icons are not created to force an emotional response. When portraying historical scenes the faces don’t show emotions but instead portray virtues such as purity, patience in suffering, forgiveness, compassion and love. An example of this would be the portrayal of Christ on the cross. Neither is the icon a sentimental picture. Christ is always shown as God. Even the icons of Christ seated on His mother’s lap show Him with an adult face, revealing that even though Christ lived as a child among us He was also God ( Forest,1997).
Icons depict silence. There are no actions displayed, no open mouths. The icon invites the Christian to enter into contemplation,prayer, and silence (Ware,1979). Space is not defined as three-dimensional and time is insignificant. The story told by the icon precludes time and space. An example would be the icon of the Nativity, which shows the cave where Christ was born in the background with those who came to adore in small vignettes. Lighting proceeds from the character portrayed in the icon. There are never shadows in icons. This shows us that the saint portrayed is “glorified” having completed the race and entered into heaven (Quenot,1991).
Symbolism is used in icons and details are used minimally. For example, when showing John the Baptist baptizing in the river the grown man he baptizes is shown as an infant because the baptism is a rebirth. Colors are also symbolic. Blue reveals heaven and mystery. Green is youth, fertility and the earth’s vegetation. Red, the color of blood, suggests life, vitality and beauty. White is purity, the divine world and innocence. Gold indicates sanctity, splendor, and the glory of God and life in the heavenly kingdom. Purple reveals wealth, power and authority.
First and foremost, icons are a constant reminder of the incarnation of Christ, that is to say, they remind us that God “sent His only begotten Son”(Bible, John 3:16) to rescue us from our sin and death. We cannot see God the Father or God the Holy Spirit, but, because Christ chose to take on human flesh, we can see Him. His face can be portrayed on wood with paint. We can also paint His Mother and other saints who have finished the race and gone on to heaven. The Orthodox believe that surrounding themselves with icons help them to acknowledge the constant presence of Christ and the saints in their lives.
According to Father Nabil, priest of St. George Orthodox Church in Indianapolis, IN, the icon is a representation of the person portrayed upon it. The term used to describe this link is typology. Typology means that an event or item is somehow related to another event or person. An example of this would be the icon buttons on the computer tool bar. When a person uses the tool bar and clicks on the “print” button the user knows that the print button represents something else. That is, the print button will not cause itself to be duplicated on paper with ink but instead the user knows that the print button at that moment is a typology for the item on the screen. By interacting with the “print” icon the user expects the item the button represents to be printed. When an Orthodox Christian gives honor to an icon by kneeling or bowing before it or by kissing the icon the Christian is not paying respect to wood and paint. Instead he acknowledges that the icon represents much more and that the link between the icon and the person in the heaven is real. He believes that in some mystical fashion the veneration given to the icon will be received by the person it portrays.
As a recent convert to the Orthodox Christian faith this author has some experience on which to base an analysis of the use of icons. As a convert ten years ago icons were one of the additions to worship unfamiliar to me. I came from a protestant background and the worship I had been involved in up until this point involved sitting in a pew and repeating prayers, creeds and hymns when appropriate. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the Orthodox utilize all of their senses and beings in their worship. Incense floats through the air representing the prayers ascending into heaven. A bell is rung during the call to worship and at other key times in the worship. Altar boys, deacons and the priest serve in the altar area, chanting prayers and hymns, bowing, performing prostration, acknowledging the heavenly hosts of saints and angels whose worship we are entering into. Parishioners do not sit primly in the pews but may walk throughout the church lighting candles, venerating icons. The hands of parishioners are not quiet and closed but may be raised heavenward to show the lifting of the worshiper’s heart toward God or they may be making the sign of the cross, reminding the one who makes it that Christ loved us enough to die for us. Later communion will be available so that one can even utilize the sense of taste during worship. In those first weeks the activity of worship seemed almost distracting to me but as I have entered into the worship it has became natural. The Orthodox believes worship is ongoing in the heavenly kingdom. They believe heaven is a place where worship doesn’t cease, that those who have gone before and have been faithful are worshiping the Holy Trinity continuously. When earthly Christians join together to worship we join the heavenly throng and begin participating in that worship. For that reason the walls and ceilings of the church are decorated with icons of Christ, Mary the Blessed Virgin, saints and angels. When parishioners stand in the pew during worship they only need to look around to see the saints surrounding them. In this way the icon is a reminder of a larger reality. It reminds us that we have stepped out of one world and into another. It reminds us that though we struggle on a daily basis to remain faithful to our beliefs and our God there are many who have finished this life successfully and now dwell in a place were there is no more sorrow. We are encouraged to persevere, to set our eyes on the finish line, to continue to live a life that is pleasing to God.
Living as we do in a society that demands that our lives be lived at a fast pace and with very little quiet time the icon beckons to us to slow down. The stillness of the icon draws us into the quiet so that we can lay aside the cares of this world and meditate on the splendor of the next. The benefit of the icons is not so much in analyzing the style of painting, the iconographers name or even in knowing the individual representations in the icon. The benefit is in meditation, in quietness and in guiding the heart to prayer.
There are other components of the Eastern Orthodox culture that contribute to the use of the icon. It has been this author’s personal observation that the Orthodox culture values family. Aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, grandparents, cousins and so on worship together, live together and often even work together. A large number of Orthodox are immigrants who have been able to assimilate into the American culture due to a strong work ethic and a respect for the freedoms afforded a democratic society. Many have lived under Communist governments, some have suffered under the authority of anarchists. Strong family ties, even family businesses have helped to sustain these immigrants. This respect for unity and extended family goes beyond the earthly family and makes the recognition of the saints more acceptable. For example, if Aunt Sally prayed for us while she was on earth and we know that she has eternal life now, why would we expect her to stop praying for us now?
Also, I have found that the Orthodox are a very expressive people. If I meet an Orthodox friend at the grocery store or at church I have learned to expect that friend to drop whatever he is doing and come toward me with both arms reaching out. First he will embrace me, then give me a kiss on each check. This is called the kiss of peace. Often a greeting such as “Christ is Risen!” or “Thanks be to God” will accompany the kiss. It should be noted that this kiss of peace is shared among men and women equally. The greeting can be between two men, two women or a man and a women. I have often wanted to follow a single person throughout a Sunday worship to tally the number of such greetings a person offers on such a day. If such a greeting is given to people who are simply acquaintances then the kissing of the icon is in keeping with the cultural practices.
In conclusion, viewing the use of icons from within the Orthodox culture has given the author the opportunity to develop an appreciation for icons. I have found that hanging an icon in my home reminds me that God is present in my home. When I pass the icon I remember that I am to be praying continuously. When life is just speeding by too quickly I know where to go to find some quiet and to pray for the peace that surpasses understanding. It is no longer surprising to me that the God who created humans would realize that sometimes in our crowded lives it is beneficial to have a “window on the kingdom” (Quenot, 1991).
Benz, E. (1957). The Eastern Orthodox Church: Its Thought and Life. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.
Evdokimov,P (1972). The Art of the Icon: a Theology of Beauty. Redondo Beach, CA: Oakwood, Publications.
Nabil, H. (October 4, 2000). personal interview.
Ouspensky,L. (1978). Theology of the Icon. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.
Quenot,M. (1991). The Icon: Window on the Kingdom. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.
Webster, Daniel (Ed.). (1966). Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language (15th ed.). New York: The World Publishing Company.