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What do you know About Icons?

Series: Essays on the Faith

What do you know About Icons?

An Aesthetic‚ Historiacal and Theological Approach in the form of Question and Answers

The Icon

A holy Bible for the

Simple and unlettered.

A visual theology for the

contemplatives and connoisseurs.

One of the mysteries of the

Personal Theanthropic

Presence of the Word.

Medium of Grace

Towards the sanctifying virtue.

Doxology to the absolute


A single ray of the Eighth Day's light

The book illustrates a multitude of Byzantine Icons through which the reader is guided, in simple but dynamic way to comprehend the “semantic”‚ the aesthetic‚ the history and theology of the Orthodox iconography.

The book was written in an attractive question and answer format in order to make it a pleasant and easy reading for the readers of all ages.

You said that the icon is a “new tongue”; what does this mean?

Imbued by the Holy Spirit from the first years of its inception, apart from the evangelical and liturgical language the Church made use of another “new tongue,” the tongue of the icons. With this language we have “the revelation and the presence of the Church's truth not through the mere representation of historical events, but as incarnate Grace.”

“The icon,” says Iakovos Mainas, “is not merely a practical æsthetic method for approaching the mystery of faith. Icons are not simply books for the uneducated, as if the educated have no need of them. They teach us all not because they inform us, but because they lead us to Heaven.”

More specifically, the Orthodox icon is:

1. An Evangelical Language

“The painters are not in opposition to the Scriptures, but they depict all that the Scriptures say. Hence, they are “advocates of the learned” (7th Œcumenical Synod). That is, “the iconographers do not represent with their art form works that are in opposition to the Gospel. On the contrary, they portray with their art all that is mentioned in the Scripture. Hence, the icon is an optical, painted Gospel and is the painted language of the New Testament and of Ecclesiastical Tradition. It is exactly that which L. Uspensky states: “Just as the word of Scripture is an image, the painted image is a word” (see plate 1).

2. A Liturgical Language

“The Orthodox icon is ‘word' of the same value and authority as the word with which the Church expresses its worship. This is why it has been rightly named a ‘liturgical analogy.' In other words, ‘the liturgical texts are to hearing what the icon is to sight.'” Iconography makes perceptible that which mystically takes place in worship. It is theology that hymns and glorifies the Lord as well as the Saints “in silence.” It helps man live the mystery of divine Dispensation in an experiential way.

3. A Hymnographic Language

There is a close relationship between iconography and Εcclesiastical hymnography. There exist iconographic compositions that are exact representations of our Ecclesiastical hymns. A characteristic example is the portrayal of the Akathist Hymn with its 24 hagiographic scenes (as in the Refectory of the Sacred Monastery of Stavroniketa, Mount Athos).

4. A Saintly and Patristic Language

Many iconographic compositions are pictorial synaxaria (Lives of the saints) and iconographic memorials of the patristic word. Saint Gregory of Nyssa calls the icon of Saint Theodore “a tongue-bearing book,” which, “when read” benefits the faithful and builds him or her up in various ways. “For, the silent painting on the wall knows how to speak and bring benefit for the greater things.”

5. A Dogmatic Language

Icons express entire doctrines of the Church. When one gazes upon the holy Icons it is possible, once familiarized with iconography's language, to comprehend and live the values and spiritual truths that are found in the realm beyond our bodily senses. One can be taught the Trinity, Christology, Anthropology, Mariology, elements of Liturgics, Ecclesiology and Hagiology. It has been emphasized by specialists that the study of Orthodox theology could be done using only the study and analysis of iconography. Surely, the icon, in all its dimensions, manifests Orthodox dogma; it is “pictorial Theology.” Theological and dogmatic texts such as the “Symbol of Faith” (the Creed) and the Lord's Prayer have been the subject of entire iconographic series.

6. A Pedagogical Language

According to Saint John of Damascus the icon is a sacred art that came about “as a means to knowledge… toward benefit and mercy and salvation.”

The Church educates us through the holy icons. It matures us, promoting a particular and lived-out godly ethos. The icons themselves become guides “developing Christ within us.” The depiction of the martyrdoms of the Saints, the final Judgement, the place of Condemnation and Paradise forward a mystical message, move us and encourage us toward our cultivation and our becoming Christ-like. In this way the icon is a pedagogue in Christ. The grace of the icon “exists and embraces us as does a Mother, guiding us to abundant life.” Certainly, in the lives of the Saints we find a multitude of narratives where it is evident that many Saints entered the life of the Church and were sanctified by the mere sight of an icon. For example, while still a child, Saint Dositheos visited the Holy Lands and there, by divine Providence, saw an icon of Hell. He was so troubled by this sight that his soul was filled by such awe and compunction that he immediately repented, completely changed his life, became a monk and was sanctified in five years time through obedience, ascesis and patience.

“As charismatic presences of those depicted,” the holy Icons illumine the faithful “to prayer and communion with the Beginningless Being.” “The icons,” says E. Giannes, “create a true school of prayer because they are not only a means of prayer, but, moreover, they direct us in prayer and show us how to pray, even how we are to stand in prayer.” It is well known that the praying heart is widened and contains within it every brother, every descendent of Adam, even all creation. In this way the icon leads us toward the love of our neighbor through prayer. Just as Saint Isaac the Syrian refers, the merciful heart is the one that burns with love for all of creation. This “burning” of the heart, according to the ascetic Fathers, is ceaseless prayer. “Prayer is the burning of the heart for all creation, for man, for birds, for animals, the demons and for all created things.”

7. An Ecclesiastical Language

Standing in the Orthodox temple we will discover that Orthodox iconography presents a theological “word” even in the placement of the various icons within the structure, that is, from the ordering and positioning that the icons and various compositions have in the naos. This is not haphazard, but follows a particular, deeply symbolical plan that serves the hierarchical ordering of certain theological and liturgical values regarding the mystery of divine Œconomy” (dogmatic, liturgic and historic cycles).

“All that is taught in the liturgy,” says K. Kalokyres, “through the hymns of the Church and the words from the pulpit is perfectly memorialized through the silence of iconography.”

It is said that iconography is made up of two parameters: on the one side is art and on the other is theology, dogma and truth. Is this so?

Yes. The icon is surely made up of two elements, for it is a liturgical art. Art is one and the other, as you said, is theology, dogma and truth.

Correspondingly, each icon unites two elements: style and technique. Yet, both are received from the tradition of the Church. Take, for instance, the icon of Christ and the Theotokos. The painting style may change ―this is allowed― but the form may not; it remains constant. Otherwise the faithful would be confused and would not be able to recognize the personage that was being depicted, because the form reveals the archetype, the very same depicted person. “For, in the icon is presented the archetype.”



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