Thursday 5 December 2013

I Is for icons

The Orthodox Understanding of Icons


Byzantine icons have become a unique hallmark of the Orthodox Faith.  You will see them in Churches, cars, roadside shrines, and in Orthodox Christian homes. They are venerated, kissed, censed, and carried in processions.

What is an icon?
An icon is a representation of either a saint or tableaux of saints, Christ or the Virgin or narrative scenes from the Bible such as Christ’s crucifixion. Icons are generally flat panel paintings made of wood, cast in metal, embroidered on cloth, created in mosaic tesserae, or painted in manuscripts, official documents, and editions of Holy books. An icon can also be etched or carved in stone or a precious metal.  After the 850s, the interiors of Orthodox Churches in Greece were often completely covered in iconic wall paintings (sometimes mosaics). When this occurred, the placing of these icons came to follow a set pattern which developed over time into what is now called the iconic program.


A Little Background
Iconic representation of the human or saintly figure was not always the norm. In fact, because of the Bible’s flat out prohibition of ‘graven images’ early Christians were as against them as Muslims would later become. Early Christian churches tended to be faced with marble and any decoration was floral or animal. (See Early Christian Churches)  In fact, it is unlikely that Agia Sophia, the beau Ideal of Greek churches had icons at all when it was first constructed in 537. This ongoing hesitation break the Commandment is reflected in the Orthodox Church still shying away from three dimensional representation – too sensual - and, in the early days, too much like pagan art. In the western branch of the Great Church this guilty angst did not apply to quite the same degree (1), The bitter icon debate see Iconoclasm) would continue until the issue was settled in favour of icons at the Council of Constantinople in 842.

 From that point on, the two dimensional art form was not only preserved but an icon theology developed which would set the rules and accepted style in Orthodox art for over twelve centuries and counting.

What is depicted in Icons?

Orthodox icons never depict God, but focus on Christ and the stories of his life and death as told in the New Testament. The honour of depiction is extended to include the heroic men and women of Church history. For this reason you will find saints, church fathers, emperors, and empresses depicted, along with the worthies of the Old Testament who were the precursors of His coming. It might at first come as a surprise that Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle get the nod as well but considering how Christianity was altered under the influence of Greek philosophy, it actually makes perfect sense.

How to Read an Icon

The highly stylized iconic cosmos at first glance seems simple or naïve but it is, in fact, highly symbolic and complex. Whether in concert or alone, an icon is a spiritual window into the transfigured world of believers after the Resurrection, a world made accessible to believers because of God's incarnation as material man.
Every icon, then, is a point of encounter with the Divine, a representation of nature reformed into the first created beauty. As such, icons are a medium of Grace, - anagogic, leading the believer upward to God. From an earthly perspective, this iconic world is as good as it gets.

In icons everything means something and figures can be readily identified by their attributes.  Christ, the saints, and the angels all have halos.  Christ is easily identified, even by a neophyte because a cross appears on his halo and in its three arms are the letters O ΩΝ – the one who is.  Angels have wings, martyrs have crosses, writers hold scrolls, and bishops wear their traditional garb. Individual figures have consistent facial expressions, poses, costumes, and often hold attributes personal to their story. This standardization would become easier to ensure as guide books for icon painters were published. Most icons incorporate some calligraphic text naming the person or event depicted, just to avoid confusion. This is especially helpful in identifying saints and martyrs, especially female ones, who can all look distressingly alike (2). Details are best discussed while looking at specific icons, but a few general comments should prove helpful.

In the iconic cosmos, perspective is free. Figures are often sized according to their importance, so a demon might be pint-sized, a theologian big headed, and so on. Sometimes the perspective is inverse with lines approaching the viewer, all the better to involve him or her in the scene. Figures are asexual, even when  partially nude.  Clothes do not always drape naturally, and never suggest sexuality. The Byzantine icon emphasizes holiness. Even the law of gravity does not apply: figures hang, in flat two-dimensional space, seemingly weightless.

  In the world before the fall and in the transfigured world of the Christian church, there is no Time. John the Baptists is depicted holding his own severed head, Christ appears at Mary’s death bed holding her infant soul in his arms, and scenes of the nativity show Christ in the manger and being washed by her hand maidens. Clothes do follow historical patterns although these are not always what you might expect.

 A desert hermit, who starved and died in rags, may wear a rich cloak, the Archangels dress sometimes like Orthodox priests, sometimes as soldiers, and  bands of angels dress like Hellenes. Place is skewed as well. All events take place outdoors, often with buildings in the background. If the painter wishes to indicate an indoor event, it is done by draping a curtain-like cloth over the background structures.

The presentation of Mary, www,byzantineartsjournal,org

 Corruption is not depicted. Mary, even on her death bed, is young. Demons (always shown in profile!) may be dark and shriveled, but never invoke horror; they have no power here. Even Hell is transformed’ if depicted at all. Martyrs being tortured may appear disconcertingly bored to someone new to icons and certainly display no excessive passion.   Christ on the cross is not depicted as often as in the west, but when He is, grotesque suffering is never depicted. This atmosphere of  calm; other-worldliness is one of the hallmarks of Orthodox  iconography, one that distinguishes it from western art as it developed up to an during the Renaissance.

There are no shadows in this world. Gold leaf illuminates the background. An icon painter starts each figure with dark shades and both literally and figuratively adds the light. Faces are centrally lit and to increase the sense of immediate connection, all faces and figures (except devils) are frontal or shown at a three quarter angle to form a direct bond with viewer. A typical face has large eyes (they have seen the divine), a long nose (only spiritual fragrances now), small mouths (now needing only spiritual food) and often high foreheads (the dominance of contemplation). Hands, if blessing the viewer are large. Everything, it seems, means something. No detail is too small to escape the all encompassing symbolism. Even the angels’ hair ribbons have meaning, or came to! (3)

Is it Idol Worship?

Watching worshippers enter an Orthodox church and kiss the icon, it looks a lot like idolatry. There is a constant effort on the part of iconodoules (as Icon supporters are known) to stress the essential difference between worship and reverence and to define this difference. A typical argument goes like this:

He has deified our flesh forever, and we are in very deed sanctified through His Godhead and the union of His flesh with it." When God is seen clothed in flesh, and conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter.

 The iconographer’s work was holy and special prayers were written for icon painters to recite before work began.  Because the icon was a medium of grace it would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of icons in Orthodoxy.

Miracle Working Icons

In Orthodoxy there are icons that exude myrrh (fragrant, healing oil), or perform miracles upon petitions by believers. When such reports are verified by the Orthodox hierarchy, they are understood as miracles performed by God through the prayers of the saint, rather than being magical properties of the painted wood itself.  But all icons are considered to be sacred, and are miraculous by nature since they are a means of spiritual communion between the heavenly and earthly realms. Countless churches in Greece have been constructed because an icon, usually of Mary, has been found in the area and has miraculously shown the exact place where She wishes her church to be built. If the finders did not get it right in the first place, her icon is perfectly capable of stubbornly transporting itself repeatedly to the right spot until the message is understood. These icons are usually the pride of each church or monastery and worshippers festoon it with tamata, prayer beads, and jewelry for miracles either performed or hoped for.  
Famous miracle working Icons are paraded in the streets on Feast days and even taken from city to city where believers gather to venerate them and pray before them. And icons have a particular quality in that they can transmit grace through the medium of glass or any other covering, - even through the body of the person touching them. This can be seen in parliament when members of parliament take the oath of office administered by the Archbishop. As long as a few members have their hands on the bible, the icon of the faith, the others make do by making sure they touch the shoulder of someone who has touched the shoulder of someone who has touched the Bible. Be that as it may, when a famous icon is displayed in an Athens the lineups can stretch for hundreds of meters, so holding hands and forming a daisy chain with only one person touching the icon is clearly not considered as likely to bring the best results! Parliamentarians take note).

 Innumerable sites in Greece boast a miracle working icon. Islands like Tinos and Cephalonia are renowned for theirs and are visited every year by thousands of pilgrims. Pilgrimage tourism is a growing business all over Greece, aided by an influx of Orthodox tourists from the former Soviet Union. But even without that, pilgrimage is alive and well in Greece.

Real or Fake?
Of course there have been some spectacular frauds but,  generally speaking, miracle working icons are acclaimed first by the public and then accepted by the church. The rules are not as rigid as you might think. The Orthodox church has a strain of pragmatic practicality running through it and when recently in Athens at the church of Pantanassa. in Monasteriaki, an icon of the Virgin began to weep tears, crowds gathered immediately and lines formed. Their priest’s reaction was calm, and laconic. He permitted viewing, but suggested that if it was not a miracle then it was probably damping seeping out from the walls!


(1)  This divergence between western and eastern perspectives is a hard one to follow in detail, for me at least, but it existed and over time either reflected the growing division of thought between the eastern and western branches of Orthodoxy or possibly helped cause them. The issue was settled at a council called in Constantinople and attended by eastern bishops; already the potential fault line between east and west was there.  When the Roman branch of Orthodoxy broke away in 1054, it had a profound influence on the development of religious art.

(2)   Female saints always seem to look slightly anorexic

(3)  Exactly when meaning came to be attached to every detail in an icon is perhaps a moot point, but that it did is not! Hair ribbons that gathered in the angel’s hair denote the self possession and “totality” of the angelic soul.

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