FIGURES OF THINGS CELESTIAL
by DR ALEXANDRE KALOMIROS
(The late Doctor Alexandre Kalomiros was one of
Greece's most noted lay theologians. His work has been widely
published, and this present article first appeared in "Orthodoxos
Typos," Nrs 44 and seq.)
"Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and Him only shalt thou adore"(Mt.4:10).
In all matters,
the Holy Fathers of the Church sought always, insofar as it was
possible, in combatting the diverse heresies, to make use of the very
words of the Holy Scriptures themselves. This was true also of their
strategy in refuting the iconoclasts of the 8th century.
In their Introduction to the
decisions of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the editors of the Nicene
and Post Nicene series correctly observe:
....The Greek language has in this respect a great advantage over the
Hebrew, the Latin and the English; it has a word which is a general
word and is properly used of the affectionate regard and veneration
shown to any person or thing, whether to the divine Creator or to any
of His creatures. This word is proskynesis; it has also another word
which can properly be used to denote only the worship due to the most
high God, this word is latria. When, then, the Council defined that the
worship of "latria" was never to be given to any but God alone, it cut
off all possibility for idolatry, mariolatry, iconolatry, or any
"latry" except "theolatry." If, therefore, any of these other "latries"
exist or ever have existed, they exist or have existed not in
accordance with, but in defiance of, the decree of the Second Council
popular opinion, however, even our English term "worship" does not
possess the rigid implications which some have sought to ascribe to it.
The primary definition of "worship" is "to honour or revere, or account
as worthy.” The mayors of important cities are referred to as “your
worship.” Furthermore, the term "worshipful" is commonly applied to
other persons "distinguished in respect of character or rank, entitled
to honour or respect on this account". To this day, it is a title
ascribed to "justices of the peace, aldermen, recorders, the London
city companies, and the sheriffs" and later, to magistrates as well
(Oxford Dictionary of the English Language).
On the other hand, the term "adoration" is not quite
so flexible, especially as regards things Divine. By definition, to
adore is "to make an act of the mind and the will in acknowledgement of
the infinite perfection of God; to make an outward reverence expressing
such an act" (ibid, p 26). Indeed, even in Roman Catholic secondary
schools to this day, a point is made of the fact that "adoration" is to
be rendered to God alone.
This distinction, as the editors of the Nicene
Series point out in their above mentioned Introduction, is made most
clear and manifest "in the inspired translation" of the Hebrew found
in Matthew 4:10, "Thou shalt worship (proskyneseis) the Lord thy God,
and Him only shalt thou adore (latreuseis)." "Worship" was due indeed
to God above all, but not exclusively to Him, whereas "adoration" is to
be given to "Him only."
These, too, were the very terms which the Holy
Fathers employed in their conciliar definition. And though it may be
true that, to a certain extent, the words "worship" and "adoration" do
not possess that particular distinctness which their Greek counterparts
possess, nonetheless they do to a very great degree possess its
essence. Indeed, if the term "worship" can be used to honour the Lord
Mayor of Dublin, Vancouver or London, who could refuse to apply the
same term in our reverence of the sacred icons?
In conclusion, it would be appropriate to quote here
the Seventh Ecumenical Council's letter to the Emperor and Empress. The
letter points out that St Paul "says of Jacob (Hb.11:21), `He
worshipped the top of his staff,' and like to this is that said by
Gregory, surnamed the Theologian, ‘Revere Bethlehem and worship the
manger.’ But who of those truly understanding the Divine Scripture
would suppose that here adoration, latria, was intended? Such an
opinion could only be entertained by a simpleton or one ignorant of
Scriptural and Patristic knowledge. Would Jacob give divine worship to
his staff? Or would Gregory the Theologian command us to worship the
manger as though it were God!" Moreover, did Christ Himself not say
that if you sit in a lower place at the banquet table and are then
invited by the host to take a higher seat you will be worshipped?”
FIGURES OF THINGS CELESTIAL
On the first
Sunday of Great Lent, our Church celebrates the feast of the
Restoration of the Veneration and Worship of the Holy Icons, after the
terrible persecution against the Orthodox which was started by the
heretical iconoclasts throughout the Byzantine Empire. During this
period, a great number of Christians were martyred: some for hiding
icons in their homes, others for confessing that there was no Orthodoxy
without icons, and that he who renounced icons has in reality renounced
In our day and
age, it would be considered by many to be narrow-mindedness,
fanaticism, worship of empty forms, and folly to sacrifice one's life
for confessing one's belief in such insignificant "details." It is true
that Christians of today are willing to betray, and that without too
much remorse, not only icons but also their Faith. We see some who
applaud those who are bartering our Church's Tradition to the Pope and
to other heretics.
Church of Christ has not considered the matter of icons a "detail."
Pastors and flocks have understood that there cannot be things of
primary and things of secondary importance in matters of Faith, for our
Faith resembles a knitted object which begins to unravel when even one
stitch is undone. This is why so many fathers, mothers, children,
monks, teachers and bishops have shed their blood willingly, knowing
that it would serve to water and strengthen the tree of Orthodoxy. And
so, for the celebration of the re-establishment of the veneration of
icons after this victory, the Church set aside this chosen day, the
Sunday of Orthodoxy.
Is the question of
icons, which many of our contemporaries consider as no more than a mere
detail, really of such great importance that the Church had to attach
to the icon the very idea of the true way of thought, of the right
To understand the meaning of the icon in our Faith
and in Orthodox life, we need not exhume the ancient Byzantine
iconoclasts; for, in our time, we have our own. They can be divided
into three categories.
1. The Protestants, or Evangelicals, as they sometimes refer to
themselves. These reject icons and banish them from their assemblies.
Protestants consist of a multitude of heresies which fight one with
another. Nonetheless, they are united on this one point: the rejection
2. The Roman Catholics. In theory, they recognize and accept icons,
though for them the icon is not a sacred object, but simply an
ornament; it is not an icon, but a religious painting. There is nothing
sacred or holy in it. It is a human concoction, which follows current
fashion in its style, as do all other human creations.
3. Those Orthodox Christians whose faith is vacillating, and who are
ready to follow the former or the latter. Some are even indifferent to
icons. They are influenced by the Protestants who say that icons are
material objects, gross, incompatible with the religion of Christ,
which is completely spiritual. Yet others permit icons in their homes
and in church, but these icons differ in nothing from those of the
Papists, being deprived of all sacred character; they are secular works
of art, and have no relation to Christ or His saints, whose names they
may well carry. They are nothing but melodramatic or affected
representations of Christ and His saints.
THE INDEPICTABLE GOD
Let us now see what the first of these iconoclasts,
the Protestants, think of icons. Their arguments are the same as those
of the Byzantine iconoclasts. The Protestants maintain that the custom
of painting icons has no foundation in the Old or New Testaments.
Neither Christ nor His apostles have ordered us to make icons. On the
contrary, in the Old Testament, God categorically forbids it:
Thou shalt not make to thyself an idol, nor likeness
of any thing, whatever things are in heaven above, and whatever things
are in the earth beneath, and whatever are in the waters under the
earth. Thou shalt not bow down to them, nor serve them, for I am the
Lord thy God, a jealous God, recompensing the sins of the fathers upon
the children of the third and fourth generation of them that hate me
Lest ye transgress and make to yourselves a carved
likeness, any kind of image, the likeness of male or female...Take heed
to yourselves, lest ye forget the covenant of the Lord our God, which
He made with you, and ye make to yourselves a graven likeness of any of
the things concerning which the Lord thy God commanded thee. For the
Lord thy God is a consuming fire, a jealous God (Dt.4:16, 23-24).
The Protestants say that in the primitive Church,
there were no such things as icons. Icons were introduced into the
Church as an evil imitation of pagan practice.
And what do the Holy Fathers answer to the arguments of the iconoclasts? Let us see.
It is true that God forbade the Israelites to make
an image of God. But what image could be made of God? Had they seen
God? In the same chapter of Deuteronomy, where He forbids the Hebrews
to make an image of Him, God gives this reason:
And the Lord spake to you out of the midst of the
fire a voice of words, which he heard, and ye saw no likeness, only a
When I spoke to you, said God, in the fire of Mount
Horeb, you heard only My voice. You saw no image nor figure of Me.
Therefore, if you wish to make something in My image, it will certainly
not be in My image; for you have seen no image of Me. It will only be
an idol, something that resembles a man or a woman, or some animal that
walks on the land or crawls at the bottom of the sea, or some other
creature. That which has happened to the pagans who do not know God,
will happen to you; some have deified men, others animals, others
stars, or other creatures.
And Deuteronomy repeats once again:
Take good heed to your souls, for ye saw no image in
the day wherein the Lord spake to you in Horeb in the mountain, out of
the midst of the fire (Dt.4:15).
Thus the Hebrews had good reason not to make any
image of God. What image could they make of Him? They had heard only
His voice, and a voice has no image.
As we can see, God was not hostile to images. He
forbade the Hebrews to represent Him only because He is Spirit, the
only truly immaterial Being. An immaterial spirit cannot be painted
unless it takes upon itself a figure and appears to men.
When God revealed Himself and spoke to the
Israelites, He did not adopt a form. It was thus impossible to make an
image of Him. If the Hebrews had tried to make one, it would not have
been that of God, but a false image, an idol.
"THOU SHALT MAKE TWO CHERUBIM."
However, the Fathers continue their reply to the
iconoclasts of all times: It is false to say that the Scriptures forbid
images. As a matter of fact, while God was forbidding the Hebrews to
represent Him in images, He besought of Moses the following strange
And thou shalt make a mercy-seat, a lid of pure
gold, the length of two cubits and a half, and the breadth of a cubit
and a half. And thou shalt make two cherubim graven in gold, and thou
shalt put them on both sides of the mercy-seat. They shall be made one
cherub on this side, and another cherub on the other side of the
mercy-seat; and thou shalt make the two cherubim on both sides. The
cherubim shall stretch forth their wings above, overshadowing the
mercy-seat with their wings; and their faces shall be toward each
other, the faces of the cherubim shall be toward the mercy-seat. And
thou shalt set the mercy-seat on the Ark above, and thou shalt put into
the Ark the Testimonies which I shall give thee. And I will make myself
known to thee from thence, and I will speak to thee above the
mercy-seat between the two cherubim, which are upon the Ark of the
Testimony, even in all things which I enjoin thee concerning the
children of Israel (Ex.25:17-22).
In another book of the Old Testament, we read the following narration:
When Moses entered the Tabernacle of Testimony to
speak to God, then he heard the voice of the Lord speaking to him from
above the mercy-seat, which is upon the Ark of the Testimony between
the two cherubim and he spake unto him (Nm.7:89).
Thus we see that, when Moses entered the Tabernacle
of testimony, he heard the voice of the Lord speaking to him from
between the two icons of the cherubim, placed over the Ark of the
Now, can you see how much the Protestants and
all the other iconoclasts err when they pretend that the Holy
Scriptures, or rather, God does not want images? And not only the
images of the two cherubim, but the Tabernacle itself may be seen as an
icon, an icon of Heaven, of the Holy of Holies, the Throne of God,
whence God spoke to men, where stood the cherubim, celestial beings who
enjoy such familiarity with God that they stand next to His Throne.
And even if God had never enjoined men to make
icons, what of it? St Theodore the Studite says: Nowhere do we see
Christ ordering His apostles to write even a line, no more than He
Himself wrote even to give us an example. But nevertheless, His
apostles have depicted His icon in words in the New Testament. Why
should we consider it a natural thing to describe Him in books, but
unnatural to describe Him with colours in icons?
THE WITNESS OF THE CATACOMBS
As we have already seen, the Protestants claim also
that in the first days of Christianity there were no icons. But the
catacombs of Rome have confounded them. They are full of mural
paintings of Christ, the Virgin, and the martyrs of those days, as well
as icons engraved on metal, like the one representing the apostles
Peter and Paul. We also find some on the sacred vessels of the first
centuries, and we are still finding more. There were crucifixes worn by
the martyrs, such as the one found at Tomi (Constanta) in Romania, in
the region of the gold mines, where Christians condemned ad metala were
sent by the emperors for hard labour.2
But suppose the Protestants were correct in
maintaining that there were no icons in the primitive Church, what of
it? The primitive Church did not even have the Holy Scriptures [of the
New Testament] compiled as such. Only little by little was the New
Testament written. Furthermore, the books of the New Testament were
manuscripts only found here and there. It is only much later that the
Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, selected from among a large number
of similar writings and compiled those which were authentic, true and
unadulterated into what She now calls the New Testament.3
Must we then destroy the New Testament because it
did not exist as such from the very beginning? But what was there in
the very beginning? Were there any churches? The first liturgies were
celebrated in upper rooms and in catacombs. Must we also continue this
It is precisely because the Church of the first
centuries was poor, exposed to continual persecutions, and did not as
yet have artists, nor the means to create many icons, that those found
in the catacombs are worthy of our admiration, in that they were
painted underground, without any sunlight, but only by candlelight and
under the sword of the persecutor.4
PROFESSION OF THE INCARNATION
Perhaps many will tell us: "We admit that, in
Christianity, it is permitted to make icons, and we even recognize
their beauty, and admit that they are appropriate church ornaments; but
don't tell us that the icon is indispensable for Christianity, nor
insist that those fanatics who were martyred for the sake of icons
during the iconoclast persecutions, knew what they were doing when they
were defending the icons, and that icons were really worth the shedding
of their blood."
But why then were so many people martyred during
those iconoclast persecutions? For the same reason that the first
Christian era was filled with martyrs; they sacrificed themselves lest
they renounce Christ.
But others will say: "Were the iconoclasts not
Christians? When did they force the Orthodox to renounce Christ?"
It is true that the iconoclasts called themselves
Christians, just as our contemporary iconoclasts, the Protestants and
Roman Catholics, consider themselves "Christians." But it is not enough
to call oneself a Christian to be one; the Byzantine iconoclasts, like
our contemporary iconoclasts, are deniers of Christ, and here is why:
We have seen that God, while forbidding the Hebrews
to make His image, commanded Moses to make icons (images) of the two
cherubim and to place them in the Holy of Holies, specifying in great
detail how they should be made. Why, then, did God, Who ordered the
representation of the two cherubim forbid His own image to be made?
Simply because He had not as yet manifested Himself in a visible form
But when the "fulness of time" had come, and God had
put on flesh and had made Himself man, we, having seen His form and
having seen the face of God, had then not only the right to make this
image, but the duty, the obligation; for not making an icon of God in
the flesh He had put on, amounts to a refusal to proclaim that God was
The denial of the icon is tantamount to a denial of
Christ, to a denial of the Divine Economy, to a denial of our
salvation. Here is how the Church sings this truth:
Being indepictable in Thy Divine nature, O Master,
Thou didst deign to be depicted in these last days, Thou becamest
Incarnate... (Third Sticheron of the Great Vespers for the Sunday of
Orthodoxy). And: While depicting Thy Divine likeness in icons, 0
Christ, we openly proclaim Thy nativity... (Kathisma of Matins, Sunday
"He who seeth Me, seeth Him that sent Me" said the
Lord (Jn.12:45). And elsewhere He said to Philip, who had asked Him to
show him the Father: "Have I been so long with you, and yet thou hast
not known Me, Philip? He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father; and
how sayest thou then, show us the Father?" (Jn.14:9)
And this is exactly what the Church does throughout
the centuries, in that while showing to her children the icon of
Christ, she shows them the icon of the Heavenly Father. She teaches and
confesses that the Heavenly and Unapproachable God had taken flesh, and
was made man out of love for us men. And now we see what God we
worship, for we see Him face to face.
How true are the words of St John of Damascus:
"What the Gospels reveal through words, the painter shows us through
Thus, for the Church, the Gospel and the icons are
of equal importance and value. Every iconoclastic disposition is an
antichristian folly; since, in the Person of Christ, God has manifested
His face to the world, it is an insult on our part to reject it. All
those who are vexed and hindered by the icons while in prayer are, in
reality, vexed by the Incarnate God.
It is as if they were saying that Christ had done
badly in taking human form and nature. The Jews and Moslems are, at
least, consistent in their refusal of icons, for they deny the
Incarnation of God. But the Protestants and other iconoclasts are not
so sensible, and are without any justification.
We can attain the Father, the unmaterial, formless,
incomprehensible God, only through the Son, just as the Lord Himself
said; for the Son has come to us in the flesh, that is in specific
form. How could we reject this form (icon) without running the real
risk of never reaching the Father? "No man hath seen God at any time,"
says St John the Theologian, "the only Begotten Son, Who is in the
bosom of the Father, he hath declared Him" (Jn.1:18). And St John of
Damascus writes: "God, Who has no body nor form could not, in the past,
be represented. But now that He has come in the flesh and has dwelt
among men, I can depict His visible form."
Like the Gospel, the icon speaks of the Truth. "I am
the Way, the Truth and the Life," said Christ. Without any doubt, Truth
can now be depicted. Truth is not an abstract thing; it is not one or
many concepts. It is something concrete, living; it is a Person, the
Person of the Incarnate Christ.
When we represent the Person of Christ in an icon,
we describe neither His Divine nor His human nature, for neither can be
depicted. In the icon, we portray the Person of Christ, i.e., the
incarnate Hypostasis of One of the Persons of the Holy Trinity, in Whom
the Divine and human nature is united without confusion or division in
a manner surpassing comprehension.
In the portrait of any given man, we do not
represent human nature, which is undepictable and incomprehensible;
even so, in the icon of Christ, we do not portray nor represent the
Divine Nature, which is inaccessible and incomprehensible. Only the
Person of Christ, who voluntarily made Himself man, is portrayed.
CONFESSION OF DEIFICATION
So much for the icons of Christ. The representation
of the saints in icons is a natural consequence of the representation
of Christ. The Incarnation of Christ is also the basic theological
foundation for the icons of the Theotokos and the saints, for it is
through the Incarnation of God that the possibility of deification was
given to man.
If the saints were represented upon icons as mere
men, no one would ask Christians why they represent them. No one would
be scandalized at the portrait of man. But the saints are not
represented on icons as mere men, as in portraits, but as men worthy of
veneration, as sanctified men, deified by Divine energy (Mt.5:9; 2
This is a great
stumbling stone to the infidel and the iconoclast. "You are idolaters,"
say the Protestants, "you worship wooden idols and images of men."
We do not worship
images of men, 0 blind ones, but the grace, the power of God which
dwells in those men, in their bodies, in their icons, just as it does
in their souls.
Idolatry is the worship of a false god; for
God Himself is in no way material and, when you form a material image
of the unmaterial God, you have formed an idol in your mind. It is not
idolatry to worship a sacred object, such as an icon, the Gospel, or
the Cross, since the veneration is not toward the object itself, nor to
a false god, but to the True God, the God of Abraham, Isaak and Jacob,
Who sanctifies the object. It is not idolatry to venerate a creature,
when the veneration and the worship redound to the Creator Who
sanctifies it. Christianity is not an abstract philosophy. It is the
worship of a specific Person, the worship of Christ, of God Who took
flesh and bones upon Himself to sanctify the matter of the universe. In
Christ, all creation has been sanctified, and matter has become a
channel by which God's Grace comes to men.5
We venerate and worship the icon but we do not
render it the adoration and service due to God alone.6 It is God alone
Whom we adore and serve. It is because we adore God that we venerate
and worship His icon, and the icons of those in whom He has taken up
His dwelling.7Adoration is one thing, veneration and worship another.
The same applies to the honour and veneration which we render the
saints. We honour and venerate the saints because they are vessels of
God's Grace. When we honour the saints and venerate their icons, we
adore God Who sanctified them.8
The body of a saint, in life and after death, is a dwelling place of the Holy Trinity:
I will dwell in them and walk in them, as God hath
said (2 Cor.6:16). If a man love Me, he will keep My words, and My
Father will love him, and We will come unto him and make Our abode with
him (Jn.14:23). Know ye not, says the apostle Paul, that your body is
the temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you? (1 Cor.6:19).
The bodies of the saints are vessels of God's Grace
both during their life and after their death, and each one of us should
come and avail ourselves of the Grace given them. This is why we
Orthodox Christians venerate the relics of the saints, their
"tabernacles" as we call them. This is why the icons of the saints,
just like their "tabernacles," i.e., their bodies, work miracles; for
within these material objects there dwells the Grace of God.
St John of Damascus says:
During their life, the saints are full of the Holy
Spirit. After their death, the Grace of the Holy Spirit continues to
dwell inseparable in their souls, in their bodies, in their sepulchres,
in their images and their holy icons, and this not by essence, but by
Grace and energy.
LADDER TO THE HEAVENS
This is why we, the Orthodox, venerate the icons. By
the Grace of God, the icon participates in the holiness of its
prototype. Through the icon, we participate in that holiness according
to the measure of the purity of our hearts; we receive the Grace which
flows forth from the material of the icon. We are mystically sanctified
by the operation of the Holy Spirit.
The icon is thus one of the paths which lead us to
God; it is a ladder which allows us to climb from earth to Heaven. In
the same manner, the temple, the church where we assemble for various
services and the Divine Liturgy, is a "Heaven on earth," as the Fathers
say. Christ is present there through His Body and Blood, and His icon.
His all-holy Mother is also present through her icon. All the saints
and the Heavenly powers are also present through their icons, placed
upon the iconostas and on the walls. During the Liturgy, the faithful
who are assembled in the church commune with Heaven, because the
liturgical prayers and the icons which are around lift them up. Let us
not consider this to be merely a psychological phenomenon, a purely
intellectual elevation attained by the words of the prayers and the
icons which remind us of Heaven. Not at all! The lifting up of the
faithful is a mystery. It is possible that they feel nothing at the
moment; nevertheless, mystically, interiorly, when they commune of the
Immaculate Mysteries, they are lifted up, regardless of the thoughts
and feelings which at the moment rule within them. It is the action of
Divine Grace which raises them up and sanctifies them.
In truth, how strange is God's will! He has chosen
humble matter, which we despise, to make it into a vehicle of His
Grace. The oil of Holy Unction, the water of Baptism, the myrrh of Holy
Chrism, the bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist, the bodies of the
saints and their icons; all these material things, nevertheless, raise
us to Heaven, much more than those great and sublime ideas which we men
conceive with our poor minds.
Let everything we have said so far be considered as
an answer to all the modern day iconoclasts, i.e., the Protestants,
Evangelicals and Reformed, say against us.
But as we have said at the beginning, there is also
a second kind of iconoclast, those who accept icons, but who distort
them and alter their true meaning, considering them as nothing more
than religious and ornamental objects, decorations brimming with the
spirit of the world and of the flesh. These iconoclasts are actually
Papists, followers of the Pope. They are much worse than the former;
for it is better to cast out the icons of Christ and of His saints from
our homes and churches rather than to introduce paintings which distort
and thereby ridicule sacred persons, debase our religion in the eyes of
the people of this world, and dim the brightness of the spiritual flame
which must be born in them through God's Grace.
The Latin Church has commissioned great painters to
decorate her churches, but were these painters true Christians? Surely
not. These painters took from the streets beautiful youths, with traits
more feminine than masculine, had them pose as models and, with a bit
of imagination, produced as a result a "Christ" full of carnal beauty,
with melodramatic features, with affected expressions and gestures
alien to the Christian spirit. Further, we know from history that some
of their most beautiful paintings of the Virgin were modeled by the
renowned prostitutes of those times. Others were the mistresses of the
painters themselves. This was also true of the representations of
With the tolerance and often even the approbation
and admiration of the Papal Church, these painters presented to mankind
the sanctified personages of our Faith in a manner far removed from
reality. Their primary aim was to show their talents and nothing else.
They cared very little for raising to Heaven the souls of the faithful
who admired their work, for they sought only to fill their eyes and
souls with vain, carnal beauty, alien to the spirit of the Gospel. This
is why this type of iconoclast is far more dangerous than the first. It
is, in fact, more honourable to deny icons, to deny Christ, than to
accept icons which, instead of expounding Christ's religion, teach an
altered and adulterated religion, a religion made unrecognizable by the
distorted persons one depicts. It is preferable to have no icons than
to have icons which enervate the souls of the faithful, pervert their
spirits and grossly misrepresent Christianity.
AN EXPRESSION OF THE TRUTH
The Westerners say that it is normal for various
schools of religious painting to exist, because every painter attempts
to paint Christ to the best of his ability and as beautifully as he may
conceive Him to be. But Christ and His saints were real people; we do
not have the right to paint them as we imagine, even with a pious
In Christianity, like the written or spoken word,
the icon speaks the Truth. It is impossible to paint Christ just as
anyone might picture Him, for it is no longer Him we paint but an
imaginary character which is arbitrarily called Christ. By referring to
such a portrait as "Jesus Christ," we tell an enormous lie and thereby
deceive men. Christ must be represented as He is and not as we think He
Orthodox iconography is an art of realism par
excellence. Imagination has no place in it. The icon, like the Holy
Scriptures is based on historical fact. It describes the historical
facts of our Faith with colours and form, whereas Holy Scriptures do
the same with the written word. Therefore, an Orthodox icon can express
nothing but what the Holy Scriptures say. In an icon, Christ must
appear as He appears in the Holy Scriptures and in the conscience of
the Church. A saint must also appear on an icon as he appeared in
history and in the collected Lives of the Saints. It is impious and
inadmissible for one to make use of fantasy to describe facts from the
life of our Lord by the written or oral word. It is equally impious and
inadmissible to use one's fancy to paint the same events with a brush.
The truth which the Church proclaims can be
adulterated not only by the word but also through the icon; and it is
not only by writing or speaking that we are in danger of becoming
heretics, but also by painting.
PURIFICATION OF THE SENSES
How, then, can an iconographer remain Orthodox? How
will he avoid the easy fall of falsifying the Truth with his brush? How
will he accomplish the difficult task of portraying the Truth in the
countenances of Christ and of His saints whom he paints? The path the
iconographer must follow in his work is not different from that of the
preacher, or of the writer of religious books. It is no different than
the road of every Christian who wishes to believe rightly.
What must a Christian do to be Orthodox? First he
must be humble and have a feeling of his own nothingness and
sinfulness. Humility and contrition will purify his heart that he may
see clearly. "Pride compels a man to contrive innovations, since it
cannot suffer what is ancient," writes St Ephraim the Syrian. The
Christian must fast and pray with compunction. He must humbly follow
the teachings of the fathers of the Church, and try to imitate their
lives, that he might become worthy of the light from on high. These
same things apply also to the iconographer who wishes to paint Orthodox
icons. He must be humble. He must look at how the pious iconographers
of the Church have been painting icons throughout the centuries even to
our own day, and he must paint like them, without innovating or
abandoning "what is ancient." He must pray very much and fast so that
God may open the eyes of his soul that he may see what is true and what
is false, what is spiritual and what is carnal. He must have heroic
strength not to submit to the tastes of those who commission him to
paint, be they priests, the parish council or foolish persons who,
unfortunately, do not know what an Orthodox icon is, and cannot discern
what is aesthetic and what is not.
REALISM PAR EXCELLENCE
Perhaps someone will think: If Orthodox iconography
is a realistic art par excellence, which admits no exercise of our
imagination, then the best icon would be a photograph, or what, at any
rate, most resembles a photograph, for a person can be represented only
by this with perfect objectivity.
There is no greater error than to believe that a
photograph can represent a man. No photograph has ever represented him,
and the millions of pictures taken to date have not been able to
achieve this. A photograph brings out the appearance, the external
characteristics of man, but it cannot represent the interior reality:
man in his fulness. Photography pictures man as he appears, but not as
he is in reality. A great and admirable painter is he who, while
painting a portrait of a man, at the same time is able to express the
underlying qualities of the man's soul, heart and spirit, as also is he
who, while painting nature and created things, can by forms express the
causes and the mystery of things that be. Such an art, true art, can
come only from the Truth, and only the Church of Christ can give birth
to it. This art is Orthodox iconography or, as secular people call it,
"Byzantine painting." Only the icon can depict a being and, at the same
time, express the truth of his countenance; only it has the strength to
represent the holiness, the Divine light, the radiance of Divine love,
the charity, the humility, the contrition and the purity that is hidden
mysteriously in the facial expressions of the saints. Only it can show
to those who have spiritual eyes the new creation inaugurated by the
Incarnation of God: the deification of man.
The icons show us poor men the Kingdom of God coming
with power, according to the measure of man's capacity and receptivity,
even as the Transfiguration of Our Lord on Tabor revealed His glory to
the three disciples "as each one could endure." The spiritual things
which this sacred art reveal to our eyes cannot be perceived by all,
but only by those who are capable of understanding the depth of the
spiritual beauty of Orthodox liturgical icons. Others see only their
aesthetic beauty, if that.
The icon does not represent the perishable body of a
saint, but the eternal reality of his person. This is why we say that
Orthodox iconography is par excellence realistic, for it does not limit
itself to a faithful representation of but one of the aspects of a
material and sentimental reality but, with the poor means at man's
disposal, it renders all the reality of the human being, the reality of
the deified man. Through the visible, the Church beholds the invisible;
through what is temporal, She sees the eternal. In the liturgical icon,
strange and incomprehensible encounters occur: eternity is revealed in
time, Heaven comes down to earth and encompasses mortals. This is why
the Fathers say that the building where the faithful assemble, the
temple or the church, with its icons painted on the walls and on wood,
with all that is said there, and all that is celebrated there is an
icon, an image of Heaven, a realization of Heaven, though made with
perishable means on this perishable earth.
To paint the icon of a saint, one must have tasted
of sanctity; one must have lived the experience of the Grace of God.
One must have received the Divine light, as far as this is possible to
the soul. The painter who does not possess all this must be very
careful, for every brush stroke can lead him to heresy. There is only
one path left to him: He must walk faithfully in the footsteps of the
ancient iconographers, and paint strictly as they did. This is how he
can keep himself from all error, and thus give his works the seal of
eternity. And spiritually he will be profited, for by adhering to the
types left by our fathers, he also will taste of eternity and
participate in the experience of the holy iconographers of the past,
that is, the life of the Church.
THE GOOD TRANSFORMATIONS10
Many Christians are offended by the ascetic aspect
of Orthodox icons; they are even frightened by the austere expression
of Christ and His saints in our iconography. They desire a very human
Christ. Most of them want to see only a man in the icon of Christ. They
fear to find themselves before God. But Christ is God-Man! Woe to those
who wish to represent Him only as a man to the eyes of the world! All
those who represent Christ as an ordinary man in saccharine icons, and
those who introduce these cheap reproductions into their homes and
churches in no way differ from the heretic who teaches that Christ is
not God, but a simple man, even if in their inexcusable indifference,
they do not understand their error and sin.
As we said before, a man does not become a heretic
by word of pen only, but also by the icons he accepts into his home or
church. This is why Saint John of Damascus said these fearful words:
"Show me the icons you venerate, and I will tell you what you believe."
If St John came into our homes and saw our icons, who knows how many of
us he would find Orthodox? On the other hand, if we examine those who
alter the iconographic tradition, we shall find that they trample also
other matters of the Faith and that, in general, they have a "natural"
faith, as the Apostle Paul would have said, that is to say,
sentimental, shallow, false, not at all spiritual.
Let not the ascetic aspect of the icons of Christ
and His saints frighten us; this austere and sorrowful aspect conceals
the whole mystery of piety in Christ. We must not forget that the
majority of saints, as we chant in church have "by the streams of their
tears cultivated the barrenness of the desert; and by their sighings
from the depths they bare fruit a hundredfold in labours." Let us not
think that this sorrow in Christ, this life of tears and sighs, is
wearisome and full of misfortune. On the contrary, affliction in Christ
is the only way to Heavenly bliss, of which the saints taste while
still in this world; it is the gladdening sorrow of which the Fathers
speak, a mingling of joy and sadness, full of serenity, humility and
love. St Isaak the Syrian writes, "No one knows the joy which comes
from tears, save he who has given his soul over to this labour." It is
thus through affliction in Christ that gladness and joy are born. He
who can feel these things will feel the greatness, the incomparable
beauty of Orthodox icons, though presently he may find them repulsive,
pervaded as he is by the spirit of the world.
Here is how Saint Symeon the New Theologian
describes the changes which occur on the countenance of those who
progress in sanctity:
"I know some among you," said he to his disciples,
"who partake of the common table with a contrite and humble heart, yet
do not even eat of the simple meals before them, but remain hidden in
silence, whose souls are filled with compunction and tears, prayers and
supplications, spiritual labours and prostrations, which cause them to
be transformed with that good transformation, and who have acquired a
most ascetical and beautiful countenance."
Do you see how this great Father of the Church
considers ascetical beauty, which he calls the good transformation?
Truly beautiful is the ascetical countenance of icons: carnal men,
whose spirit is of the world, cannot perceive this beauty, and this is
a great loss to their soul.
I AM FILLED WHEN I GAZE UPON YOU
He who has not learned to look at icons loses much!
For simply to gaze upon them gives the Christian great profit, whereas
to gaze upon the worldly and affected religious paintings of the West
causes great harm. A little story borrowed from the Patericon will
explain better what I am saying:
Three fathers had the custom of visiting the blessed
Anthony each year. Two of them questioned the saint concerning thoughts
and the salvation of one's soul. The third asked nothing and kept
quiet. After a long time, Abba Anthony said to the third: ‘Behold, you
have been coming here for a long time now; why do you never ask me
anything?' and he answered him: ‘Father, I am filled when I gaze upon
Do you see the great spiritual benefit which even
the sight of the saints can procure, especially that of austere
ascetics of the desert, like Anthony the Great? The same benefit is
also produced by looking upon the icons. Blessed are those who possess
such icons in their homes and in their parish churches.
Icons are not ornamental, but sacred objects. They
are not paintings, mural decorations, but vehicles of Divine Grace,
ladders which lead to Heaven, figures of things celestial. They
represent the Kingdom of Heaven, Paradise, with Christ in His glory,
surrounded by His saints, like celestial bodies which receive their
light from another, being illumined by the might of His Divinity. Icons
are images of the new creation, of the imperishable and eternal world.
They are images of man's deification, accomplished by the session of
the worshipful, resurrected body of the Saviour at the right of God in
the Heavens.12 Beneath the humble material of the icons there is
concealed the power of God, which has sanctified the saints, and
through them, has worked miracles. It is this power which we adore when
we kiss an icon with our lips; when we worship it, we are adoring the
one God in Trinity.
These sacred objects cannot be fashioned as we
please, according to our carnal tastes; neither can we place them where
we want, like paintings in a living-room or elsewhere, among the
profane objects of the world.
In every home there should be a corner reserved for
holy objects: holy water, the Gospel, the wedding crowns,13 holy books,
with an oil lamp always burning (Ex.27:20-21), where also there arises
that incense which is both perceptible and spiritual: our prayer.
EPILOGUE OF THE TWO GREGORIES
"Brethren", says Saint Gregory the Theologian, "let
us not do in an impure manner what is holy, or what is sublime in an
uncomely manner, or in an unworthy manner what is worthy. To be brief,
let us not do in an earthly manner what is Heavenly. In our religion,
all is spiritual: actions, movements, desires, conversations, manner of
walking, clothes, gestures; for the mind permeates all these
things and makes one a man of God."14
And St Gregory Palamas writes: "With love shall you
make the icon of Him Who became man for us. Through it you will raise
your mind to the worshipful Body of the Saviour, Who sits at the right
hand of God in the Heavens. Like Moses, who made the icons of the
Cherubim in the Holy of Holies, you also depict the figures of the
saints, and venerate them, not as gods (for this is forbidden), but
because of the relationship, disposition and surpassing honour you have
for them when your mind is carried up to them through the icons. This
Holy of Holies was a type of things super-celestial, and this holy
adornment bore the image of the whole world. Moses called these things
holy, not glorifying things created, but through them be glorified God,
the Creator of the world."
1. This fight by the Church for the Faith lasted for
about 100 years. The persecution began under Emperor Leo the Isaurian
(717-741), who was the first to attack the veneration of icons. It
ended with the Orthodox victory, crowned by the Seventh Ecumenical
Council, held during the reign of Empress Theodora and her son Michael
the Third (842-846), when St Methodios the Confessor was Patriarch of
Constantinople. This victory is celebrated on the Sunday of Orthodoxy,
which is a recapitulation of all the victories of the Church over all
heresies. The synodicon which is read in church anathematizes the
heresiarchs and glorifies the Orthodox Faith and Her defenders. In our
days, this Synodicon is of particular importance to our Faith, which
once more is being assaulted by the unloosed waves of the new heresies.
2. There were, in fact, some icons made during the
earthly life of the Saviour and shortly afterward. We have, as an
example, the image of Christ's face which He Himself placed on a
mandelion of the ruler of Edessa. Apostle Luke made the first icon of
the Theotokos, and the historian Eusebius (265-340) records, "I have
seen a great many images (portraits) of the Saviour, of Peter and of
Paul, which have been preserved up to our times" (Hist. Bk 7, ch 18,
P.G.20, col 680). Eusebius also describes in detail the image of the
Saviour which was made by the woman who was healed of the issue of
blood (Mt.9:20-23; 5:24-34; Lk. 8:43-48). This figure was made in
Caesarea Philippi, and was reproduced in relief on an ancient
sarcophagus which is preserved in the Lateran Museum. Clement of
Alexandria (d.126) describes the symbols and images of human forms
which may be used on seals.
3. In the first centuries of Christianity, the Four
Gospels, the Acts and the letters of Saint Paul were widely circulated
and read. Other letters, smaller and less frequently read (e.g., 2
Peter, Jude) seem to have been less circulated, accepted by most
churches but not by all. Works by post Apostolic Fathers were also read
in churches for edification and instruction (e.g., THE SHEPHERD OF
HERMAS). Very early there also appeared corrupted collections of the
Scriptures (e.g., Tatian's DIATESSARON), or scriptures which were
completely heretical (e.g., Valentinus' GOSPEL OF TRUTH). It was this
challenge of heresies which necessitated the drawing up of canons which
carefully distinguished those books which were normative for the Faith
(see the Muratorian Canon, c. 170, listing those books accepted by the
Church in Rome). As the Church was able to manifest consolidation
following the reign of Emperor Constantine, when the persecutions
ended, there emerged a position of unanimity regarding the canon of the
New Testament. This necessitated men illumined by the Holy Spirit ("in
Thy light shall we see light" Ps.35:10), perceiving clearly wherein lay
Orthodoxy in matters of Faith, who could both meet the objections of
those sought to exclude certain books, and apprehend the errors
inherent in other, at times widespread, writings. Such men, both
individually and gathered in councils, certified those books which were
both apostolic in origin (having been written, by those immediately
associated with the apostles if not by the apostles themselves) and
consistent in doctrine with the teaching of the apostles. The first
individual to cite all 27 books comprising the canon of the New
Testament as we have it today was Saint Athanasios of Alexandria in his
39th Festal Epistle (367). The first council to list these same books,
declaring in addition that only these were to be received as canonical,
was the Third Council of Carthage (397) in its canon 32. Such decisions
were confirmed by the 6th Ecumenical Council (691) in its second canon,
and again by the 7th Ecumenical Council (783).
As regards the apocryphal writings it should be
noted also that many of them originally may well have been authentic
writings from apostolic times which were greatly expanded upon and
corrupted by the countless heretical sects. Indeed, if they did not
contain certain essential kernels of truth, their acceptance by the
Christian community would have been a complete and foregone
impossibility. [Translators' Note].
4. Quite naturally, in the course of time and during
the many persecutions, much evidence from the early Christian era has
been obliterated. Do we not see the same occurring in the Soviet Union
5. [Translators' Note] "We do not worship images of men, 0 blind ones!
but the Grace, the power of God which dwells in those men, in their
bodies, in their icons, just as it does in their souls." And this,
precisely, is why God chose to work wonders and is marvellous in His
saints; and although it is certainly possible for Him to act directly,
as indeed He does, yet He has chosen repeatedly to work His mighty acts
through material means, and the Scriptures are replete with such
examples. Hence, we have the rod of Moses which turned into a serpent
(Ex.4:2-3), turned the Nile River into blood (Ex.7:20), brought the
plague of lice upon all Egypt (Ex.8:16). And what of the brazen Serpent
which preserved and saved all that looked upon it (Nm.21:8-9), or the
Ark of the Testimony which Oza audaciously touched and died straitway
(1 Chr.13:9-10), or the mantle of the Prophet Elias, with which the
Prophet Elisha smote the Jordan River and divided it (4 Ki.2:8 and
following). In 4 Kings 13:20-21, we read the following remarkable
account: "And Elisha died and they buried him: And the bands of the
Moabites came into the land at the beginning of the year. And it came
to pass as they were burying a man, that, behold, they saw a band (of
men) and they cast the man into the grave of Elisha. And as soon as he
touched the bones of Elisha he revived and stood up on his feet."
In Acts 19:11-12 we read: "And God wrought special
miracles by the hands of Paul, so that from his body there were brought
unto the sick handkerchiefs or aprons, and the diseases departed from
them, and the evil spirits went out of them." And in Acts 5:15 we see
that, seeking healing and blessing, the people "brought forth the sick
into the streets and laid them on beds and couches, that at the least,
the shadow of Peter passing by might overshadow some of them." As God's
Grace can thus come to rest upon physical objects, as physical objects
thus participate in God's Grace, even so have the saints come to know
and to participate in God's sanctifying Grace in a very special way,
their relics continuing to manifest this Grace after their repose,
their icons also imbued with and participating in this sanctifying
6. The terminology of the Seventh Ecumenical Council
is as follows: "The worship that is according to the honour due to
them" (timetiken proskynesin) or "relative worship" (kata schesin
proskynesis) is rendered unto the holy icons, whereas adoration and
service (latria) is offered to God alone (see Translators'
7. "I no longer live, but Christ liveth in me"
(Gal.2:20). "For ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said:
I will dwell in them, and walk in them" (2 Cor.6:16).
8. "Wondrous is God in His saints" (Ps.67: 35) . "I
said: Ye are gods, and all of you the sons of the Most High “(Ps. 81:6).
9. As an example, at the Fogg Museum of Harvard
University, there is a Renaissance painting of the "Madonna and Child"
with the added note, "After Botticelli," for the face of the "Virgin"
is identical to that of Botticelli's famous "Spring."
10. The Greek text may also be rendered "The
Beautiful Transformation." This identification of "good" and
"beautiful' is maintained throughout this section.
11. See Ps.16:15, "I shall be filled when Thy glory is made manifest unto me."
12. Our Saviour is the First Born of the new creation
when He arose from the dead. He still had that body which He had before
the crucifixion, for it still bore the prints of the nails. Yet,
although it was the same body, it was "changed" (1 Cor.15:51-53),
therefore also it was able to enter a room though "the doors were shut"
(Jn.20:19). After the Resurrection, His body had taken on these new
properties. It was a resurrected, a transfigured body, not subject to
corruption. As "friends," as "sons," as "fellow heirs," as ones in whom
Christ lives, the saints, who in spirit partake of the glory of
Christ's Resurrection, likewise partake physically of that change and
transfiguration which our Saviour's body manifested after the
Resurrection. It is this "changed," this "transfigured" creation which
the icons seek to portray.
13. In the Greek liturgical usage, the wedding
crowns are kept at home. They are the symbol of the Mystery of
marriage. As sacred objects, they have a place among icons.
14. 1 Cor.2:16, "We have the mind of Christ."
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