Archive for the ‘Theology of Icons’ Category

mp ic nekAn excerpt from Chapter 2 of my Master’s thesis The Theological Presuppositions of the Orthodox Iconographer according to the Stoglav Council (Moscow 1551).

The second presupposition of the iconographer is to struggle to live a pious life. The Stoglav council expressed in detail the type of life which is expected of an iconographer. Since iconography is based in liturgical mystery (namely, God’s coming into Creation)[1] it is only proper to address the relationship between the iconographer’s life and work. Furthermore, the sacredness of the icon deserves to be respected in both an artistically and morally honorable way. And so it was for this reason, “the Stoglav’s essential prescriptions aimed at raising the level of quality of iconography and the moral level of iconographers.”[2] Thus we shall begin by addressing the council’s statements on living piously to better understand the influence a pious life has on the icons one paints.

The Stoglav council places great importance on the role of a spiritual father in the life of an iconographer. It states: “He shall go frequently to spiritual fathers and confess everything, and he shall live according to their discipline and instruction, in fasting and prayers, in temperance, with humility, without any sort of disgrace or impropriety, and only with the greatest care will he paint the images.”[3]

The activity of going to spiritual fathers, confessing, living in obedience with a humble, temperate, and prayerful manner is the foundation for painting sacred personages with great care. These actions cultivate and maintain the appropriate spiritual disposition befitting an iconographer. Wherefore, not only through artistic talent but together with piety, the iconographer will properly convey the spiritual content in holy icons, as Photios Kontoglou points out: “you must know well the technical things of your art. But this is not enough. Most necessary besides this is to have a soul that is strong and rich in spiritual things, so that your hand might manifest that which you have within you.”[4] From this we see that even the personal spiritual state of the iconographer can have an intimate influence on what is manifested in sacred images.

[1] See Evdokimov, Theology of Beauty, 144.

[2] Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon, vol II, 300.

[3] Stoglav, Chapter 43.

[4] Carvarnos, Introduction Fine Arts, 32.

agios dimitrios

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(Paul Evdokimov, The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty, p. 178)

In a nutshell the icon is a sacrament for the Christian East; more precisely, it is the vehicle of a personal presence. The stichera for the vespers of the feast of Our Lady of Vladimir underlines this point of view: “When you see this icon, you say with power, ‘My grace and my force are with this image’” …An image which has been verified for dogmatic correctness by a priest, which has been verified for Holy Tradition, and which attains a sufficient level of artistic expression becomes a “miraculous icon” by the divine response to the epiclesis in the rite. “Miraculous” here means exactly that the icon is charged with a presence. The icon is a sure witness of this presence and the “channel of grace and sanctifying virtue.” The Seventh Ecumenical Council stated it very explicitly: “Whether it be by the contemplation of the Scriptures or by the representation of the icon… we are introduced into their presence.”

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An Image of the Person

(Excerpt from Paul Evdokimov’s The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty, pp. 208-209).

“Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Col 1:15). Now even the first defenders of the icon separated, rather simplistically, the two natures and put the visible with Christ’s humanity and the invisible with his divinity. But the image cannot be divided along the lines of the natures, for it refers back to the person of Christ in his unity. A person in two natures means an image in two modes, visible and invisible. The divine is invisible, but it is reflected in the visible human aspect. The icon of Christ is possible, true, and real because his image in the human mode is identical to the invisible image according to the divine mode; the two images constitute the two aspects of the one person-image of the Word of God. According to St. John Damascus, the energies of the two natures, the created and the uncreated, penetrate each other. In the hypostatic union, Christ’s deified human participates in the divine glory and shows us God. The Christological perichoresis, that is, the exchange of idioms, calls to mind the same and reciprocal co-penetration of the two natures and makes more explicit the mystery of the one image according to two modes of expression. This allows us to say that the humanity of Christ is the image of his divinity. And again, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” not say “has seen God” but rather, “the Father,” for the Son is the image of the Father and thereby the expression of the Trinity. The unique person thus possesses the unique image-icon in two modes of expression: seen by God and seen by man.

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My iconography teacher preparing to put gold leaf on my icon of St. Nektarios.

(An excerpt from my Master’s thesis)

If one does not live piously he should not presume to paint holy icons.  For not only does the Stoglav council commend the iconographer to a life of piety, but gives the warning that those who neglect to lead such a life will have the honor of painting holy icons taken from them:

If any of these same master painters or any of their students takes to living not according to canonical commandment, in drunkenness and impurity, or in any sort of impropriety, the prelates shall place such persons under interdiction, and thenceforth they shall be excluded from icon production and ordered not to involve themselves in it, fearing the spoken words:  “He is cursed who performs God’s work negligently.” [Jeremiah 48:10][1]

Whether this particular canon was merely applied locally in 16th Russia or universally (which would be the ideal) the underlying sentiment remains the same:  A pious life befits one who transmits either his own spiritual vision or that of others.

[1] Stoglav council, Chapter 43.

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(Excerpt from my Master’s thesis, The Theological Presuppositions of the Orthodox Iconographer: According to the Canons of the Stoglav Council, 1551)

The iconographer, although merely acting as the hand through which the relationship of the icon to its prototype is established, occupies a significant role in offering the faithful an encounter with a saint.  For, while an icon of a saint bears witness to God, an iconographer bears witness to the saint, or scene he depicts: “an icon bears direct visual witness to the reality of this pattern; an icon speaks – in color and line.  And what it says – written in color – is the Name of God; for what else would God’s image be – what else than spiritual light streaming from the saint’s holy countenance – except the Name of God written in that countenance?  In something like the way that a martyr’s speech bears witness not to himself (even though he is the one speaking) but to the Lord, just so do the iconpainters – these witnesses of the Witness – bear witness not to their iconpainting, ie., not to themselves, but to the saints who, in themselves, are bearing witness to the Lord Himself.”[9]

Thus the role of the iconographer is not merely to display an artistic talent, but to ultimately bear witness to the Lord through painting icons of Christ and His faithful servants.  This in turn not only teaches the illiterate who Christ and the saints are, but more importantly creates the opportunity for the faithful to have direct communication with God and His saints.

Who then, can serve as a “prototype” for iconographers?  According to Fr. Pavel Florovsky, “the ones whom the Church has always known to be true iconpainters: the Holy Fathers.  They create the art because they are the ones who contemplate the persons and events that the icon must depict.  [For] how could someone create an icon who does not have continuously before him – who has never even glimpsed – the icon’s prototype?”[10]  This is not to say that those who are not “Holy Fathers” cannot paint icons, but to point out that strictly speaking this is the aim of the iconographer: to glimpse the prototype and in turn make that vision visible for the benefit of the faithful.

Fr. Pavel’s statement about the Holy Fathers being true iconographers has more to do with the potential of the iconographer rather than his necessary prerequisites.  He should paint according to his talent, following the guidelines that are available to him so that the faithful and he himself will be presented with an opportunity to become like that which they contemplate and look upon, as St. John Damascus states: “For the more frequently they are seen by means of pictorial representation the more are those who behold them aroused to remember and desire their prototypes and to give them greeting and the veneration of honour: not indeed that true worship [λατρεία] which, according to our faith, is due to God alone…”[11] but the honour that is due to the “friends” of God.  For in providing visible depictions of holy persons the iconographer facilitates the work of the Holy Spirit in icons, which ultimately leads to the sanctification of the faithful: “The grace of the Holy Spirit, belongs to the saints, it sanctifies their bodies, just as it does their holy relics and their holy icons, and for this reason they are miracle-working.”[12]


[9] Florensky, Iconstasis, 68.

[10] Florensky, Iconostasis, 67.

[11] Scouteris, “Icons and their Veneration,” 7 (quoting St. John Damascus).

[12] Zisis, Εικόνες της Εκκλησίας, 27-28.

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You’re wondering why St. Nektarios’ eyes are painted when his face isn’t even finished. But, you see, he was finished until my teacher saw him and made me erase everything (except the eyes) and start over. He’s strict but good!

[Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain] insisted that iconographers make good icons, because, as he put it, “A precher’s sermon only lasts a little while, but an icon is an eternal sermon. For example, we look at an icon of the Panagia, and we’re comforted by it. Of course, if the icon isn’t well-made, if the Panagia has a harsh expression – stern eyes and so on – its ‘sermon’ has a negative effect. Someone was telling me, ‘I go stand in front of an icon of Christ and want to open my heart. But then I see Him looking at me angrily, like a German solider, and I tense up.’

“An icon can work miracles when it carries the grace of the saint who’s in it. Whatever the iconographer loves shows up in the icon. Usually, we put ourselves in. A woman loved her sister, and she put her sister in. Everything we give completely to God takes on grace. Our handiwork reflects our interior state. If you’re reverent, your handiwork will be full of reverence. If you have anxiety, then it’ll transmit something demonic.”

(Elder Paisios of Mount Athos by Hieromonk Isaac, p. 412)

A friend of mine told me something similar: An iconographer had finished an icon he was painting and took it to his priest to show him. The priest held the icon and examined it.

“You’ve committed a sin,” he said, and then stated the particular, unconfessed sin the iconographer had committed.

“Why do you say that, father?” the iconographer asked.

“I can see it in your icon,” he answered.

And so the words of the Elder are confirmed; we need to paint (chant, etc.) with great care because we convey our interior states on our work.

Gerontissa Philareti always says, “Whatever you are feeling when you are painting is put into the icon. If you are angry; the icon will look angry. If you’re anxious; the saint’s expression will convey this. So, you need to be peaceful and prayerful when you paint.”

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All-holy Theotokos Diasosousa, St. Anthony’s Church, Thessaloniki

The holy icon pictured above is called “Diasosousa” (the one who saves) and is housed at St. Anthony’s church here in Thessaloniki. St. Anthony’s is a metochian of St. Theodora’s monastery in the same city. She is miracle-working and her feast day is today, October 28 (“Ohi Day”). The liturgical feast of the Holy Protection of the Theotokos was transferred to this date some years ago in Greece because the people felt that it was through the Theotokos that they successfully withstood Italian troops (in cahoots with the Nazis), who on Oct. 28, 1940 wanted to come into Greece and set up military stations in unspecified locations. Since Greece refused to allow this, they were forced to enter the Second World War.

During this period of war a group of Greek men (I think there were five) were being chased by German soldiers in Thessaloniki. They ran into the church of St. Anthony in order to hide. At that time it was a monastery and the Abbott was in the altar. When the Greeks came in they told the Abbott they needed to hide from the Germans. The church is quite small and there is no obvious hiding space. The Abbott told them to all stand behind the above icon of the Theotokos – which at that time was located next to the iconostasis and didn’t have such a majestic encasing nor rizzo (the silver covering over the icon).

When the Germans came into the church they looked everywhere for the Greek men: around the stasidia (seats), in the altar, everywhere, but they couldn’t find them. Panagia had made them blind to the five men standing behind her. They left in great frustration and the Greeks came out from behind the icon. Just then they noticed that the Theotokos was covered in myrrh. One of them (I think it was the Abbott) said, “She is sweating from the stress of having to hide you. Let’s kneel down and say a Supplicatory canon to her.” And this is how the icon came to be known as “the one who saves”.

Every Sunday the chanters sing the Kontakion written specifically for the miracle Panagia worked through her icon. It’s in Ancient Greek, so I only understand some of it. I’ll post a translation of it when my husband has time to work through it. In any case, at least you know the story. She really does protect those who call on her for help. Let’s pray she always hides us from sin the way she hid those men from being captured by the Germans!

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Yesterday I attended the Divine Liturgy at Hagia Sophia (8th century) in Thessaloniki because my brother was serving there as deacon. Although it is no longer Thessaloniki’s metropolis church, it was when St. Gregory Palamas was Archbishop. So apart from it being a beautiful, old, church, it holds even more significance for me because of its ties with St. Gregory.

Since we commemorated the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council yesterday I thought I’d post some photos of the incredible mosaics housed in Hagia Sophia – mosaics I studied in an art history class in my undergrad degree. Never in a million years would I have believed it possible that I would live in the very same city, let alone attend a Liturgy there at which my brother served as a deacon! The church was built during the iconoclastic period, so the dome initially just had a gold mosaic with a cross. After the victory over iconclasm the Ascension of Jesus Christ was installed in the dome, as you see it in the photo below. Above is a photo of the apse and in front of the royal doors you can see my brother.

Thank God for the Fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council.  May we have their blessing!

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Archangel Michael

(Part A is here, Part B is here.)

The honour paid to the icon passes to the prototype and is not intended for the paint and wood.  The icon depicts the likeness of the sacred person and not only his physical appearance but his spiritually transformed appearance. Thus the iconographer depicts the person, both soul and body.[1]  So too: “when making the icon of the Lord, we confess his flesh to be deified and we understand his icon as nothing else but an icon showing the imitation of the prototype.”[2]  Of course this applies not merely to the Lord’s icon but also to those depicting the Mother of God, the saints and angels; for Christ is united with His glorified members.[3]  As Professor Tselingidis informs us: “the presence of depicted saints – attempting to express with this technique their deified hypostasis within the characteristics of their earthly form – is especially perceptual, while parallely it indicates the future manifestation of the faithful.”[4]

Thus this union of physical form with the unseen glory constructs the likeness of the saint, warrants the naming and thus acquires the presence of the prototype.  Wherefore the honour paid to the image is transferred to the person, as the Church summarizes St. Basil’s words in the hymn of doxaticon of Vespers for the Triumph of Orthodoxy: “honour shown to the icon passes to the prototype.”[5]  This simple statement clarifies to whom the faithful bow when venerating an icon, the person depicted therein. For, as St. Dionysius of Flourna writes: “We also represent the image of the Virgin and of all the saints, according them worship indirectly, not to the image itself; that is to say we do not say that this really is Christ, or the Virgin, or whichever saint it is that is represented on the icons, but the honor that we pay to the icon we accord to the prototype, that is to say to the person who is shown to us on the icon…  We do not worship the colors and the skill, as those who are opposed to our Church clearly blaspheme, the faithless and the heretics, but we worship our Lord Jesus Christ, who is in heaven.”[6]

Now, although the Fathers and Tradition teach us that the honour paid to the icon passes to the prototype, we are not told how this happens.  Nor are we offered an explanation as to how the grace passes from the prototype into the icon and consequently how it sanctifies those that venerate it.[7]  However, not explaining the “how” is in keeping with the respect the Holy Orthodox Church exhibits to all mysteries of the faith.

The Church is not in the business of articulating scientific facts and dissecting the mysteries that occur within her.  That is why they are called mysteries; they are experiences given to the faithful for their benefit.  Mysteries are not dissertations that result in knowledge but in encounter.  Thus we venerate icons simply understanding that: “Prayerful contemplation passes through the icon… and does not stop until it reaches the living content, that is, the person represented.  The icon makes this living personal content present.  In its liturgical function, that of uniting meaning and presence, the icon sanctifies times and spaces”.[8] And knowing this, we the faithful bow and venerate, pray to and honour he or she depicted therein, and open ourselves up to the sanctification that proceeds from encountering sanctified objects and persons.

[1] This does not mean that we mistake the icon for the person depicted, just as Evdokimov states: “The very word icon suppresses any identification and underlines the difference of nature between the image and its prototype, ‘between the representation and what is represented’” The Art of the Icon, 195.

[2] Mansi xiii. 344AB.

[3] See Tselengidis, “Icons as Expression,” 62.

[4] Tselengidis, “Icons as Expression,” 64.

[5] Scouteris, “Icons and their Veneration,” 1.

[6] St. Dionysius of Fourna, Painter’s Manuel, 87.

[7] See Bishop Auxentios’ “Iconic and Symbolic in Orthodox Iconography,” 8 for a discussion on this point.

[8] Evdokimov, The Art of the Icon, 175.


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