Archive for the ‘Theology of Icons’ Category

Christ is risen!

The following excerpt is from the second book of a two-book series on the person and spiritual children of Father Arseny. The book is called Father Arseny: Cloud of Witnesses, p. 148. In this passage Fr. Arseny speaks of his friend and fellow prisoner Fr. Seraphim, a holy hiermonk.

I saw Father Seraphim as a restorer of souls who had been covered with dirt. Yes, he was a true restorer. Carefully, just like those who restore icons by removing layers of dried oil and dirt with a scalpel, taking care not to harm the original, Father Seraphim would carefully, gently approach a man and remove layers of sin from his soul, revealing first a small window of purity and then making this window bigger and bigger, and then finally clean up his whole soul. How careful you must be, how spiritually attentive to the injured soul not to harm it in trying to direct the man to the path of light. You must not hurt his pride, you must not show him how sinful he is–you could end up pushing him away so that he might think, ‘I am such a sinner that I cannot be saved!’

I believe this image is pertinent not only for priests but for all Christians. Each of us in our own way ought to strive not only to cleanse our own souls from the dirt and mire of sin and the passions, but hopefully (through the grace of God!) serve as restorers of the purity of souls of those around us, to help direct others to the path of light.

Through the prayers of the holy God-pleasing sufferers, Fathers Arseny and Seraphim may we also treat other human beings with the spiritual care and attention an icon restorer treats holy objects!


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christ the high priest

Christ the High Priest, for our home chapel.

From my Master’s thesis:

The basis of iconography is the divine Incarnation of God the Word.  When God the Word became Man He gave a visible image to the invisible God and thus facilitated the existence of icons of the God-Man: “in the icon of Christ the person of Christ is made visible according to His human nature, just as He became visible and historical in His incarnation of the flesh.”[1]

God the Word became circumscribed in His historical incarnation and thus the iconographer can now circumscribe Him in icons: “But if He assumed humanity in truth, as we confess, then the hypostasis of Christ is circumscribable: not according to its divinity, which no one has ever beheld, but according to the humanity which is contemplated in an individual manner in it (10)”.[2]  However, this does not mean that the iconographer merely depicts the human nature of Christ, rather he depicts Christ’s person (hypostasis). That is, he depicts His full humanity and His full divinity as they are contained in His divine person: “neither the divine nor the human nature alone is depicted, but the hypostasis of Christ with the particular characteristics which define His human nature, that which the icons of Christ present is the person of the God-Man, the person of the whole God and of the whole man and it is understood and exists with His two natures.”[3] Wherefore, the iconographer ought to take care when painting icons, for he is clothing – in line and colour – the invisible God according to His visible image, the God-Man Jesus Christ.

Iconography Trivia: The first part of painting an icon is to place gold on the board or paint it ochra (yellow). However, here I’m setting a bad example. St. Nektarios doesn’t have gold yet because my teacher doesn’t let us apply the gold until the end. He thinks the gold will be ruined while we paint. Obedience before custom, I guess.

This is the foundation not only of icons of the God-Man, but of His saints as well: “The embodiment of God in Christ, the true humanity of Christ which can be seen and touched, is precisely the basis and fount of the icon. If there had been no Incarnation, no descent of God to earth, there could be no icons of God. Similarly, if there had been no Ascension of man into heaven in Christ, and if there had been no Pentecost, which is the descent of God into man, there could be no saints and therefore no icons of humans.”[4]

Since saints are dwelling places of the Holy Spirit, when they are painted in icons it is not merely their human nature that is depicted but their whole person which participates in the uncreated grace of God and thus once again, the iconographer puts into colour and line what is invisible, “I cherish… everything connected to God’s name, not on their own account but because they show forth the divine power…  I venerate and worship angels and men, and all matter participating in divine power and ministering to our salvation through it”.[5]

[1] Tselengidis, Iconological Works, 124.

[2] St. Theodore Studite, On the Holy Icons, 87, 24, Refutation 3.

[3]Tselengidis, Iconological Works, 124.

[4] Hart, “Transfiguring Matter”, 5.

[5] St. John Damascus, Apologia to those who decry Images, [109].

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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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(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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