Archive for the ‘Theology of Icons’ Category

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 him or her 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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St. Argyri, New Martyr of Proussa, Asia Minor.

(In Part A we examined the relationship of the prototype to its image based on the depiction of the saint’s likeness. To read Part A go here.)

The first requirement for accepting an image as a holy icon has been explained; namely, the depiction of likeness according to physical characteristics of a transformed person. The second requirement that an icon must meet in order to be properly accepted by the Church as an authentic representation of a saint is the inscription of the saint’s name.[1]  Only after the icon is recognized as adequately portraying the saint’s likeness is it inscribed with the name of the saint or sacred person depicted.

The reason why the likeness is first painted before the name is inscribed is to safeguard the faithful from venerating images that do not properly depict the likeness of the saint.  For, traditionally, a bishop had charge over all images and would first examine their authenticity before granting a blessing to inscribe the name.  This practice also insures the examination of the theology present in icons so as to prohibit the introduction of false or erred theology into the liturgical setting of our churches.[2]  Thus, the Church in Her wisdom deems only Herself worthy to discern the truth or appropriateness of icons.

“In fact, an icon becomes truly an icon only after the Church recognizes that the image in it corresponds to its living spiritual Prototype; in other words, it is an icon only after She truly names it.  And the act of naming- ie., of establishing the self-identity of the person in the icon- belongs only to the Church… If I understand the correctly practice correctly, an examination by an icon-warden always concluded (if affirmative) with the warden himself, with the bishop’s blessing, writing the name of the saint on the icon itself…”[3]

Thus the inscription of the saint’s name is added to the icon only after those in authority have recognized its truth and authenticity.

The depiction of both the likeness and the name of the holy person then attracts divine grace,[4] raising the icon above an ordinary painting, even one with didactic purposes.  This presence of grace in the icon, brought about by depicting the holy person’s likeness and name, is a living link between the faithful and the saint. By venerating such “friends” of God the faithful encounter the saints’ presence in their icons: “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’.”[5]

This is the definitive goal of icons, to allow the faithful to embrace the saint or Mother of God and thus to ultimately worship the true God each and every time he venerates an icon.  For when we venerate an icon we are given the opportunity to encounter God, either through the images of His saints, angels or of Himself.  For, as we have previously stated, Christ’s person “enhypostazies” the likeness of His image and not the wood or colors.  Thus, it is in the likeness of Jesus Christ that we encounter His presence.[6]  This leads us to the next aspect of the prototype’s relationship with the icon: encountering the person as the real reason for veneration toward icons.

In Part C we will explain how the honour paid to the image belongs to the saint, that is the prototype.

[1] See Mansii, 13, 244B.

[2] See Florensky, Iconostasis, 91.

[3] Florensky, Iconostasis, 91.

[4] See Ζ’ Οικουμενική Σύνοδος (7th Ecumenical Council).  Πρβλ. Αγ. Ιωάννου Δαμασκιηνού, PG 94, 1256.

[5] Evdokimov, The Art of the Icon, 195.

[6] See Evdokimov, The Art of the Icon, 152.

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christ the high priestThe 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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St. Macrina the Abbess (2010).


In this post we will explore the important relationship between the prototype – namely the person – and the icon of him.  We will speak about the most important aspect of holy icons: that they communicate the presence of the saint depicted.  This aspect is vital in understanding the important role of the iconographer.  Through his hand the icon becomes a meeting place between colour and the saint himself who is depicted in the icon.  In other words, “[t]hrough the medium of the iconographer, heaven meets earth”.[1]  This does not happen out of necessity, as though the iconographer has some power to call down the presence of those depicted.  Rather, since the icon bears the likeness and name of the depicted person the actual person permits his presence, his grace – that is, the energy of God working in him – to be communicated through the icon.

Leaving aside the discussion of the icon as theology in colour, we will focus our attention on the icon’s relationship with its archetype, for, “[a]lthough the making of an icon teaches theology in plenty, it is not the icon that deserves our study, but rather it is the saint who teaches us through the icon that does.”[2]  Thus we will observe three essential characteristics pertaining to this relationship.  In Part A we will examine the relationship of the prototype to his image based on the depiction of his likeness.  In Part B we will speak about the importance of the likeness being recognized as authentic and what it means to have the name of the saint inscribed on his icon.  And lastly in Part C we will explain how the honour paid to the image belongs to the saint, that is the prototype.

A. The Relationship of the Prototype to His Icon based on Likeness

The image of the saint depicted in the icon does not possess his essence but only his likeness, as Professor Tselingidis describes: “The prototype and the icon constitute one reality according to their personal likeness and at the same time, two realities according to their essence.” [3]  The likeness of the saint corresponds to the heavenly person, not his carnal body.  This is why icons appear unnatural at first glance and at times even awkward; for they depict the passionless spiritual person, lacking the natural carnality of the human body.  And so, strictly speaking, icons are representations of the likenesses of hypostatizes (persons) and not of physical appearances:

Now the iconic likeness is radically opposed to natural likeness… and only relates to the hypostasis, that is, the person, and to his heavenly body…  In iconography, the person does not “enhypostasize” or appropriate to himself a cosmic substance like wood or colors but rather appropriates his own resemblance.  The heavenly face of the person assumes the transfigured body which is represented in the icon.[4]

For this reason icons have an otherworldly appearance about them; saints are depicted in their glorified form, though at all times according to their likeness.[5]

However, we must mention that iconic depiction of the saint’s hypostatic likeness does not mean that the physical characteristics of the holy person are absent from the icon.  Rather, they are depicted in a way that illustrates a transfigured body.  By displaying this artistic representation the image testifies to the saint’s reaction to the world: “This non-naturalistic manner of representing in the icon the organs of sense conveys the deafness, the absence of reaction to the business of the world, impassiveness, detachment from all excitement and, conversely, the acceptance of the spiritual world by those who have reached holiness.”[6]   Thus the ears and eyes are bigger while the mouth and nose are smaller.[7]  Although painting icons in this form is a stylistic tradition, ultimately however, the iconographer’s ability to depict the transfigured likeness of a saint is based on the relationship of the prototype to his image: “Icons of saints are not simply memorial representations, as are photographs of relatives and friends, rather they participate in glory and sanctity due to their mystical relationship to the prototypes.”[8]  Through the iconographic medium, the image, with its intrinsic relationship to its prototype, participates in the saint’s glory and sanctity.

Furthermore, the visible representation of a transformed saint results in the invisible presence of that saint in his icon.  This in turn makes communion possible between the faithful and the glorified members of the Body of Christ through a holy icon. This is the ultimate purpose and power of the icon, to join the living and the dead, the struggling members with the glorified members of Christ: “Just as icons of Christ, so too icons of His saints, touch the invisible presence of their prototypes [and this is perceived] by the eyes of the faithful viewer. The saints are present in their icons. Thus, when the faithful look at icons of the saints the composition of colours are not regarded, but [rather] they express their living communion with those depicted.”[9]

The icon’s central focal point is bringing the remembrance, the life, the likeness and the very presence of the saint into the faithful’s place of worship and everyday life.  St. John Damascene states, “The saints in their lifetime were filled with the Holy Spirit, and when they are [22] no more, His grace abides with their spirits and with their bodies in their tombs, and also with their likenesses and holy images, not by nature, but by grace and divine power.”[10]  Thus the presence of the prototype in his depicted image is what raises iconography from the position of simply teaching theology to being theology.

However, the saint is only personally connected to the icon because it bears his likeness and his name. As Evdokimov wisely points out, we do not claim that the saint is ontologically present in his icon: Nicea II stated that “the icon carries the name of the prototype.  It neither carries nor contains the prototype’s nature.”  This means that the religious content, that is, the mystical essence of the icon, is only related to the hypostatic or personal presence.  There is therefore no question of some ontological presence being absorbed into the matter of the icon.[11]

In Part B of this series we will examine the importance of the saint’s likeness being recognized as authentic and what it means to have the name of the saint inscribed on his icon.

[1] Proud, Icons: A Sacred Art, 8.

[2] Pavel, Iconostasis, 165.

[3] Tselengidis, Εικονογραφικές Μελετές, 37.

[4] Evdokimov, The Art of the Icon, 87.

[5] See Tselengidis, Icons as Expression, 61.

[6] Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon, vol I, 178.

[7] Proud, Icons: A Sacred Art, 16.

[8] Ζησή, Οι Εικόνες της Εκκλησίας, 27.

[9] Tselengidis, Icons as Expression, 63.

[10] St. John Damasus, Apologia of Holy Images, Part 1, para. 22.

[11] Evdokimov, The Art of the Icon, 196.

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(Originally published on OCN’s The Sounding)

Iconographers are “theologians of colour” because they write in line and colour what a theologian writes with pen and paper – spiritual experience. I paint the icon of the Holy Protection because St. Andrew the Fool-for-Christ was granted to see that spiritual reality. My hand traces forms designed long ago until my eyes rest on scenes not yet depicted, if entirely in sync with the form and content our Church has sanctioned for centuries.

st. euphemiaAnd so, just as God began the creation of the earth when it was “formless and empty,” I too begin the creation of an icon, an icon that will have an intimate connection to its prototype, on a piece of wood. In the beginning there is no form, the board is empty, the saint formless. And just as God proclaimed, “Let there be light” and there was light, so I, the iconographer – all the while whispering a prayer – proclaim light. The gold leaf is applied to the empty, white board. And in that light a form is made, the outline of saint, or an angel, the Most Holy Theotokos, or perhaps Jesus Christ, God the Word incarnate. Although this space is still empty, it is no longer formless, and surrounded by light the deification process begins. “In Thy light shall we see light,” Prophet David says, and it is in His light that the painted saint will be able to manifest His light to us, the faithful.

panagia kai xristosFrom this point – once the outline of the saint is sketched onto the board – I begin applying paint. The halo is painted. Lord Jesus Christ, through the prayers of your saint, have mercy on me. The first layer of paint is applied to the garments, the hands, the feet, the hair, the face. Dark lines are painted; the folds of the clothes are anticipated. Now the process of “highlighting” takes place – a series of layers of paint, each lighter than the last. Lord Jesus Christ, through the prayers of your saint, have mercy on me.

An iconographer always paints from dark to light. We begin with the darkest colours and finish with the lightest. When we live for Christ His grace is ever present, illuminating us as much as we can bear according to our particular spiritual state. In keeping His commandments – as the saints do – we are constantly being drawn into His light, being granted the gift of manifesting His light. And so, the painting of a saint mimics the making of one. Once the garments are finished, all other preliminary aspects of the icon are painted in accordance with this one principle: man’s deification is a process of illumination, wherein when once we “dwelt in darkness” we become filled with light.

st. gregory palamasAt this stage the saint’s hair, hands, feet (if bare), and face remain. Again, in prayer and supplication to the particular saint being depicted, I begin the last stages of highlighting. Lord Jesus Christ, through the prayers of your saint, have mercy on me. The light of Christ begins to manifest itself in the illuminated face of His saint. The light, however, is not contained in the saint. It does not become his possession, but rather a free gift, offered for all and to all for all time. And reflecting on the saint I am painting, I pray: Let Your light shine in me, that I also may be found worthy to manifest Your light.

The skin, the nose, the brows, the lips are painted, painted for the glory of God. It is time for me to paint the eyes, eyes that forever “look to the Lord our God”. In a moment the entire likeness of the saint will be complete. Lord Jesus Christ, through the prayers of your saint, have mercy on me. Now it is time to write the name.

panagias faceIt is in the writing of both the name and the likeness that the presence, the particular grace, of the saint (the prototype) dwells in its honourable image. Just as the grace of the Holy Spirit dwells in the bodies of saints, so His grace dwells in depictions of their likeness, thus making many of them miracle-working. Like holy relics, icons are participants in the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Finishing the name I look on the one whom I have painted. I pause and ask myself, Surely it was not my hand that painted this holy likeness? for out of man nothing good can come. But out of God all good proceeds. And I glorify God, for He has helped my humble hand depict the likeness of His holy one.

“For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light to shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” And I pray that while my hand was illuminating the likeness of His saint, I too was simultaneously being illumined, through the intercession of the saint, by His light.

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The following is the first in a series of posts I hope to write concerning the theology of icons and practices surrounding that theology. I am open to suggestions for future posts.

Canon 45 of the Holy Apostles: “A Bishop, or a Presbyter, or a Deacon that only prays together with heretics, should be excommunicated”.

Canon 10 of the Holy Apostles: “If one who is not in communion prays together, even at home, let him be excommunicated”.

Canon 6 of the Local Synod of Laodicea: “On the matter of not allowing heretics to enter the house of God, who persist in their heresy”.

The Orthodox Church, when her canons are followed according to akriveia, clearly forbids all Orthodox faithful from praying with heretics and schismatics. In fact, the Synodikon of Orthodoxy anathematizes many heretics by name, and so as not leave anyone out there is a general anathema at the end that states, “Let all heretics be anathema.”

The Orthodox clergy and faithful who proclaim such anathemas do not wish to condemn all persons outside of the Orthodox Church, but rather the errors of heresy, as St. Nektarios states:  “Turn away from faithlessness and heresy and schism, and not from the faithless or the heretic or the schismatic – not the person. Abstain from the opinion, not from nature. As far as opinion is concerned, it is something alien and different; it is condemned to encounter aversion and hatred. As for nature, it is a familiar and [a] close thing; it is deserving of mercy and sympathy and quite often, [deserving] of guardianship and care” (Saint Nectarios Kefalas, Eugene Bulgaris: Draft on Religious Tolerance, Athens 2000, p. 21).

Although the Church does not “desire the death of a sinner” (Ezek. 33:11), neither does she approve of Orthodox faithful praying with heretics for two reasons: to protect the faithful from the soul-destroying illness of heresy, and to help inform the adherents of heresy that they are on the wrong path. And so, it follows that neither can the Church approve of icons of non-Orthodox persons.

Iconography is not merely an interesting style through which one can paint whomever and whatever he wishes. Nor is it merely a historical art form that modern man strives to revive. Rather, iconography is a sacred art form that has as its basis the expression of the Orthodox faith and life in Christ throughout the ages. Not only do icons illustrate historical events and persons, they become portals through which the faithful encounter the actual, holy persons depicted therein.

Although there is not a specific canon one can point to and say, “Here the Church clearly prohibits the painting of non-Orthodox persons as saints in icons,” one can clearly infer from the canons that do exist, painting such images is inappropriate at best, and blaspheme against the Holy Spirit at worst. St. Basil the Great states: “[T]hose who had apostatized from the Church had no longer on them the Grace of the Holy Spirit, for it ceased to be imparted when the continuity was broken…” (St. Basil, Canonical Epistle Ά, To Amphilochios of Iconion, 1st Canon).

When the Church sanctions an icon of a holy person she testifies to the fact that the Holy Spirit dwells in that person. For, as in life, so in his icon, the saint is a temple of the Holy Spirit. That is to say that just as the actual person, in whom the Holy Spirit dwells, is able, by virtue of his communication with the Triune God, to communicate grace to the faithful, so too his icon, which bears his name and likeness, transmits grace to those who honour the image.

It is an unfortunate fact that in our times many iconographers take it upon themselves to paint images of non-Orthodox persons, and many times they are adorned with halos. It behooves me to speak out against such practices. Holy icons provide us with two primary opportunities: they are a means for the worshiping community to pray together with those depicted, and they are portals through which the faithful are able to directly honour a person or persons who, through struggle and repentance, have acquired the freely offered life-saving grace of the All-Holy Spirit. It has been established that the Orthodox Church categorically prohibits her faithful from praying with heretics. And so, it follows that neither in a liturgical setting, such as an Orthodox church, nor in a private home is it appropriate for Orthodox to pray with icons that depict – as holy – persons of other confessions. (I am making a distinction between icons that depict historical events in which a non-Orthodox person may be present, and icons in which non-Orthodox are painted as objects of veneration).

To be frank, Francis of Assisi is not an Orthodox saint. He is not commemorated in the Orthodox liturgical calendar, nor was he historically venerated as an Orthodox saint. It is a modern phenomenon for some Orthodox Christians to – I hope, unknowingly – venerate him as a saint. Clara of Assisi is not an Orthodox saint. Both of them lived well after the Great schism. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, is not an Orthodox saint. Dorthy Day and Mother Teresa are not Orthodox saints and should not be painted in iconographic style alongside Orthodox Christians on the walls of Orthodox churches. Iconographic depictions of Pope John Paul and Michael Ramsey (again on the walls of an Orthodox church) are completely foreign to the spirit of Orthodoxy which condemns those who persist in heresy (such as these leaders of heresy).

It is shameful enough that non-Orthodox employ iconographic technique to paint images of those they deem holy; Orthodox iconographers should abstain from such practices. For if the Church in her wisdom prohibits and even anathematizes those who willingly pray with heretics, how much more would she condemn those who paint images of such heretics and sell and place them in homes and churches as liturgical objects? Therefore, let iconographers take heed not to dishonour the sacred art form of the Church, which ultimately dishonours the Holy Spirit who dwells in those who live according to the percepts of the Gospel within the sacramental life of the Orthodox Church.

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To what, in such a manner, do you my Christian bow,
When you, O my Christian, venerate the icons?
Before the Living God the Creator, I am bowing down,
With all my soul, heart and mind, I bow down to Him.
Mortal am I and, am unable upon Him to gaze,
Therefore, before His image I bow;
What, my Christian, do you so fervently reverence,
When, the icon O my Christian, you kiss?
Christ the God and Savior, I am kissing,
The choirs of angels, the saints and the Mother of God.
Mortal am I and, therefore am unable them to touch,
But when their images I kiss, my heart is at ease.

-St. Nikolai Velimirovic, The Prologue of Ochrid: Lives of the Saints, Reflections and Homilies for Every Dayof the Year,

Christ is Risen!

I will indeed be defending my Master’s thesis on Tuesday, May. 22 here at the university in Thessaloniki. Prayers are requested!

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My sketch of St. Cosmas the Aetolian.

Recently I received a comment on the post Iconographer Aidan Hart’s Efforts to Raise the Bar. I thought it may encourage more discussion on the important topic if I posted my thoughts on the matter here, rather than leave a comment.

Here is the initial comment by rebelsprite: About the article…this brings to mind some concerns I have had, whether unfounded or not. While technique is very important, what I wonder about more is the prayerfulness of the iconographer. When I was a catechumen or perhaps newly baptized, it was casually suggested to me that I try out iconography as a way to learn more about Orthodoxy and the church. To me, this was really concerning. I don’t know if it’s just because of my background as a Hindu – Hindu idols are not just made casually like this, or at least they are not supposed to be, it’s a sacred act – and I felt in my heart, and thought I had read, that iconography is also a sacred practice and should be prayerful. But I seem to hear about people taking up iconography as a hobby or for curiosity’s sake, and they listen to podcasts or spiritual music as they paint (or write, as some say and I’ve heard debated both ways) rather than praying….I just wonder. To me it seems a person should be quite deep in their faith and spiritual practice before being prepared for iconography. But I also know that I could be totally wrong. Any thoughts?

Well, not totally wrong – I know the author discusses the importance of the spiritual aspect, but I don’t know if my concerns are exaggerated.

My thoughts on the matter:

The whole reason why I was inspired to write my thesis on the theological presuppositions of the Orthodox iconographer was precisely because I had the impression that one had to be at a very high spiritual level to paint icons. I drew for two years before I began painting because of this impression I had. (I didn’t have a teacher at the time, I did this privately). However, after spending the last few years reading up on the topic for my thesis I have softened my self-inflicted perception that you need to be a saint to paint a saint.

The reason for this is because although the iconographer must lead a lifestyle in sync with the canons and practices of the Orthodox Church, avoid employing his imagination in his work, paint icons from models accepted and sanctioned by the Church, and avoid inappropriate depictions (ie. painting God the Father), the purpose of painting holy icons is for the struggling Christian iconographer to paint the likeness of a historical, holy person (or event) which will have an intimate relationship with its prototype (ie. the actual person depicted). And it is through the icon – which mediates the presence and grace of the saint – that the faithful are then brought into a direct relationship with the saint. So, if the iconographer follows the written and unwritten tradition, confesses regularly, seeks both technical and spiritual advice from good teachers, then his icons will bring about this incredible encounter between the faithful and sanctified persons which is the purpose of iconpainting.

This is not to say that the iconographer shouldn’t be trying to become a saint, but this is something expected of all struggling Orthodox Christians. So what is required of the iconographer is that he hold and practice the Orthodox faith, and struggle to live his life in Christ (εν Χριστώ ζωή), not that he be a saint the first day he picks up a paintbrush.

St. Panteleimon (unfinished). Iconography trivia: Painting a saint mimics the actual becoming of a saint. We paint from darkness into light, just the way the Christian person progresses from darkness (a life enslaved to the passions) into light (purification and illumination). But this topic could use a whole post or two itself!

In my personal opinion, I don’t think its necessarily wrong to listen to podcasts or Orthodox liturgical music when you paint icons so long as you’re also praying. (In fact, sometimes chant can really help soften one’s heart and focus one’s mind.) However, we have no excuses for not saying the Jesus prayer constantly, let alone while painting a holy icon. I was told by an abbess to pray to the saint while I paint, “Lord Jesus Christ, through the prayers of Your saint, have mercy on me.” I don’t always do what I’m suppose to, but the point is to struggle, to try to do what asked of us.

The faithful are sanctified by venerating and honouring holy icons, and the iconographer is sanctified by painting them in accordance with the canons of the Church. And so, we iconographers begin in prayer and fasting (ie. keeping the fasts of the Church), we make our cross and ask that God will help us paint theology correctly. Ultimately, this is the task of the iconographer: to convey theology. As long as he struggles to follow the models and styles of those who are true “theologians of colour”, he doesn’t need to have experienced that theology first hand in order to “translate” it into an image. But he does need to try. And by honouring these presuppositions he offers to the faithful (and himself) the opportunity to claim, along with St. John Damascus: “I looked upon the human form of God [ie. an icon of Christ] and my soul was saved”.

This is how I have come to view the matter. I may err in some ways. What do you think?

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Having just finished his PhD in Germany, and feeling confident about his knowledge of holy icons, the young graduate student visited his father’s good friend, a blind monk. He spoke to him a bit about some things and then got to his point:

“Geronda, although you’re blind, you venerate icons. Do you know and understand what you are venerating?” the young graduate asked the monk.

“Of course I do!” the blind monk responded.

“Is that so? Well then, would you mind if I gave you a little quiz?” he asked the monk.

“Not at all,” came the response.

There was a shelf of icons just above where they were seated. So the graduate student took down an icon of St. Catherine the Great Martyr, and gave it to the blind monk to venerate.

Making his cross and bowing low to the ground, the monk kissed the icon.

“So, Geronda, which saint did you venerate?”

“St. Barbara the Great Martyr,” he answered.

“Geronda, I’m sorry but it’s not St. Barbara,” the young man said.

“Perhaps you want to venerate the icon again and see if you’re making a mistake,” he told the monk.

“I know the grace of St. Catherine. It is different than that of St. Barbara. You’re making the mistake. Perhaps you should read the name again,” the monk answered resolutely.

Looking down at the icon again the young graduate student couldn’t believe his eyes. There, written on the icon was the name Saint Barbara. The likeness of the saint was that of St. Barbara. How could he have mistaken her for St. Catherine? Sure, some icons show their resemblance, but this was shocking!

“Geronda, I’m sorry. I was mistaken. The icon is of St. Barbara,” he apologized.

“The grace of each saint is distinct. I can tell which saint I am venerating by the saint’s particular grace,” the monk informed him.

Years later, narrating this story to his students, Professor Tselingidis would say: “I, who have eyes to see, did not see. While the monk who was blind saw what was for me, invisible.”

And Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, in order that they who see not may see; and that they who see might be made blind.” (John 9:39)

The above (incredible) story was told by my adviser, Professor Demetrios Tselingidis. He teaches Dogmatic Theology at the Theology School in Aristotle University. Prof. Tselingidis completed his undergraduate and master’s degree in theology here in Greece. He studied and completed his PhD doctorate in Germany. The topic of his dissertation was on the theology of holy icons, entitled Iconological Works. (To read the English summary of his PhD go here.) He was the son of a priest and a very close disciple of Elder Paisios’ of the Holy Mountain. In fact, he has some amazing stories about Elder Paisios as well… but we’ll leave those for another time.

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