Archive for the ‘Theology of Icons’ Category

(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 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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