The Power of Icons - the essentials for good liturgical art


A couple of weeks ago I gave a talk to a group of about 80 people near Warwick. I spoke off the cuff, but here are some of the notes I prepared beforehand and which give the basis of what I did say...

“What can bring us happiness?” many say. *
Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord.


I first came across icons while visiting Athens as a young 18 yr old, very much in love with a young lady. The relationship was a disaster, but the experience of the icons began a life-long love affair and I will always have a heart filled with gratitude to that young lady who first introduced me to them. I particularly remember a very small and ancient church, dark as a cavern, where sunlight cast shafts of intense light, catching the fragments of the candle smoke as they drifted upwards like fireflies. The icons had not been anywhere near a restorer, and the layers of the oil varnish had greedily devoured the smoke of the incense and the passage of time until the images beneath were more like ethereal shadows, devoid of colour apart from the jewel like glimmer of gold which even the soot and grime couldn't entirely diminish. At that moment, in that place, before those icons, I encountered God. I prayed.You can write a lot about icons, many people have. But really, you don't need commentaries. You need, silence, stillness, attentiveness not around you but within you. 

Every icon, every single one has one common feature. No matter who it is, what angle or poise they are in, whether in joy or sadness...their mouths are small, and closed. The icon is stillness, that Divine, warm stillness that listens, waits, just is and invites us to do the same. They are vessels into which we pour our prayer, our devotion to God, our sadness, our penitence, our sufferings, our desires, our hopes for ourselves and for the world. We do need to remember one thing though. That an icon really is a little bit of a church wall, its living, spiritual architecture whose home is the Liturgy. They really aren't object for art appreciation classes or to be hung in an art gallery or put in our homes to decorate a wall. They are little bits of the Church and its liturgy that we take into our lives, into our homes, so we can live with Christ and His Blessed Mother and all the holy people. I have them in my home, as a living presence around where I work, and where I sleep. Yes, I sin but they call me back, yes I become distracted and despondent, and they are still there despite my lack of faith. They just are what they are, regardless of my mood or interior state. They thus are witnesses, they bear testimony to the God we cannot see, and His enduring patience and love for us. They embrace our 'creatureliness', our limited mental horizon, the volatility of our emotions, the weakness that is us. God embraces us through them, just as we are. Quite simply, whatever our interior or exterior state, the icons are still there. It is, I suppose, the inverse of the phrase, 'out of sight, out of mind'. Its God with us, whether we feel like it or not.

I would honestly say that icons have saved my faith. At those most turbulent times, when nothing makes much sense and the crushing darkness which we must sometimes face seems to choke the very life out of us, the icons have stubbornly remained, speaking gently, but persistently,of God whose love for me is profound, infinite, eternal. 

I would say that to pray with icons, we must begin very small, owning our fragility, our weakness and our smallness. I don't mean a sort of insincere self-disdain,or  some sort of pietistical hand-wringing, but simply,  accepting the reality that we stand on the cusp between the Uncreated God and the world of created matter, and that the one Person who has ever managed to bridge that, Jesus Christ, wills that we join Him in what the Eastern Christians call 'theosis', which is the sanctification, the indwelling of God in all things including ourselves.

We human beings are ourselves icons, (the word simply means 'image' in Greek), for just about the first thing we are told about what it means to be human is that we are made in God's 'image and likeness', and the healing of that image is the purpose of Christ's coming. In other words, that in humanity God can be known! Absolutely scandalous , absolutely amazing and yet completely, mind-blowingly true! Liturgical icons are, therefore, images of the images of God, of Jesus, and those who are totally and profoundly 'in Him'. They thus speak about who we are and what we are in the process of becoming through the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is the 'image of the unseen God', for as He said to Philip, 'he who has seen Me has seen the Father'. Image and restoring the image of God, making God present, making and restoring icons as it were, lies at the very heart of the Christian Mystery of salvation. It's not so surprising then, that making images have an important part to play in Christian praying, in Christian liturgy as liturgical art. It’s all a matter of faith, Christian faith, that believes our relationship to the world of matter has changed because God, in Jesus, has become a part of it and that God made it just that way having that in mind. 

Icons begin by showing us just how wonderful the created world is, pushing us to look with awe and wonder at just how intimate God is in and through the material world of which we are a part. It pushes us to become tender and respectful, even overawed by the sheer beauty of creation and its capacity for what is good and true and what is of God, its majesty of purpose and destiny to be found in the most humblest bits of wood and paint and shapes which a human being can draw. 

The use of gold is particularly useful here, with its' bright darkness', the sheer beauty of it and the way in which it seems able to mysteriously  'bottle' light and yet swallow it up in a vast cavern. Also we could note the intensity of some of the colours, such as vermillion and lapis lazuli whose brilliance reveal and speak of the Divine Energies at work all around and within us. 

We could say, perhaps should say very clearly, that denying images in the Church's liturgy, as part of our prayer, is impossible, blasphemous even. Why? Because if we don't believe that the Divine can be expressed in matter, then we deny the Incarnation, that God became flesh, which is precisely the Islamic criticism of Christianianity and why they refuse any images in their places of prayer. For them, it isimpossible that God should become in any way part of the created, circumscribed world in which we live. But for us, it is a matter of faith upon which the whole Christian revelation is based: 'the Word becameflesh'. Liturgical art is, therefore, an imperative and a testimony to just what has taken place.

An icon confronts us with reality, with spiritual reality, this truth about God, and the universe and us. This begins communally, in the Liturgy, where the art is just one aspect of the whole experience, which embraces words, gestures, architecture and music. This is where we receive the full revelation which culminates in the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, an experience profoundly rooted in the whole, united Body of Christ and yet deeply personal. Praying with icons, even in our homes, should never loose this root, and it is thus good to venerate them using the common rituals or lighting a candle, kissing or bowing down, and recite the common prayers when we turn to them in our prayers. Thus they draw us out of ourselves and revive in us our common union as brothers and sisters in Christ's living Body.

Yet, when the church is not celebrating the liturgy and we can enter when it is silent and still, or when we are at home and can take some moments to rest in silence before the Lord and His holy ones, then the icon can work on us in other ways too, or in ways which are maybe not so obvious in those times of common prayer. For example, the powerful play on perspective  where the vanishing point is not within the icon but before it, at the eye of the beholder in fact. This neatly demonstrate one of the key features of the icon, that it is a door that opens drawing us into the heavenly realities that are usually just beyond our grasp. An icon is a passing place, where heaven enters earth, and the earthly is caught up into heaven. I much prefer this to the idea of a window, because a window is a frame and a piece of glass that leaves us as voyeurs of what takes place on the other side, safely removed. In fact the icon is nothing of the sort, the veil between heaven and earth is pulled back, and we are the object of the desire of God who love us with such sweetness and intensity which draws us to Himself. An icon will not leave us alone, nor will it leave us unchanged. It is also an invitation, an open door, a moment of encounter. There are no shadows, no ‘space’ in which to hide. Rather the Divine and Eternal realities break through into the very place where we worship and pray.

The icon is also very truth-full. A lot of people, at first glance, things icons look 'odd', and not very life like. But an image is just that, a two dimensional reality, and the only way in which such a thing can look 'life like' is by making an illusion of space, by playing tricks on our eyes and making something happen in our imagination. Now that might be very exciting, enjoyable and even be a work of sheer brilliance, but it is...an illusion. Prayer is about moving from illusion to reality, and so naturalistic art is somehow not suited to liturgical use. Liturgical art has to be true to itself, and that means not denying but making the most of its two dimensionality. So, in an icon, the images lack much in the way of shadows, perspective is inversed, the features are drawn to reflect the truth about our senses (the nose is long and elegant as it senses the scent of paradise, the eyes are large as they see, comprehend and act as gateways to the soul etc).

 Much modern art plays with illusion of perspective, tricks to the eye, the manipulation of the mind by colour, for example in advertising where we are manipulated by images being more than they let on. They seduce by cleverness, the sense of luxury, and by stirring up our basic desires of jealousy, envy, gluttony and lust.  Icons, in contrast, are very ‘sparse’, ascetical in their use of line and colour, taking things back to a sort of minimalism. It is art serving a purpose, a liturgical purpose: to praise God and make Him known. Icons are about profound, enduring, eternal realities, not the passing whims, transitory concerns, self-centred preoccupations. This is reflected in the artistic method, where the individual artist is not concerned to ‘make a statement’ or ‘express him or herself’ but to ‘bear witness’.

The icon is not a clatter of 'noise', a vivid cacophony of discordant colour and shapes which tear at each other or at us. Rather it is a perfect silence, pregnant and embracing, the silence of clothed mouths, the hymn ’let all mortal flesh keep silence’ in colour and line. As the Mystery unfolds words cease to have the capacity for meaning - it is being Elijah in the silence outside the cave, it is being like Moses before the burning bush, or the apostles before the transfigured Christ. The icon is not ‘busy’ or noisy with expressive emotions, passions, drama or gesture. It is ascetic, pared down to the stillness, to the essential. It isn’t there to entertain, to titillate, to be clever. Just to be.

Thus to pray with the icons is a process of consecration, of blessing, of setting aside and making holy the humble matter of the created world which includes us in our humanity. Iconographic prayer is essentially humble prayer from humble means, and to connect we need humble minds and hearts. Prostration, bending down before the icons to touch the earth and cross ourselves and/or kiss them, much like being anointed with the ash, the dirt, on Ash Wednesday. O come let us bow and bend low, as the psalmist says.

Let me end by making an observation about the humility essential to be an iconographer. An iconographer always – yes always – begins, and ends, with failure. I am not trying to overstate the case. Its simply a matter of fact. The great theologian of iconography, 
Leonid Ouspensky, explains it this way: There are no words nor colours nor lines which could represent the kingdom of God as we represent and describe our world. Both theology and iconography are faced with a problem which is absolutely insoluble – to express by means belonging to the creative world that which is infinitely about the creature. Lord, have mercy on me a sinner! It's amazing we ever dare to pick up a brush!     

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