Icons: touching salvation. Can you really worship God without them?

This is the basis of a lecture I gave in February 2014 at Lichfield Cathedral, as part of the Elias Icons Exhibition.

1. The Eucharist

“When the Royal Doors are opened during the Liturgy, it is as if the heavens themselves were partially opened, permitting us to catch a glimpse of their splendour.”
The Eucharist stands at the epicentre of Christian life, and iconography, together with architecture and music, is an essential element of the way in which the Eucharist is celebrated. Iconography , is the art of the space where the Eucharist happens. As such it not only speaks about that reality, but also in itself embodies it.

2. Sacred Space

To understand this we need to understand first the space where the Eucharist happens, what we call a church or as at Lichfield, a cathedral. Is this just any old space, or is there something intrinsically different about it?
“The foundation of the Christian life...is the birth of a new life, an intimate union with God which is essentially fulfilled in the sacrament of the Eucharist. A church, as the place where this sacrament is fulfilled and where men, united and revived, are gathered together, is different from all other places and buildings.” So wrote Leonid Ouspensky (Ouspensky, 1992),
How is this different? St Maximus the Confessor explains, “Just as in man, the carnal and spiritual principles are united, even though the carnal principle does not absorb the spiritual, nor does the spiritual principle absorb the carnal into itself, but rather spiritualises it, so that the body itself becomes an expression of the spirit, so also in a church, the sanctuary and the nave communicate: the sanctuary enlightens and guides the nave, which becomes its visible expression. Such a relationship restores the normal order of the universe, which had been destroyed by the fall of man. Thus it re-establishes what had been in paradise and what will be in the Kingdom of God.” In this sense we can say that the church building is ascetical space, redefined by what is new in Christ, a new ordering of the function of matter through a realignment of matter with the spiritual, and orientates that space with both the present and the future.
The Eucharist, or the Liturgy as it is also called, is thus not just understood but also experienced as the time and place, the physical space, where heaven and earth meet, where the veil between them becomes gossamer thin, where the eternal bursts in upon the temporal and stirs up in us... joy, because here is where we meet God, this is where heaven and earth meet. This is the joy that bursts out in praise. This praise of God takes on various material forms, music for example. St Augustine I think it was said he who sings prays twice. The praise of God also takes on physical form, for example in architecture such as great cathedrals of medieval England. Despite the centuries that have passed and the theological and philosophical wilderness in which our culture now exists, the vision of our Christian ancestors still whispers through this monumental art of Eucharist.

Art also belongs to this space, in the form of icons, as evidenced by the remnants of the decorations of the walls in the south aisle close to the High Altar, and the contents of the Treasury with its beautiful decorated liturgical books and the famous sculpture of an angel. Once English people understood this theological reality of the relationship of the world of the spirit to mundane matter in the Eucharist & the immanence of God’s Presence, and as a result excelled at creating great cathedrals and wonderful icons, though tragically in the 16th and especially the 17th century spiritual savages desecrated their work, as this magnificent church testifies. Interestingly, the same Roundheads who desecrated this building also banned Christmas, the feast of the Incarnation. Incarnation is all about the radical re-alignment of spirit and matter.
The Biblical word for this is transfiguration and the spirituality of transfiguring matter through a re-integration with the spiritual we call asceticism. Thus we can say icons are transfigured and ascetical art.

3. Transfiguration

Its worth pausing for a moment to consider what happened at the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36), as this gives us the Biblical picture of the Christian revelation about the radical change in the relationship
between spirit and matter made possible by the Incarnation, the coming of the Word in flesh.

For a brief moment on Mount Tabor the realities about Jesus that lie hidden from the three apostles Peter, James and John, are laid bare- they see Christ’s face and garments filled with light, a golden cloud envelops them and they hear the Voice of God proclaim Christ as God’s Son - so that literally they might see it as well as hear it. Revelation presses itself on their senses of hearing and sight and in this very physical way they experience God intimately. It is an awe-inspiring moment, one which reveals the majesty of Christ in anticipation of the resurrection. The apostles fall to the ground, overcome, disorientated, mesmerised. And crucially this is an experience of images, of things to be seen with their eyes.

So, what is it that they see? The imagery is above all that of Light, a supernatural light that takes us back to the Old Testament, evoking memories of the Cloud of Presence that overshadowed the Tent of Meeting, where Moses went to meet with God in intimate conversation, thus taking us back to the depths of the Torah and the revelation of God there. This was a Presence that seared itself onto the face of Moses, so bright that he needed to wear a veil. Here Jesus’ garments are likewise transformed into an intense, light filled brightness as a cloud of light envelops Him and takes Moses and Elijah from the apostles’ sight. This pre-figures the resurrection, and helps to establish the relationship of adoration which they will have with the Risen Lord, which in turn is fundamental to Christian worship.

By placing the revelation of Jesus’ glory in the context of the Tent of Meeting, we see Jesus being revealed as the High Priest, as the one who can go into the Presence of God, making intercession and bringing peace to all of those he represents. And confronted with this experience the apostles fall to the ground, a posture of adoration and worship. Thus, the Transfiguration is a paradigm of worship for the follower of Christ. It points the apostles to the death and resurrection where Christ as the High Priest will offer Himself insacrifice. It gives a radicalised dynamic to the worship of God centred on Jesus as the Lord.

The Eucharist, commanded by Christ and central to the life of the Christian community ever since, is the extension of this into the temporal life of the Christian, as the encounter at Emmaus made clear. There Jesus reveals himself as the bread is blessed, only to immediately disappear from their sight. The Letter to the Hebrews shows that this is precisely how the apostolic Church understood the nature of its Eucharistic worship: “But you have come near to Mt. Zion, to the City of the living God, to the heavenly Jerusalem with its innumerable angels. You have come to the solemn feast, the assembly of the first born of God, whose names are written in heave. There is God, Judge of All, with the spirits of the upright brought to perfection. There is Jesus the Mediator of the New Covenant, with the sprinkled blood that cries out more effectively than Abel’s...Let us then be grateful and offer to God a worship pleasing to Him”. Hebrews 12:22-24,28b.

The transfiguration gives us the Christian paradigm about the relationship between matter and the Divine, and places it at the very heart of the new relationship between God and the human person. It peels back the surface so we can perceive the deeper reality that is taking place all around us, so that we can see it with our own eyes, seeing God in all things. As they say, seeing is believing. There is something essential about sensing reality with our sight, and in the Transfiguration God answers this need. And if this is true about our life in general, it is above all true in the Liturgy, just as it was in the Old Testament for the Hebrews.

Iconography, that is art of the liturgy, is shaped by this paradigm of the Transfiguration: it is transfigured and transfiguring art, art shaped by and in service of the Incarnation, inspired by and speaking of these unseen, heavenly things, indeed of all those things still to take place, in Christ. It is the art of glory, the art of transcendence, the art of faith, the art of encounter between God and humanity, profoundly humanistic and profoundly theocentric, a fruit of the union between God and Humanity in Christ, and eschatological, something that gives us a foretaste of what our destiny is in Christ, all of which it presents to our sense of sight. It is Mystical art and can only be appreciated once we have grasped that this is its provenance.

4. The Doors of Glory

Iconography is art that reflects the incarnational/ cosmological/eschatological dimension of Christian life and therefore of worship, and therefore that shapes the space where the Liturgy takes place. “All was made through him and for him. He is before all and holds all things together in him”(Colossians 1:16-17) “God has made known to us his mysterious design, in accordance with his loving-kindness in Christ. In him and under him God wanted to unite, when the fullness of time had come, everything in heaven and on earth” (Ephesians 1:9-10)And again in the letter to the Hebrews, ‘By faith we understand that the stages of creation were disposed by God’s word, and what is visible came from what cannot be seen’ (11:1). This is the reality which icons articulate.

If you approach an icon wanting to feel something immediate but superficial, to see some sweet delicate face which induces you to coo and sigh, or to say how clever the artist is, then icons will disappoint you. Icons are not easily captured by our senses. Rather they entice us to engage with the prototypes on which their images are rooted, to enable the physical world of sense to open us up to the deeper world of the spirit. In other words, icons are designed to stretch us out of our comfort zone of sentimentality and plunge us into the world of the Spirit.

In this they don’t point to themselves; they point away from themselves to a greater glory which through them our souls can at least glimpse, just as they point away from the artist to the realities they portray. It is humble art precisely because Christian faith is a way of humility, modelled on and integrated with the Lord. Look at any individual icon and usually it fails to satisfy in an aesthetical sense, it seems sublime, yet also somewhat crude. Their genius is not in creating an illusion of Jesus, but evoking the real Jesus as present in the here and now. They are meant to be places of encounter with reality, not substitutions for it.

This is why they are the very antithesis of idols, which the Law rightly condemned. Idols are substitutes. Icons are doorways through which God Himself embraces us. Being an authentic manifestation of God in matter, the icon naturally becomes a place of worship, as indeed is the whole church building in which it truly belongs. This was thrashed out during the iconoclastic controversy of the 8th and 9th centuries, during which St Damascene explained, “I do not adore matter itself, I adore the Creator of all matter who became matter for my sake, who deigned to inhabit matter and who through matter accomplished my salvation”. It is a vision which sees matter as integral to salvation, not something to be cast aside or to be inherently suspicious of being in some way evil. “As His image, the icon shares in the mystery of both His humanity and His divinity. The image involves and embraces a spiritual presence of the Being represented and thus can become the object of veneration” Michel Quenot, p.40.

Through visual means, that is as a piece of matter deliberately crafted with line and colour according to Christian revelation, the icon seeks to peel back the surface and give us a glimpse of these unseen realities of what it is to be ‘in Christ’, as people who live as sojourners on pilgrimage to our heavenly homeland.

5. Art/architecture as liturgy

“That which we from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life...” I Jn 1:1
Ouspensky wrote, “The Church...uses images in order to show that a church, a place of worship, is an image of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, that it is the real first fruits and the image of the Kingdom of God to come” (p.27).
St Theodore the Studite wrote, Christ’s ‘ image was sketched in writing by the apostles and preserved for us to the present. So, what is represented on the one hand with paper and ink is likewise represented on the icon with various colours and different materials”.
As Fr Zinon, one of the world’s most accomplished contemporary iconographers explained, ‘the icon painter is just the co-author of the Church Fathers who are the primary icon painters’ (Timchenko, 1994).

“Since the divine descended into matter, it has received a sacred capacity which is clearly expressed within Orthodox art. By its spiritualised materiality, the icons refers simultaneously back to the incarnation as well as forward to the transfiguration and towards the transformed matter in the world to come. The icon can thus be understood both as a sacramental ad as an eschatological sign. While not a sacrament itself, it can be said to have a sacramental character because it combines matter and divine revelation” Solorun Ness

Being an authentic manifestation of God in matter, the icon naturally becomes a place of worship, as indeed is the whole church building in which it truly belongs. It is a fruit of theosis, the sanctification of all things by Christ who came among us, took our flesh, united himself with all Creation, and manifested God’s Glory, drawing us to Himself. Icons are all about encounter, meeting with God, being touched, caressed and loved into heaven.


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