The Theology of the Icon


Theological approaches to the Hagiographic art

 

 

        The Church, being conscious of the spiritual value and importance of the holy icons as a means of sanctification and communion of the faithful with the depicted archtypes, had them always in high regard, piety and respect. They are regarded and are a significant visual means of teaching a conjectural language of the Church, as the Great Basil said, "the word of history is represented through hearing, while those graphically silent are shown through imitation. In fact the 7th Ecumenical Synod placed the holy icons in the same level as the Bible and the Holy Cross. The topic of the holy icons has occupied the theologians and researchers for centuries, especially in the twentieth century. Truly it is significant to show the importance of the icon and its value to man as a member of the Church. Within this framework let us feel with the tips of the fingers - since the present effort does not constitute a systematic search on the topic - the dogmatic teaching of the Church on the icon, as it is safeguarded in the writings of the Holy Fathers and in the practices of the 7th Ecumenical Synod.
        The word "icon" (εικονα) etymologically derives from the verb "ico" (εικω) or "eica" (εοικα) which means "likeness" (or image), namely an imprint of the characteristics of the prototype. This means that an icon does not have its own hypostasis (being) but its value exists in the likeness with the prototype. "For what is imprinted is different from that which is being imprinted" says Saint John Damascene. The icon therefore is the perceptible means between the faithful and the prototype which is invisible to them. Great Basil refers to a distinction between a "natural" and "artificial" icon. Both types of icons have a common known, the likeness of the prototype that they depict. They differ though in this: The likeness of the natural icon to the prototype refers to the essence of the depicted prototype, maintaining the difference in its hypostasis. A characteristic example of a natural icon is the Son and Word of God in relation to God the Father. The Apostle Paul says that "Christ is the icon of the invisible God" (Col 1:15). Namely, the Son is "the identical icon of the Being" as Saint John Damascene mentions, and referred to God the Father as being identical in essence. What makes the Son different to the Father is His hypostasis and specifically the characteristic of being born. On the other side, the artificial icon likens the depicted person in his appearance but differs as of his essence. Since the  artificial icon refers only to the appearance of the one depicted, therefore what is depicted is not his nature but the hypostasis of the prototype as mentioned by Saint Theodore Studite: "What is depicted on an icon is not its nature but its hypostasis". This likeness between the icon and the one depicted constitutes the condition of existence of the artificial picture. That is why the Orthodox icons are not a product of the fantasy of every artist but the prototypes (the Lord, the Theotokos, the Saints) are historic  personalities with their own individual characteristics. Clearly the Fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Synod observe, "Having seen the Lord, as they saw, so they depicted Him, and having seen James, the brother of the Lord, as they saw him, so they depicted him".
        At this point we can refer to how to differentiate an icon from an idol. Two basic points preclude the identity of icon-idol. The first one is the historical existence of the persons depicted and secondly the likeness of the icon with their archtypes. According to Saint Nicephore "the idol is a creation of things that do not exist and have no being". In other words the archtype of an idol is an imaginary being while that of an icon is an existing being. Whatever effort of rendering an icon of the Lord before His incarnation would have been false since there was no prototype. However, after the incarnation of the Word of God we do not speak of an idol since the Lord took on a recognizable human form.
        Here the iconomachs (icon resisters, 726- 843AD) erred because they maintained that the icon must be of the same nature as the prototype, otherwise it is an idol. That is why they believed only the Holy Bread and Wine of the Divine Eucharist was an icon of the Lord. For the Orthodox however as L. Uspensky characteristically says, "The Holy Gifts cannot be recognized as an icon of Christ exactly because they are at the same time with Him that is their Prototype". A great influence in the formation of the iconoclastic conscience was based on the creed of Judaism and Mohammedanism with their distinguishing iconless teaching. They even accused the Christians as idolaters and superstitious. Generally the problem of the iconomachs was that they could not understand the world salvific event of the Divine Economy. God became man "so that man become god". Since the icon is a spectacular proof of the Incarnation of the Word of God, therefore the denial of the icon by extension means rejection of the taking of human form through the Holy Spirit by the second member of the Holy Trinity. Jesus Christ put on flesh and blood for our salvation. He gives us the right to draw Him based on His actual human appearance without this meaning that we separate His flesh from His divinity. It follows that if we do not draw the Lord then it is like we deny His human appearance. As mentioned above, the holy Theodore Studite solved this theological problem that the icon depicts not the nature but the hypostasis (being) of the person drawn.
        A still significant point for the correct understanding of the Orthodox icon is also the significance provided by the Church to the prototypes of her icons. These prototypes can only be the same historical persons that are drawn and never other unrelated persons as happened in the Western iconography. For those painters who have no rules and boundaries, their work may look like an icon, but it could approach the boundary of blaspheme.
        The Great Basil declares that "the veneration of the icon goes to the prototype". Of course here the Saint refers to the relationship of the Son to God the Father, and this position was used also by the 7th Ecumenical Synod that the veneration of the icons is relative and honourable where as the worshipful submission is reserved only to God. Thus in conclusion we agree that the honour of the icon of a saint passes on to the prototype and through the depicted saint it passes on to God.
        At this point it is worth mentioning that a possible clumsiness of the hagiograph to accurately produce the characteristics of the depicted person, does not detract from the litugicality of the icon because the veneration of the icon does not refer to the existing imperfections but in the relationship to the depicted person. In other words we are interested with the connection the icon has with its prototype.
        A very significant parameter in the topic of the holy icons is the presence of the Holy Spirit in them. Saint John Damascene notes: "the saints and the living were full of the Holy Spirit to their end, the grace of the Holy Spirit undeniably in them in their souls and bodies in their graves and their character and in their holy depictions". Thanks therefore to the presence of the Holy Spirit in their depictions of the prototypes and the Church icons are "Full of the Holy Spirit". Therefore, we should note that the icons are not simple articles of art but they express a spiritual reality, they stress the purpose of a Christian life which is the possession of the Holy Spirit. Of course the existence of the Holy Spirit on the icons is not in essence but charismatic. However, the grace is partaken by the faithful and sanctifies them. When viewing the depicted persons "the sanctification that emanates from the icons happens unawares by the faithful but of course not in a mechanical way. Basic prerequisite for the fruition of sanctity is faith and inner purity with which the faithful approach the depicted saints. The 7th Ecumenical Synod declares: "As I accept and kiss and embrace the holy icons is like an engagement to my salvation". We note therefore that the icons constitute an engagement of the salvation of the faithful due to the participation of sanctification of the faithful through the veneration of the icons.
        For this the iconomachs due to their negative position against the icons become God fighters, thus depriving the faithful from a basic possibility for their spiritual perfection.
        Roman Catholicism rejecting the distinction between uncreated grace which is untouchable and unapproachable and the uncreated grace of God, which is approachable by the people, left in the sidelines the charismatic presence of God in the icons and consequently the sanctifying character of the icons. This is one of the reasons that the western painters use in their work prototypes unrelated to the depicted ones and in fact many times ethically corrupt ones. Professor D. Tselegidis correctly notes that the western art does not constitute the decline of the initiative of the artist but a decline of western theology which reflects the false expression of its ecclesiastic life.
        Finally let us also address the spiritual character of the holy icons of the Orthodox Hagiography. This topic becomes more understood if we turn our attention to the purpose of the Orthodox paintings. The Orthodox icon describes the existence of the depicted person eschatologically , expresses the blessedness of the restored in Christ person. When the ever memorable F. Kontoglou was asked why the Byzantine art is not natural, he answered thus: "it is not natural because its intention is not to describe just the natural but also the supernatural".
        The Church wishing therefore to bring us into the Kingdom of God, she set aside the physical reality from the holy icons, the depiction of the natural man and tried to teach us the reality and necessity of sanctity. Man is created in the likeness of God. The fallen man dimmed his knowledge of God. However, within the bosom of the Orthodox Church sinful man once again succeeds in his return to the world of blessedness of the restored man, in the restoration according to the icon. These, true flag bearers of the in Christ theosis are the Saints, who succeeded in sanctity to the highest level possible. Orthodox hagiography wishing therefore to render to the primordial beauty, transforms reality, depicts in icon form- as humanly possible- the restored one in the icon as if in a way depicting the Word of God, which is the physical depiction of God the Father. For the above reasons and means of expressing hagiography they followed the Holy Spirit. The physical proportions are not natural - usually the bodies are oblong- we visibly perceive the element of total formation process, the eyes are big, displaying a deep spirituality, being only two dimensional as a basic anti-natural element, use simplicity in the composition, in the forms, as a consequence of ascetic dispositions but also for the central topic to dominate the icon and many more elements which in its fullness expresses the state of its divine grace, the sanctity of the person.
        Unfortunately, many contemporary Christians have misunderstood the Orthodox icons as unnatural and ugly. Clearly influenced by the religious paintings of the West, they have difficulty in perceiving the spiritual meaning of the Orthodox art. They avoid the fact that the depicted persons now live in a heavenly and incorruptible place and not in this ephemeral and corrupt place, and they do not consider the word of our Lord who said "What is of the flesh is flesh" while "what is of the spirit is spirit".
        Let us conclude this topic by the well aimed theological observations of Fr. Basil Iberite: "The icon comes from far away and it guides us far, to the transcendence of the icon, in the condition beyond the visible and understood, beyond the symbols and depictions. If the icon closed us within the same icon, the scheme, the colour, the esthetic, the history, the created world, it would be an idol and not have been worth all the blood spilled for its restoration. This did not happen. The liturgical icon is the consequence and fruit of the incarnation of the Divine Word and a confession and  guide of man's theosis.            

 Greek Text      

 




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