Liturgical Icons: About Icons

The type of images we have, and the liturgical and architectural environment are an important part of our worship and having devotional images or an icon corner at home are an important part of making a Christian community and a Christian family. In an where the young are brainwashed by the many images which condition our lives through the internet and media, the Christian icon has an important counter cultural role.


have their artistic roots in the pre-Christian world, but their unique methods of design are based in the new Christian revelation of God made man. The knowledge of technique and design is synthesised largely from Egyptian and Greek roots. The basics of an iconographic structure are found in the liturgies & wall painting of Hellenic Judaism, and in pilgrim tokens from the Holy Land and the shrines of the saints.The development and dispersal of the Christian image is the achievement of the Roman Empire in east and west. The depth of the tradition, as a branch of mystical theology is the achievement of eastern monasticism, in the aftermath of the iconoclasm of the 7-9th centuries.


Although it was to take till the time of Rublev, 15c., for the type of the Trinity to be fully worked out, its canonical source is the Council of Nicea. Judaism, Islam and most branches of Protestantism, believe it is blasphemous to attempt to depict the Creator - it limits the uncreated. Beautiful calligraphy of the name of God has been substituted. The early Christian point of view was that Jesus Christ could be depicted, because he lived and died historically, but depicting the uncreated Father & Son was a different matter. The historical meeting of Abraham with 3 supra-natural persons, was the catalyst for the foundation of Israel. This meeting became the basis for translating doctrine into a canonically correct image.


How can God be born as man? If Mary was not the Mother of God, then Jesus must have 'become God' later. A popular idea in the 4c. was that God entered Jesus at Baptism i.e. he became divinised then. That made him a holy man, along the lines of Moses & Muhammed. Man was becoming God, but God wasn’t becoming man. If God had not become man, Christian salvation did not work. But if God had himself been the initiator of his own birth in the flesh, a unique God-man birth had taken place, and that made her genuinely ‘Mother of God’ - Platytera - wider than the heavens. After the Church came out with a resounding YES, the canonical icon of Mary was the Church’s billboard for the doctrine.


The next big question was - how can Christ be God and man? It was the hot topic in the local markets. The bishops came out with a statement to make it clear: the two natures are unconfused, unchangeable, indivisible, inseparable, but co-exist in a dynamic union. The challenge set to the painter was - how does one depict this dynamic tension in an image. This really set the technical characteristics of the Christian icon, which depends on setting up a hypostasis between two contradictory movements. Picture backgrounds becomes active, not passive: curves are set against angles, complementary red & green are heightened in fleshtones, colour discords heighten dynamic.


The working party after Chalcedon came at a bad time in the growing tensions between east and west. This was the first time that Christian art had become the focus of church legislation. First up was floor decoration - the Calvary cross was not to be trodden under foot. Representations of Christ as a lamb were banned: this confronts the general problem of allegorical painting - if you don’t stick to the facts of the Incarnation, you start treating the whole thing as a myth. Subject matter in churches is limited to salvation history. Canon 100 is exciting because it is not about what to paint, but what the painter is to be like - he is to purify his own senses, and produce paintings which have a purifyng effect.


The reaction against religious painting took place much earlier in the east than in the west. This was as much to do with the fact that Islam was winning the war than anything else. Was part of the problem that images downgraded God? Icons became military mascots and when they didn’t do their job they were trashed. In this situation, it was the monks who came out in a body to uphold the critical theological principle- God became incarnate and visible, therefore it is an essential Christian witness to make icons of Christ. Otherwise, you limit His power. The wholesale slaughter of monks which followed became a catalyst, embedding icon painting at the heart of monastic practise.


The 7th. session of the Council was an intensive examination the use of images in the church. The Bishops distinguished key principles. Firstly, the Gospels and the icons were to be considered a joint witness to the 'incarnation of God the Word,' supporting each others testimony. Secondly, they distinguished between worship (latreia) and veneration (proskynesis). An icon is honoured on account of the person it represents, but that doesn’t mean you confuse it with the person. As St. Basil says 'the honour given to the image passes to it’s prototype' (the real person). Thirdly, the Cross, the Gospels and the icons, are to be honoured the same way- incense & candles get a special mention.


It took several years, till 842 CE for the last remnants of iconoclasm to disappear. The feast know as the 'Triumph of Orthodoxy' commemorates the Orthodox theology of Chalcedon winning out, culminating with the return of the Hodigitria icon to the church of the Blanchernae. The teaching of Abbot Theodore of Studios monastery led to the addition, in Greek, of the Name of God (given to Moses) in the halo of Christ, to show that the image can never show the invisible God, or be worshipped as an idol. From then till now, the painter and singer have felt they have an equal value in the Orthodox church, each being indispensable to the liturgy.


The west fell woefully behind with the theology of the image. A bad Latin translation, which missed the all-important distinction between latreia (worship of God) and proskynesis (veneration of honour to a person or thing), antagonised Charlemagne, and sowed the seeds of the Protestant iconoclasm which would sweep over Europe. In the east, classical culture had been purged during the iconoclasm of earlier centuries. In the west, classical imagery had not been purged by iconoclasm, and - combined with photo realism - it became a defiant rallying cry against the incursions of iconoclastic Islam. In much of Europe, Catholic iconophiles were part of an underground church, in a largely Protestant Europe. Where now?