Icons Will Save the World
- Icons Will Save the World <http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/?p=928>
By *Susan Cushman*
Standing before the icon of Christ in the front of St. John Orthodox Church,
I prepare to offer my confession at the Sacrament of Forgiveness. The Holy
image of the One Who Forgives comes forth to meet me, as the father comes
forth to welcome home the prodigal son in the familiar gospel passage (Luke
15:11�32). The love of Jesus pours forth from his prototype (the icon), sees
the offering of my broken heart, and raises it to the heavenly realm.
After receiving the priest's counsel and absolution, I remain in the nave
(the large part of the temple, called the sanctuary in Protestant churches)
to give thanks and to let God's grace and peace fill my heart. Surrounded by
icons of Christ, his Mother, the angels, saints, biblical scenes and church
feasts, I think about how Prince Vladimir's envoys must have felt when they
walked into *Hagia Sophia Orthodox
* in Constantinople near the end of the tenth century. Their mission was to
find a religion that Prince Vladimir could embrace and offer to the people
of Russia. In their report they said, "We didn't know whether we were in
Heaven or on earth." Shortly thereafter, Orthodoxy became the official
religion of Kievan Russia, infusing the lives of peasants and princes,
artists and writers, with the Orthodox vision of beauty. Nine hundred years
later, the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky penned the famous words, "Beauty
will save the world."
I don't think Prince Vladimir or Dostoevsky had in mind the kind of worldly
beauty that today's fashion and entertainment industries worship, or even
the beauty of secular art and architecture. I think they were both swept off
their feet by true *spiritual* beauty�in Vladimir's case, the beauty of the
Orthodox temple (church), adorned with *icons*.
In his book *Icons: Theology in
*, Eugene Trubetskoi said that the beauty of the icon is *spiritual*. "Our
icon painters," Trubetskoi said, "had seen the beauty that would save the
world and immortalized it in colors."
We are innately creative, because we are made in the image of a creative
God. As the twentieth century-abstract painter Vassily Kandinsky said, we
all strive to make "beauty and order from the chaos of the fallen world."
Our Creator has given us the freedom to do this, but sadly many artists and
writers abuse this freedom. The results of that abuse are often
pornographic, or at best self-serving exposes masquerading as art or
Good secular art, music, literature, and architecture serve to refine and
form our souls and make them better disposed to *spiritual* or
*liturgical*art, music, literature, and architecture. In
*an essay called "Forming Young
*" Fr. Seraphim Rose encouraged parents to expose their children to what he
calls the "Dushevni Diet"�that which feeds the *middle part of the soul*.
"The education of youth today, especially in America, is notoriously
deficient in developing responsiveness to the best expressions of human art,
literature, and music." His premise is that people raised on such a "diet"
would be better prepared to receive the higher, or spiritual foods. Perhaps
they would have developed an appetite for the patient work of prayer,
worship, and yes, venerating icons.
*VENERATION VS. WORSHIP*
When I converted to Orthodoxy from a Protestant faith (a seventeen-year
process culminating in 1987), I embraced the veneration of icons
unreservedly. An important distinction needs to be made here between
veneration and worship�one better made by St. John of Damascus in his *On
the Divine Images<http://www.amazon.com/gp/redirect.html?ie=UTF8&location=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.amazon.com%2FTreatises-Vladimirs-Seminary-Popular-Patristics%2Fdp%2F0881412457%3Fie%3DUTF8%26s%3Dbooks%26qid%3D1197653558%26sr%3D1-1&tag=firstthings-20&linkCode=ur2&camp=1789&creative=9325>
*). St John used the term *latria* for the absolute worship reserved only
for God, and the word *proskinesis* to describe the relative worship, or
veneration, given to the Mother of God, saints, and sacred objects such as
relics and icons. Maybe an analogy from everyday life will help make these
definitions easier to grasp.
My father died in 1998. For forty-nine years my parents shared a strong
Christian faith�an adoration of God�and a strong love and respect for one
another. During the last few years of their marriage, they developed a
morning ritual. Upon waking, they would greet each other with the Psalmist's
words, "This is the day the Lord has made," and the response, "Let us
rejoice and be glad in it." After my father's death, my mother continued the
tradition, greeting instead his photograph�an image of her husband�often
with a kiss, and would say both the greeting and response they once shared.
The love and veneration she shows to the image is passed on to the
prototype, in this case her husband, whom she sees as being very much alive
and waiting for her in heaven.
So it is with the veneration of icons. A worshipper enters the church and
approaches an icon. Maybe it's the icon of the saint who is commemorated on
that particular day, or of Jesus or the Mother of God. Making the sign of
the cross, followed by a *metania*, a bow from the waist, the person then
kisses the icon, passing on her love and veneration to the prototype it
represents. She is not worshipping the image, any more than my mother
worships a photograph of my father.
*SANCTIFYING THE SENSE OF SIGHT*
Icons point to beauty and art as a means of experiencing God. In a time when
our senses are bombarded with the base things of this world at every turn,
now, more than ever, we need for those senses to be sanctified. Saint John
of Damascus called sacred images "the books of the illiterate," and asserted
that icons sanctify the sense of sight for those who gaze upon them.
Suppose I have few books, or little leisure for reading, but walk into the
spiritual hospital�that is to say, a church�with my soul choking from the
prickles of thorny thoughts, and thus afflicted I see before me the
brilliance of the icon. I am refreshed as if in a verdant meadow, and thus
my soul is led to glorify God. I marvel at the martyr's endurance, at the
crown he won, and, inflamed with burning zeal, I fall down to worship God
through His martyr, and so receive salvation.
If this description of a first-millennium saint's experience seems too
removed from our contemporary life, I wonder if that's because we have lost
the concept of the Church as a spiritual hospital? Or because, in our
fast-paced lives, we have forgotten how to slow down and let the beauty of
God's house touch and heal our fragmented psyches?
I have a dear friend from a life-long evangelical background who has been
visiting my parish for several years. Although she usually goes with her
family to their Presbyterian church on Sundays, she frequents St. John for
some of the weekday services. She has told me that, as much as the prayers
themselves (usually Third Hour, a short service of Psalms and prayers
observed at nine on weekday mornings) bless her, it's the icons that are
having such a powerful effect on her heart. Sitting alone in the nave after
the prayers, gazing at the icon of Christ on the cross�the one the priest
carries in procession on Holy Friday�she is sometimes moved to contrition.
At other times, she feels a longing for a deeper relationship with Christ.
She is almost always filled with a sense of his love and peace, on a deeper
level�one that transcends emotions. And yes, sometimes her eyes are filled
* would say that my friend has had an *encounter with icons*, that the icon
actually invites a response: "There is a psychological dimension to the
icons in that they sanctify vision, and through it, all bodily senses,
pointing to a holistic approach to knowledge and Christian living."
So why doesn't everyone have the same reaction to icons that Saint John of
Damascus and Prince Vladimir's men and my friend had? I have another friend
who became Orthodox in his seventies, and, as much as he loved and embraced
the Orthodox faith, he always struggled with icons. A few years ago, I
returned home from an iconography workshop at which I had completed an icon
of the Holy Apostle Paul. My friend was house-bound, so I was glad to have
something other than library books to take with me on one of my visits to
his house. But when I showed him the icon, he confessed that he didn't
really like looking at them.
"They always look so *sad*," he said. "I thought the Christian life was
supposed to be joyful."
I tried to explain that the bright sadness in the faces of the saints
depicted in Byzantine icons wasn't like the superficial happiness or
romantic beauty found in classical religious art. Icons have a quality that
* called *hieraticalness* or spiritual solemnity. The expressions on the
faces of the saints depicted in the icons often reflect the gravity of
mankind's circumstances. As Frederica Mathewes-Green says: "No wonder an
icon looks so serious. Our condition is serious."
*MIRACULOUS AND WEEPING ICONS*
Two very mystical examples of God's response to the serious condition of
fallen man are miracle-working icons and weeping icons. There are countless
stories of people who have been healed by icons, flooding rivers diverted by
icons, and cities protected by icons from invaders. Thousands of faithful
Christians make pilgrimages to venerate these miraculous icons all over the
world. Some are seeking healing; others are offering thanksgiving to God for
his protection and grace given through the icon.
My first personal experience with weeping icons took place in 1997. I had
the blessing of accompanying several nuns from *Holy Dormition Orthodox
* in Rives Junction, Michigan, to *Holy Transfiguration Orthodox
* in Livonia, Michigan, to venerate four weeping icons. Each of the icons of
the Mother of God had been in the home of a pious woman who brought them to
the church as they began to exude myrrh or oil. When these miracles occur, a
number of church hierarchy are called in to verify the legitimacy of the
claim. Once confirmed, the icons are usually placed in the church, and
pilgrims are invited to come and pray before the icons and receive anointing
with holy oil from them.
Nothing could have prepared me for this experience. As we entered the
church, the nuns were immediately greeted by several parishioners and were
invited up to the front of the nave. I followed their examples as they
approached each icon, made three prostrations (kneeling and placing their
faces on the ground), and then gathered as a group in front of the
iconostasis. Then they began to sing hymns to the Mother of God. I tried to
sing with them but couldn't stop crying long enough, nor did I want to
detract from the celestial purity and beauty of their voices. For me, the
spiritual presence of holiness overwhelmed the physical signs�the sweet
smell of the myrrh and the visual image of the oil dripping from the icons
into containers placed beneath each one. But the physical signs were also
indelibly etched into my soul.
A couple of years later, I joined three other friends from my parish in
Memphis for a weekend pilgrimage to Chicago for the purpose of venerating
several miracle-working icons at three different Orthodox Churches. One of
them was the *Tikhvin Icon of the Mother of
* (attributed to St. Luke), which had been brought to this country from
Russia in 1949 to save it from the Communists and Nazis who were destroying
icons in Russia. (The Tikhvin Icon was returned to Russia in 2004.)
But it was another miraculous icon, one that has received less attention
than the Tikhvin icon, that touched me. Another icon of the Mother of God,
it adorned the iconostasis of St. Nicholas Albanian Orthodox Church and
began weeping in 1986. What struck me most about our pilgrimage to this
particular church wasn't the icon itself. It was the love and devotion
expressed by another pilgrim. I didn't talk with this woman, so I don't know
her story. But I watched as she knelt at the back of the nave, and then
walked *on her knees* the entire length of the center aisle of the church
and crawled up the steps of the *solea* (the raised platform in front of the
iconostasis) to light a candle and venerate this icon. I could hear her
praying in another language . . . and I witnessed a humility and love for
God that humbled and inspired me.
*BEYOND THE SHATTERED IMAGE*
Henri Nouwen was at a retreat in France in 1983 and found that someone had
placed a copy of *Rublev's icon of the
* on a table in his room. At the same retreat, a year later, *an icon of Our
Lady of Vladimir
for him. Nouwen entered into a time of spiritual reflection with
each icon. The following year, Nouwen added the icons of *Christ of
Zvenigorod <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christ_the_Redeemer_(icon)>* and
the *Descent of the Holy
* (Pentecost) to his experience and wrote a reflection on all four icons,
which was published as *Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying With
Like my friend who struggled with the icon's solemnity, Nouwen found that
icons are "not easy to see." He even called them "rigid, lifeless, schematic
and dull" at first. But he gazed at these four icons for hours at a time,
and, after patient, prayerful stillness on his part, they began to speak to
him. As a man who loved the art of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Marc
Chagall, he could have chosen any of these Western treasures for his
meditations. But he chose icons. Why?
I have chosen icons because they are created for the sole purpose of
offering access, through the gate of the visible, to the mystery of the
invisible. Icons are painted to lead us into the inner room of prayer and
bring us close to the heart of God.
My favorite section of Nouwen's book is chapter three�"Seeing Christ."
Rublev painted his icon of Christ in the fifteenth century for a church in
the Russian city of Zvenigorod. It was discovered under the steps to a barn
in 1918, along with two other famous Rublev icons, where they had been
hidden for five centuries.
Nouwen saw, through a prolonged period of prayerful attentiveness to the
face of Christ in this damaged image, "a most tender human face, and eyes
that penetrate the heart of God as well as every human heart." With further
contemplation, he realized that Christ's "sad but still very beautiful face
looks at us through the ruins of our world," as if to say, "O what have you
done to the work of my hands?"
We are the works of his hands. We are stewards of his world, his creation.
Gregory the Theologian refers to the human person as an icon of God. *John
* wrote that "someone who sees the whole world as an icon . . . has already
entered the life of resurrection and eternity. John Climacus, the abbot at *St.
Catherine's Monastery on Mt.
*, was convinced that, in the very beauty and beyond the shattered image of
this world: "Such a person always perceives everything in the light of the
Creator God, and has therefore acquired immortality before the ultimate
resurrection." As we Christians embrace this iconic way of seeing and
living, perhaps we will become better vessels of God's healing.
In the "First Apology of Saint John of Damascus Against Those Who Attack the
Divine Images," Saint John talked about Old Testament images like the ark of
the covenant (an image of the Holy Virgin and Theotokos) and the rod of
Aaron and the jar of manna. These are all visible things that aid
understanding of intangible things. We read in Exodus 25�26 how God
instructed Moses to use images in the tabernacle�including angels woven on
the veil of the holy of holies. It's true that later on God forbade the
making of images because of idolatry�because of man's misuse of something
God intended for good. But that was before the Incarnation, as St. John
It is obvious that when you contemplate God becoming man, then you may
depict Him clothed in human form. When the invisible One becomes visible to
flesh, you may then draw His likeness. When He who is bodiless and without
form, immeasurable in the boundlessness of His own nature, existing in the
form of God, empties Himself and takes the form of a servant in substance
and in stature and is found in a body of flesh, then you may draw His image
and show it to anyone willing to gaze upon it.
God's Incarnation not only made it possible for us to draw and venerate his
image, but also the images of men and women who have been transfigured by
him�the saints and martyrs. The Seventh Ecumenical Council (787), which
upheld the doctrine of the veneration of images as an inevitable result of
the Incarnation, said this about icons of saints:
These holy men of all times who pleased God, whose biographies have remained
in writing for our benefit and for the purpose of our salvation, have also
left to the catholic Church their deeds explained in paintings, so that our
mind may remember them, and so that we may be lifted up to the level of
The icons are visions of what we can become if we allow God to penetrate
every aspect of our lives. Those who attain this God-likeness to the fullest
extent recognized by the Church are saints. Their lives, their stories, lift
us up to be all that we can be�as we are transformed by God's grace and
The Incarnation should cause us to take our humanity seriously, as Vrame
says. And if we take our humanity seriously, we will not scorn the physical,
material things that the Church in her wisdom has given us as aids for
transforming that humanity, for restoring the image that fell in the
*THE ETHOS OF LITURGICAL ART*
Taking our humanity seriously also means being concerned about our
responsibility to the world around us. Chryssavgis said that our generation
characterized by a behavior that results from an autism with regard to the
natural cosmos: a certain lack of awareness, or recognition, causes us to
use, or even waste the beauty of the world. . . . We have disestablished a
continuity between ourselves and the outside, with no possibility for
intimate communion and mutual enhancement. The world of the icon, though,
restores this relationship by reminding us of what is outside and beyond,
what ultimately gives value and vitality.
Like the Incarnation, the icon pierces space and time, because a physical
object�a piece of wood with gesso and paint and gold leaf�is shot through
with God's eternal presence. Christos Yannaras, in his essay "*The Ethos of
*," says that "Byzantine iconography does not 'decorate' the church but has
an organic, liturgical function in the polyphony of the Eucharistic event,
existentially elevating us to the hypostatic realization of life." This is
heavenly stuff for us mortals to wrap our minds around, but we all need to
be elevated�to be lifted up in order to see the world as God sees it�as
sacred and worthy of redemption.
In the end, icons are part of what we offer back to God, just as the priest
at the altar lifts up the material elements of bread and wine, offering them
on behalf of the eucharistic community�*Thine own of Thine own*. In a
mystery, God receives our offering and offers it back to us as the Body and
Blood of his Son. And so we offer our art�in the form of liturgical music,
prayers, architecture, and, yes, icons�to the God who sanctified the world
by his Incarnation, by becoming man�by becoming matter.
*WRITING AND READING: THE GOSPEL IN COLORS *
Most iconographers refer to the work they do as writing rather than painting
icons. Just as hagiography is the life of a saint written with words,
iconography is the life of the saint written with paint. And just as one
reads the written life, one also "reads" the painted life�the icon. Again it
was the fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council who clarified the value of
icons as a medium of God's revelation, on a par with the written gospel:
For, when they hear the gospel with the ears, they exclaim "glory to Thee, O
Lord"; and when they see it with the eyes, they send forth exactly the same
doxology, for we are reminded of his life among men. That which the
narrative declares in writing is the same as that which the icon does [in
Following the council's decree, Patriarch Nicephorus of Constantinople
wrote: "If one is worthy of honor, the other is worthy of honor also. . . .
Either accept these [icons], or get rid of those [Gospels]."
The Holy Apostle Luke is perhaps the Church's unique example of one who
carried out Christ's great commission in both of these realms�as the writer
of the Gospel of Luke, and as the first iconographer. The earliest images of
the Mother of God are attributed to him. To this day, iconographers entreat
the Holy Apostle Luke, patron saint of iconographers, to guide and bless
their work. There is even a special *Iconographer's
* that commemorates Saint Luke.
*WORTH FIGHTING FOR*
One of my favorite days of the church year is the first Sunday of Great
Lent, known as Orthodoxy Sunday. This tradition was established in 842 in
Constantinople by his Holiness Patriarch Methodius in memory of the
overthrow of the last terrible heresy to rattle the Church, the heresy of
iconoclasm. In many cities, the Orthodox faithful from different
jurisdictions (Greek, Antiochian, Russian, etc.) join together and worship
at one of the larger churches. The children all bring icons and process with
the clergy and altar servers around the inside of the nave at the end of the
liturgy, gathering in front of the iconostasis to face the congregation. The
priest reads a proclamation, his voice gaining volume with each line. My
heart leaps to join him as he proclaims: "*This* is the Apostolic faith! *
This* is the faith of the Fathers! *This* is the Orthodox faith! "
After the priest enumerates some of the wonders of God illustrated in the
holy icons, the people lift their voices in a song of victory over the
Who is so great a God as our God?
He is the God who does wonders!
Much ado about . . . *art*? No wonder the Church celebrates those wise
bishops of the Seventh Ecumenical Council who proclaimed iconography to be
an ordinance and tradition that is not something extra, something added to
the life of the Church, but, as Chryssavgis says, *a necessary expression of
the reality of both God and the world*.
*Susan Cushman is a Byzantine iconographer and writer in Memphis. She is
working on her first novel.*
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