Religious icons make the divine present for believers
By Gary Panetta
GateHouse News Service
Posted Jan 04, 2009 @ 04:51 PM
The image is at once tender, intimate and deeply mystical.
The infant Jesus reaches around the neck of his mother, pulling her close.
The Virgin Mary bows her head toward her son, the two meeting cheek to
The son gazes up intensely into the face of his mother. But Mary does not
look at him. Nor does she look at the viewer. Her gaze is distant, sad and
yet serene and beautiful: There is a great mystery in that gaze, a mystery
that is heightened by the stylized flatness of both of the figures, their
lack of weight and volume, the highly patterned presentation of line and
color that is like nothing visible on earth, that seems to lift them above
And yet these figures belong to our world even as they seem to transcend it
- tangible reminders of that which is intangible, a bit of eternity
perceptible to the finite eye.
The impulse that led an anonymous 12th century Greek artist to create this
icon, known sometimes as "Our Lady of Tenderness," is a very old one. It
stretches back at least to the days of Constantine the Great, when
Christians used images, statues and icons as ways to honor martyrs, saints,
the Virgin Mary and Christ.
The practice has been sometimes deeply and violently controversial: Many
feared that the practice represented a resurgent idoltry. But Christianity,
at least in its Catholic Western and Eastern Orthodox forms, has affirmed
the appropriateness of using images, including icons, as a part of worship.
And among the Eastern Orthodox churches, iconography has been raised to a
high level of art - an art still practiced today - that resonates deeply
with believers whether or not they adhere to the Eastern tradition.
"I no longer see icons as a matter of art but rather an invitation to
experience the divine presence," said Joseph Piccione, a Roman Catholic and
corporate ethicist for OSF Healthcare Systems in Peoria, Ill. "They make the
divine accessible. Now from a Western perspective, I think this is a great
gift to us. Ever since the Enlightenment, there is a sense that God is an
abstraction, and the 'really real' is measurable. Yet in classical
Christianity there was a sense that the cosmic order was now permeated with
grace, that the Holy Spirit is now present through all of creation since
"With icons, I think, their methodology is precisely intended to make that
divine present. ... (They bring out) what needs to be at the center, to have
a response of thanksgiving and adoration of God - not a God who is an
abstraction, but a God who is present to me."
For believers, icons are not art for art's sake; they are art for God's
sake, and by extension, for humanity's sake. Hence they belong not in
museums but woven into the rhythms of liturgical and daily life.
Enter the narthex of All Saints Greek Orthodox Church in Peoria, and your
eye will fall to two images placed on either side of the doors opening to
the main body of the church: On the right, an icon of Jesus and, on the
left, a beautifully wrought, silvery icon depicting a vast crowd of saints.
The placement is traditional in Orthodox churches, said the Rev. John
Sardis, who leads All Saints. The image on the left is associated with the
name of the church. The image on the right signifies the person to whom the
church ultimately belongs, namely Jesus Christ. Before entering the main
body of the church, it is customary to offer a kiss of greeting to the icon
"Who's house is it? Jesus Christ's," Sardis said. "And usually with family,
a friend, you don't just walk in, you greet them - either with a handshake,
a hug, a kiss. So we make the sign of the cross. And we venerate the icon.
We kiss the icon. Now, we're not kissing the glass or the paper or the paint
or the wood. We are kissing the individual that this icon represents."
Icons grace the left and the right walls of the sanctuary leading up to the
altar. They are rendered in both Western and Eastern styles: Figures in the
Western style are more realistic; those in the Eastern tradition have more
No matter what the style, the intention is the same: They are visual
sermons, pictorial representations of both biblical stories and heroes of
Christian history. One icon, for instance, depicts the risen lord appearing
to the doubting Thomas; the wounds in Christ's hands, feet and side are
visible. Another depicts St. George, a Roman soldier executed by
decapitation on April 23, 303, for refusing to worship Emperor Diocletian.
At the far side of the church stands the altar, where there are more icons,
unfolding against a wall known as an iconostasis. On either side of a
curtain with a cross are an image of Christ (on the right) and an image of
Mary, holding the infant Christ (on the left). Beyond the curtain lies the
Holy Eucharist, which adherents of the Western Roman Catholic and Eastern
Orthodox traditions believe is the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
"Liturgy - as the public worship of the church - is really meant to be a
re-enactment of heaven on earth," said John Evancho, a Byzantine Catholic
who also is chief compliance officer for OSF Healthcare. "That would be
heaven in all of its beauty, all of its transcendence. Icons play an
integral role in that creating heaven on earth."
Yet icons also find a place outside the walls of church in the homes of the
faithful - in dining rooms, in living rooms, in kitchens, in bedrooms. Their
very presence can subtly alter moods and habits.
"Not only do you have an icon, you have a votive light," Sardis said. "When
you light your votive light in the morning or the evening by the icon, you
say your prayers. That's something you wouldn't do if you didn't have the
icon. You might say, 'Oh, there is a football game, a baseball game, I've
got to run. ...' This gives you the opportunity to stop and spend some time
for yourself and for others in prayer that you would not do otherwise."
In his study, "Abundance of Love: The Incarnation and Byzantine Tradition,"
the late Melkite Greek Catholic archbishop Joseph Raya sees icons as an
extension of the incarnation. As God became manifest in the flesh-and-blood
Jesus of Nazareth, divine reality becomes manifest in a different way in the
icon itself, in its symbolism, in its harmonious proportions and colors.
"It's a way we recapture the sense that Christ's incarnation, his taking on
flesh, his taking on matter, has sanctified all of that," Evancho said.
"What do we think of matter? Of flesh, of our bodies? Christianity has
struggled at times with that - because we lost the sense of the power of the
incarnation. That's a principle part of the power of the icon. It is a
tangible reminder of that fundamental belief: God become man."
Gary Panetta can be reached at <mailto:gpanetta@...
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