Holy Icons, Pt. I

In the January 1, 1848 letter of the great Russian author, Nicholas Gogol, to the poet Zhukovoski, we read:

Art reconciles us with life.  Art is the introduction of order and harmony into the soul, not of trouble and disorder…If an artist does not accomplish the miracle of transforming the soul of the spectator into an attitude of love and forgiveness, then his art is only an ephemeral passion.

This is one of the purposes of Christian iconography; through paint and or mosaic the artist attempts to transform the heart and the soul (the entire person) into an attitude of love toward God and His Creation as well as toward the forgiveness of those who have fallen short in fully “putting on Christ.”  Saint Basil the Great in his sermon on the Forty Holy Martyrs of Sebastia likens the artist to the orator, noting that both are to use their gifts to inspire the faithful:

The brave deeds accomplished in time of war are celebrated by both orators and artists. Orators remember them with decorous words; artists with paintbrush and canvas, and both inspire everyone with valor. That which words are to the ear, silent pictures reveal for imitation.

Holy Icons inspire, instruct and transform the faithful by speaking not to our senses, but instead to the heart.  The twentieth century Roman Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen in Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons explains: 

[Icons] do not immediately speak to our senses.  They do not excite, fascinate, stir our emotions, or stimulate our imagination.  At first, they even seem somewhat rigid, lifeless, schematic and dull.  They do not reveal themselves to us at first sight.  It is only gradually, after a patient, prayerful presence that they start speaking to us.  And as they speak, they speak more to our inner than to our outer senses.  They speak to the heart that searches for God.

The means by which icons speak to our heart and the means by which we Orthodox Christians encounter God is prayer.  We commune with the Lord and His saints by the Grace of the Holy Spirit.  This is why that St. Gregory the Theologian suggests that the Holy Spirit continued to dwell, not only in Holy Relics of the Saints, but also in their holy icons.

In life the saints were filled with the Holy Spirit, and when they have accomplished their course the grace of the Holy Spirit remains inseparably present in their souls and their bodies in the tomb, in their likeness and their holy icons, not according to essence but by grace and energy.”

Although the holy ones depicted in icons, speak to the heart by the Grace of God, we do not worship the wood on which the icons are painted, nor the icons themselves, which would be idolatry, prohibited by the Law of the Old Testament. Saint John of Damascus, like other apologists, does point out what appears to be inconsistencies in the Old Testament as to the use of images.  He sites the following passage of Leotinus of Neapolis, a seventh century bishop of Cyprus in his defense of icons:

Truly this command is awesome:  God, who commands Israel to make no image, or carving, or likeness of anything in heaven or on earth, Himself commands Moses to make graven images of cherubim which are living creatures.  He shows a vision of the temple to Ezekiel, and it is full of other images and carved likeness of lions, men and palm trees.  Solomon knew the law, and yet he made images, filling the temple with metal figures of oxen and palm trees, and men, but God did not reproach him on this.  Now, if you wish to condemn me on this subject, you are condemning God, who ordered these things to be made, that they might be reminders for us of Himself.

The Romanian Elder, Cleopa provides a similar teaching: 
Holy Scripture forbids the veneration of sculpted figures and deities. This prohibition refers to the veneration of idols. The law however does not forbid the veneration of certain signs and representations of God and His holy ones, since this honor does not pertain to the material from which they were constructed but rather, via the holy visage, which is depicted, our thoughts ascend to God. We saw the honor that was given to the girdle and face towel of the Apostle Paul. In the Old Testament we learn of the two sculpted Cherubim, which were placed above the Ark of the Covenant and on the tapestry of that holy place. It was before these that they lit incense and rendered repentance. Just as we are helped by the word to ascend beyond the word, so too are we lead by the icons to rise above the icons. Correspondingly, just as God wants our hearing to be made holy through spiritual discourse, so too he wants our sight to be made holy via the holy icons, so that by way of these two superior senses there enters into the soul pure thoughts.

And, when providing an explanation as to how icons relate to us the fullness of the faith, Rev Dr. Nicon Patrinacos also notes that bowing before an icon is far from idolatry.

The icons and the frescos of the Orthodox Church, in addition to being the means by which a religious sense of identity between believers and depicted saints is effected, also signify in vivid experiential terms the essence and fullness of the Church as consisting of both living and departed saints who are thus symbolically united with one another. In this respect, the bowing and kneeling before the icons and their being kissed by the Orthodox congregation can hardly be taken to constitute idolatry. The Greeks do not speak of kissing their icons but of aspasmos, a term devoid of its English corporeal connotation and meaning obeyance, loyalty, devotion. The Greeks do not use the same terms for kissing an icon and for kissing a person whether in a friendly or in an erotic manner.

When reflecting upon these thoughts as well as others, Father John of Krostadt takes the next logical step, which is to prove that God is in fact well pleased with our use of icons.  He writes:

Both the Lord himself and his immaculate Mother continually prove to us, by means of miracles, both inward and outward, that our true veneration of his Mother, and his saints, and of the holy images, is pleasing to him, and profitable to us in the highest degree.

Before advancing into the miracles wrought through icons, which will be addressed in next weeks Kairos, I will close will a few words on our use of icons.  For the first century saint, Dionysius, Bishop of Athens, from his letter to St. John the apostle and theologian, we learn the faithful employed icons to make visible those things, which cannot be seen.  He writes: “Truly, sensory images make visible things invisible.”  In the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom suggested in his homily on the bishop and martyr, Meletius of Antioch that the faithful used icons for consolation, to again gaze upon a beloved member of the Body of Christ:

Not only do you long to call fervently upon his great name; but also to look upon the image of his bodily form. What you do with his name you also accomplish with his image. For everyone rejoices to put his image everywhere, on rings, goblets, dishes, and on bedroom walls, so they can not only hear his holy discourses, but also gaze everywhere on his bodily image, thus gaining a double consolation to make up for his departure from us.

In the later part of the sixth century, St. Maximus the Confessor in his “Acts” noted the pious veneration of icons by the faithful:

After these things everyone rose with tears of joy, and bowing down low, they prayed, and everyone kissed the holy Gospels, and the honorable cross, and the icons of our God and Savior Jesus Christ, and of our Lady the All-Holy Theotokos who gave birth to Him, and they touched these things with their hands, in confirmation of what had been said.

It’s important to mention, that when we kiss an icon though, we are not simply kissing with our lips.  St. John of Kronstadt suggests “Kissing with the lips corresponds to kissing with the soul; and when we kiss holy things, we ought to kiss them with the soul and heart as well as with the lips.” And, when we venerate a saint, kissing his or her holy icon, we are in fact paying homage to Christ. Father Patrinacos reminds us, “Characteristic also of the true meaning of icon veneration with the Orthodox is the fact that before kissing an icon one always makes the sign of the cross as if to show that the veneration advanced by him to the depicted saint is in the name of Christ.”