Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Icons, the Church and the People of God

Guest Author! Many of us in the West are fascinated by icons, but we tend to not "get" the whole idea, with often lamentable results. Bald Eagle leaves her lofty perch to educate us about something she knows quite a bit about. Which will be a big change from the Bear just making up stuff about which he knows nothing.

The First Icon
(in more ways than one)

A thick piece of wood. Clay. Chalk, linen and the skin of rabbits. Colored dirt from various regions of the earth. Duck eggs, vinegar and water. Gold or silver. The very breath of the human person and an agate stone. Fur from the tail of martens or squirrels. Oil of the flax plant.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is an icon.

Or is it?

Icons and the Church
While in the period of iconoclasm, the Church struggled for the icon, in our time it is the icon that struggles for the Church (Leonid Ouspensky). 
Sacred icons have long been considered in the West as windows to heaven, theology in color or, as some Early Church council fathers put it (paraphrased), the Gospel for the spiritually illiterate - portals to the threshold of the supernatural that many do not know about, while others desire to see, but have not yet seen. Icons, however, unlike religious paintings, are neither the sum of their above parts, nor just the simplistic definitions given; or even the distorted, unsmiling and, at times, disproportionately elongated representations of human persons now living in the fullness of the Divine Light.

Icons are neither one of the seven sacraments of the universal Church, nor mere sacramentals as popularly understood in the Western Church. They are a cross between the former and the latter because of:
  1. the grace with which they become invested, after having been both named and officially blessed in church; often becoming 'wonder-working' in unabashed ways some consider to be unbelievably outrageous - if not downright unbelievable;
  2. any relative worship offered to them by people passes on directly to whoever is depicted therein - namely, "the honor which is shown them is referred to the prototypes which those images represent" (Council of Trent); and 
  3. their portrayed representations are "not like the original with respect to essence, but with respect to hypostasis" (Nicaea II), including the divine hypostases.
The worship referred to here is that of proskynesis (veneration), not latreia (adoration and absolute worship) which is reserved for God alone.

Icons, moreover, differ from religious paintings in the following ways:
  1. They are not just portraits of people, but "prototypes of the future human person-within-the-Church" (Evgenii Nikolaevich Trubetskoi) - namely, the deified person in keeping with that bold proclamation of Jesus Christ: "I said, you are gods" (Jn 10:34);
  2. The "light of the first day and of the eighth day meet in the icon [because it is] always characterized by the unity of creation, Christology and eschatology" (Paul Evdokimov). Thus icons (and frescos written in traditional iconographic style) have both a liturgical function and a theophanic ministry, uniting the meaning and presence of God in the light of the Transfiguration; 
  3. By their carefully planned, internal geometric structure; their design and deliberate restraint, icons facilitate a sense of stillness, order, quietude and peace - hence, a sense of spiritual transcendence - both in people and in the environment in which they are found. These factors are commonly absent from, or actively worked against by, the sentimentalized and/or sensualized representations of God, the saints and the angels found in much religious art of the West, which facilitates the natural, rather than the supernatural, by exciting the flesh instead of the spirit; 
  4. By virtue of #2 and #3 as these interact with grace, icons can facilitate the opening up of the heart of people's souls, counteracting that darkness and "blindness of the spirit [which is] a symptom of the crisis of man's very existence" (Benedict XVI);
  5. Again by virtue of #2 and #3, icons can effectively convey the beauty and presence of God during the apophatic darkness, not just during the cataphatic presentation of the Christian life;
  6. Icons are embodied prayer, created in prayer, for prayer, by the driving force that is "the love of God and yearning for Him as perfect beauty" (Archimandrite Zenon);
  7. Icons are "the fruit of contemplation, [coming] from an interior vision and thus lead[ing] us to such an interior vision . . . in communion with the seeing faith of the Church, [with] the ecclesial dimension [being] essential" (Benedict XVI); and
  8. They speak "about dogmatic truths revealed to human beings in Scripture and Tradition, [being] anthropological in content, while reflecting the eschatological, redeemed and deified state of nature, [with a] liturgical and mystical purpose" (Metropolitan Alfeyev).
Thus, why are icons so needed in the Church today?

The New Iconoclasm
Iconoclasm constitutes heresy (Nicaea II).
Go into a Catholic church in the West - in particular, a new or recently-built church - and you can be forgiven for thinking that you have, all of a sudden, entered into either a spaceship reminiscent of Star Trek or the auditorium of a theater, or even just a garage, despite all the money spent, time consumed and planners planned. Wreckovators, under the name of 'liturgists' or 'liturgical consultants,' have elevated the natural - or worse - over the supernatural, oftentimes without knowing the underlying spiritual consequences of these wreckovations, as long as the creations resultant from their ideas were, in effect if not in intent, made in their own image under the rationalization of being 'hip' and 'with the times.'

Now, all that may be well and good as far as reason goes. After all, we are in the 21st century and reason has, for the most part, become decontextualized from faith and reified in its own right. But how is any of that going to quieten the flesh and still the soul, while engaging all your senses, to help you pray and give you a tangible experience of the timelessness, infinite presence and similarly infinite love of God?

Icons and the sacred art of iconography, considered in the context of the universal Church, have grown directly out of the grass-roots struggle of the People of God "with the kingdom and the image of the beast" (Trubetskoi) - namely, that kingdom whereby All these things will I give you, if you fall down and worship me (Mt 4:7). As embodied prayer that facilitates more prayer, the opening of one's heart and the possible re-opening of the heart of one's soul through grace, in consequence the elevation of one's spirit to God, icons can fill souls with a vision of a very different truth about life, existential meaning and the world; a truth that of necessity and by attraction draws people into the otherworldly vision of the City of God (Augustine of Hippo). The quiet drama portrayed in icons facilitates the reassurance that "the destruction left by the beast and his kingdom are not all in all, but there is another meaning to life and it shall prevail" (Trubetskoi). And this despite the present, conscious veneration of the image of the beast, part of which is the new iconoclasm in the Church; especially that taking place in the Catholic Church.

Icons, with their created beauty that is both a mediated and an endowed tiny presentation of the Uncreated Beauty Who Is God, have the power of providing spiritual strength to people. They also, by virtue of said beauty, are capable of making people hunger or develop a hunger for the inheritance that is our birthright - namely, that infinite and eternal place of Divine Light, which is both God and our Father's House.

Are icons needed in the Church today?

You decide.

© Marcelle Bartolo-Abela, aka The Bald Eagle for the purpose of these Woodlands.


  1. We maintain our Orthodox home shrine. (Orthodox visitors first go to it and venerate the icons, as they would greet a highly honored guest. It's the way Russians are wired.) We have a lovely Russian icon in front of which a lampada burns all the time. It isn't traditional, but is in more of the "sweet" current Russian style. It was a gift and it works for me. We rotate icons from our collection to go with the liturgical seasons. All have been blessed by being given a place on the altar during Divine Liturgy.

    In the article about the Ascension, I used my own example of how an icon seems to express the reality better than the typical realistic / sentimental painting or the omnipresent St. Sulpice style feminized artwork holy cards we inherited from the mid-19th century.

    These days there are stores who will sell you an "icon" with just about anyone on it. But real icons have a language - a woman's hair tells of her past. Orthodox don't want to venerate an icon thinking, "Wow, look at the beautiful technique and the rosy flesh tones. It looks like she might step out of the picture!" They want to be see something that is deliberately "artless" that does not try to cover up reality with a false representation of it.

    Our old Orthodox Church had an old icon of the Theotokos beneath glass. It was noticed that a clear photographic negative of it had been transferred to the glass.

    This is a huge topic, and I hope we get some good discussion, and Bald Eagle favors us with an explanation of some big words Bear doesn't know.

    1. I should add that there were three for four inches between the icon and the glass, and it was in a dark corner of the church. P.S. If you're thinking of jumping ship to Orthodoxy because the Church is messing up marriage, be advised they have the three strikes rule. But there's certainly a lot to love, and Orthodoxy will probably always have my family's heart while the Catholic Church has our heads - in a head lock, beating them against a stone wall.

    2. The anecdote you narrate, about the clear photographic negative of the Theotokos on the glass above her icon, is precisely the effect attained by the transmission of the Divine Light from the icon itself to the glass. It is the same phenomenon that has occurred in the Shroud of Turin.

    3. Thank you for this article. Most inspiring and informative. :)

  2. Well, if we can't have icons in our Churches we can have them in our homes.

    1. We certainly can have them in our homes! And some Catholic churches do have a few icons in them, in particular the Eastern Catholic churches. But the Latin Rite in the West, especially the US? Meh.

  3. Thank you! I knew next to nothing about icons except that I was mysteriously drawn to them. Bear's humble intro paragraph to this made me relax enough to be able to absorb this beautiful piece.

  4. This is very interesting to me as I am attending a Byzantine church but was raised Roman Catholic, and missed statues. No wonder the beast and his kingdom want to erase icons.

    1. Glad you picked that up! Ugliness and facelessness are two of the attributes of the beast and his kingdom. No wonder iconoclasm is back in full swing these days under various (absurd) rationalizations.

  5. What a lovely topic. Thank you for all of it. I am not Orthodox but love icons, my favorite being the original Our Lady of Czestachowa. We have the Pantocrator, and I am going to spend more time with that icon.
    I really like the idea of rotating the icons, but what do you put out there and when?
    God has left us with so many consolations. In these times, we need them more than ever. Great article Bear.

    1. I will let The Bear answer this :-) And you're very welcome.

  6. The West has been extremely successful from detaching meaning from object. The meaning of a thing has value only in so far as it is recognized as a symbolic construct that needs to be transcended via a constant progressive process of deconstruction and reconstruction according to the present phase of the zeitgeist. The thing itself has value only in it's utility and specifically utility towards progress.

    It is thus extraordinary hard for a Western mind to wrap itself around the concept of an icon, even if that mind has an affinity towards Christian Neo-Platonism, which gets close to being able to philosophically articulate that which an icon is to the West.

    The West tends to have statues rather than icons, and there is perhaps a lost theology of statues in there somewhere. Statues, though, are not icons as statutes invoke their subject but icons have a true participation in their subject so that where an icon is, there exists a certain presence of the subject that, as the Bald Eagle has rightly put, someplace between a sacrament and sacramental presence. It is not a "real" presence, as Christ is really present in the Eucharist. It less of a presence that Christ's sacrament presence in the liturgical action of Baptism, and yet more than Christ's sacramental presence in the reading of Scripture.

    A photo of a person conveys the presence of the recollected memory of the person, a painting an idealized memory or theme that the artist wants to invoke, but they are not a sense of the presence of the person, but only memory or invoked thought.

    An Icon though, is different. It is certain manifestation of the presence of the person, a prayer in oil and pigment that neither indicates nor invokes but makes present the presence of the individual through which the physical reality of the icon places us into contact with.

    The West recoils at the thought of the Saints, let alone God, having a presence here and now with it. Protestantism is much more comfortable with God being over there, not here and now. The classical themes of iconoclasim, of the pagan, heretical Catholic, or Protestant varieties boil down to the revulsion in man for a God who walks with us, and who brings along with Him in His courtiers, who are approved not by man by God. The West is ok with a God that is close, but not too close. The icon makes God too close and that is why iconoclasim must be a hallmark of the modern religious experience.

  7. Exactly! Icons and their method of 'being' go directly against the Western worldview and the very fact of their "true participation" - not just symbolic remembrance of the portrayed subject - is something not many successfully wrap their minds around. I have given up counting the number of times I have heard: "But isn't an icon the same as a painting or a statue?" And this even from people who are supposed to know better within the institutional Church itself. Further, the locatedness of icons between true sacraments and sacramentals as generally understood, often leaves people thinking either a mistake is being made or the persons elaborating the topic are either ignorant or heretic or both. None of which is the case.

    In the East, the "certain presence of the subject," which leads to the icon-as-participation rather than icon-as-symbolic-remembrance, is considered to arise from the icon having been invested with the 'energeia' of God when named and blessed (neither the 'essence' of God, which is His nature, nor just His grace. And both naming and blessing are necessary, not just the former or the latter). In the West, however, the best we seem to have come up with so far has been 'grace' as a word to define things, so many subtleties in terms of 'how' an icon is invested with grace and 'what' kind of grace this is, compared to that in paintings and statues, has remained absent from the theological and popular discourses. Thus, a de facto contribution has been both made and maintained in the Western Church to foreclosing the provision of an appropriate understanding of icons and how they operate in relation to God.

    A few things need to be clarified:

    1) You said an icon is "a prayer in oil and pigment." Icons, since time immemorial, have been written in water, not oil. This because it was (a) more easily accessible, (b) cheaper and (c) part of the providence of God right from the beginning of creation in Genesis. In fact, the very process of writing an icon, including how the gold/silver leaf is applied and the icon's levels are built up, is considered to theologically mirror the process employed by God while creating the universe. Hence, the iconographer becomes a co-creator with God to make the icon participatory. Using oil (or even synthetics) for icons is a relatively late invention - if it can even be called that. And if you are in the company of a purist, you will hear the rebuttal that icons written in oil directly violate tradition. In other words, oil is a short-cut of the writing process. It is certainly easier to use than water.

    2) You said that an icon "neither indicates nor invokes." I disagree. Specifically, when one prays in front of an icon, one is directly invoking the participatory presence that is in the icon, with such an invocation then being directly transferred to the holy or divine person/s portrayed therein.

    3) You added that "Protestantism is much more comfortable with God being over there, not here and now." I respond that even Catholicism is doing this to some degree, albeit to a lesser extent. I furthermore state that it is not just a "revulsion in man for a God who walks with us" that we are seeing, but an actual revulsion against God Who wants to be in us, not just with us. And this within Catholicism itself.

    4) You added, "The West is ok with a God that is close, but not too close." I respond that it is precisely why we need icons even more in the West today, because the Father Himself wants to be (and has always wanted to be, since day one) with us in a way that is "too close," rather than just not close.

    That said, I noticed that you spoke about "deconstruction and reconstruction..." Are you, by any chance, a social constructionist?

    I thoroughly enjoyed your post. Thank you for that!

  8. As I did yours. It is good to see another bird around here.

    It has been a real long time since I have seen someone use "energeia", let alone use it without equating it with grace. Brings back memories from long ago.

    I wish to dial into a few things, but first a simple question: Would you mind sharing your thoughts on reproductions of icons -- you know the laminated cardstock / varnished onto wood variety. I have always wanted to hear someone with knowledge and love for the subject speak towards those specific pieces.

    First, I believe that we are on the same page for, when I was speaking of "neither indicates nor invokes", I was trying to stress that icons are not for the viewer of the icon placeholders/reminders/moments that point backward towards subjective memories nor forward towards thoughts, considerations, and imaginations. They convey presence and are a manifestation of the presence of the icon's subject in it of the icon itself. If we, as you do, use invoke to mean to invite the subject of the invocation to participate and act, then yes. But also I would say that an icon convey's the presence even in the absence of the viewer invoking anything at all. An icon of the Theotokos still is a certain manifestation of the Virgin's presence even if the parish is empty.

    Secondly, I agree that there are many within Catholicism that are more comfortable with a God that is not too close, but I would argue that they are within Catholicism and it is not Catholicism itself. Whereas, I would argue that Protestantism, itself, is predicated on desiring a God to be close but not too close. It is at, its heart, iconoclastic. Even if one gets into the supposed spiritual imminence that is spoken of in the charismatic movement, that all blows away as so much hot air if one whips out an icon of the Seat of Wisdom.

    Great Bear has spoken in the past equally on the fall of the West and her institutions. You can see in this the iconoclastic hatred for God and His icons. It might be argued that what worth there is in modern western mysticism is the exploration of man himself as a living icon of God. What is modern Western society but self-hatred of itself, of man being an icon of God. Western society hates icons and hates itself all the more so because it has glimpsed in its mystics man as icon, and thus everything that gave rise to this thought must be destroyed, including the icon itself.

    You asked if I was a "social constructionist". No, not at all. I am a Christian Neo-Platonist with a few other things mixed in. HOWEVER, I do believe that people and societies do engage in social constructionism and that doing so is generally a bad thing, even if such a sociological construct technically works. As a former engineer, the construction of that bridge has to function based on adherence to reality not on a social construct. Societies and institutions cannot be inorganically constructed based on social compacts but they need to be organically grown via those societies and institutions adherence to their type and teleological ends. The avoidance of entropy in sociological institutions is not escaped via constructed compacts -- lifeboats against nihilism -- but instead by escaping the gravitational pull of the nothingness, from which all things came, and the decay of sin, which mars all things, by conforming oneself to one's teleology which for man is accomplished through the illumination of the soul which is conformity to Christ through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit for the glory and glorification of the Father, who is the light before all ages and unto all ages so the He may be all in all.

  9. Energeia does not equate with grace, as we know. That is why I made the distinction clear. Yet some remain unable to comprehend the difference. Energeia is precisely what icons are invested with upon being named and blessed. It is what differentiates them from religious paintings/statues.

    Here is an easy exercise for the creatures of the Woodlands: Place an icon (named, blessed) next to a religious painting. Let a couple of days go by, then stand (or sit) in front of them. In front of which one do you feel more at peace?

    Icon reproductions: I detest them with a passion. Not only do repros circumvent the writing process - a prayer in itself, a labor of love to Love. There is also a 'feel' to them that they are unlike the originals. Carry out the exercise with a repro substituted for the religious painting - you will see the difference. That said, icon repros can be wonder-working, should God choose to do so (reports of oil/myrrh streaming from them are numerous). They are much cheaper than original icons as they are mass produced. Then there is the question of execution - is the repro poorly or masterfully reproduced? Several levels exist.

    Invoking: you are correct. The icon does invoke the participatory presence when prayer is said. But regardless of whether one is praying in front of the icon or not, that presence remains. Again, this is part of the difference between icons and paintings/statues.

    Christianity and God Who desires intimacy: I agree. Many Catholics "are more comfortable with a God that is not too close." Yet, this is not Catholicism itself, as you said, and I add it is what Catholicism has largely become these days in the West. Many, many people are scared of God, in particular the Father. Yet all God ever wanted - and still wants - from us can be boiled down to two things: intimacy and love. It's that simple. If you really love someone with your whole heart, soul, mind and being (Mt 22:37 etc), why would you not want to be close? Protestantism is "predicated on desiring a God to be close but not too close," because it was based on rebellion, not love.

    Iconoclasm: What we are witnessing now in the Western Church is fast reaching the point of superceding the previous iconoclastic periods. But this time, two major differences exist: (1) the iconoclasm is not coming from without, but from within, the Church itself - i.e., not imposed by any external authority; and (2) there is no grass-roots opposition/resistance to it from the people. That is why it has been so successful thus far. In previous iconoclastic periods, there was internal destruction in the Church, but the people strongly resisted to the point of creating even more icons, learning more about them, training more people 'underground,' hiding the icons in their homes, venerating them, and so on and so forth. This latter factor is now missing as a whole. And that is why the destruction we are witnessing keeps spreading in the way it has.

    Modern Western mysticism: That is a joke as far as I'm concerned (with all due respect to whoever may think otherwise). But it is too long a subject to enter into here in this post, so I will not proceed on this topic.

    Man as icon of God: This! This is exactly where the inversion is still occurring. You cannot have man as true icon of God unless man remains linked to God in his heart and soul in the first place. Otherwise, where is Life? You end up with man as icon of something else - or rather, someone else. This process is at the very heart of what we are seeing and why it is iconoclastic. We have ended up with the image of the beast being perpetuated (unknowingly by most), rather than the image of God, which has become largely covered up. But this does not mean that the situation must remain so...

    As you said, "people and societies do engage in constructionism and that doing so is a generally a bad thing." It is this movement that has been at the root of the subjective relativism present in the West. This is it.

  10. Excellent discussion. We need more of this Bear. Thanks and blessings to all. I would like to hear more on social constructive-ism. It sounds like the basis for political correctness which is essentially a veiling or distortion of the truth.

    1. Which means we need a greater variety of woodland creatures than just a Bear. The Bear act is wearing thin, and Francis is simply neither interesting nor relevant to me. A call went out for Cub Reporters. With greater variety and the Bear not overwhelmed by his two jobs - ephemerist and novelist, we may be able to keep SCB open. At the moment, the Bear is stretched very thin and choices may have to be made.

    2. Bear--

      Is it possible to leave your blog open for discussion on various topics without you having to enter the fray? Lurker #59, say, could open a discussion with a subject and let the chips of opinion fall where they may. But this idea may not work because the Bear would have to oversee the conversation so it wouldn't get out of hand. What do you say Bear?

    3. Anyone is invited to submit material. Trusted persons could certainly be given the keys to the ephemeris for posting. I have not previewed this one, or participated in the discussion. I do keep the combox monitored just for those rare occassions when it needs it.

      As far as an open thread or something, I could start those once in awhile - monitoring is no great demand on my time. I don't see much attention devoted ro Pope Francis; I am pretty much done with him,. The world was a very different place when the Bear reappeared. Eventually, the woodlands had to go to war. And while some of the edifying charm was lost, we still had a lot of fun. I see a return to topics of a more useful nature in living out our lives as followers of Christ. God willing, I will live long enough to see if the Church will finally abandon the truth or not. There is still a chance that Jorge Bergoglio is a fluke, but only time will tell.

      It would be my strong preference to maintain SCB. I recognize that news about my series of novels is an unwelcome intrusion, and keep all but extraordinary items on the separate writing blog. But the fact remains this is where the traffic is, and I hope readers can appreciate that this is the voice I made and is there to promote a book that really is blacklisted.

      If some readers want to consider it a 29.99 donation with a free book, I will be more than happy to send an autographed copy. The occasional presence of the Bear's very best human friend in the woodlands should be something the kind beasts should be able to tolerate.

  11. An STD is a sexually transmitted disease.


Moderation is On.

Featured Post

Judging Angels Chapter 1 Read by Author

Quick commercial for free, no-strings-attached gift of a professionally produced audio book of Judging Angels, Chapter 1: Last Things, read...