Saturday, June 10, 2017

What is Truth? Icons Revealed

The Rublev Trinity, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow 

Icons Revealed
There exists the icon of the Holy Trinity by Saint Andrei Rublev; therefore, God exists (Saint Pavel Florenski).
In our 21st century Western world, base and over-saturated with materiality and sensuality - a growing wasteland that, for the most part, neither knows God, nor does it want to know God - icons are silent, but active, witnesses to the truth. They are an ever-present act of 'being' and defiance in the face of those who would eradicate the Face of God from His earth. Icons sing the songs of angels as they remain hung on walls, stuck on shelves or hidden in storage closets, and do not speak. They praise the Lord of hosts despite being unable to move. They testify without cease to the Divine Life even as they possess no life of their own. But as Pontius Pilate said, "What is truth?" (Jn 18:38).

In His discourse during the Last Supper, Christ proclaimed, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me" (Jn 14:6). It is also common knowledge that icons have their theological basis in the Incarnation. In what other ways do icons witness to the Truth?

God Is Beauty and Beautiful

Inside the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, Guatemala
(Credit: Tatiana Berestova, 2011).

Beauty will save the world (Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevski).

The British poet John Keats is reported to have said, "Beauty is truth and truth is beauty." But the sixth century theologian known as Dionysus the Aeropagite had declared that God is both beautiful and Beauty, with the latter in actuality being one of the divine names. Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine concurred in their respective Summa Theologica and Confessions. The fourth century monk Evagrius Ponticus declared that the spirit of beauty was the Holy Spirit, while the theologian Paul Evdokimov clarified that it is the Spirit Who, in reality, is the divine iconographer when icons are being written in an appropriate manner. Saint Joseph of Volokolamsk added, "It is not the object (the physical icon) which is venerated, but the Beauty which, by resemblance, the icon transmits mysteriously." 

"The Father is greater than I" (Jn 14:28).

Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, is the Truth by His own proclamation. But He is also Beauty not solely due to His divine nature, Kingship and glory, but also because He is the Vera Icona of the Father - Ineffable Beauty Himself and the Fount of all beauty - as revealed to the human person by Him who is the Spirit of beauty. It was Christ the Icon who gave us the first icon through the cloth He sent to King Abgar of Edessa by means of one of the 70 disciples (cf Lk 10:1), Thaddeus of Edessa, to heal Abgar of his illness at the personal invitation of the latter. This rectangular piece of cloth, upon its placement in the hands of Abgar together with a short letter bearing Christ's dictated reply to him, was found to bear the very image of the Savior imprinted on it (Codex Vossianus Latinus Q 69), making it the first material icon to be given by God to humanity. The beautiful Father had sent His Icon to earth to feed a starving world with the Bread of Life through the institution of the Holy Eucharist and to lift its darkened spirits with a bit of His divine beauty through the institution of holy icons, all of which manifest the Divine Light.

Icons, therefore, insofar as they are beautifully-made, bringing forth all the exquisiteness possible within their power through, at least, a certain level of skill in combination with prayer and the action of the Holy Spirit, witness with volumes of concurrent eloquence and silence to the Beauty Who is Truth from even before their investiture with the energeia of God upon having been named and blessed. According to Leonid Ouspensky, they stand "on a level with the Holy Scriptures and with the Cross, as one of the forms of revelation and knowledge of God, in which Divine and human will and action become blended" (The Meaning of Icons). They present aesthetic beauty to the sensory eye of the beholder and transcendent beauty to his or her spiritual eye, 'capturing' and facilitating the elevation of the person's spirit to God.

The Ugliness of the Beast

Church of the Holy Trinity, Leipzig, Germany
Considered "a masterpiece" (Credit: Martin Geisler, 2016).

Non possumus amare nisi pulchra (Saint Augustine).

Ugliness. Hideousness. Facelessness. Meaninglessness. Desolateness.

The void.

Taken together, iconoclasm. A polite ecclesiastical euphemism for totalitarianism.

All of them are no more and no less than the marks - the 'footprints' - of the beast and his abyss (cf. Rv 13:16-18). All of the above (and more), in essence and in fact, are more expansive and multi-varied facets of that specific phenomenon known as the abomination of desolation that had been spoken about by the prophet Daniel (cf. Dn 9:27; Mt 24:15). And all of them have one aim: to eradicate from the face of both the Church and the earth not just the likeness of God, which is already fractured to differing degrees in human persons, but the very image of God from the face of humankind.

The beast knows that neither himself, nor his cronies and their agents - the latter, willing or unwilling - can ever eradicate the invisible image of God that is imprinted upon the heart of the soul of the human person. That is there to stay; it is untouchable, no matter whether the heart of that soul is open or closed. However, the beast also knows that if he can succeed in covering up that image with layer upon layer, upon layer on yet another layer, of grime, ugliness, hideousness, facelessness, meaninglessness, desolateness and sin, he will have won a large part of the battle in making his own the heart and mind of that person. And the preceding step to achieving that victory in an easier way on a mass scale is precisely to eradicate the visible image of God from the face of the Church and the earth.

Without beauty, there is nothing left in the world worth doing (Paul Evdokimov).

The image - namely, the holy icon - is not just a part of Christianity; like some individuals these days, erudite or not so erudite, would claim that it is in conjunction with other external trappings of the Faith as handed down to us throughout the centuries. It is an intrinsic part of Christianity itself, instituted by Christ Himself. Get rid of the icon, therefore, which as we have seen is an icon of the Icon of the Father and this regardless of the deified person who is depicted therein, and you will have succeeded in eliminating a major obstacle to getting rid of Christianity itself. This by wiping out the visible image of God from the hearts and minds of humankind.

The icon provides wounded and struggling humanity, believers and non-believers alike, with the healing power of both the beauty of God and God who is Beauty Himself. As declared by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount, "Your heavenly Father makes his sun rise on the bad and the good" (Mt 5:45). The icon thus splits apart the rule of the beast and saves humanity from eternal destruction. Get rid of beauty by getting rid of the icon and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and you will have gotten rid of God.

© Marcelle Bartolo-Abela, aka the Bald Eagle.


  1. I enjoyed reading this. Icons are fascinating and beautiful. Some of them draw us in more than others and it is mystifying, why some speak to us and others may not. The drawn and rather dour expression on the original Black Madonna is one of my favorites, but I don't know why exactly. It is intriguing to think of them as having a supernatural impact aside from the material. Thank you for an interesting article.

    1. Thanks, Kathleen1031. It all depends on what God wants to use to draw one in. Perhaps what is mysteriously attractive in the icon of the Black Madonna are two things: (1) the inherent sorrow in the icon, and (2) that it was written by Saint Luke on a the face of a table made by Christ, while conversing with the Virgin Mary.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this. Thank you.

  3. Thank you for this article. I recall the great Fr. George Rutler, parish priest of the archdiocese of NYC, proponent of the death penalty (sorry, Bear), producer of the fantastic EWTN show "Christ in the City", and book writer, including a great bio on St. John Vianney, beautifully and painstakingly decorated the sanctuary of his Church in midtown Manhattan with icons. It was truly a sight to behold, and a great respite from the crazy world of NYC.
    Unfortunately, when Fr. Rutler was transferred to St. Michaels Church in Hell's Kitchen, the incoming pastor proceeded to tear all of the icons down. Why would he do that? As Marcelle wrote, it's the abomination of desolation.

    Btw, speaking of Andrei Rublev, you might check out the Russian icon movie named after him. It's really long though!

  4. You're welcome. I remember that story about Rutler and the priest who came after him. There is a hatred going around for all things beautiful and associated with beauty, under a variety of rationalizations.

    I had seen that movie about Andrei RUblev. Long, but good.

  5. As a practical matter, it makes it easier to rent out whoever has the cash for a hall, swimsuit competition, whatever. And sell when it nobody shows up for Mass anymore. Our prelates are thinking ahead!


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