Saturday, June 17, 2017

Icons as Resistance

"Please, help my man!"

In our time it is the icon that struggles for the Church (Leonid Ouspensky).

In times past, but not remote, icons were a strong part of the resistance in the Church against the iconoclasm and oppression du jour. They can still be used very effectively in this way.

The people would buy an icon (or more) from a master-iconographer or the advanced students in the master's workshop, have it blessed in the appropriate manner and set it up with ceremony in their home. Those unable to afford an original icon would make sacrifices to buy one - that is how vital the icon was considered to be in regard to one's relationship with God, one's faith and the Christian spiritual journey. They would never dream of buying something plastic when this started to exist. Others would trade some of the tools they used in everyday life - for example, farmer's tools - for a real icon until they could pay for it. Yet others would take lessons over a period of time in order to learn how to write an icon or two for themselves, which was cheaper in the long run than buying a single icon outright - in particular if one then managed to get set up writing icons for the whole neighborhood. These kinds of icons are known as "popular icons" due to their lack of sufficient finesse in comparison to those written by the masters. They tended to be very prevalent in Ukraine.

Other people would learn to write icons by studying several older icons in depth, with the icons per se being the real teachers. Many Russian master-iconographers started out this way, in fact, because they were often so poor that they could not afford to take lessons. Some others, including priests and the laity, would defend the icon against usurpers and potential usurpers with their own lives - and in return, God would reward the people for their faith with nothing less than spectacular shows of His divine intervention. These shows often paralleled those of the Old Testament era with regard to their largesse and physical impossibility by natural means. And the fact remains that God still acts in such a manner, to this day, where icons are concerned.

Icons - Hidden, but Triumphant

The Theotokos of Kazan

You deigned to reveal Your face to me like a formless sun (Symeon the New Theologian).

According to Saint Pavel Florensky, icons should be the product of revelation, not mass production. Benedict XVI said the same thing. Some original icons have relics embedded in them. Others do not. Some are covered in part with precious stones and/or riza - a 'robe' or covering made of precious metal/s. Some are enshrined in a kiot, which is a beautifully hand-carved wooden frame that, not infrequently, costs as much as the icon due to its intricate work. Other icons are placed on a shelf in a prayer corner or hung on the wall. Some icons are adorned with a rushnyk - a hand-woven colored 'towel' with a distinctive pattern and that is used to handle the icon so as not to dirty it with oily fingerprints. Other icons are adorned with flowers. All icons, however, are the focus of veneration, fostering and facilitating prayer of the heart. They are also made to be kissed with love, the kisses given being transferred to the prototype.

"I love you, Mama"

In the home, the original icon is placed in the main room where the family gathers and which, preferably, faces east. This icon takes the place of what has become known these days as "your television." A pure beeswax candle made from the combs of hives is kept lit in front of the icon for the following reasons, according to Saint Nicodemus the Hagiorite:

  1. To glorify God Who is both Light and Who has brought forth the Light of the world;
  2. As an offering to the depicted prototype;
  3. To denote that the light of Christ has dispelled all the darkness;
  4. To honor the martyrs for the Faith;
  5. To manifest the inner joy that may be present in our souls;
  6. To symbolize any good works we may have done; and 
  7. As a reminder that if we turn to God, our sins and the sins of those for whom we pray shall be forgiven and burned away.

All the colors in an icon have meaning; none of them are arbitrary. Here are some meanings of the most frequent colors that can be found in an original icon (Irina Yazykova):

  1. Red is the color of the earth, blood, sacrifice and royalty; 
  2. Blue denotes the divinity, the heavens, purity and having been chosen; 
  3. Green is the color of the Holy Spirit, eternal life and blossoming in God;
  4. White denotes the transfiguration, purity and the robes of those who do justice;
  5. Purple denotes royalty; whereas
  6. Black is the color of darkness, the grave and the abyss.
Darker shades of the above tend to indicate the impeccable brilliance of the Divine Light that has often been perceived by humanity as blinding darkness (i.e., the apophatic darkness). The gold or silver halo around the head of the depicted prototype also denote the Light and indicate that the person is a saint, angel or divine Person. Any persons portrayed without halos in icons have either not yet become saints or pertain to evil. 

A Brief Theology of Pure Beeswax Candles

"We venerate You, O God"

Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God (Mt 5:8).

One hundred percent pure beeswax candles are used, to be lit in front of the icon - not 51% 'pure' as per the latest USCCB guidelines or something made out of paraffin that you buy at the Dollar Store. The main reasons for this are as follows, with some of the reasons coming from Saint Symeon of Thessaloniki:
  1. God the Father is the Provider. Everything that is offered to Him in an original icon written in accordance with traditional practice comes from the earth and its animals. No man-made materials are used. Even the brushes employed for painting the icon come from the tails of animals. The offering returned to God, therefore, when the icon is installed comes from His own provision to humankind. That is why only natural, primary materials should be employed. In a parallel manner, the candles used to light up the icon should come directly from the bees He created, not from secondary materials. Using candles of pure beeswax thus indicates one's faith that the Father will, indeed, provide during times of hardship for His people, the family or the person concerned, as He did without fail for the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt;
  2. The purity of the beeswax symbolizes the purity that should be in our hearts and souls. God is pure; He is Immaculate. As such He cannot live where the darkness of sin resides, even though He has never stopped intensely desiring to come and live not just with us, but in us - namely, in the very heart of our souls as He had lived in Adam and Eve during the first days of creation (albeit not in an identical manner), and as He has lived in a handful of human persons since then who have resided fully in the Divine Will;
  3. Beeswax candles give off a sweet, delicate scent. This scent is considered to symbolize the sweet aroma that should emanate from our souls as a result of divine grace;
  4. Candles made out of pure beeswax are supple, regardless of whether they are thick or thin. This quality thus symbolizes the flexibility that should characterize our hearts and souls until they have been made firm by the Gospel; and
  5. As the pure candles feed the flame while they burn, they symbolize our struggle on the Christian journey with the necessary, but beautiful, processes of purification, illumination and deification.
© Marcelle Bartolo-Abela, aka Bald Eagle.


  1. Another great article! We use oil to burn a lamp in front of or icons. It is rich in Biblical symbolism, and keeping the reservoir full and trimming the wick can be experienced in different ways. Olive oil is a minor financial sacrifice. It also has the advantage of being lit 24/7 as a perpetual witness, and the home's first line of defense against unwholesome spirits.

    We use a twisted wire piece with a bit of wick held above, and the rest of the wick trailing into the oil in the reservoir. The metal piece simply lies across the reservoir lip. Others use little disks of cork with a hard wick of some sort stuck through it. It floats on the oil, and is just replaced with a new one when it is burned up.

    Whenever an Orthodox person enters a church (often after the liturgy has begun - Orthodox Standard Tiime) he first venerates the icon in the front of the church, then lights a small beeswax taper which joins all the others stuck in little receptacles in a magnificent holder or in a humble container of sand.

    Children were caught playing with the extinguished candles after Divine Liturgy and were reprimanded, since the candles themselves were considered holy. (Nadab and Abihiu!)

  2. Some companies have cashed in by marketing "icons" of Martin Luther King and whoever. So sad. Edging to more legitimate are icons of Western saints, but often they are more representational (although the same could be said of Russian icons of Russian saints).

    We have all seen the silver covers that expose only the face of the subject. What are those and what is their purpose?

    I will not argue against the unique value of hand-written icons (if anyone is curious, icons are said to be "written," not painted) but faithful reproductions of traditional icons comprise most of the Bear's collection, which are most of them blessed. Between having no icons and decent mass-produced icons, the Bear would rather not have empty icon corner. We have a collection of seasonal icons that are appropriately rotated too.

    Perhaps Bald Eagle might comment on this issue. (Again? Poor old Bear has such a bad memory.)

    1. 1) Re 'icons' of Dr. King and so on, those are not icons, but falsehoods. You cannot have an icon of someone who is not a saint, blessed or venerable.

      2) Icons of Western saints are legitimate, in keeping with the edicts of the Catholic Church on sacred/liturgical art - as long as they are written in the way/s they are supposed to be. Incidentally, icons are not 'property' of the Orthodox Church, but of the Church - hence, both Catholic and Orthodox, not the latter alone. As for the term "representational," it depends on what you mean by that.

      3) The silver covers you refer to are called rizas - I addressed it in the article as the 'robe' or 'covering' of the icon. Rizas can be either partial, covering some parts of the icon, or full, thus covering every part of the icon except the face/s. Rizas used to be given as a 'gift' to the depicted saint/s, often after having received a grace or graces due to their intercession.

      4) "Written" v. "painted:" Actually, there is a whole argument about that, with iconographers in the West often insisting that an icon is written, whereas many iconographers in the East refer to it as painted. It is more the issue of who is 'purer,' rather than anything else that makes a tangible difference.

      5) Naturally, if one cannot afford a genuine icon, it is better to have some "of the cardstock variety," than none at all. That said, a difference does exist and the best way to detect it is to place a real icon next to one that is mass-produced. You will experience the difference beyond the fact that one is genuine and the other is not.

  3. P.S. LOVE the picture of the baby kissing the icon! Yes, exactly so!

  4. Check out this icon story:

    1. Beautiful. It is well-known that icons dumped into the ocean - or thrown into it precisely to save them from those who wanted to destroy them - eventually 'find' their way back to the people. That icon of Our Lady of the Sign is a "popular" one that was written by a regular person, not a maser.

  5. Bald Eagle ~ Would it be possible for you to write a response, or do a full article, that would cover your recommendations as to where to purchase both written icons and reproductions as well as how to tell if a place (monastery /business) is reputable/disreputable? Sometimes it is hard to know who to trust for that last one. There is an Orthodox monastery in the relative vicinity of myself and is thus the go to place for reproductions but if you look the monastery up on the net, you can find posts of some Orthodox staying to stay away (while others encourage purchases)? It is a tricky question as you have pointed out the writing / manufacture of the icon is a prayer.

    1. I won't answer the question, but it is not surprising to find disagreement among Orthodox :-) You might inquire at local Orthodox churches as it is possible the priest's wife or some else might write icons properly for a reasonable price.

    2. Will do, Owl, in one of my next posts! Though I don't want to come across as shilling for anyone.


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