Just What Do Catholics Believe About Icons?

by David Clayton on May 24, 2010

Are icons really superior to other forms of sacred art?

The growth of interest of icons, identified with the Eastern Church, has helped to ignite a greater movement towards the re-establishment of authentic Christian art in our churches. This is good. Very good.

However, the same process that has lead to a greater appreciation of the importance of icons has created as well, it seems, a misplaced mystique about icons to the detriment of a genuine appreciation of our own traditions. Whenever I write about icons I get responses from people who are very often Roman Rite Catholics who tell me that Catholics can’t paint icons, only Russians or Greeks can do it (even though the fact is that it is as much part of the Western tradition as the Eastern). Some tell me that only religious can paint them despite the fact that I know accepted and thriving icon painters who are not monks or nuns. I am told that I should not say that an artist ‘paints’ icons, rather that he ‘writes’ them; even though my teacher, who is as Orthodox as they come and a respected authority in the Orthodox world, refers to this pedantic insistence on the word ‘write’ as ‘a bit precious’. (I am told that this happens because the word for write and paint is the same in Greek.) And, perhaps most importantly, people speak of icons as though the saint depicted is really present in the icon. So what does the Church really believe about icons? I have done my best to find out.

As I understand it, the orthodox view was articulated in the 7th Ecumenical Council and with a later clarification by the Synod of Constantinople, which finally closed the iconoclastic period in AD843. This is celebrated today in the Eastern Church as the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. The Church Father who expresses this is St Theodore the Studite. Theodore was abbot of the Studios Monastery in Constantinople and he is revered in the Eastern Church as well as Western. (He is probably more known in the Eastern Church.) What is ironic is that the error of attributing to the icon a presence of the saint by iconophiles (those who were in favour of them) is one of the things that the iconoclasts objected to so strongly that it provoked them into seeking to eliminate the use of sacred images altogether. Theodore, like the iconoclasts, opposed this view; but he provided an alternative theology that justified the use of sacred images.

 According to Theodore:

1. The essence of the saint is not present in the icon. It is just wood, gold, paint etc. The connection to the saint is made in our minds, especially through the imagination, when we see the characteristic likeness portrayed. So if the icon is covered up, for example, by metal cladding, it has no sacramental value (unless the cladding has been panelbeaten into a likeness, in which case it is the cladding that evokes the saint for us). Theodore illustrates with the point that once the icon becomes damaged so that the likeness is destroyed, it is just thrown away.

2. Icons, when worthy of veneration, are  like sacramentals.  Their value is that they predispose us to grace, they are not themselves channels of grace. This distinguishes them from sacraments.

3. Theodore’s theology applies as much to any form of art in which the characteristic likeness appears. Therefore the view that what we now consider to be the iconographic style is a higher form than the other traditions of the Western church, such as the gothic and the baroque, cannot be justified. Theodore spoke of ‘icons’, but only in the broad sense of the meaning of the  in Greek, meaning ‘image’. He did not refer to specific styles or traditions beyond that. Accordingly, his theology, applies as much to gothic and baroque art (the other two traditions cited by Pope Benedict XVI as authentically liturgical in his book the Spirit of the Liturgy) as it does to the iconographic style; it can also be applied to statues as it does two-dimensional images.

Furthermore, it should be pointed out that there is no canonical or dogmatic statement or account by any Church Father, Eastern or Western that I know of that that says that the iconographic style, as we now refer to it, is inherently superior to any other. Like the discussion of Theodore, the debate in the early Church was about the validity of images in general.

It may be a surprise for some to discover the theology of the iconographic style is it is generally articulated today (and which does distinguish the iconographic style from other forms of sacred art) is a modern development and did not exist until the 20th century. This doesn’t make it wrong, but it does make it new. We should be aware however, that it was developed by very anti-Catholic Russian Orthodox thinkers based in Paris (such as Ouspensky and Lossky). So while they did some great work in their assessment of their own tradition, they spoke in ignorance of other traditions. While their dismissal of other liturgical traditions may be fair from an Orthodox point of view (that is for the Orthodox to say) but has no basis in the teaching of the Catholic Church.

Eastern Rite Catholics might legitimately and reasonably say that the only form of sacred art that is appropriate for the Eastern Rite is the icon, and this might affect their choice of image for an icon corner in their homes. But it is just as legitimate for Roman Catholics look to their authentic liturgical traditions (which includes the iconographic) and consider them appropriate for the Roman Rite, and for use their own home.

To read an account of the theology of icons of Theodore the Studite, his works are still available. For an excellent summary of the whole debate regarding sacred art which includes an account of the theology of images develope by both Theodore and St John of Damascus, I recommend God’s Human Face by Cardinal Cristophe Schoenborn, published by Ignatius Press.

The icon at the top is the Triumph of Orthodoxy.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Douglas Bonneville May 24, 2010 at 3:32 pm

Would it be fair to say you “write” an icon if you are working in the Orthodox tradition, but you can “paint” one in the Gothic or some other new tradition using any method, theologically grounded or not, consciously or not, to produce an icon?

For instance, I’ve been studying the Flemish Classical method of painting, and love the methodology. I’m not sure I want to understand theological reasons, or try to backpeddle them into a 500 year old tradition of painting. I like the science of it well enough and would be content to let it speak for itself. The patience required for the many steps of the Flemish method are enough to teach any modern, Pollack-inspired, impatient artist a few virtues.

If we are to have a new renaissance of icon making in Catholicism, shouldn’t it be based on the very best of the methods we’ve learned in 2000 years (and many more) of painting traditions? Or should we just go at it willy-nilly since virtually no institutions of art bother to teach classical oil methods, and much less egg tempera?

For instance, the multi-layered, time intensive, optical color mixing method of the high Renaissance is enough in itself to put a dent in post-post-modern understandings of what painting (even more so, Art itself) is or can be again, if it were taken up with conviction. What if we merged a new visual style with the old, a Vatican II ecumensism, and JPIIs new evangelism with the best of the time honored oil tradtions? We’d have something new?


davidicons May 24, 2010 at 3:46 pm

Hi Douglas, thanks once again for the comment. It’s difficult to respond to so much here about how to re-establish the culture of beauty. As a general principle I argue for the reconnection with our artistic traditions (which is the liturgical traditions of the iconographic, the gothic and the baroque) in the spirit of understanding. Then, artists will understand the full visual vocabulary available to them and start to produce their own stuff as required today, but drawing on the timeless principles.

But in regard to ‘writing’ icons. The point I was making is that I see it as pedantic use of language that shrouds the process in mystery unnecessarily. Not even the Orthodox painters I know to say that they write icons. Also, icons are not an exclusively Orthodox or even Eastern form. They are as much part of the Catholic tradition. The Romanesque is iconographic for example. The study of iconographic form, is crucial to our re-establishing the culture of beauty, but they must be understood properly I feel. Here is another article I wrote for the Catholic News Agency that deals with the subject as well.



Deacon Lawrence May 26, 2010 at 3:40 pm

Hello David,
I agree. Too often when talking to Orthodox Iconographers I get a sense they feel the “west” is trying to “steal their stuff” as it were. This is a pity. The eastern church has developed a theology of icons which we should respect and learn from, but as Catholics we are not bound to their canons. This is essentially the position of Pope Benedict in his “Spirit of the Liturgy.” And there are Catholic iconographers who disagree with that.
I have had the same experience with iconographers, many of whom feel only Orthodox monks can paint icons and the first step in creating one is to go and cut down a tree.


lisa petrini August 13, 2010 at 10:45 pm

I do not mean to annoy you with this question, i apologize if i seem ignorant. Do you have to be catholic to paint/write icons?


davidicons August 14, 2010 at 7:22 am

No not at all. However, the artist is more likely to produce a good icon if they believe what the icon represents. Incidentally, I’m guessing that you are using the work ‘write’ out of respect and not wishing to cause offence. But don’t worry about using the word ‘write’. That just arises because in Greek there is no word ‘to paint’ that is distinct from ‘to write’ and there are a lot of Greek icon painters. We are communicating in English and so ‘paint’ is fine. If the process that produces an image involves having a brush in your hand, you’re dipping it in paint and then applying paint to a surface to create the image. then that sounds like painting to me!


jeanette November 14, 2013 at 7:19 am

Thank you for another interesting post -”Whenever I write about icons I get responses from people who are very often Roman Rite Catholics who tell me that Catholics can’t paint icons, only Russians or Greeks can do it (even though the fact is that it is as much part of the Western tradition as the Eastern). ..”
Well said.


Raven Wenner March 7, 2014 at 9:46 am

I would like to call attention to the incarnational Hispanic tradition of Retablos along the USA- Mexican borderlands (Arizona, New Mexico, south Texas). A Retablo is a sacred image painted on tin or a wood panel by a naive or untutored lay-person, often as an ex-voto. The artistic skills may be of high or low order, and depict gratitude for private apparitions, holy dreams, miraculous healings in the artist’s own family life. However lacking in skill–the palate often restricted to industrial or common house-paint to hand using only a single brush. A hand-lettered narrative of the grace or miracle in Spanish or English is always painted in the composition to testify to the gratitude of the person or family to which it was granted. Retablos hang grouped with other sacred images (often framed illustrations from old Catholic calendars) in poor homes with much the same spirit as the Russian icon corner, and are testimony to the vibrant faith of these rural Hispanic Catholics. I am not Hispanic, and have no art training; however the spirituality of retablos appealed to me when I lived some years in New Mexico and Arizona so over the years I found it natural to paint a retablo (acrylic on poplar boards from the local lumber yard) of sacred images which have come to me in prayer or dreams which i hang in my home because they are personal to me. that said, sometimes strangers have liked and bought them from me because it evoked a sense of gratitude for various blessings or deliverances in their own lives.


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