Do we have too high a regard for them? When I was young there was a TV advertisement for a candy bar that was chocolate-covered Turkish delight. The slogan ran: ‘Fry’s Turkish Delight- Full of Eastern Promise.’ Thanks to the wonder of You Tube I can indulge a bit of nostalgia as well as let you see advert here. The East it seems holds a fascination for the West. It evokes images of exotic mysticism that the West imagines, wrongly, it does not possess. I see this is a reflection of the general crisis in confidence of the West in its own culture. This has seen us ditch our own traditions and pull others things into the vacuum in an undiscerning and haphazard process. This is not always expressed so superficially as the Turkish delight advert and it is not always a bad thing. 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, of course.
However, the same superficial fascination that can be harnessed to sell candy bars and many other things – books, films and so on – has created a mystique about icons that is inappropriate, I feel.This isn’t simply a difference between the beliefs of the Eastern and Western churches (although that might be part of it). 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 my teacher, who is as Orthodox as they come, refers to this insistence on terminology 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.
Make no mistake, we have just been going through a terrible modern iconoclastic period and the veneration of sacred imagery must once again be raised to its proper place in our prayer and worship. I wonder though, if the pendulum is not swinging too far.
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.
I recently wrote a long article of several pages summarizing the theology of Theodore, whose icon is shown right, here. For those who haven’t the time, there are several points that come out of it that may be surprising to some:
1. The essence of the saint is not present in the icon. Therefore an icon is not praying with us, 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 sense of ‘image’. He did not refer to specific styles or traditions beyond that. Accordingly, his theology, applies as much to statues as much as two-dimensional images.
Read an account of the theology of icons of Theodore the Studite here
Read an account of how the form of icons relates to the Catholic worldview here