Readers Give Information about Statues, Icons and the Eastern Tradition

by David Clayton on February 26, 2013

Readers may remember that I have posted a couple of pieces recently featuring sacred images from the Russia that are statues (not relief carving, full 3-D images). As I mentioned, I had been under the impression that although they were not forbidden, that by tradition they were not produced and was surprised that the examples shown existed. I suggested that the reason they were discouraged was because it is difficult to produce a three-dimensional image that is consistent with the theology of sacred images as applied to the icon (for example, the deliberated elimination of space to suggest the heavenly realm). But I couldn’t give much more information about their existence and place in the tradition of the Eastern Church.

I was happy to receive responses from two Orthodox Christians in regard to the attitude to statues in the East which are helpful, I think, and I reproduce them here.

 The first is from Bishop Jerome, Bishop of Manhattan of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia and this seems to summarise the situation nicely. He says: The reason that statues are avoided in the Orthodox Church (and in some of the Eastern Catholic Churches) is not that they were seen as “heretical”, but as part of the struggle to overcome the iconoclasts. Prior to the iconoclastic controversy, there were bas-relief representations of holy figures in the East, and in Russia the iconoclasts seem not to have been as virulent as they were in Constantinople. Three-dimensional figures were used to some extent again in Russia in certain places, such as the cathedral of the Ss. Peter & Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg, here the Royal Gates were topped by a small statue, or in the dome of St.Isaac’s cathedral where there are statues of Angels.”

HodegetriaThe second made reference to an article published in a magazine published by an Orthodox church in Texas, Ember Tidings about statues in the Eastern Church, here (h/t Fr Anthony). This gives some history of the creation of statues, reinforcing the summary of the situation given above by Fr Jerome. It closes with the following point: ‘The 1920’s discovered the Orthodox painted icon, the 1970’s the Orthodox statues. It appears the sometimes heated “two dimensional vs. three dimensional image” argument could be another example of culture intruding upon the faith.’

This second article brings up a couple of interesting thoughts. First, some of the examples that are shown in the pictures are of statues East and West. This shows clearly that the tradition of statues was well established early on and not always a minor part of the sacred imagery as it became later in the Eastern Church. It also reinforces one of the points made above. It does seem to me that a strict application of the theology of the icon as I have been taught it, would mitigate against the production of three-dimensional images. But the existence of a strong tradition of statues raises this question in my mind: if the statue which by its nature occupies three-dimensional space is permitted, does this mean that there ought to be greater freedom in 2-D images that create the illusion of space? Has anyone thought about this at all I wonder? Perhaps one could, for example, make the distinction between real 3-D space and illusional space critical in permitting statues? 


Pictures from top: the Good Shepherd, 3rd century from the catacombs; 10th century Contantinople; Our Lady of Monserrat, Spain, 12th century.


{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Alexey February 28, 2013 at 8:33 am

“in Russia the iconoclasts seem not to have been as virulent as they were in Constantinople … the cathedral of the Ss. Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg”

The reader realizes that this excursion in history bridges near a thousand years:
Byzantine Iconoclasm: AD 726 – 787 and 814 – 842.
Baptism of Russia: AD 988.
Founding of Saint Petersburg: 1703.
The Peter and Paul Cathedral built: 1712–1733.

It needs to be noted, for clarity, that Russia was never a seat of iconoclasm till the 1917 collapse. However, Russia inherited Byzantine Orthodoxy and with it, the traditions shaped by the Byzatine iconoclasm. The aesthetics of St. Petersburg reflect a departure from historical Russian iconography and architecture (witness the sharp spire of the Peter and Paul Cathedral), and that created room for liberties such as sculptural elements in its churches. Since about that time we see realistic shading in Russian icons as well, which gradually replaced traditional hatching. By 19c. Russian icons lose their medieval quality in treatment of space and rediscover it only when iconography was revived in late 20c. and brought back to its medieval norm.


Christopher B. Warner February 28, 2013 at 12:24 pm

Mr. Clayton,
Thank you for addressing the fact that statues are also part of the Eastern tradition. In Armenia and Georgia, for example, one will find very few icons. They primarily use statutes for prayer aids. This makes sense, though, since they were outside the Greco-Persian Empire of Alexander. As you probably know, the icon originates in Persian portraiture. It is my understanding that the Eastern theology of icons focuses upon the fecundity of prayer with sacred images. Images that are effective prayer tools are not always the most artisticly sophistocated since some forms of physical beauty can sometimes be distracting to prayer. Traditional icons are especially effective prayer tools because they draw attention to the eyes of Christ and His saints. Naturally, personal relationship is fostered through eye contact. Traditional icons also bost unbroken lineage to past portraits which are true to the acctual likeness of the person represented. May beauty ever inspire Christian prayer, orthodoxy, and harmony.
Christopher B. Warner


jeanette October 31, 2013 at 6:25 am

Perhaps somewhat simply, I see religious statues as Icons in the round, and just another of the many ways God uses to draw the believer into the mystery which is the Incarnation.


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