How To Properly Read and Write Icons

John ArmstrongChurch Tradition, Prayer, Spirituality, The Church

In my previous blog on icons I have very specifically noted that icons were written, not painted. This is a distinction that has significant meaning to those who discover that icons are a “window” for prayer, meditation and worship. I count myself among such Christians now. I have several carefully chosen classical icons in my place of prayer and private worship. I have the most famous of all icons, Christopancrator Christopantocrator. I also have an icon of the blessed Trinity and one of Saint Benedict, a role model Christian to me. These icons help me to pray and provide for me windows into the hopes I have for my own life. I also have an icon of the Apostle Paul. The icon I most treasure, since my dear friend Father Wilbur Ellsworth gave it to me on my 60th birthday, is an icon of the Apostle John, after whom I was named by my parents. When I enter my worship chapel (an enclosed and heated gazebo that can be used 24/7) I am surrounded by these great written works alongside of my Bible(s) and prayer books. I have made it my goal to learn how to use these icons day-to-day so that I can live my ancient faith in the present moment.

I do not know if you have ever looked at an icon carefully, that you really looked at it intently and for some time. If you have you may at first have found the experience rather unsettling. I did, and sometimes still do, find them unsettling. Frederica Mathewes-Green , in her helpful new book The Open Door: Entering the Sanctuary of Icons and Prayer (Paraclete Press) urges readers to look at the Pantocrator icon from St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, Egypt. This is the oldest known icon of Christ. She urges readers to use paper to cover the picture so you can only see one eye at a time. Then switch the paper and look at the other eye while you cover the one you first looked at. You will readily see that the right eye presents a penetrating stare, a stare Mathewes-Green says will make you wonder if this person knows more about you than you care for them to know. Now when you cover the right eye and look at the left eye of the icon you will see something different. On this side Christ’s face is peaceful and serene. Christ beckons you to come to him, to embrace him and love him. I actually did what Mathewes-Green suggested and she is right. The great truth of Christ’s person pours through this amazing window into your soul.

The writer of this famous icon was clearly trying to show two great truths. First, he wanted to show that Christ knows our sinfulness and everything there is to know about us. This is what Mathewes-Green calls a “surgical aspect.” But the iconographer clearly wants us to also observe the patient, listening side of Christ as well.

Let me develop this within the context of my own evangelical Protestant background. Through words I learn great truths about Christ. But words cannot move me to holy imagination as powerfully as an icon does. This icon is so beloved in church history precisely because it is so complete, so rich. No modern portrait art, seeking to imagine in the artist’s conception of things, can so powerfully reveal the Christ of orthodox theology as this icon. I agree with Mathewes-Green when she says, “People who get acclimated to icons begin to see classic Western religious paintings as accomplished and beautiful, but noisy.” That is my own experience too.

This really explains the power of the icon for me. I love art, all kinds of art. My one exception might be some forms of modern art that are radically existential and seem to have little or no meaning except what I give to it. But a truly faithful icon is not art in this sense at all. It is a “window” through which the worshiper can see and understand the mystery of the faith. I now understand why my Orthodox friends value icons so profoundly.