Mary and Child In the most interesting interview OSV conducted with Catholic iconographer Marek Czarnecki, that I referred to yesterday, we gain a sense of how we can properly understand the real language of icons. Before I quote from the second part of that OSV interview let me answer a question or two about this subject.

Am I suggesting that you cannot worship fully without icons? Not in the least. Am I suggesting that icons must be used in public worship? No. But are icons a form of idolatry? Those who answer yes to this question are numerous in evangelical Protestant circles and can easily impress others to follow their simplistic and iconoclastic reasoning without the evangelical having a framework for considering this subject. I am attempting to give such a framework and at the same time telling you why I use icons in my own worship.

Here is the second part of the interview that I began sharing yesterday from the (February 7, 2010) OSV.


OSV: It seems like there is a lot going on in icons that many of us are not aware of. Is that true?

Czarnecki: When you look at an icon, the meaning of it should be absolutely open. There shouldn’t be anything hidden in an icon. There shouldn’t be anything esoteric in an icon. There shouldn’t be anything so complicated in an icon that you can’t immediately start praying with it. It’s like the Gospels. You don’t need a degree in philosophy or theology to open up the Gospels and read them and understand them. The icon has to be exactly the same. . . . People think icons are some very complicated symbolic map, and they’re not. They express the reality of a person’s life. Iconographers only use signs and symbols when the language when the language of naturalism is inadequate to express a spiritual truth.

It’s forbidden to make an icon of God the Father because the First Person of the Trinity is inexpressible. Like when Jews write up the Torah, they leave an empty space, and that absolutely correct. We have no adequate expression of God the Father, even though our churches are filled with them. In order to express that Jesus is divine, we can only make an image of his physical presence. To show that he’s divine we have to use signs and symbols because there is no adequate way to express his divinity. So we start with a halo, we put a three-barred cross in his halo, and the Greek characters that in English look like WON, which is an abbreviation for “I am Who I am.” Y putting in those characters, we demonstrate what Christ himself said, which is, “I and the Father are One.” But there’s no way that I can figure out how to paint that so we have to lapse into the use of semantic symbols, but it should be minimal, and it should only be used when you can’t express something in a very straightforward way.

St. John OSV: For Westerners, icons can sometimes seem foreign, even off-putting. What’s behind that and how can we get past it?

Czarnecki: When the schism [between the Eastern and Western Churches] happened, it was such a profound thing, like a divorce. The Western Church moved toward more incarnational theology. The Eastern Church developed into more mystical theology. And the art in both churches reflects that theology. Both are correct. . . . Western art was much more naturalistic because it talked about the immanence of God in the world. Orthodox iconography just kept developing internally to show the transcendence of God in the world.

There are a couple of things that make the artistic language of the icon a little bit different than Western art, and one is the idea of space. When we make a naturalistic painting of a landscape, for example, an artist uses what’s called one-point perspective. You have a horizon line and all space recedes as it gets to the horizon line and things become smaller. In the icon, the idea is that we are looking through a window into that space of eternity. Since we’re looking into an eternal space, there can’t be a horizon. There can’t be an end. We use what’s called inverse, or reverse, perspective so that all things continually open up in front of us. . . . The other thing that’s different is the way the iconographer uses light. In a naturalistic painting, you always have some definite light source. In the icon, the light has to look like it comes from inside the figure and from many different points outside it. In an icon, you’ll never have cast shadows because a shadow means that there’s some light source.

OSV: If icons are looking into eternity, where does Western religious art look?

Czzarnecki: If you think of St. Francis of Assisi and that traditional act of making the first Nativity scene, what he was doing was starting the process of the humanization of Catholic art. . . . . When he made that Nativity scene and people were able to walk into a setting where they felt themselves participating in that space and God was participating in their space by statues, it was an articulation of God coming out into our space, and that’s an articulation of immanence.

It’s also a reflection of the very strong social mission of the Catholic Church. We aren’t afraid to get our feet dirty. I think of Dorothy Day. We put ourselves out into the world, go out into the world and find God.

Orthodoxy is inverted. It’s not better or worse, it’s just a different vision. In Orthodoxy, the approach is usually to leave the world, go find some high mountain, some dense forest, some dry desert and go into God’s space. That’s also the vision of the icon—to go into God’s space—whereas statues articulate God coming out into our space. Both ways are correct, but that schism created what I call a psychosis, two halves of the same picture.


Several years ago I was involved in a dialogue with a group of Anglican priests and lay folks in an annual meeting of the Anglican Mission in America in Dallas. I was in a room where Dr. James I. Packer and I were asked to discuss theology and ministry with mostly younger leaders. It was a memorable time for me. There was a moment when someone asked Dr. Packer if he still held to the view he held against religious art being used in worship as a clear violation of the second commandment. (He expresses such a view in his classic book, Knowing God.) I was not surprised to hear Dr. Packer say that he had changed his mind about his understanding an
d that he no longer held to
a strict Puritan view about religious art. I came to the same view many years ago but did not know Jim had also changed his mind. I thought to myself, “This is another reason why I love this man so dearly. He is willing, in his eighties, to keep thinking and to even admit that he had changed his mind regarding a particular section of a best-selling classic book that he wrote decades ago.”

Whatever you think of art and icons I hope you will better understand the positive role that they have in the hearts and experience of Christ’s people now. The word iconoclast broadly refers to those who oppose widely accepted traditional views. The word actually originated in the church. An iconoclast was a person who made it their goal to write and speak against icons. Some even worked to destroy icons as their special ministry for Christ. The spirit of the iconoclast lives on in many forms, literally and spiritually. An understanding of the real purpose of icons just might change all of that. I expect that we will see a growing number of younger Christians return to the use of icons as they see them in the way that I have explained in this mini-series. I welcome this and hope that they will discover more of Christ’s power and love in the process.