Understanding Ancient Christian Iconography

John ArmstrongChurch Tradition, Prayer, Spirituality, The Church

For most of my life religious icons have been of no consequence to me spiritually. There were two reasons for this response as I now understand my journey in faith. First, I thought icons were idols. The fact that the Orthodox kissed them made me quite “sure” this was the case for decades. Second, my understanding of the proper use of icons was limited by my prejudice against them.

The more I have studied the theology of the ancient church, and the practices of that church in public and private worship, the more I have had to deal with a number of subjects that I knew very little about. This was the case with icons. My initial fears were addressed by thoughtful, helpful responses from Christians who were much better able to understand the important role of iconography. Eventually I could no longer avoid the subject of icons when friends became Orthodox and I became more than a little curious. I wanted to genuinely listen to other Christians, since this is at the heart of my own faith journey, and I desire to learn all that I could from those believers who lived the gospel in the earliest centuries of Christianity.

I assure you that I am not a secret member of an Orthodox Church (there really isn’t such a category of membership since the Orthodox Church would not permit it) but I have learned a ton about iconography from my Orthodox friends. Here, where sights and sounds are so powerfully associated with worship, I have learned to at least ask the right questions and then to listen for the answers, some of which move me very deeply.

The word icon comes from the Greek word for “window.” An icon is traditionally understood as a pathway to prayer, a window to heaven, a door to eternity. But unless you understand how and why icons have been written (I will explain this word “written” later) your perspective will likely lead to a gut-level reaction in the negative. For me, icons just felt totally foreign.

The icon represents something that is “other.” It is much more than art, though it is art in one sense for sure. It is actually a visual drawing written by Christians whose focus was upon theology more than upon painting a picture of representational art. This is why I said above that icons are actually “written.”

The OPen Door Frederica Mathewes-Green, author of The Open Door: Entering the Sanctuary of Icons and Prayer (Paralcete Press) recently told a writer for Our Sunday Visitor (OSV), a Roman Catholic weekly newspaper I read,) that: “People are looking for something that has more authority or authenticity. The baby-boomers thought they could find it in their own contemporary culture. We know that doesn’t work, so we have to go further back into the past.” Mathewes-Green compares the growing interest in icons in modern American religious expression with a cultural shift away from movies like “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” from the 1970s to the interest just a few years ago in Mel Gibson movie: “The Passion of the Christ.”

Mathewes-Green believes: “People are saying, ‘Give me something ancient that I know hasn’t been concocted by some advertising genius in the last 10 years.’ They are trying to get back to the original faith. They are looking for authenticity, and they are finding it in the world that made the icons and in the spirituality of icon Christianity. How far they’ll go with it I don’t know. Will they stay with it when it starts to cross them and they realize they have to live a certain kind of life?”

Christian historians believe icons were drawn by the earliest Christians. Some tradition supports the idea that the very first icon was drawn by Luke, which is believed to have been a drawing of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child. Before you reject this as utterly impossible you would do well to read further on the subject and consider the possibility that this claim could well be true.

But why are icons said to be written, not painted? Because they are more like theological texts, i.e. exact representations of interpretations of the Christian faith, not an artist’s rendition of what he has conceived in a vivid imagination.

The most typical and classic icons were made before 1054 and thus the Great Schism of the church. Both Eastern Right Catholics and the Orthodox have treasured these icons from before this tragic split in the church East and West.

Frederica Mathewes-Green says, in her new book on icons, that she did not really grasp the power of icons until one day in a museum she saw a processional icon with the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child. When she went around to the other side of this icon she was surprised to see an image of Christ on the cross that was called the “great humility.” She says she was transfixed by what she saw and felt and it was here she began her journey into the ancient world of icons. She soon found that icons helped her better understand her own sinfulness and God’s greatness in the provision of his own son for her salvation. She concludes, “Icons are not just artwork, and they’re not just there to remind you of something. . . . in a mysterious way they make a connection for you.” She told OSV, “If you look at an icon that way, you would gaze at it with love and a sense that it’s drawing your awareness through the icon and to the presence of Christ.”

A Catholic iconographer describes herself as more a “scribe” than an artist. It was this insight that helped me the most when I began to look at and understand icons a bit more. Icons are not meant to be worshiped or made into art for painters who want to make a statement that comes out of their own experience. Iconographers are seeking to be as faithful as possible to a core truth (or truths) that come out of their deeply confessional Christianity. One Catholic writer says icons are used in prayer alongside the Bible to see and hear what God is teaching us. They are meant to pass on the great truths of the faith without embellishment or interpretation. A true icon should be like Scripture, direct and with no changes.