THE SPIRITUALITY
of the
ICON
KALLISTOS WARE
 

 

ch. 7. The Study of Spirituality. Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright, Edward Yarnold
 (Oxford University Press. New York. 1986.  pp. 195-199

FROM 726 until the middle of the ninth century the Byzantine world was convulsed by the Iconoclast controversy. The use of icons in the Church’s worship was formally endorsed at the seventh Ecumenical Council (787), although the conflict only came to an end with the definitive restoration of the icons to the churches in 843 -- the ‘Triumph of Orthodoxy’, as it came later to be known. The dispute concerned both the legitimacy and the veneration of icons. Is it permitted to make icons -pictorial representations of Christ, the Mother of God, the saints and the angels -- and to place these icons in the church and the home? And, if such icons are permitted, should they also be venerated? Should incense be offered before them and candles lit, should they be carried in procession, should the faithful make prostrations in front of them and kiss them? To these questions the Eastern Church ended by returning a strongly affirmative answer. The chief defenders of the icons during the controversy were St John of Damascus (d. c. 749), who lived outside the Byzantine Empire under Arab rule, and St Theodore the Studite ( 759-826), abbot of the monastery of Studios in Constantinople.

THE Iconoclast controversy raised a number of related issues. First, there was the charge of idolatry, made against the iconodules (‘icon-venerators’). To this they responded by drawing a clear and emphatic distinction between latreia, the worship that may rightly be ascribed to the three persons of the Trinity alone, and schetikē timē, the ‘relative honour’ that may be given to created persons or objects associated with God. Icons are not to be worshipped, but merely honoured.

SECONDLY, complex questions of Christology were involved, and it was to these that most of the polemics on both sides were devoted. The iconodules argued that it is not only legitimate but essential to make an icon of Christ; to refuse to do so is to imply that his body, and so his humanity, is somehow unreal. Icons, as the Council of 787 put it, are a ‘guarantee that the incarnation of God the Word is true and not illusory’.

LINKED with this was the Christian doctrine of creation. Icons safeguard not only the authenticity of Christ’s material body but also the Spirit-bearing potentialities of all material things. The iconoclasts (‘icon-smashers’), so the opposite side claimed, wanted to restrict the worship of God to the mind alone, failing to allow sufficiently for the ‘materialism’ of Christianity. ‘I shall not cease to honour matter,’ John of Damascus  protests, ‘for it was through matter that my salvation came to pass . . . Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable; nothing is despicable that God has made’ ( In Defence of the Holy Icons, I. 16; ET, pp. 23-4). Human beings are not saved from but with the material world; through humankind the material world is itself to be redeemed and transfigured.

THIS in turn has implications, fourthly, for the doctrine of the human person. In the words of Theodore the Studite, ‘The fact that the human person is made in the image and likeness of God means that the making of icons is in some way a divine work( On the Holy Icons, III. ii, 5; ET, p. 101). Each man or woman is a creator after the image of God the Creator, a ‘sub-creator’ in J. R. R. Tolkien’s phrase. Each is priest of the created order, refashioning material things, revealing God’s glory in them, and so giving them a voice and making them articulate in the divine praise. Iconography bears witness to the royal priesthood that is the prerogative of every human being. To make an icon from plaster or cubes of stone, from wood or paint, to sanctify that icon and to incorporate it in the worship of God, is to call down his blessing also upon all other forms of human art and craftsmanship.

BUT what, more particularly, is the function of icons in prayer and worship? The art of the icon is, first and foremost, a liturgical art. The icon is not merely a piece of decoration but a part of the liturgy. Outside the context of prayer it ceases to be an icon and becomes -- what is by no means the same thing -- a picture on a religious subject. Within the context of prayer it is not just a ‘visual aid’ but fulfils a sacramental function, constituting a channel of divine grace: as the seventh Ecumenical Council affirms, ‘When we honour and venerate an icon, we receive sanctification.’ Viewed in these terms, the icon acts as a point of meeting, a place of encounter: ‘The icon is termed a door’ ( The Life of St Stephen the Younger, PG 100. 1113A). By virtue of the icon the worshipper enters the dimensions of sacred time and space, and so is brought into a living, effectual contact with the person or mystery depicted. The icon serves not as a mere reminder only but as a means of communion. Surrounding the congregation on every side, the icons ensure that the communion of saints is not simply an article of faith but a fact of immediate experience. The church walls become windows into eternity. Present through their icons, the Mother of God, the angels and the saints become fellow-worshippers with the living, concelebrants in the same liturgical act.

IN this connection it should be remembered that an icon is not necessarily a separate panel of wood, but may be a mosaic or fresco on the wall, 1 organically part of a single pattern embracing the place of worship in its entirety. In this way the church building as a whole is felt to be one great icon. To use a phrase much loved by the Christian East, it is ‘heaven on earth’: in the words of Patriarch Germanus of Constantinople (d. c. 733), ‘The church is an earthly heaven, in which the heavenly God lives and moves’ ( Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, 1). ‘It is as if one had entered heaven itself’, remarked Patriarch Photius (d. c. 895) of a newly consecrated church ( Homily x, 5). The spirituality of the icon also extends beyond the church into the home: in each Orthodox household there is traditionally an icon corner or shelf, before which lamps are lit, incense is offered, and the family prayers are said; and this too is felt as ‘heaven on earth’.

[1 In Orthodox practice icons are normally two-dimensional, but the use of free-standing, three-dimensional statues is not altogether unknown. Although modern Orthodox writers sometimes condemn the use of statues, in the eighth/ninth-century iconodule sources no doctrinal significance is attached to the distinction between two- and three-dimensional religious art.]

THROUGH the liturgical art of the icon, God is experienced not only as truth and love but also as beauty. ‘Beauty will save the world’, affirms Feodor Dostoevsky ( 1821-81); and Fr Sergei Bulgakov ( 1871-1944) states, ‘Beauty is an objective principle in the world, revealing to us the divine glory . . . Art brings about the transfiguration of the world and renders it conformable to its true image . . . Things are transfigured and made luminous by beauty; they become the revelation of their own abstract meaning’ ( “‘Religion and Art’”, in The Church of God, ed. E. L. Mascall [ SPCK, 1934], pp. 176-7). In this way the icon constitutes the first-fruits of the cosmic transfiguration that will come to pass on the Last Day.

WITHIN the tradition of Eastern Christendom, then, there exist two ways of praying, the one iconic and the other non-iconic. There is, first, on both the corporate and the private level, the way of ‘cataphatic’ prayer, making full use of the imagination, of poetry and music, of symbols and ritual gestures; and in this way of praying the holy icons have an essential place. Secondly, there is the way of ‘apophatic’ or hesychastic prayer, transcending images and discursive thought -- a way commended by Gregory of Nyssa, Evagrius, Dionysius and Maximus, and expressed also in the practice of the Jesus Prayer. These two ways are not alternatives, still less are they mutually exclusive, but each deepens and completes the other.

TEXTS and TRANSLATIONS

John of Damascus, In Defence of the Holy Icons, Greek text ed. B. Kotter ( Berlin, 1975); ET D. Anderson (Crestwood N.Y., St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1980). Theodore the Studite, On the Holy Icons, Greek text PG 99. 328-436; ET C. P. Roth (Crestwood N.Y., St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1981).

STUDIES

Alexander P. J., The Patriarch Nicephorus of Constantinople. Oxford, Clarendon, 1958.  Evdokimov P., L’art de l’icôm. Paris, 1970  Mathew G., Byzantine Aesthetics. London, J. Murray, 1963.  Ouspensky L., (ET) Theology of the Icon. Crestwood N.Y., St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978.  Ouspensky L. and Lossky V., (ET) The Meaning of Icons. Boston, Mass., Boston Book and Art Shop, 1969.  Schönborn, C. von. L’icône du Christ. Fribourg, 1976.

 

 


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