Icons: The Bridge Between Man And The Divine

Vasiliki Poula

The architecture and decoration of the Orthodox Christian church is a reflection of cosmological beliefs. The church or chapel building itself within this context of belief is a microcosm of the universe, with the dome and vault representing heaven set over the earth. In Byzantine and in large modern churches mosaics or wall paintings reflect this scheme. Christ is depicted in the center of the dome as Pantocrator, Ruler, and Judge of all. Panayia, Christ's mother, who enabled God to become Man, is shown in the curve of the vault above the walls of the church. On the walls are depicted the saints and martyrs who link heaven and earth. On the intermediate space between walls and ceiling are scenes of the lives of Christ and his Mother and from the Old Testament.

As such, icons in a church hold a sacred place – they would give visual expression to the fundamental beliefs of Orthodoxy and it is for this reason, that they served as the ‘Bible of the illiterate’, since even the uneducated could grasp Christian teaching through iconography. Icons (from the Greek eikones) are sacred paintings representing the saints, Christ, and the Virgin, as well as narrative scenes such as Christ’s Baptism and Crucifixion. While today the term is most closely associated with wooden panel painting, in Byzantium icons could be crafted in all media, including marble, ivory, ceramic, gemstone, precious metal, enamel, textile, fresco, and mosaic. A large icon is made of several planks glued together with a strong adhesive made of animal parts-bones, skin and hooves. The seasoned wood is given a ground of fish glue, water, and ground chalk or alabaster. The colors used in painting are derived from animal, vegetable, and mineral sources. Colors are produced by mixing various substances, which are extracted, refined, and blended by chemical processes that are given symbolic meanings associated with spiritual purification. Once produced, these colors are rarely blended or mixed. A binding substance for the pigments is made from egg yolk, water, and vinegar. The completed icon is covered with a preparation of linseed oil boiled up with amber. Sometimes a covering of precious or semiprecious metal is placed over the area of a halo, or over the whole icon, leaving only the painted faces and hands visible. The composition of both portrait and narrative icons and the representation of the human form, buildings, and landscape are carried out according to traditional rules, followed by using existing icons as guides or by consulting pattern books, the best known of which is that of Dionysios of Fourna.

Church icons are revered by the congregation as a whole and by individual devotees. During church services icons on the iconostasis are censed, as are the members of the congregation – as all are members of the Church of God – and some prayers and chants in the Liturgy are addressed to the icons. When a devotee enters a church for a service the minimum acknowledgment paid to the icons is to kiss them, make the sign of the cross, and to light a candle. When a special request is made, or on a festival day, the icon is venerated with proskynesis, bodily postures and movements that express worship, such as kneeling and touching the church floor with the forehead.

The close association, even synonymity, of the Orthodox faith and icons is stressed in the annual festival, marking the end of the Iconoclast dispute in A.D. 843, which takes place on the first Sunday in Lent and is known both as ‘the Triumph of Orthodoxy’ and as ‘the Restoration of the Ikons.’

Iconoclasm literally means ‘image breaking’ and refers to a recurring historical impulse to break or destroy images for religious or political reasons. For example, in ancient Egypt, the carved visages of some pharaohs were obliterated by their successors; during the French Revolution, images of kings were defaced. In the Byzantine world, Iconoclasm refers to a theological debate involving both the Byzantine church and state. The controversy spanned roughly a century, during the years 726–87 and 815–43. In these decades, imperial legislation barred the production and use of figural images; simultaneously, the cross was promoted as the most acceptable decorative form for Byzantine churches. Archaeological evidence suggests that in certain regions of Byzantium, including Constantinople and Nicaea, existing icons were destroyed or plastered over. Very few early Byzantine icons survived the Iconoclastic period; notable exceptions are woven icons, painted icons preserved at the Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai, Egypt, and the miniature icons found on Byzantine coins, including those of Justinian II.

The Iconoclastic debate centered on the appropriate use of icons in religious veneration, and the precise relationship between the sacred personage and his/her image. Fear that the viewer misdirected his/her veneration toward the image rather than to the holy person represented in the image lay at the heart of this controversy. Old Testament prohibitions against worshipping graven images (Exodus 20:4) provided one of the most important precedents for Byzantine Iconoclasm. The immediate causes for this crisis have been contested. Among the many suggested causes are the rise of Islam and the emperor’s desire to usurp religious authority and funds.

The Iconoclastic controversy had a profound effect on the production of Byzantine images after their reintroduction in 843. Changes shaped by the Iconoclastic debate included the evolution of distinct portrait types for individual saints; the development of more standardized programs of church wall decoration in mosaic and fresco; and the growing popularity of certain subjects.

Nevertheless, the spiritual nucleus of the icons was maintained. They have been made for about thirteen hundred years (the oldest known icons date from the sixth century A.D.). They are religious pictures in more than one sense. Not only do they represent people and events of religious significance, but also their composition is, in Orthodox terms, a statement about the relationship of the created world to its Creator. An icon is made of substances derived from all parts of the created world, from animal, vegetable, and mineral sources. The prohibition on mixing and blending colors prevents the blurring of their individuality, and each substance makes a contribution to the whole in itself and through its relationship with the rest. Sense, pattern, and meaning are given to the whole through human skill. The icon is a microcosm of the relationship between the material world, human beings, and the divine power believed to have created them all. More than this, it is a sacramental form of communion with that divine power.

The Orthodox church theology of icons is based on a view of the Incarnation of Christ as an event that suspended the Old Testament prohibition on making representational images. By taking on human shape and substance, Jesus Christ, God become Man, became capable of being depicted. Through the Incarnation, matter itself was ‘deified’: if flesh became a vehicle of the spirit, then so-though in a different way-can wood and paint; hence divine power can be secured through physical contact with a sacred object. Orthodox tradition further claims that Jesus ‘made’ the first icon by wiping his face with a linen cloth and imprinting his features on it. This imprint was then itself depicted, and the resulting painted icon was described as acheiropoietos (‘not made with hands’) because it was a picture of something that had not been made with human hands. Because the imprint was believed to be of Christ's face, painted icons based on it or on earlier icons of it have the validity of copies of an authentic original. As with Christ, so with the saints-copies cannot stray far from the original without breaking the link with the prototype and thus losing their authenticity. In other words, an icon is not just a picture, not simply a copy or a reminder of an original. By representing that original in a particular way it maintains a connection with it, as a translation does with the original text.

An icon is a ‘true likeness’ in an analogical sense, and what it is true to is not the outward form but the sanctity and glory of its prototype, in which it shares. The icon must resemble its prototype since it is through this quality that the divine grace of the subjects represented is transmitted,  but it must also be nonrepresentational, for what it depicts are forms that are at the same time of this world and of another world. Icons are one of the forms of revelation and knowledge of God and are worthy of veneration (proskynesis) but not adoration (latreia), which is reserved for God alone. The Nicaean Synod stated that ‘the honor which is paid to the icon passes on to that which the icon represents, and he who reveres the icon reveres in it the person who is represented’; so two-way communication is possible, by means of an icon, between the divine power with which the holy person depicted in it is imbued and the devotee.

These beliefs concerning the link with the prototype clearly affect the production of icons and prevent either deliberate alteration or change in materials or composition or individual invention and personal expression on the part of the icon painter. In my opinion, the original idea of maintaining the link between painting and prototype was not, and did not have to be, concerned with materials or style of composition. When icons were first painted the only available pigments for any kind of painting were mineral pigments and natural organic colors. When new sources of paint and new techniques became available the question of adopting them in icon painting arose. Fidelity in reproducing the likeness to ensure the channeling of divine grace was essential in a situation where new choices could be made. As there could be no assurance that any changes would equally ensure the same connection between image and grace, this fidelity was extended to materials, techniques, and conventions of composition. However, with the subsequent rise of new cultural fashions and artistic innovations, the need arose for interpreting and justifying the traditional mode of production.

Similarly, the style in which human beings are represented and the types of perspective used in depicting architecture and landscape, which are important features of what art historians call the Byzantine style, are said to be used because they remind the onlooker that the icon is not a straightforward representational picture depicting the material world. The Byzantine style is said to embody certain spiritual truths, but no clear explanation is given of the ways in which features of the style express these spiritual messages. It is important to understand the significance of the Byzantine style in icon painting and, in particular, its meaning for Greeks.

In this spirit, for the Byzantines light was the very source of goodness, and bright colours contrasted with dark constituted the materialization of light. God himself, as pure uncreated light, is the source of color and is therefore present in an icon, by implication, as the Creator and source of light and life. The color and the material source for it that most appropriately symbolize in an icon the presence and power of God, the uncreated and incorruptible light, spaceless and timeless, is gold. Gold is used for background, for haloes, and for highlights. The gold of a saint's halo is treated in such a way that the nimbi seem to rotate, or part of the gold background is roughened so that the ground becomes visible only when the light falls on the surface from a particular angle. If anything stands out from the flat surface of the painting, then it is this gold, which imbues the figure of the saint or the surroundings with God's power and grace. The light tones, closer to pure light itself, represent closeness to God, and the method of working from dark to light tones is a spiritual statement about the movement from darkness to light. Both the process and the completed product express versions of the same message: an Orthodox Christian would say that both convey the same spiritual truth.

All other colors derive their significance from their relationship to gold, besides having symbolic meanings in their own right, individually and in combination. The meanings of certain colors also derive from their use at the Byzantine court, where many aspects of ceremonial, including the court dress of the emperor and his hierarchy of officials, were borrowed directly or indirectly from the Persian court. For example, purple was the imperial color, and purple and gold together indicated majesty. Christ is depicted in these colors after his Resurrection, when he reigns as Christ the King.

The construction of a general interpretation of color symbolism in icons is not a straightforward task. In the Eastern Church there are no definite rules about colour, so there is no clear set of liturgical meanings for colors as there is in the Western church. Some colors refer both to aspects of the material world (green for vegetation, brown for the earth itself, red for fire and blood, blue for the sky) and to their spiritual implications (fresh growth and hope, burning love and martyrdom, uncreated light, contemplation and the ethereal). White, created light, made up of all colors together, can stand for the invisible presence of heavenly powers, for purity, for the wisdom of old age, and for victory. It could also be that it is the application of the white highlights to the face that invests the icon with the spirit and life-force of the saint depicted, and at this point the icon has become the re-enactment of the event it depicts, or the mirror of the saint it portrays. A possible further meaning of white therefore is individuality and self-conscious existence.

In the representation of holy persons in icons, use is made of a set of indicators denoting general characteristics, such as uncovered heads for males and covered hair for females. The general formula for representing the human body is used not only to work out the proportions of head and face-the repository of the mind-but also to draw the entire body. Besides the use of standard bodily proportions, particular parts of the body are depicted in ways that are said to express spiritual qualities. Hands and fingers are long and slender, faces are ascetic with large eyes, straight thin noses, and small mouths. The size of the eyes is said to indicate preoccupation with spiritual matters, an ascetic life, and perception of divine illumination; the size of the mouth is also an indication of ascetism and can sometimes symbolize the silence of the contemplative life.

It shall be noted that the icon painter does not use life models of any kind for the subject matter of an icon. There are no human models for the faces of the Saviour and the Mother of God. It is impossible that such models could exist; but in the depiction of saints, some reference is made to distinguishing features of face, form, and dress that relate to physical existence. In the case of modern saints it is possible to compare icons with photographs and to note the mixture of realistic representation and spiritualization in one with the objective evidence of the other. Comparing the icon of a recent Greek saint, Ayios Nektarios of Aigina (canonized in 1961) with photographs, one sees that the double-pointed beard and thick eyebrows are instantly recognizable but the shape of face and nose have been spiritualized. An Orthodox believer would say that the icon is not a portrait of the outward form of a man but reveals the inner form of a saint.

The usual characteristics by which holy persons are distinguished are the color and style of garments, the shape and color of hair and beard, the position of the hands, and the presence of such objects as a book, scroll, staff, sword, etc. The name of the holy person, the title of the manifestation depicted, or the name of the festival must also be painted, often in an abbreviated form, but not necessarily in order to be read to identify the icon. The inscription, like the painted representation, refers to, shares in, and conveys the glory of the prototype; it also affirms the ontological connection between the image and the name. Nearly all the human forms depicted in icons are shown full or three-quarter face, gazing directly or obliquely out of the icon. Full-face and three-quarter-face representations both depict a person as gazing out of the icon toward, if not directly at, an onlooker or devo- tee. Profile views are very seldom used except for the heads of those, like Judas, whose gaze must not meet that of the viewer because it is not a channel of divine grace. Head positions that engage the viewer, and those that do not, are, in this artistic tradition, carriers of opposed qualities. There is a further consideration: someone in profile-whether in real life or in a picture-can be observed without involvement; the observer is in total control of the situation. Full- or three-quarter-face encounters involve both parties and offer the opportunity for the initiation of a relationship. What is stressed in icons is the link of divine power with this world, the relationship of the saint depicted in the icon with the devotee who approaches. From the icon the saint can view the world of the living. This gaze out from the icon, into the space where the onlooker stands, demands a response from the onlooker. The gaze must be returned or rejected. It is not possible to let one's eyes wander over the painting: they are caught by the gaze of the saint whose painted eye cannot blink, offering a contest that the onlooker is bound to lose. The message of the gaze, whether of hope, compassion, or judgment, depends on the viewer's knowledge of the characteristics of the holy person depicted or of the particular manifestation of that holy person.

Where matters of faith are concerned, everything is remedial. For the pious seek the steady beauty of the one who made them, desperate for his breath on their skin to ease the crushing weight of the world they feel pressing in. The Orthodox liturgy begins with the solemn doxology: ‘Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages on ages.’ From the beginning the destination is announced: the Kingdom. It is to declare it to be the goal, the end of all desires and interests, the supreme and ultimate value of all that exists. To bless is to accept it. This acceptance is expressed in the solemn answer to the doxology: Amen. Whereas in the West the holy image serves to provoke a certain religious movement, a pious state of soul, by the depicting, interpretation and evocation of the person represented; for the Orthodox, on the other hand, the icon is a means of communion between the one who prays and God, a means of reconciliation with the transcendent reality of the divinity.

Vasiliki Poula

Vasiliki Poula is interested in human relations, memory and the significance of place. She enjoys reading and writing on these themes, as well as embarking on improvised photography projects.

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