“I am not asking you to do anything more than to look at Him”
(St Teresa of Avila ‘The Way of Perfection’)
The purpose and function of an icon
It is quite common to hear that icons are “windows into heavens”. Unfortunately, this poetic metaphor has a flavour of distantly gazing, through a window, into the immeasurably far away heavens – where God is surrounded by his angels and his saints. The icon, on this take, has something to do with “beautiful enigmatic art” along with notions like “artefact”, “museum”, even “esoteric” and so on. There could be no more contrary approach to the meaning of the icon than this one.
While icon painting unites both fine art and the wealth of theology (namely Christological and Trinitarian dogmas) the first true icons (that is, not symbolic representations like lamb or fish) were born out of the simple need of a human heart, to look at the portraits of those they love. The portrait-like depictions of Jesus Christ and Virgin Mary appeared first; the dogma of the Seventh Ecumenical Council about the veneration of the holy images was second. Likewise, the prayer of a believer before an icon of Christ, true God and true man, was first – it is only centuries later that icon painting was proclaimed to be the activity that reinforces the reality of Incarnation. The active engagement with the icon was first, the dogma which defends such engagement was second.
Hence icons satisfy the need of a believer to have a portrait of those he loves. But there is much more. A person who suddenly stops before an icon, being drawn by it, looks intently into the eyes of Christ for some time and then sinks into prayer repeats exactly that what happens in the Gospels with the contemporaries of Christ. Countless people there are stopped by Christ and forced to look into His Face or, longing to see Him, are joining the crowds or climbing a tree or on roof tops and inevitably find themselves being pulled out by Christ, from the crowd or the tree, for the purpose of looking at each other. And then something happens: via looking into the human Face of God a person is brought into the reality of the Kingdom of Heaven; the Kingdom which is here and now, the Incarnated Christ being the Door into the Kingdom of Heaven Himself! The person who suddenly engages with Christ via contemplation of His icon is not different from one in the Gospels. The icon, so to speak, is the picture on the Door who is Christ, the picture which makes the [now] invisible visible, the door into the Door, together with the Gospels which are the portrait of Christ in words.
The function of an icon then is to pull a person into the reality of Christ. How does it do this? – First, via depicting the reality of the spiritual world which invites a viewer to step into it. The One depicted on the icon definitely has a life and radiates a sense of presence. He is not like a photo or a portrait of a relative who has passed away; He looks at the viewer intently now and waits for the response here and now. And yet, although His presence is very real He is of another world or better to say via looking at Him a viewer sees much more than only a human being in Him.
If a viewer says “yes” to the invitation his mind will be gradually stilled and silenced. It is achieved by a specific visual language (peculiar rhythm of lines, choice of colours, proportions, even technique) which makes an icon an organic part of the prayer of the Church. So, an icon is not a “window into heaven” but a visual depiction of a prayer and invitation to pray at the same time. It also has an imprint of the personal prayer of the iconographer, to the subject of his work and of his personal spiritual experience.
However, even the hypothetical “best icon in the world” can do nothing if the proper disposition of the viewer is missing, just like Christ in the Gospels could do nothing if a person was not willing to to engage with Him. While no one prays to the icon itself but prays to its prototype a believer is expected to approach an icon with the same reverence if as he was before the prototype. If this attitude is absent a viewer typically sees nothing but “art”. This is entirely logical: the component of reverence to the prototype is absent for him so he is unable to engage with the latter. [The lack of reverence I believe signifies the lack of personal connection. Who could approach Our Lord casually, with his hand in the pockets so to speak? Then how can His icon be approached casually? It is entirely normal, for a human being, to transfer his feelings for a person to their depiction; a lover kissing his treasure, a photo of his beloved is an obvious example.]
What was said about the function of the icons of Our Lord also applies to the icons of Our Lady and the Saints – the persons who dwell in the reality of the Kingdom of Heaven and who reflect Christ, who are themselves Christ-like.
1. Icons are designed to be looked at “up”, not “down”. They are usually placed slightly above eye level, both in churches and in homes. There is an anecdote from Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh (London), about a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy who “could not see anything in icons” – something he related to the Orthodox congregation while casually glancing at the icon of Christ. A young woman advised him: “try to kneel”. So he did, and suddenly he saw. The kneeling of course forced him not just to change his point of view but his attitude as well.
In the Orthodox household the smaller icons are usually not hung but placed on special shelves from which they can occasionally be taken to hold in hands during a meditation, for the sake of creating more intimacy with the One depicted.
Noteworthy, this active engagement with the holy images is not exclusive to Eastern Orthodoxy. In Spain, for example, Roman Catholics carry the holy images (statues) in the streets at certain feasts, just like the Holy Host is carried on the feast Corpus Christi. Those facts highlight a close connection between the holy images and the Eucharistic Christ; one can also recall the devotions to the Holy Face which is intimately connected with the Eucharist, and so on.
2. It takes time to connect with the depicted Person. Just as engaging with someone in flesh and blood, a few seconds of casual looking will not do.
3. Remaining in the presence of God while looking at an icon is, in my opinion, an equivalent of “a prayer of a simple look” (Roman Catholic definition), a very simple affectionate prayer which is said to be a necessary step towards contemplation. My opinion seems to be confirmed by the advice of St Teresa of Avila to her nuns always to have with them a picture of Our Lord which stirs their affection and also her words about prayer “I am not asking you to do anything more than to look at Him”. It is not surprising then that many, at some point, being pulled closer by the Lord, stop noticing the icon and go into whatever prayer the Lord gives to them. A person, being led by Christ, moves from the icon into his own heart.
There is nothing “esoteric” about those two approaches, Orthodox and Carmelite; both simply use the holy images to focus all attention on the Person of Christ.
4. Apart from being the focus for prayer, the icons serve as an aid to developing the sense of being in God’s presence (that is also a prayer of course).
It is probably easy to see, in the context of what was said before, that a commonly heard statement “a true icon must be of Byzantine or Russian style made with gold and egg tempera on wood” has very little to do with the primary purpose of the holy images. It is quite possible to make an icon with acrylics on paper and not in Byzantine but Georgian or Ethiopian or any style and, as long as it is in conformity with the teaching the Church and pulls the viewer into a relationship with God, it is an icon. It is equally possible to make a perfectly Byzantine looking icon painted with egg tempera on wood layered with gold which will look not as a door or even a window into heavens but something impenetrable. Naturally, different people would feel affinity with very different icons – this is why different styles and different approaches are good – but one should look for a personal connection first and only then think about the materials and style.