What’s an Icon again, really?

If one person has a question, then probably everybody is wondering about it.  That is what they always told us at school, in seminars, at lectures.  So ask.  And somebody did, in a comment concerning my recent post quoting my teacher in regards to iconography in the Western Church.  I want to clarify any misunderstandings.  She was referring to the loss of the tradition of the icon in the Western Church, and the repercussions of that loss.

The word “icon” is not a catch-all term for religious painting.

It is a specific term for an artwork that has specific purposes and functions in Eastern Christian churches, both Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic.  It is the original Christian art form–maintained and preserved since the earliest days of the church by the Orthodox faith–and which was drifted away from in purpose, style and philosophy in other religious and artistic traditions.  The icon emerged at the very beginnings of our faith, and it belongs to all.  The truths which the icon relates are part of all of us, all Christian denominations.

The western eye–and our cultural ideal of beauty has grown in another direction.  We have been artistically “trained” to highly value “looking real” and “being pretty” in our aesthetic sensibility, as a culture.  We are not as attuned to seeking out symbolism, but prefer, as a society, to have things spelled out for us more literally.

For example, given a choice between these two following images, where is a typical American going to see beauty?

contemporary Western painting of Jesus

contemporary Western painting of Jesus

Icon of The Savior of the Furious Eye, 1350 AD

Icon of The Savior of the Furious Eye, 1350 AD

The second image makes us uncomfortable.   We don’t understand what is going on in the image, what it is saying to us.  Many people turn away from it.  Although people have been praying with this image for more than 700 years, it rarely inspired any reverence or prayer in Catholic or Protestant viewers.

The first image, on the other hand,  is reassuring and familiar.  This is an image that we understand.

Likewise, which of the following is preferred by our modern, Western eyes?

Madonna & Child by Raphael

Madonna & Child by Raphael

Contemporary Western painting of Madonna & Child

Contemporary Western painting of Madonna & Child

Icon of Mother & Child, Yaroslavl, 1700s

Icon of Mother & Child, Yaroslavl, 1700s

Perhaps you might remember Jesus’ words to St. Faustina when she expressed disappointment over the appearance of the first Divine Mercy painting:

Jesus said “Not in the beauty of the color, nor of the brush, lies the greatness of this image, but in my grace.”  

Any miracles attributed to artworks are due to grace, not to the painted board or statue.

The icon is steeped in doctrinal symbolism. Everything means something.  It teaches dogma, teaches truth, as surely and deliberately as the Gospels do.  It is part of every Orthodox liturgy and sacrament.  There is no concern for naturalism, likeness, or artifice, but only for expressing theology and truth using specific stylized techniques.  Many icons are beautiful indeed, to both Western and Eastern eyes, but that was not the main purpose: to be “beautiful art”.  The true beauty comes from prayer and God’s Grace.

Because of the specific, sacred place that the icon has in their liturgy and faith, many Orthodox people do feel that icons should only be written by (1) Orthodox Christians (2) clergy or religious  and/or (3) males.

And many do not feel that way at all.

This is not to say that God does not speak in other ways than through the icon, that other types of art cannot be holy or sacred or inspire prayer.  Certainly they can.  Western art may not be part of the liturgy in most cases, but it can be very beautiful and touch the souls of many.

The fact that Catholics are used to this:  Catholic crucifix

and the Orthodox depict it like this:  crucifix-icon

is not to be separate in the sense of dividing, or to judge superiority, but merely is part of the unique expression of who we both are and how we use art as an expression of faith.


About reinkat

I am an iconographer, and have been studying Russian/Greek icons since 1995. I'm married with 3 children. I love hiking, camping, animals, my family and church--and icons.
This entry was posted in art, Catholic icons, Icon, Iconography, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to What’s an Icon again, really?

  1. SR says:

    Excellent, excellent and more excellent! You are so right on target with this, about how we see things (not only icons) in our lives. How differently though I will look at those which are not as pleasing to my “sense of sight,” because of this post! Thank you so much for this wonderful explanation, taking the time to share all of it with us. Also, thanks for the quote from Jesus to St. Faustina. That just brought all of it home for me! Great job, Reinkat!!!! Well thought out and well done! God Bless, SR

  2. francisca leighton says:

    sorry it´s in spanish!…from “The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty, Paul Evdokimov ” :”…Pero es sintomático para la perspectiva iconográfica del misterio que Bernadette, invitada a elegir en un álbum la imagen que se parecía más a su visión, se detuvo sin dudar en un icono bizantino de la Virgen, pintado en el siglo XI…” (El Icono, Teología de la Presencia, Paul Evdokimov)

    • reinkat says:

      Gracias, Francisca.
      I only wish that I could understand more than every 15th word!

    • reinkat says:

      OK, my hubby made the computer translate it for us:

      “But it is symptomatic for the iconographic perspective of the mystery that Bernadette, invited to choose an album image that seemed more like his vision, stopped without hesitation in a Byzantine icon of the Virgin, painted in the 11th century…”

  3. Since the icon started out as the treasure of the united church and is now being re-claimed in many parts of the Western church, perhaps a bit of a new catechesis is needed to make its meaning and symbolism accessible again to Western Catholics. Most good and well trained icon painters are prepared to explain the elements of their icon, since they have tried to write it according to the unbroken Tradition they have inherited.
    It is a delicate question: have icons become so identified with the Tradition and theology of the Eastern Church as to be incomprehensible in the West? I don’t think so. Most of the the Tradition we share in common; the great truths of our faith. Of course there is a different emphasis, and as the icon tradition is planted again in the West, we may eventually develop our own ethos and traditions. But at this stage, we have everything to learn from the Eastern Church, and great respect must be paid to our teachers.
    But I think a note of caution needs to be sounded. I have seen poor attempts at painting western icons made where every little fringe on the garments of the image is supposed to mean something. A good icon needs no such explanation of every detail. Once the main elements are understood, such as the traditional inscriptions for Christ and Mary, the icon is all about presence and contemplation. It is not about imagination and narrative, on which Western art tends to focus. It’s on a different wavelength: liturgy, faith, presence and contemplation. This is why, I think, as we in the West gravitate more to contemplative prayer, the icon will come into its own.

    • reinkat says:

      Yes, I totally agree. Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

    • geloruma says:

      Lets not be snobbish about the diversity of imagery God imparts to us for the building up of the church. Contemplative prayer does not rely upon symbolism – even though symbolism can be an important tool of communication. I recently sculpted a statue of Christ as “Ecce Homo” (a copy of that which aided in the conversion of Teresa of Avila.) on request of a contemplative religious order, they wanted the wounds to be REALISTIC and the figure was also realistic looking. As to the Saviour of the Furious eye – I personally find the religious works of the contemporary artists “el Greco” and “Anthony Gaudi” unattractive – but as Gaudi is a “venerable” of the church I guess God must have used his work to assist the faith of those who do.
      Fra Angelico is also a late medieval painter of note and holiness,(my favourite) I believe Pope John Paul 2 named him patron of artists. I LOVE religious symbolism, I would like to see a resurgence of its use : but Catechesis has to be appropriate. The teacher must use the language a student understands to be an effective mentor. The Jesuits ordered realistic imagery in the 1500s to counteract the worst ravages of the reformation – to flesh out the saints to doubters…It produced masterpieces of Spanish woodcarving which one can only wonder at and praise God for the share in creativity he gives us.
      Vive la difference, all things work to the good with God.

  4. Greg Ward says:

    Thank you for this primer and introduction into icons. Over time I have come to feel the soul stirring power of these images, and I have truly enjoyed your posts and the chance to contemplate beauty and truth as reflected in the icons you have shown. Please keep up your great work – my spiritual deepening and nourishment demands it!

  5. geloruma says:

    …But it is symptomatic of the iconographic persepective (thought) that mysteriously, Bernadette when invited to choose an image from an album which was most like the vision, chose that of a Byzantine Icon of the 11th century.
    Pero es sintomático para la perspectiva iconográfica del misterio que Bernadette, invitada a elegir en un álbum la imagen que se parecía más a su visión, se detuvo sin dudar en un icono bizantino de la Virgen, pintado en el siglo XI…”
    It would be nice to have the source for this claim; I have never heard of it before – I know she said the sculpt in the convent garden at Nevers was the most like her vision, and she was disappointed at the image in the grotto which she tried to hide from the sculptor when he asked her opinion. ( I don’t like the grotto image as it looks like she is wearing a bit of Victorian upholstery: i.e. a corset!)
    (My Spanish is also rusty!)

    • reinkat says:

      I had never heard it either, but am not all that familiar with the details of Lourdes. The comment that was given, in Spanish, did cite the source. It may not have ever been printed in English, but that is no reason in itself to discount it.

      • geloruma says:

        Hi Reinkat,
        I agree its no reason to discount it at all – I meant to say that I would like the source because as a religious artist – it is always good to have authentic references for imagery of the Blessed Virgin. It would have been good to see the actual image – I love the image of Our Lady of Czestechowa which I find realistic in as much as it conveys some “character” as a portrtait would – I realise it is attributed to St.Luke. The miraculous image of Guadalupe is my favourite – it seems to have a combination of 2D and 3D elements – plus lots of symbolism. I was gob-smacked when I learned that the “rays” were a later addition by human intervention.(reminded me of when someone does a statue with household paint and I have to sort it!)

  6. geloruma says:

    Hi Reinkat,
    I only just saw your reply to me on the previous posting where you are trying to work thoughts through on this post? (Don’t know why it didn’t appear in my reader)
    I fear you will think I’m a belligerent crusty old git – ( my turn for deeper thought here!) I guess I just haven’t had a college -type debate on art for some while and its all springing to the fore. I promise a little more decorum in future!

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