The Icon We Love the Most

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Years ago when I was studying in an Anglican seminary (mid-70’s), I had the beginnings of my interest in icons. I owned a couple, and read what little was available on the topic in English at that time (believe it or not there was a time when not many books were available in English on the topic of Orthodox Christianity). One day, in prayer, I had an overwhelming urge to paint an icon. It was as though I had seen an image in my peripheral vision. It stayed there for a while – and I felt a compulsion to paint. I knew nothing about painting and even less about painting icons.

Sometime that week I went out and bought art supplies. I mounted a large canvass on the inside of front door of our apartment (the only flat surface we really had). And I began to paint.

In between studying and eating, I would paint. I would paint and repaint. It was almost like an obsession. I came to a place one day when I thought I might show my work to someone else.

One of my best friends at the time was a seminarian and an artist. I brought him in and asked what he thought. He began to laugh (not that the painting was that bad).

“Did you use any model?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “I didn’t think you were supposed to use models in painting icons.”

“Well,” he started, “there’s something many artists know about painting without models. It’s that you tend to paint yourself. Your icon of Christ looks just like you. Can you see it?”

I never could see it, but an important point was made. I learned years later that icons are not painted without models – but that the model is always another icon. They are painted according to Tradition.

But I also learned something about myself and human nature. We like to make icons, but our favorite image of God is the one we see in the mirror.

An old friend, a veteran of many years in Alcoholics Anonymous once told me, “All you need to know about God, is that you’re not Him.” I don’t agree that it’s all we need to know – but it’s certainly among the first things we need to know.

That ignorance, the God whom I don’t know, is the surface upon which the True Icon can be painted. I only know God as Christ has made Him known to me. He is the icon of the invisible God (Col. 1:15).

What I painted years ago, was a false image, not only of myself, but of God. As the years go by, I see more clearly that I look nothing like Him. May God have mercy.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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5 responses to “The Icon We Love the Most”

  1. Gina Avatar

    Father bless.

    A remarkable lesson, thank you for passing it on!

  2. Ian Avatar
    Ian

    Father, bless.

    Thank you for this: a lesson I needed to hear.

  3. […] distortions within us mean that we often crave images that are not the Truth (see my article, The Icon We Love the Most). Sitting in airports, as I have been this weekend, I have seen a huge range of “image […]

  4. Aunt Melanie Avatar

    An educational article, a personal story, a spiritual message, and very readable for an average person like myself.

  5. Elizabeth Avatar

    Father Bless!

    I’m working my way forward through your posts, and hope to be able to read all of them, over time.

    As a tiny child, my picture of God in my mind was the picture of Herod in the Golden Book of the nativity. It was a frightening image, but one that still, nearly 70 years later, flits through my mind from time to time. In life, children usually will view God through the lens of their Daddy. But my parents were divorced (as are 50% or more of marriages nowadays) and my vision of God became one of a very strict absentee overlord. This “King,” for me, sometimes lived under a chair in the dining room, and he frightened me. I avoided that corner of the dining room for nearly 8 years!

    It took until my Chrismation, 36 years ago, and I began to develop an Orthodox phronema, before I realized God is very personal and that He loves us all. Now I have the image of the Pantocrater to help me banish the image of God as a cruel ruler who looks like Herod.

    Thank goodness my children were raised in Orthodoxy, each converting in their teens, and my grandchildren are “cradle Orthodox!” I pray that their vision of the Image of God is that of the Pantocrater, or the Ancient of Days, or that of the Trinity, so beautifully painted by Andrei Rublev.

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