Bad Icons


And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18). 

It is a teaching of the Fathers concerning the holy icons that we do not truly “see” them if we have no reverence for that which they depict. Icons are “windows into heaven,” but not in a manner that objectifies heaven. Thus even icons that some may consider badly painted reveal the very depths of heaven if they are viewed by a saint.

By the same token, even badly marred images of Christ in other human beings can reveal the depth of the love of God if seen by the eyes of a saint.

And so the mystery of the holy icons seems to work from both sides. For the viewer, the icon is a window to heaven (if the viewer is indeed looking for heaven). And for those who are not looking for heaven, icons, including their human forms, become opaque, and we see only the reflection of our sinful self.

I like good icons, and would gladly fill my Church with them. But I want to become the kind of viewer who could see heaven if it were shown me (else even good icons become a waste) – and I’d like to be the kind of icon in which someone could see heaven if they were looking (else I become a scandal to the name Christian).

What seems inescapable to me is that there be icons. If you outlaw them in the Church, they will still occupy the Church in the persons of the congregation. We cannot say, “Only read the Scripture, do not look at me as an icon.” Nobody gets that kind of free ride as a Christian. You’re an icon whether you like it or not. And there will be other images as well – either well done reflecting heaven itself – or poorly reflecting everything other than heaven. But there will be icons. God give us grace to rightly honor the windows to heaven He has opened for us, and to be a window to heaven for all who see us.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





9 responses to “Bad Icons”

  1. […] Father Stephen has good stuff this morning on icons and christians. And for those of you who like to think your beige church doesn’t use icons, take a look. […]

  2. fatherstephen Avatar

    I made a few changes to the text of this post this morning, adding the Scripture verse. If you read the earlier version I apologize for its poor quality. My writing last night just wasn’t what I wanted it to be. This morning things seem to work better. Thank you all for your patience.

  3. Barnabas Powell Avatar

    And yet, if a saint reads the initial post, he will see heaven.

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen for your work.

    My best friend, Photios Loudermilk (now with the Lord) use to say that no life is a total waste; it can always serve as a bad example!

    May Christ, our true God, grant us the grace and courage to see and become.

  4. Gina Avatar

    What is the photo, Fr. Stephen?

  5. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The first time I set foot in an Orthodox Church and attended Divine Liturgy I, of course, did not know what to expect. I had read a few things and had run across the idea that the priest acted as a living icon of Jesus when he celebrated the Liturgy. OK. When the time for the Great Entrance came and the priest processed up the center aisle, I suddenly knew what those words meant. Christ was in our midst. The real point is that the priest himself was a bad priest who in the rest of his life as pastor and husband unfortunately did a lot of damage. But on that day and others, that priest was a true icon.

  6. Fatherstephen Avatar

    The picture – windows to heaven. This is a shot out of my airplane window at the green, green fields of England. It was a shot of heaven for me – of a delightful country that seemed more like Lewis’ Logres than the modern Britain. I exaggerate and I’m not a romantic, but I delighted in the greenness and village space of England. Perhaps the rest of Europe is like this. I have no idea. But I loved England and look forward to returning – and I hope to do so when it is again so green. I like to think of Heaven as Green, but that is just my Romanticism. Heaven can be anything God wants, so long as it is God Himself.

  7. […] My blog is turning into a clip blog, it seems. Ah, well. Today we have another tasty tidbit from Fr. Stephen on Bad Icons: And so the mystery of the holy icons seems to work from both sides. For the viewer, the icon is a window to heaven (if the viewer is indeed looking for heaven). And for those who are not looking for heaven, icons, including their human forms, become opaque, and we see only the reflection of our sinful self…. […]

  8. Gina Avatar

    Ah, thank you. I’ve flown over and driven through many European countries and while they are beautiful, I’ve never seen England’s green anywhere else but England (and they say Ireland has it, too).

    The trade-off is that it’s a color that was bought by deforestation. The deeper forest greens are beautiful, too, and the deepest I’ve ever seen from an airplane were in my home area, the Allegheny National Forest, flying into Bradford, PA airport.

  9. James the Thickheaded Avatar
    James the Thickheaded

    I’ve read this over a few times over the course of the last few days. And I’ve given it to others to read. As a new convert to Orthodoxy, I know many around me who are wary of the notion of icons…and yet on a the ground level, they understand the incompatability of poor or ugly icons with the Church. I just like the idea of worshippers as icons into heaven as it makes the whole notion of purification simple and “what’s right” and done out of love rather than a grudging matter of debate. But it’s almost as if the term icon – that seems to be almost a code word among those unaccustomed to icons in worship and their place in the Church – seems to deafen many ears that would otherwise hear. Almost as if the word were somehow reserved for the last….as a surprise….they might even be more receptive to the rest. I wish I were that clever as a writer….but it would take a long, long time and perhaps in 2,000 years or so it has already been done.

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