Icons and the Heart


My maternal grandparents’ home had an array of popular religious art: Jesus knocking at the door (as discussed in the previous post’s comments), the guardian angel and the children, prayer in the garden of gethsemane. They were country Baptists, and yet religious art (I suppose some would call it kitsch) was an important part of the home.

My first encounter of the Theotokos was with a Raphael Madonna that was the frontispiece in the little Bible my mother’s Baptist Sunday School gave me when I was born. It is with my altar books at the Church now. Strangely, having grown up in what was an almost uniform Baptist culture, religious art, such as it was, had a great deal of importance.

Iconoclasm played a huge role in the Reformation, and yet it becomes progressively weaker as it moves away from its intellectual centers. I have no way of offering a survey of such matters but I would expect that more highly educated Protestants (excluding the Episcopalians) may have had less art of this sort in the home than the less educated. Did Presbyterians (almost always more educated than Baptists) have less religious art in the home? I can only guess.

Nevertheless, the role that relgious art, whether good or bad, played in Protestant homes shouldn’t be underestimated. I am certain that my earliest awareness of God and my earliest thoughts of God were related primarily to the images I saw around me. Thus what I saw and considered was largely sentimental, but still gentle and kind.

It was only later, particularly in early teen years, that the fearful ideas of a punishing God became important – doubtless mixed with experiences of angry adults. But I think earlier ideas trump later misfortune.

That all of my children have grown up with icons in the home and part of my family’s prayer life, encourages me when I think of their life in Christ. What I cannot fathom would be an imageless Christianity.

Human beings make images – we do it everywhere and in every culture. Islam has its strict iconoclasm and yet cannot resist turning Arabic Script into something of an image itself. And if were to have traveled across the Middle East (particularly before it became such a political nightmare) you would have discovered a strange symbiotic relationship with the Christians (usually Orthodox) who lived among them. There are monasteries with miracle-working icons of the Theotokos who are (or at least were) likely to have more muslims in attendance at any given time than Christians. The muslims ignore the religious implications of their actions (largely), but come for the miracles anyway. Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain has a number of such accounts.

What seems obvious to me is that Christianity is far better served by a doctrinally ruled use of art (which icons are to a large extent) than by art that is driven by little more than sentimentality. Both may touch the heart – and God’s great kindness is such that He’ll use virtually everything for our salvation – but images are at least as important as words. As the Seventh Council stated: “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” Thus it seems obvious that art should be a doctrinal matter. Indeed, the unique ability of art to communicate on the level of the heart (thus a picture is worth a thousand words) would seem to require that we pay at least as much if not more attention to it than to the written word.

Or so my heart tells me.

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.





7 responses to “Icons and the Heart”

  1. Fatherstephen Avatar

    The photo is a cropped version of Raphael’s Madonna (as I had in my Bible) and, interestingly, as hung over Dostoevsky’s writing desk (how’s that for trivia?)

  2. Athanasius Avatar

    Bless Father.

    I grew up as a Protestant and I have to say that the most formative book in my Christian life was the “Picture Bible” I received it when I was about 5 or 6 years old (I’m 31 now). This was a Protestant production, and was the Bible in comic book form. It went from Genesis to the end of Acts (with a little “Acts of Paul” thrown in). The end of the tome had a little history of the Reformation bit, but newer versions have an Inter-testamental portion instead. The images in the book were burned into my mind, and I read it so often that it began to fall apart! In fact, to this day, when I think of a passage from the OT or the Gospels I can see the panels from the Picture Bible. It was a wonderful learning tool-I actually purchased one a couple of years ago to someday give to a child of my own.

  3. Frances Avatar

    I also grew up in a Protestant home,and as my parents were “better educated,” they certainly would never have hung a religious picture on their walls!

    However, I was greatly blessed by the presence on the living room bookshelf of a copy of Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” lavishly illustrated by Dore’s engravings. As a child, I spent hours poring over the images of Satan at the frozen heart of Hell, souls expiating their sins in Purgatory, and, most unforgettably, the souls of the Blessed, including the Theotokos, in Paradise. That book and the art it contained certainly prepared me to eventually become Orthodox. Truly, God works in mysterious ways!

  4. […] art’s role , says in Protestant homes shouldn’t be underestimated, says Fr. Stephen Freeman, who adds, “I am certain that my earliest awareness of God and my earliest thoughts of God […]

  5. […] ICONS AND the Heart; Pray for Catechumens … […]

  6. marthajaneinortn Avatar

    During my childhood, from about age 8, there was a picture of Jesus blessing the children (like the illustrations in Baptist Sunday School) in the hallway outside my bedroom. There were many nights that I lay in the dark feeling alienated from my parents, misunderstood, sad–I remember the feeling but can’t really describe it–and clinging to that image until I would drift off to sleep. This is really the only experience of prayer as I child that I can vividly remember. In that light, one of the most moving icons I have ever experienced is that of Jesus Blessing the Children at St Anthony Orthodox Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I’m sure it was because it was such a direct link to that prayer of my young heart.

  7. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Dear Martha Jane,

    Thanks for sharing the story. I wonder to myself now many others are who have been effected by pictures in such ways.

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