The Truth of an Icon


Icons are lovely objects – directing our hearts towards God – sometimes miraculous and truly “windows to heaven.” But I want to be somewhat theological today and write about the “truth” of an icon. Icons are peculiar, when painted according to the most traditional patterns. They are not just “ahistorical” they are positively non-historical. We can look at an icon and see any number of events depicted that do not belong to the same time framework at all. Icons are simply not about history as we popularly understand it. This separates them dramatically from much that flowered in the Western Renaissance.

The “truth” (I hardly know what else to call it) of an icon is never to be found in its past, it’s historical message, but in the future, in what it is manifesting of the age to come. There is a Patristic maxim, put forward by both St. Maximus the Confessor and earlier by St. Ambrose of Milan: the Old Testament is shadow; the New Testament is icon; while the eschaton (the end of all things or the fulfillment of the Kingdom, etc.) is the truth itself. In both of these Fathers, one Eastern, one Western, truth is understood to be a property of the end of things. In theological terms, the truth is “eschatological.”

Thus we have this rather strange aspect of icons. They are eschatological representations. They not only show us what happened (if we’re talking about a Biblical scene) but also show us what that scene means in its fullest and final sense. Saints are not painted as they might have appeared in life, but in an eschatological fashion representing how they shall be in the age to come (at least this is what the intention is behind many stylistic aspects of an icon). They are thin (not heavy and of the earth); their senses are either deemphasized (small ears, small mouth, thin and elongated hands) because they are turned inward to the heart; or overemphasized (large eyes and enlarged forehead) representing heavenly vision and wisdom. They are always presented to us face-to-face, never in profile, for the truth of who they are is only to be known personally (hypostatically) in relationsip, never as a merely existing object. This last aspect is quite notable in the resurrection appearances of Christ. He cannot be objectified.

In the Seventh Council, the Fathers said, “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” And so it should not be surprising to find that the Scriptures themselves only open their Truth to us eschatologically. St. John’s gospel is probably the most obvious in this respect. He places Christ’s discourse on the meaning of the Eucharist at the occasion of the feeding of the five thousand, and yet does not have an account of the Last Supper in the Passion Narrative (or at least does not include the Eucharist in his account of the Last Supper as do Matthew and Luke). Christ makes statements in his sermon following the feeding of the five thousand that would and will make sense only to those who are eucharistically aware. It is a sermon out of time.

All of the New Testament is written from a “future” perspective – it’s all after the fact – Christ having been raised and taught the Church and ascended into Heaven. The Holy Spirit has already come. Indeed, the Scriptures of the Old Testament are now seen as fulfilled in Christ. Thus, they will only yield up the “truth” of their meaning by examining them through Christ.

This is also true of our own lives as Christians, as well as the corporate life of the Church. The meal of which we partake together is Christ’s Body and Blood, the Messianic Banquet. It is food from the end of the world. Thus in St. John Chrysostom’s Liturgy, we actually speak of the Second Coming in the past tense.

St. Paul taught us to understand that the truth of ourselves lies not in the present but in the age to come. In the third chapter of Colossians he says:

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

St. John says the same thing: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1John 3:2).

Thus the icons of the Church stand around us not as reminders of the past, but as witnesses of the age to come. They say to us: “Thus shall you be.” And we ourselves groan within for such truth, as the Scriptures tell us, “Looking to Christ, the author and the finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2).


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.





4 responses to “The Truth of an Icon”

  1. Roland Avatar

    I think the joining of past, present, and future is most apparent in the icon of the Ascension. While it obviously refers to Christ’s departure from the earth 40 days after his Resurrection, it can also be viewed as a depiction of his return at the end of the age and our present watching for that return (Mark 13:26-27, 37).

  2. Roland Avatar

    I should also have referenced Acts 1:11.

  3. Fatherstephen Avatar

    I will continue to write on Icon and Scripure. My thesis when I was in Grad School at Duke, was on “The Icon as Theology.” It’s one reason it’s a favorite of mine.

  4. handmaidleah Avatar

    In a word? Edifying.
    the handmaid,

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