Truth and the Icon


Icons are very peculiar things as art goes. Those who do not understand them often find their “flat,” and almost “stylized” presentation of human beings and events rather stitled or off-putting. The non-Orthodox, I believe, realize that there’s more to an icon than meets the eye, but are not sure where to begin or how to frame the question. Not all Orthodox know the correct answers.

We have many visitors to St. Anne from non-Orthodox people – some just curious – others as very hungry seekers. The icons make a striking, immediate impression. I have given any number of classes on the meaning and veneration of icons. There is one aspect, however, that I find the hardest to explain. It is the relationship between icons and the truth.

The great classical expression concerning the truth was made first by St. Ambrose of Milan and again later by St. Maximus the Confessor. Their handy description was to say: “the Old Testament is shadow; the New Testament is icon; the End of all things [eschaton in Greek] is the Truth. If you think much about this some things begin to become clear.

First, if the Old Testament is Shadow, then we must ask, “Which direction is the light coming from in order to cast such a shadow?” The obvious answer in the Ambrosian or Maximian scheme is to say, “From the Eschaton.” It is not the light of the past that casts such a shadow, but a light that has not yet finally come.

Thus the things in the Old Testament are shadow, revealing something of the image itself, if only the edges of its outline.

The New Testament becomes more clear. Here things become more distinct. We can see faces and objects in a relatively clear manner, and yet there is still something about those faces and objects that seem different than the faces and objects I encounter on a day to day basis. This is because the icon is pointing beyond itself and is itself an icon of the eschaton. The saints are painted in a manner that reflects the truth of who they are. The lightness of their bodies, reflected in the thinness of their hands; the deemphasis on their senses (thin nose, tiny ears, small mouth) are meant to emphasize inward senses. They know silence and what cannot be spoken. Their eyes are enlarged as they behold the Truth, their foreheads enlarged as they know greater wisdom.

These are Byzantine methods of revealing the gospel truth. Icons are not only “windows into heaven,” they are portals into a time that has not yet completely come. They are not that time, but icons of that time.

It is deeply reminiscent of the statement in 1 John 2:2: “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.”

Not just the truth of the icon is waiting to be revealed – the truth of our very selves and the world in which we live is waiting to be revealed. Most commonly we have icons. The elements of the Holy Eucharist, Christ’s Body and Blood, are not icons of the age to come, they are the age to come made manifest among us. The Seventh Ecumenical Council rejected any language of iconography when referring to the Holy Body and Blood. Thus in this icon blessed world, elements of the coming age – the Truth of things – is constantly breaking through. What we do not yet see in Truth is still in some manner part of the delusion of our sinful heart. But then, “we will know even as we are known.” Then “we shall see face to face.”

I can look at the world apart from God, apart from its iconic character and see not its truth, but its fallenness, which is a departure from the truth. Its departure is a movement away from true being and towards nothing.

It is this creation, called into being out of nothing, that the Truth has not ceased calling to Himself.

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:18-39)

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.


14 responses to “Truth and the Icon”

  1. nancy Avatar

    Dear Fr. Stephen,

    I love this blog, and look forward to it every day. Check out the following website for some excellent articles on icons, Church architecture and Church music.

    Thank you for offering your thoughts for the rest of us.

  2. nancy Avatar

    Ooops!! Forgot the website:

  3. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Nancy, I really like the hexameron website. You sponsor icon workshops as well don’t you?

  4. Athanasia Avatar

    I did not know any of that about the stylized purpose and significance of things in an icon. I’m glad you shared that. Now tomorrow, while I am at church, I will need to take a good look at an icon!

  5. nancy Avatar

    Yes, this year we are sponsoring three workshops, taught by master iconographer Ksenia Pokrovsky, one of the truly great iconographers in this country. Available information is on our website, and we welcome comments on this most recent newsletter. We believe that this is a critical and important moment for the Orthodox Faith and blogs like your’s are a sterling example for the future of Orthodoxy in America. God bless!!

  6. Fatherstephen Avatar

    I did my thesis at Duke on the theology of icons – that part I can do – but I would love to attend one of Ksenia Pokrovsky’s workshops – more than one. It’s one of my life goals. As God gives me grace, time and money!

  7. Jim Avatar


    I recently visited an Orthodox church, partly out of curiosity and partly due to the influence of an Orthodox friend. Frankly, since I was raised in a Reformation framework I had an inner revulsion to the icons. But somehow, I sensed that the icon was really being used more or less like I would use a picture in a photo album. I look at them, and recall good memories of my father or grandfather, important events, and they evoke thoughts and feelings, reunite me with the past. Your posting here has made the veneration of icons much more understandable to me. BTW, I love your blog, even though I am not Orthodox. In another place, another time, maybe.

  8. Don Bradley Avatar
    Don Bradley

    “First, if the Old Testament is Shadow, then we must ask, “Which direction is the light coming from in order to cast such a shadow?” The obvious answer in the Ambrosian or Maximian scheme is to say, “From the Eschaton.” It is not the light of the past that casts such a shadow, but a light that has not yet finally come.”

    I thought it was just me that thought this particular paragraph was a mindblower, but I was talking to another guy at Church who thought the same thing. That was an outstanding rhetorical question.

  9. handmaidmaryleah Avatar

    I was raised a protestant or “reformation framework” as you so euphmistically put it, however, when I stepped foot into an Orthodox Church and saw the beauty that had been prepared for the Living God. The worship and honor that was prayerfully given during the Liturgy, I wanted to be a part of that.
    As Christians, we only get this life.
    Looking at the icons in our home, my favorite is a small one of St. Mary of Egypt that my priest and God-mother gave me while I was in the hospital. She is receiving communion from Fr. Zosima. She gave me great comfort and still does.
    Christ is Risen!
    the handmaid,

  10. Don Bradley Avatar
    Don Bradley

    I just have to post this off-subject topic………

    I just returned from an awesome wedding officiated by the resident irenic priest of this blog.

    This was one of those storybook weddings of a girl you wish your son would marry to a man you wish your daughter would marry; both raised by fine parents. Fr. Stephen was in good spirits; enjoying a victory party of officiating a wedding of the only daughter of longtime parish members. Much vodka, dancing, great fun.

    I insisted my eldest daughter go, who is 14, over my wife’s objections. Good thing. In the car on the way home my daughter shared something the groom told her while dancing with her. In the midst of the celebration, on the best day of his life, he remarked to her, “You know, Emily, this is why you wait until marriage.”

    Wow. It’s one thing to hear it from her old man, but to hear it from the groom who is closer to her in age left a deep impression on her. She got the message in a way I couldn’t deliver it. Pretty cool stuff.

  11. maximus daniel greeson Avatar

    Excuse me while I veer a little off the immediate topic of this post and into the text you quoted from Romans 8. I have been wondering for awhile about what we Orthodox believe about predestination, especially as it is spoken of here in this text. I have been trying to get my hands on “Free Choice in St. Maximus the Confessor” but alas it is sold out and out of print!
    I hope this doesn’t veer too far off of the blog topic, maybe as an incentive for a new post on the Orthodox understanding of predestination?
    Thanks so much Fr.

  12. Fatherstephen Avatar

    The passage is a very good example of what we believe. It points to the “good things God has prepared for those who love Him.” Predestination is only to be understood in its positive sense that God has purposed to gather together all things in one in Christ Jesus, as it says in Ephesians 1. But we do not believe that God has predestined some to be be born simply for the purpose of their damnation. That would be perverse.

  13. maximus daniel greeson Avatar

    Agreed, Thank you Father.

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