Icons and Scripture

jonah-s1The great summary statement of theology at the Seventh Ecumenical Council is succinct: Icons do with color what Scripture does with words. The first time I read this, I was a graduate student at Duke University, studying Systematic Theology. I wound up writing my thesis on the “Icon as Theology.”

What was new for me – and the thought that became central in my mind – was the inherent possibilities in the simple statement of the Seventh Council. To make the link between icon and Scripture is not quite the same thing as saying, “Icons tell a story.” Many icons do indeed tell a story – but they do so in a particular manner. Thus it is first off quite interesting to say that you can tell a story with color.

Icons indeed tell stories – but they do so in a very unique manner. Icons are not cartoons. Cartoons tell stories, but usually through a certain caricature of reality. They are like little movies with most of the action removed. I was a great lover of comic books as a young boy – indeed I had a friend who was a great lover of “Classic Comics” all the way through high school, since those comic books often provided a shortened version of some of the books we were required to read as literature.

But icons are not cartoons. They fairly early on developed an artistic “grammar,” a way of saying things with color that words could not always easily repeat. In that sense, icons do something with color that Scripture does with words – but Scripture does things with words that sometimes require icons to help us read.

The artistic grammar of icons is commonly known as “reverse perspective.” Instead of letting the traditional rules of perspective make distance a matter of lines converging within the painting (so that the farther away they are the closer the lines become), icons use just the opposite. The space of an icon “opens up” and becomes larger as we look at it. This grammar is the reason icons frequently show buildings in which “both sides” are portrayed. It also largely governs the “look” that we see in human faces – we are seeing the face of another in which the “reality” of the person expands and grows greater – rather than shrinking away from us. As such, the grammar of icons is not the traditional grammar of “historical” painting, of the painting to which the West became accustomed with the Renaissance. Icons are not photographic. They do not obey the historical and artistic grammar of photography.

Scripture, particularly as read by the Orthodox Church, has a grammar as well. That grammar is the reality of Pascha. We can say that the Scriptures, both Old and New Testament, have a “Paschal Shape.” The more firmly you understand and know the reality of Pascha, the more clearly you will see its image portrayed over and over in the stories of Scripture. And the more firmly we know the reality of Pascha, the more the Scriptures will open that reality to us.

One of the great “grammatical” moments in the life of the Church is found on Holy Saturday. There we hear 15 lessons of Scripture, mostly drawn from the Old Testament.

Genesis 1:1-3 which draws its meaning from the fact that it stops on the 3rd day, the day on which life is created. It is a commentary on the Third Day of Genesis which was a Paschal Shape. On the third day, Pascha brought forth new life as well.

Isaiah 60:1-6 Which begins, “Arise shine, for your light has come.” What follows is fulfilled in the Pascha of Christ, who is our arisen light.

Exodus 12:1-11 The intstitution of the first Pascha (Passover)

Jonah: 1:1-17, 2:1-10. 3:1-10. 4:1-11   Jonah, contrary to fundamentalist literalism is about Christ three days in the belly of the earth. Thus we read:

Thus Johan prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the whale saying, “I called to the Lord, out of my distress, and He answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and Thou didst hear my voice. For Thou didst cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood was round about me; all Thy wave and Thy billows passed over me…”

If you read the whole passage it is the voice of Christ from Sheol, not Jonah from the belly of a whale.

And on the readings go in the same manner. These are not just OT passages that coincidentally remind us of Christ’s Pascha. They are Scriptures about Christ’s Pascha. I am not saying that they are literature about Christ’s Pascha. They are Scriptures (Christian) about Christ’s Pascha. Christians need to get over their fear that someone is going to prove their history wrong. Christ is raised from the dead. If you don’t believe it, all the history in the world will not make you feel any better. You must know the Risen Lord. Then all will seem clear.

But these marvelous passages of Scripture, like the beautiful grammar of icons, need to be learned in proper manner. The historians cannot give us the grammar of Scripture. The Church alone knows this grammar.

We need to learn to speak the language of color.

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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21 responses to “Icons and Scripture”

  1. BJohnD Avatar

    Thank you for this series of teachings, Father. They have been of great help to me and some of my friends in the Faith.

  2. Mike Marsh Avatar

    Father Stephen: I enjoy and look forward to your writing. Thank you. It seems to me that rather than something to be just looked at and analyzed, icons – like holy scripture – invite our participation in the “story.” One of the ways we participate is by allowing the icon to look at and interrogate our life. Perhaps this is part of the reverse perspective. We, rather than the icon become the object of holy gazing. My own experience is that that is a vulnerable place to be. Peace be with you. Mike

  3. Cheryl Avatar


    I have an honest question. I have grown up in Evangelical Protestantism, and so have been very influenced by the literalist view of Scripture, but I’ve so enjoyed reading your past few posts on the Orthodox view of Scripture, and on Icons, and I find myself more and more believing it to be true.

    However, I wonder if there is room for both a literalist interpretation and the fuller, truer meaning met in Christ. For example, with Jonah, is it possible that the story is literally true, but was all the time pointing to a larger, truer reality as well. And the Exodus story of the Passover, can we believe it to be literally true and miraculous, while also seeing that its fuller meaning was met in Christ?

    I agree that there is no need to fear that our history will be proved wrong. I have faith that Christ has Risen, and there is no amount of history or science or anything else that can shake that. I have no fear of that, I just have always believed, I hope with the faith of a child, that those stories were literally true, that they really happened, and as I grew, I began to understand and appreciate how they are really pointing to Christ, that they are about Christ, and about Pascha.

    Any thoughts you have would be helpful to me, as I continue to explore Orthodoxy.



  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think this is frequently true, though it should not be for us the anxiety it often is for others. Christ is risen!

  5. luciasclay Avatar

    I still find it highly ironic that most modern objections to icons are for the exact opposite reason that was argued in the 7th council. Modern protestants typically see nothing wrong with painting the image but rather have a problem with the invocation of saints and the intercession of them.

    I was reading in Tobit this week and see the idea of angels interceding before God with our Prayers. Raphael one of the 7 angels who present our prayers to God. Its the exact parallel of the 7 angels before the throne in Revelation ( without trying to get into any mystical interpretations of Revelation ) with the bowls of incense mingled with the prayers of the saints. Except in that case I also see the elders with our prayers before the throne.

    What I am seeing, if it makes any sense to anyone, is that the whole reason behind the icons and the intercessions is not only not contradictory of scripture but is pretty well laid out, unless one throws out the parts of scripture that one does not agree with.

  6. Gerald Coleman Avatar
    Gerald Coleman

    Thanks Fr.,

    I found your blog a couple of weeks ago and I am really enjoying it. I really enjoyed what you had to say about the “Iconic” nature of scripture. The Modernistic Worldview has taught us to exalt the scientific method, and this has become the predominant western way of reading the scriptures. We have been train to read the scriptures to extract principles or what we need from it. Instead we should allow the Spirit to draw us into the scriptures. Many of us read the scriptures, but very few are read by the scriptures.
    Thanks Fr. Stephen!

  7. Eric Pettersson Avatar

    Father Stephen, this is a little unrelated, but I have a serious question for you after recently reading an article on Universalism. In the article it says:

    “According to Philip Gully, author of If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person, the difference between Universalism and Orthodoxy on these issues is not much. ‘I suspect the chief difference between my understanding of grace and the Orthodox understanding is one of degree,’ he says. ‘I believe grace will ultimately triumph, working for the eternal good in all lives, while Orthodox theology believes that there are limits and boundaries in God’s love for us.’”

    Now I’m not sure if they really should have capitalized Orthodox there, or if they really just meant orthodox (as opposed to heretical), but the point remains that I wondered what your thoughts were on this quote and what the Orthodox Church teaches about the idea of universal salvation.

  8. Cheryl Avatar

    Thanks for your response. He is Risen indeed! 🙂

  9. […] does with words.” (By the way, Fr Stephen has just posted a good blog post entitled, “Icons and Scripture” that is worth […]

  10. David Avatar


    Actually, one of the things I’ve never really brought up (me who talks about everything) is the struggle I’ve got with beauty. Everyone loves beauty around these parts, but I grew up with folks who were inherently suspicious of beauty.

    Icons and poetry, even elegant theological-philosophical ideas. Anything shiny, was probably gold plated on the outside and rusted on the inside.

    Trust boring, everyday, adequate, brown, simple and dependable things that are of the same substance all the way through. I must admit, I still twinge over this all the time. I fear I will be trying to unlearn that twinge until my last breath.

    It was my biggest problem with the Mother of our Lord. It was said, “surely she must be the greatest woman of all time since God chose her,” of course every other person in scripture the Lord chooses (including why God chose the nation of Israel) was precisely the opposite reason.

    I don’t trust beauty or the appearance of virtue and though I’m Orthodox, I still think it’s odd that once the Church started God began to favor the virtuous something that didn’t seem to be His MO before.

    (I could start here about the Jesus prayer as well and the number of years of aesthetic labors before God shows up for a visit, but I guess this post is getting weird as I’m writing in the middle of the night and frankly spent this evening at Vespers in misery over my own sin… which is, I’m sure throwing off both the tone and content of my post.)

    Please pray for me, a sinner. Really, a bad sinner.

  11. Marsha Avatar

    Eric, if I may, I read both of Phillip Gulley’s books just prior to coming to the Orthodox Church.

    He ultimately denies the divinity of Christ. Because, for everyone to believe that Jesus Christ is Lord, either here or in the afterlife, would overrule the free will given us by God.

    The Fathers have always (or so I understand) came close to universal salvation, but left it unclear or unsolved, simply because of the gift of free will given us by God.

    I guess, for me, the ideas do start out sounding similar, but when the thought process leads one to believe Christ is not divine, the thought process is flawed.

  12. Marsha Avatar

    Forgive me if I”ve explained something incorrectly. I am still new to the Orthodox Faith.

  13. Fr. Christian Mathis Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    Thank you again for your continued writing. Icons indeed express with color what the Scriptures do with words. The two actually seem to complement one another very well. I find that praying with the Scripture deepens the truth found in iconography and vice versa. Icons bring as a strength, an incarnational character. They engage the senses.

    Tradition will tell us that God entered the world as a human being so that we might more readily participate in his life. One of the prayers in the Western Tradition during the liturgy reads, “may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity”.

    At present, I am slowly making my way through the process of writing an icon of St. John the Baptist. The process is itself a prayer and a reminder of all the things we believe and practice as Christians. Very soon I will be working on the halo, which continues to challenge me. It is a difficult part of the process and a great reminder that God calls us to be fully human so that his divine nature can more easily be seen in us. The process begins in making clay that is applied to the board (representing humanity). Gold is then applied to the clay to represent the divine. Here is what continues to strike me with the process. In order for the gold to adhere to the clay, one must breathe into the clay for only with the heat and moisture of one’s breath will it stick properly. This clearly recalls the story of creation in Genesis where God forms man from the earth and breathes into him His spirit. The same message is written into both Scripture and icons.

    Thanks be to God for both!

  14. Brian Avatar

    If one wanted to have an icon in one’s home, which one would be good to get?

  15. fatherstephen Avatar

    One of Christ and one of His Mother. Always these, others, of course are possible. But these first. There are many good sources for icons. One is at http://www.skete.com

    They have one of the largest selections that I know of. If you are able to afford hand-painted icons, these are even better. There are other souces for these.

  16. Eric John (PNW) Avatar
    Eric John (PNW)

    Dear Fr. Stephen:

    You mention here:

    It also largely governs the “look” that we see in human faces – we are seeing the face of another in which the “reality” of the person expands and grows greater.

    I was curious about the practice in iconography of the ‘look’ of the human face of the saints and of angels being that of Christ. I do not think this is universal (is it a particular iconographic tradition?), but I have seen several instances of it, including icons of the Holy Theotokos, the Archangels Gabriel and Michael, and others – all bearing the essential facial features of the icon of Christ they are with in the iconostasis.

    One of the most striking that I have seen is of the Crucifixion where the theif on his right is, in fact, a ‘miniature’ Christ.

    Can you comment on this practice, or could Fr. Christian, perhaps?

    Although it does not appear to be a universal practice in iconography, nevertheless it was helpful to me at one time when struggling about reverencing icons when I realized that our iconostasis was full of icons of one person – Jesus Christ – i.e., I was reverencing the Saints because Christ lived in them, or rather they in Christ.

  17. fatherstephen Avatar

    There is something to what you say, though, strictly speaking each person in an icon is unique. And yet we are being conformed to the image of Christ and that seems apparent too. But it’s not so much an intentional technique as it seems to be an unintentional effect of the grammar. Which is interesting as well.

  18. Eric John (PNW) Avatar
    Eric John (PNW)

    Thank you Father.

    Pray for me.

  19. Fr. Christian Mathis Avatar

    I would agree with Fr. Stephen. I don’t believe it to be intentional that many of the saints’ faces look like Christ’s face, but I suppose there is some theological truth to the fact that the saints through their lives become more and more the image of Christ.

    One interesting thing that I have noticed is that many times some of the features of the iconographer make it onto the icon board, and it is not in any way intentional. Perhaps it is a small sign of union that has taken place through the slow conversation that takes place during the writing.

  20. Steve Avatar

    Fr. Christian,

    Christ’s face is the face of the redeemed but if luciasclay thinks people are not icons, he is not anti-hesychast.

  21. Angela Finnigan Avatar
    Angela Finnigan

    Father Stephen,
    I would love to read your thesis on Icons. Is it available anywhere? I’m currently taking classes and am drawing Christ Pantocrator but feel reading your thesis would help me pray and draw on a deeper level.

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