Bad Icons

mandylion_str_01And 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.

Originally posted in November, 2006

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.





12 responses to “Bad Icons”

  1. Donna Mason Avatar

    Very educational and inspirational.

  2. Anastasia Avatar

    Excellent, thank you for these enlightening words!

  3. Jeff Holton Avatar

    Wonderful words! I never thought of looking at it from that perspective. Heaven isn’t best depicted in a GOOD icon; Heaven is depicted in EVERY icon!

    I need to stop being critical of heaven when it’s handed to me.

  4. Wanda Avatar

    Great article, thank you, I finished the Theotokos but haven’t been satisfied that I did her justice, this gives me hope

  5. S. Avatar

    Good timing, Father, I have been trying to understand icons lately. So, an icon is always an image of a person who (like everyone) is an image of God? And if it is an icon of Jesus, it is an image of God? Do all icons portray people?

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    There are icons of Biblical stories, such as some of the parables. There are also a few icons that depict later events, such as the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the day icons were returned to the Churches in Byzantium. There are icons of the fathers of the 7 ecumenical councils (but, of course that’s people in both cases). There are a few more “abstract” icons, such as the Ladder of Divine Ascent, that depicts the monastic struggle as a ladder set up to heaven and monks climbing (some falling off). But that is fairly unusual.

    Many of the icons of events, and parables, would normally be frescoes on the walls of Churches. In our modern world of technology, it has become something of a common-place for these icons to be photographed and reduced in size to a small icon of the type normally set out for personal veneration. In some cases this is a mistaken use of some icons.

    I tend to think that if something was a fresco, let it stay a fresco. There are a growing number of iconographers and iconographic training. I would hope that most Orthodox churches have a goal to have properly painted icons at some point in the future, with careful thought to what the icons are and where the icons are placed.

    It’s important. More important theologically than many Orthodox (convert and non-convert) realize.

  7. Yewtree Avatar

    Regarding the point about “pagan idolatry” — there must have been some ancient pagans who perceived that the statue or image they were venerating was a window into the Divine world, not a direct manifestation of the deity it represented. Though as believers in immanence, they would also have regarded it (like everything else) as being infused with divinity. Contemporary Pagans certainly view pictures and statues as windows to divinity.

    Regarding the Protestant antipathy to images — I thought this was more directed at three-dimensional statues than at icons? And surely the Orthodox share an antipathy to statues, because you can walk round behind them, which makes them not windows.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    I suspect modern pagans have many thoughts about images that their ancient predecessors may not have shared. The more philosophical of ancient pagans did certainly have sophisticated reflection on their idols. Many modern Orthodox, particularly converts (of whom I am one), do not likely perceive icons in a manner similar to Orthodox in traditional Orthodox lands (this is both good and bad). My experience with Protestants has been that they generally are no more comfortable with icons than with statues (particularly when we Orthodox begin to bow before icons and kiss them). The Orthodox antipathy (which is too strong a term) to statues, at least initially and dogmatically, was simply because they too closely resembled pagan idols. The theology of icons as “windows to heaven,” postdates the 7th Council (at least in those studies with which I am familiar). I suspect that the fathers of the 7th Council would have had no problem with the statues commonly found in the Western Church, and would have been equally upset had a Western King begun smashing Christian statues – just as they were upset with Eastern Emperors ordering the smashing of icons.

    It would be incorrect, I think, to say that you would never see a statue in an Orthodox context. It is not a common Eastern Christian cultural form – but I’m not sure that it is correct to say that it is dogmatically forbidden. After all, the Cherubim of the Temple, were not icons but statues. And the Cross, though it may be portrayed in iconic fashion, is most often a 3 dimensional object. Walking around it does not present a problem. “Window” is a useful way to describe icons, but not a dogmatic expression (not a part of the tomos of the 7th Council).

  9. Yewtree Avatar

    Thanks for the clarification. Yes, I do recall some comments by Protestants on some of your other blog-posts about their discomfort with icons.

    Interesting that Orthodox Christianity uses the word icon ( “likeness, image, portrait”) for its own images and idol (from eidolon – “figure, representation”) for pagan imagery. An idol does seem to be more 3D than an icon.

    When I mentioned walking around the back of a statue, I meant that it is more of a thing in the world, or even a Ding-an-sich, than a portrait is. It’s not a “window” or a “door” in the same way as a flat surface. I realise that this is not a theological distinction — I think it’s more of a psychological one.

  10. Ben Abraham Avatar
    Ben Abraham

    In much the same way that we have apostolic succession today, so too do icons have a pneumatologial signature that cannot be manufactured or unmanufactured.

    The ancients were forbidden from making a graven image, or any likeness which is in the heavens above (Deut. 5:8) but this commandment was “suspended” when it came to the mercy seat.

    A good icon is a veil.

  11. Karen Avatar

    Dear Father, bless! Interesting discussion. My Priest (who is himself an iconographer) got an email complaint from a convert who found a small 3-D manger scene in the Orthodox parish he visited and was upset that this was not proper Orthodox practice. My Priest (not someone with a great deal of patience for those majoring on the minors, in my observation!) made it clear he had no problem with the fact of a manger scene being present in an Orthodox Church as a realistic reminder of the fact of the Incarnation. (The manger scene was not being venerated–I don’t know where it had been placed in the church.) All that to confirm that Orthodox attitudes about the use of 3-D imagery are not what some might expect. Also, having also been raised Protestant, I can confirm your statements about Protestant attitudes to Icons, as well. That was certainly true of my experience.

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