Icons and Truth

Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.

In the last several posts I have written about the iconic character of reality – the world about us has the character of an icon. I have also noted the iconic character of language and of Scripture. There is much to say about what is meant by such descriptions as well as what it means to see things in an “iconic” manner.

610xI have made a contrast between what I have termed a literal view of reality and an iconic view of reality. In the literal view, things are things. What you see is what there is. In an iconic view, things point to something beyond themselves – they make present that to which they point.

However, there is much more to this than the mere act of seeing. To see an icon requires that we also be in relationship with that which it represents. Christ is present in His icon but is only made manifest to us because we are in relationship with Him. Thus I have said that to see an icon properly involves its veneration. Veneration is an expression of our relationship with that which is represented.

An important aspect of icons (in the teaching of the Church) is that an icon must be true. We cannot make icons of that which is not true.

I recall a conversation with an elderly iconographer. We were discussing a particular icon of the Russian New Martyrs.

“It is not an icon!” she declared. I remember at the time wondering what she meant. It clearly obeyed all the canons and conventions for an icon – those whom it portrayed were truly martyrs. She drew my attention to the portrayal of those who were pictured carrying out the martyrdoms.

“There is hate in this icon!” She exclaimed. A true icon can never contain hate.

She did not mean that an icon could not portray the martyrdom itself (often a gruesome event). Rather she meant that within the portrayal of the evil-doers, the hatred and anger of the iconographer could be seen. It was, perhaps, a subtle point. But it was a point that was quite vital to this very accomplished iconographer. For veneration and hatred cannot coexist. Hatred will create a distortion which is not healing to the soul but damaging.

The same is true whether we are speaking about seeing the world as icon or reading the Scripture as icon (or encountering another human being as the icon of God). A required element within the experience of iconicity is the purity of our own heart. To read the Scriptures rightly is to encounter the Truth and, in some measure, to be changed in the encounter. There is obviously a dynamic at work. I am not pure in heart (nor are any of us) and my vision is thus always distorted to some extent.

However, what we can bring to every event of seeing is a broken and contrite heart – a heart of repentance. It is also true that our repentance is not pure and our humility is always lacking. But God is merciful. We offer what we can of our heart – and He gives what is lacking. This is the daily struggle of our lives as Christians and the constant and abundant mercy of God.

Evil renders the world opaque. Evil is not made present in things that seek to represent it. Rather, evil is a fracturing of the world – its dissolution in self-love and the drive towards non-being. Thus “art” which seeks to objectify human beings into mere sexual content is not True. It distorts the truth of a person and portrays them in a manner that dissolves reality. When we enter into communion with such “art” we enter into a communion of death – for such “art” only has death as its content.

This, of course, is an extreme example of the distorted efforts at sinful, iconic representation. It could be multiplied across the whole of our experience – for much that surrounds us is marked by such distortion, whether intentional or not.

St. Paul states:

To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled. They profess to know God, but in works they deny Him, being abominable, disobedient, and disqualified for every good work (Titus 1:15-16).

We are all iconographers – or at least involved with icons – for we live in the world and see it. (Even the “icon-smashers” are involved with icons whether they will acknowledge it or not). We either see icons in the distortion of our impure hearts or we struggle to see the world through the heart of repentance and in the purity which is the gift of God. It is in such purity that we can see another human being and confess from the heart that “this is the image of God.” It is not incorrect to say this of someone even if it is only a theoretical acceptance of a theological given. But such theoretical acceptance is not the same thing as actually seeing God in His image. That requires the long and difficult work of repentance – the struggle towards purity of heart. By His mercies, may we all see God.

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.





9 responses to “Icons and Truth”

  1. Jason Barker Avatar

    I’m particularly struck by the story of the iconographer and the icon of the Holy New Martyrs.

    It’s a particular struggle for me to follow the precept expected by the iconographer with whom you spoke of the writer of that icon: to see and comprehend the evil (as well, of course, as the good), and yet to avoid feeling hatred – and particularly to avoid projecting that hatred onto others.

    And that, for me at least, is particularly a point to remember when I’m confronted with a person or people engaged in evil actions – it’s far too easy to project hatred into a situation, and onto another person, rather than seeing the image of God. The evil actions must be addressed – just as the martyrdoms must be depicted in the aforementioned icon – but these actions and the people who commit them must be addressed with purity of heart.

  2. Lizzy L Avatar
    Lizzy L

    Thank you, Father. This is a clear and very helpful teaching.

  3. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    What is that wonderful picture?!

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    Mrs. Mutton,
    I found it out on the web without information attached. But it is wonderful, indeed.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    It is partly for this reason that an iconographer should make confession, fast and pray when they are painting. If the making of an icon is treated as though it were a mere craft – the result will be something less than an icon.

    St. Andrei Rublev is a saint for more than his artistic ability. It is believed that he could not have painted the icons we have by him except with a pure heart.

    Pavel Florensky says that Rublev’s “Trinity” is “proof of the existence of God,” understanding that if there were no God, Rublev could not have had the inner vision to paint such beauty.

  6. Mary Lowell Avatar

    Xenia Pokrovsky, that elderly iconographer to whom you refer, has also said, “Pictures of people we love warm our hearts and remind us why we love them; pictures of a favorite aunt, a great grandfather we never met or a beloved child who died suddenly. Pictures support our love for them and tell us something we would not know without some image to tell us about them.”

    “The Apostle John says, ‘God is love.’”

    “But what is the image of this love? We cannot make an image great enough to describe love. What the icon painter makes is an image of persons who love God and of God who loves us. That is what the icon is, an image of His love and our love.”

  7. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    So was the iconographer saying that the evil-doers should not have been present at all in the icon? I think I know the icon under discussion, which is why I’m asking. This idea that hatred should not be present in an icon is new to me, but I have read that an iconographer should have gone to confession prior to beginning work, and should continue to fast and pray while working. Food for thought — thanks, Father!

  8. Victor Avatar

    Mrs. Mutton,
    I think the idea is that one ought not to put the passions on display. Just as full black is never used in an icon (Only very dark browns or purples, I think) as it represents the absence of light, so corrupted emotions like hatred ought not to be displayed. They may be referenced but the iconographic tradition in its fullness resists becoming a vehicle for or giving voice to the brokenness of human nature. The icon is a window to heaven, not to hell.

  9. Seraphim Avatar


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