Icons and Truth

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

From time to time, 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 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.





23 responses to “Icons and Truth”

  1. kevien Avatar

    I once saw a coming storm over the sea. It was at sunset. And it made me wish that I had never studied metrology.

    Alas, but what of the meaning of the stars, I know astronomy too. Why does one kind of knowledge cloud another? How is it that a stuffed head causes an empty chest?

    Then I searched for meaning rather than knowledge. When I saw an icon of Christ…My heart understood. And the storm and stars began to speak anew.

  2. Michael Avatar

    Father, I think we can find occasions to experience the truth of icons even in our relationships with loved ones and strangers.

    If we love Christ as John describes in his pastoral letters, we will love even strangers, seeing Christ in their faces while seeing a mysterious person we don’t know. The stranger may freely open up and share his treasury of gifts or may be closed. Either way, faith and love allow us to grace strangers without knowledge of their person.

    Whether someone is present standing before us or present in a painted icon, their image is always an invitation to love and to exercise faith in their substance which our eyes can’t see.

    Venerating an icon can be dangerous, but since Christ –the light and life of every man– has overcome death, it is safe to love even strangers and hope we will know them better in the kingdom.

    Icons painted in the church tradition are safe because they surround us with proven brothers and sisters in Christ who have themselves crossed over to safety. Being in their presence is not only safe, it is being at home.

  3. rk Avatar

    Thank you, Father.

    “Thus ‘art’ which seeks to objectify human beings into mere sexual content is not True. When we enter into communion with such ‘art’ we enter into a communion of death – for such ‘art’ only has death as its content.”

    How might we consider this passage in light artists like Picasso or Malevich? Is the museum for modern art a hungry necropolis?

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    That’s a good question and one that I might be slow to issue a blanket decree. There can be much more to art than mere objectification – thus we give it a bit of room. I attended a local icon exhibit last week, in which the icons were displayed like museum pieces (it was a museum). It felt almost “Soviet.” Icons, though art, are meant to be venerated, etc. It would be like having an art display of windows (literal windows), but nothing to see through them. Interesting objects, but made to look through rather than at.

  5. Andrew Avatar

    A most timely and wise response Father, thank you.

  6. Kelly Clark Avatar
    Kelly Clark

    Fr Stephen:

    I have a photo of my late father; it captures his essence, his big heart, his joy for live, even his sometimes sadness. It is “true” in every sense to who he was to me; I “venerate” the photo, since I so loved the man. It strikes me that this is a good illustration of how an icon does its work.

    Thanks for your postings. Still an Episcopalian, I read them with thirst and gratitude.


  7. handmaid leah Avatar

    I remember reading an article of the Sinai exhibit a few years back and those icons too, were behind glass. The interesting thing that the article pointed out was how many people still kissed the glass- the great Sinai Pantocrater was still venerated even if from a distance…
    Great post Fr Stephen, as always…

  8. Karen Avatar

    Reading this post, I was reminded of the experience I had when I first began attending my present Orthodox parish. I connected with a nun I had never met before, and there was an instant feeling of mutual recognition in our greeting one another. I knew we had never met before, but I was very much responding to the Holy Spirit I could recognize dwelling within her. (Those bright and twinkling eyes will give such a one away every time!) This was right after a Sunday Liturgy, so I think the heightened awareness of dwelling in Christ experienced in the Liturgy also had something to do with it. She was momentarily confused, thinking she knew me already, but just couldn’t quite remember my name or where or how. Somewhat oddly (though not in a bad way), this took place just a few minutes after the Rector of the parish had greeted my husband thinking he had met him already, that he looked familiar and wondering aloud about it (my husband wears a beard during the winter, so at the time he had a more traditional “Orthodox” look, though he is not Orthodox). My husband assured him they had not yet met, but again, I believe my husband had very quickly sensed the goodwill and approachable safety of my Priest and had recognized in him the demeanor of a person who dwells in Christ, and so, again, I think it was the Holy Spirit within each recognizing the icon of Himself in the other that created that feeling, “Don’t I know you?”

    Interesting, now that I think about it, how difficult it is to see that icon in another when both your guards are up, when you are concerned about how you are going to be perceived/received and so cannot genuinely care for the other person. Seeing the icon and showing it requires vulnerability–a surrender of the mask that is what we want people to see in us and a revelation of our true person. The more wounded and conflicted with the passions we are, the harder this is to do. Bless God for all the genuinely gifted Spiritual Fathers and Confessors out there–this is one place we can really, in safety, practice taking the mask off. Vulnerability, humility, lack of defensiveness and purity of heart I guess are all names for the same thing. There’s a beautiful line that I have underlined in my copy of David Bentley Hart’s book, the Doors of the Sea. Hart writes, “To see the world as it should be seen, and so to see the true glory of God reflected in it, requires the cultivation of charity, of an eye rendered limpid by love.”

  9. Aunt Melanie Avatar

    I also once attended an exhibit of icons in a museum. I went with two girlfriends, one of whom was Russian Orthodox. My Orthodox friend crossed herself and said a silent prayer before a few of the icons. As she did this at one of the icons, another woman–who was also there with her friends–held back her friends with her arms and blocked them from going up to the icon–somewhat like a police officer–until my Orthodox friend finished praying.

    My other girlfriend and I were amazed–it was such a strange and unexpected experience. She began giggling–not disrespectfully, but out of nervousness and not knowing how to react. I just stood there with my mouth hanging open, but managed to collect myself and smiled and nodded a thank-you to the woman who blocked off the traffic. Meanwhile, my Orthodox friend finished her prayer and had no idea what had been going on around her!

    I think it showed how, even in a museum where icons might be regarded as objects of art rather than spiritual images, some people can still recognize holiness–in this instance, in the original purpose of the icon and in my Russian friend who was praying. Even in a museum, I think icons can still generate an environment of spirituality and people’s lives can be touched in a postive way. We were all “involved” with icons–or, if I may say so, the icons were involved with us.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    Aunt Melanie,
    In the presence of prayer and veneration, even a museum is revealed as a Church. Good story.

  11. Barbara Avatar

    Aunt Melanie,

    I had a similar experience in Meteora, Greece. Because Meteora is such a tourist destination and world heritage site, many of the icons are displayed as museum pieces and are found in rooms full of noisy tourists, rather than churches or chapels. Being fairly new to orthodoxy, I couldn’t help but venerate almost every icon I saw – even through the glass. I had several experiences where the museum personnel would protect my veneration by directing tourists elsewhere or by using their bodies to give me space. They would also make sure I saw the icons they considered to be very holy. It was quite lovely. They all seemed so grateful that the icons were being venerated rather than viewed.

  12. Chrys Avatar

    Thank you for another profound article. It would seem that there is a very deep link between the iconic and the sacramental – and, if so, the ascetic (i.e., those means by which we seek to turn from the idols of the false self to God).

  13. Andrew Avatar

    What icons do with colour, they also do with faces. Wonderful stories all.

  14. Westy Goes East Avatar
    Westy Goes East

    You have used this wonderful picture before, and I love it! It brings tears to my eyes, because just several years ago I was such an iconoclast I would have had a conniption fit over it. Now I know I have something to learn from the woman venerating the icon, instead of pitying her for her “ignorance”. I’m still blown away that God could draw someone like me into the Orthodox Church.

  15. James the Brother Avatar
    James the Brother

    Westy; awesome post!

    James the Brother

  16. fatherstephen Avatar

    I would offer a caveat: It is important to understand the iconicity of the world about us – but it is important (vitally) to note the relational act of veneration involved in properly seeing. It is also (vitally) important to recognize the distortion which our own faces (lives) bring to the image of God. In the NT, particularly St. Paul, the use of icon and doxa (glory), are extremely profound and are part of a theology of transformation (theosis). Our sight, through our heart, needs to be transformed and cleansed, but to see the truth of someone else, also may reveal the distortions that are present. Thus to see must include the cleansing that allows us to see without judging. All of this presumes serious ascesis.

    There are “lite” versions of iconicity which simply thrill at the idea of the world as icon, etc., but stop there. It will not be enough to save the observation from being utterly trite.

  17. Andrew Avatar

    If I may Father, trite is good 🙂

  18. Lina Avatar

    Earlier this year i was visiting the El Prado museum in Madrid. Having viewed many many beautiful pictures, we came upon the El Greco section. Suddenly I spied what to me could only be an icon of Jesus, though it wasn’t done in quite the traditional style. I remember thinking, “You are here and I am here.” All I wanted to do was camp in front of it.

  19. Father Stephen Avatar

    I had other words in mind as well, “banal,” “insipid.” You must remember that I live in a culture where the ability to render even the most sublime into the most insipid is part of its unique genius. Today, traveling through the rural Tennessee countryside I saw a sign posted on a tree, “Hell is hot,” it stated. “Hot” in that particular case is an insipid description.

  20. deanna rebekah Avatar

    I appreciate this post and the conversation in the comments, as I do each message here. There’s much to ponder regarding icons, much more for me to learn.

  21. Philip Jude Avatar

    I was listening the other day to a couple radical Prots assail icons as “demonic portals” for “spirit-conjuring.” Made me wonder if we really worship the same God. I was once in an evangelical Bible study, and they were confounded by incarnational (never mind iconic) theology. Really saddened me.

    I just don’t see how Christianity is Christianity without a God Who in-dwells, Who infuses, Who sacramentalizes. Perhaps the most telling moment occurred during our study of Ephesians. One of them complained, “I don’t know why Paul keeps using this word ‘mystery.’ It’s not the word I would choose. How is Jesus mysterious?” I couldn’t help but frown and shake my head.

    +Philip Jude

  22. mary lowell Avatar

    “A true icon can never contain hate.” Master Iconographer Ksenia Pokrovsky

  23. David Brent Avatar
    David Brent

    Father Stephen,

    I have referenced this post in a reply I wrote on One in Jesus.info. http://oneinjesus.info/2012/07/atonement-2-0-investigating-the-orthodox-perspective/#comment-384957

    May God continue to bless your work!

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