When Icons Became Windows

Some thirty years ago I was doing doctoral work at Duke University under Geoffrey Wainwright. I was drawn to Wainwright on account of his commitment to liturgical tradition and practice as the ground of theology. A course that became a turning point in my studies was on the nature of language in theology. Like all work in the program, it was not a course filled with answers, but a careful discipline of asking questions. So much depends on the questions we ask – apparently you don’t get answers to questions you are not asking. I immersed myself in our assigned readings but found myself without a rudder. There is so much to say and think about language that the topic easily becomes overwhelming. Reading in some unrelated material, however, I stumbled across a quote from the acts of the Seventh Ecumenical Council: “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” It created a question for me: “What do icons do with color?” I wound up writing a paper on the “iconicity of language.” Wainwright wrote a comment in the margin that likely changed my life: “I think you have your dissertation topic.”

That comment took me down a road that has yet to end. The dissertation became a thesis as my doctoral work got side-tracked. I returned to parish life but with a knowledge that I could no longer speak about the icons from outside the Tradition. It was seven years before I was received into Orthodoxy with my family. But that day also seemed to be the day I was united at last with the family of icons that had become so many windows into heaven.

The work I did in my thesis was not just about language. It was an immersion into the doctrine of the holy icons in the Councils and the Fathers that became a window into the whole of Orthodoxy. I have since said that if you take one rightly-painted icon, you could use it as the basis for teaching the whole of the Orthodox faith. Some twenty years into my Orthodox priesthood, I am more convinced of this than ever. Most importantly, this is not a statement about an idea – it is a realization based on the depth of experience and understanding that comes within the Orthodox life itself.

A story is told from the Soviet period of an old grandmother who had a very precious and valuable icon. The state wanted to place it in a museum. She refused. Those who had come to take the icon reasoned with her, “It is a great work of art. In the museum, thousands of people will be able to see and appreciate its beauty.” She responded, “Icons are not for being pretty. Icons are for kissing and praying to.”

That story found its way into my thesis. It captures a simple understanding. If you do not venerate an icon, you cannot see it. You can see a work of art, but nothing more. The appreciation of art is often nothing more than sentimentality, an abstraction and entertainment. Icons are not art (at least in that sense). “Art” is a modern invention, or, perhaps, a perversion from the Renaissance. Like the cave paintings of early humans, the true instinct of art (properly understood) is religious. What is pictured on the wall of the cave is also what is seen and hunted in the world. What we know from the study of primitive peoples is that those actions are religious/spiritual in nature. We no longer know what the cave painters would have said of their work, but we can be certain that it was about what was portrayed and not the portrayal itself. The art made something present.

The collapse of what is portrayed into the mere portrayal is a move that extends far beyond art. It represents the destruction of spiritual perception, replacing it with “thoughts.” It oddly creates an alienation between human beings and the world in which they live, in the name of the world in which they live. When a human being becomes an object among objects, life is reduced to our thoughts about objects, then to our thoughts about thoughts, opening into an abyss of solipsistic meaninglessness.

Isaiah says, “All flesh is as grass…but the Word of God abides forever” (Is. 40:6;8). The “grass” of our existence always collapses when it is divorced from the Logos. The created order was brought into existence out of nothing. When we seek to reduce it to that same existence, there is nothing to sustain it. I’ve often marveled at the science of the sub-atomic world. The further we peer into its mysteries, the closer we come to seeing that there is “nothing” there. Our lives are lived, as it were, in the foam that rides on the waves of the sea. We are fools when we only see the ever-disappearing foam and ignore the sea beneath it. All that we see rides upon and within the providence of God. To know that is to know God.

It was this larger reality (the true reality) that my immersion in the theology of icons made known to me. My first experience with icons was in college. I bought a print, mounted it, and tried to make it part of my prayer life. I didn’t know what to do. Looking at the icon, I kept waiting for something to happen, for some thought to occur. It just sat there and so did I. It was art, and nothing more. In my later study, exemplified in the words of the Russian grandmother, I learned that you cannot “see” an icon unless it is venerated. The window to heaven only opens to love.

This is a key to all noetic experience. Created in the image of the God who is love, we are never who we truly are apart from love. Our culture has reduced love to a category of emotion when, in fact, it is ontological. There is a passage in The Way of a Pilgrim that has stayed with me for years. It gives something of the sense of the world that begins to be visible through the window of icons. It is a revelation of the iconic nature of the whole created order.

When I began to pray with the heart, everything around me became transformed and I saw it in a new and delightful way. The trees, the grass, the earth, the air, the light, and everything seemed to be saying to me that it exists to witness to God’s love for man and that it prays and sings of God’s glory. Now I understood what I had read in the Philokalia about the “creature’s knowledge of speech,” and I saw how it was possible to communicate with God’s creation.

It is not uncommon for people to experience a certain glimpse of this. When we view the world, or even an individual with love and compassion, we begin to see what had previously been hidden. But we soon become distracted and attend to other things and become caught up in the anger and frustration of modern life. We then dismiss the earlier experience as nothing more than an emotional moment, a mood that has now passed. For the Pilgrim, the icon that became a window into the truth of existence was the Name of Jesus invoked in the Prayer. I hear the same thing described by the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus who walked with the risen Christ:

“Did not our hearts burn within us while He talked to us on the road, while He opened to us the Scriptures?” (Lk. 24:32)

Icons, divorced from veneration and the love of God, fall into art and the emptiness of a crumbling ontology. The same is true of us as well. We die for lack of love. “Faith,” St. Paul says, “works by love” (Gal. 5:6). Vladimir Lossky described faith as a “participatory adherence.” I can only understand such an expression in terms of love – an extension of the self towards the other in faith and loyalty (adherence). This is not a single action but a mode of existence (“the just shall live by faith”).

What we see in Christ is the abiding loyalty of God towards us and our reconciliation in the Kingdom of God. That reconciliation is not an abstraction or a notion, but a noetic reality whose perception is received in the gift of love. What we see is the coming of the Kingdom of God. Though we now see through a glass darkly, we are promised that the veil will eventually be removed. What we now see as icon, we will then see as the end of all things, in which God will be “all in all.” Come, Lord Jesus.

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.



48 responses to “When Icons Became Windows”

  1. Kristofer Carlson Avatar
    Kristofer Carlson

    W.K. Wimsatt writes: “The term icon is used today by semeiotic writers to refer to a verbal sign which somehow shares the properties of, or resembles, the objects which it denotes. The same term inits more usual meaning refers to a visual image and especially to one which is a religious symbol. The verbal image which most fully relizes its verbal capacities is that which is not merely a bright picture (in the usual modern meaning of the term image) but also an interpretation of reality in its metaphoric and symbolic dimensions. Thus: The Verbal Icon.
    Wimsatt, W. K., The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry.

  2. Byron Avatar

    I need to go back and re-read your dissertation! This is wonderful, Father. Many thanks.

  3. Sally Avatar

    Thank you for this article. My time spent studying the writing of icons with Vadislav Andreyev was actually a time of faith formation. I have a domain name that I hope to make into a website called Devotional Arts and it has to do with my reverence for life and seeing with my camera in a way that venerates creation. Blessings to you and your family, Fr. Stephen.

  4. Helen Avatar

    There is one icon that drew my attention with such strength last year during Lent. I saw it through the window of our church’s bookstore and immediately went in and bought it and held it close to me during the drive home. It is the Theotokos with Child and her face invited me into Love. I can gaze at that icon and without words experience such calm and peace. We have many icons at home and this is the only one that I experience that with. Perhaps it is enough. Thank you Father for your words. They too invite me into the same Love.

  5. Dino Avatar

    I can’t help thinking that the fragmentation of our personality –chiefly due to our susceptibility to mindless distraction– is, by far, the most regular source for the the ‘crumbling of ontology’. “Participatory adherence”, the praying “with the heart”, which has “everything around us become transformed” and the “communication with God’s creation”, (as well as the Creator Himself), cannot categorically ensue (and be preserved) till we ‘gather together within ourselves’, and through mindful watchfulness, recapture the wholeness and integrity that is a prerequisite to love. It seems this seemingly unrelated struggle (towards spiritual vigilance) is far more beneficial to the acquisition of love than our psychologized, express efforts towards it.

  6. Paul Avatar

    Could you explain your statement about art being, “a perversion from the Renaissance”.

  7. jacksson Avatar

    Thank you Father, I think that this is best paper you have written on my few years on your blog. I have that the icon that I glance at briefly has little or no meaning for me, but the one that I spend some time, pray with and kiss becomes very important and I return to it. I remember back in 1996 when my wife (Barbara) and I first became Orthodox, we visited the Russian cathedral in San Francisco with our priest Father (now Metropolitan) Jonah. The cathedral was dimly lit and most of the icons were dark from age and the lighting. We venerated the relics of St. John not fully understanding the privilege in doing so and then toured the church looking at all of the icons, again without not fulling the understanding the privilege that we were experiencing.

    After this wonderful experience, we went across the street to a restaurant for lunch. My wife then asked Fr Jonah, “Father, what saint was that icon to the right in the center area of the church; I kissed it and I felt an overwhelming feeling of love come from it?”

    He replied, “Barbara, that icon is a very ancient Russian icon of St. Barbara.” Icons have much more meaning than we realize and for us, have never been the same; they are far more than religious paintings.

    I read somewhere about a Greek man in Constantinople who was in a Turkish butcher shop purchasing some meat. He noticed that the Turkish butcher was preparing his meat on a board of interest. He asked to look at it and found that is was an old icon of the Panaghia. He negotiated with the butcher and ended up purchasing if.

    He took the icon home and that evening he spent some time and cleaned it up, restoring much of its ‘artistic’ beauty. Proud of his job, he hung the icon in a prominent place on his living room wall. Pleased with himself, he sat down on a comfortable chair and lit up a cigarette and looked at the icon through the smoke. Then to his shock and surprise, the icon spoke to him with the Panaghia saying to him, “I would rather be back in the Turkish butcher shop than in this filthy smoke.” That icon became, for that man, more than an object of art and if I remember, her quit smoking.

  8. jacksson Avatar

    My last sentence in the above post, “That icon became, for that man, more than an object of art and if I remember, her quit smoking.” should have been That icon became, for that man, more than an object of art and “if I remember correctly, he” quit smoking.

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    In the Renaissance, the West began a slow descent into art as beauty. That is not an entirely wrong notion, except that the beauty quickly becomes detached from its proper place and becomes a thing in itself. Much of the Renaissance art that was religious was painted because those paying for it could “justify” it if it were religious – but often the figures became things in themselves – naked bodies for the sake of naked bodies – having nothing to do with the supposed content of the painting. Of course, there also begins to be increased interest in portraiture – in which the meaning of the art is simply pictures of rich people. The art was genius – but the culture was already in decline and decay – soon to give way to the revolutions of the Reformation and the rise of the nation state. Art continued a decline – imagine the phrase “art for art’s sake.” That’s almost as meaningless a statement as was ever uttered. It is not just technique, not just beauty – but beauty for what? No doubt the forms involved in pornography are beautiful – but to what end? There is very little in our culture that is more vacuous and empty than the art we produce. It is deeply decadent.

    This is, of course, not true of all art, or all artistic efforts. But much that we call art is technique without a soul. The rise of the “Italian School” (so-called) in iconography in the 18th and 19th century – highly Westernized Rubeneque garbage (I mean most of it is really, really bad) – should be seen for what it is – a decline in Orthodoxy itself – a decline in self-understanding and a collapse in theology – that is only slowly recovering.

    Those who will point to miraculous paintings belonging to that school are only saying something about the kindness of God and His mercy – but not about the paintings themselves.

    I treasure the gift of artists and the talent training that they represent. One of my children is a professional artist. But, like writing, not everything is equal or of worth. The amount of worthless text today dwarfs the decadence of art. What has actually collapsed is the modern soul – mine and everyone else’s.

    I hope that is a helpful explanation and not overwhelming.

  10. David Singhiser Avatar
    David Singhiser

    I was reading something similar earlier this morning in a chapter called: The Literal Truth.

  11. Deborah Hansen Avatar
    Deborah Hansen

    This post is a blessing to me. I have written about 12 icons over the years. I am by no means an iconographer and would never consider myself more than a very poor novice, but the icons are deeply prayerful for me–both in the painting and now as I am in prayer with them each morning.

  12. Paul Avatar

    Thank you Father. I understand now.

  13. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    May God in his kindness grant me the wisdom of a Russian peasant woman.

  14. Byron Avatar

    but the icons are deeply prayerful for me–both in the painting and now as I am in prayer with them each morning.

    Deborah, we have a woman in our parish who makes icons and she apologized to me about how long it took her to paint an Icon of my Saint! She said she does not work on them unless she can be prayerfully still while doing so. I thought it a wonderful explanation of the true process of their making.

  15. Blagica Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    Interesting perceptions, always original. While reading I thought of something I heard once, the Saints do not die they just pass, they already experience the world as an icon and live it in that way. Their full life in Christ gives them the authentic experience of life itself as the greatest work of Art of the Creator. Life in humbleness and repentance makes the Passover an everyday experience and the colourfulness of icons is the everyday view of the spiritual eyes of those who see and live the real beauty of life in God Himself. These are the most honest impressions from the words you wrote and I apologize for taking the liberty to express them if in anyway I misunderstood the point.

  16. Eric Avatar

    Thank you for this – much, much to ponder

    What came first to mind is something which has been wandering the shabby courts of my head for some time – to Know is to Love is to Know. Apart from Love we cannot Know. To Love God is to begin to come to know him. As we grow in love for God we know more of Him, and of course also discover how little we both know and love him at the same time and so by Grace are called forth to love and know more.

  17. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, your piece is the most eloquent description of the reality of icons. I find the writing to be iconic in itself. Thank you.

  18. Jeff Avatar

    Thank you again.
    “If you do not venerate an icon, you cannot see it. ”
    I would beg your comments on the following attempt to write my thoughts…
    God is dynamic and never static, He Lives, He is Life. To know God, or to begin to do so, (the proverb says that “fear of God is [only] the beginning of wisdom”) one must enter Him, be drawn into him, be brought into Him, into His dynamic Being. He is not static. Nor am I. I live. I move.

    To know God is not to define Him, to set down the parameters by which He exists, and then to follow those parameters, to do so is to take a picture of God, to freeze Him in time, and to study *my* picture of Him.

    No, I approach God with uncertainty, partial knowledge, incomplete feelings, anxiety, joy…whatever my current state of mind/body, and I say, “Yes.” When I risk “myself” (all my perceptions of who I think I am) and my wife, a friend, an acquaintance, essentially asking to be *in* their life and they *in* mine, I am taking part in a dynamic relationship, the making of which depends on those actively engaging in real time, the result of which is not a thing or object, but communion, ongoing back and forth…Love.

    So, “If you do not venerate an icon, you cannot see it. ” Is it as though the icon is a “touch point” for the viewer and God, such that, I may begin to enter into His dynamic presence? I keep thinking of Jacob and God wrestling. The intimacy of wrestling is seemingly vital to this story. Also, it evokes a dynamic relationship and not a static grasping of a concept of God, but God inviting Jacob to actually experience Him.

    Words fail me. And probably that’s the essence of icon. To view them, to venerate an icon, is to ask to, to want to, to attempt to know Who is being referenced, and moments won’t suffice to fulfill such a request, only an open, continual, and vulnerable “Yes” to God.

    Thank for enduring my muddled attempts at saying something. I must add that some of these musings are inspired not only by your post, but also from (I’ve only just read 2-3 pages of the introduction) of “The Art of Seeing” by Fr. Contas.

  19. Jeff Avatar

    BTW, thanks for commenting in favor of that book in your last post when it was mentioned by Xenia (thanks Xenia). I took it as an endorsement and promptly downloaded it. 🙂

  20. Ook Avatar

    Perhaps in addition to art as beauty, the modern West does have iconic art, but it serves the cause of branding: Betty Crocker, the Marboro Man, Ronald McDonald, and the like.

  21. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Well said. Part of what you wrote took me back to a previous conversation in which the language of subjective/objective was discussed a bit. It’s the language of a Kantian duality (he popularized the term “subjective”). But, when we speak of “objective” experience, we’re entering into a false consciousness. The world as a collection of objects is a collection of things. They are not dynamic, but static. All of the “action” in that model is in my head – the “subjective” becomes what is interesting. It’s pure 2-storey universe (which was not at all what my conversation partner was intending).

    But, the whole universe is iconic. In the very least it is a manifestation of the providence of God. But, the Fathers also speak of the contemplation of nature (St. Maximus), and of the “logoi” of created things. The rocks sing, the trees clap their hands, the heavens declare the glory of God, etc. And so, St. Gregory of Nyssa is quoted as having said, “Only wonder understands anything.”

    God is not an object. One of the things I like about the Shroud of Turin is the utter failure of objective study with regard to it. With everything that we know – no one can explain how that image exists, much less are they able to replicate it. It will not allow itself to be an object.

    I think of Christ’s resurrection appearances. They are so “non-objective” that He is often not recognized at first. With Mary Magdalen, He is not seen for who He is until He speaks her name. In the eschaton, the reductionism of “objectivity” disappears. Creation simply is and will be seen to be more wonderful than that.

    Anyone who has been objectified by others will understand. As a “public figure” of sorts (internet personality), I’ve not unfrequently been objectified by this one or that one who sees me as a cipher for this position or that position (usually because they want someone to attack). They’re inevitably wrong and off the mark. I’m sure that everyone else has the same experience of being objectified by someone. We are not objects.

    The strangeness of the statement, “Taste and see that the Lord is good,” just occurred to me. It does not say, “Look and see.” Hmmm. I’ll ponder that for the rest of the day.

  22. Jeff Avatar

    Thank you so much, Father. The verse you referenced is the verse that Donna and I chose to be our “family verse” or motto. We had a Fraktur (a Mennonite art form, basically illuminated text) made and it hangs on our living room wall. And all this when we were first married (early 90s), and I had no idea what or who Orthodoxy is. Little did I know, that even then, God was feeding us Himself in all His reality, just what we could handle, for even the crumbs can be used to sustain us and open our eyes to His all surpassing glory.

  23. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Father and Jeff….what wonderful reflections. Thank you!

    Yes Father, to be an object to someone else is to be “used”. It is a very unclean feeling.
    Those verses about Mary Magdalen you referenced touched me deeply the first few times I read them, and ever since. Just to be clear, are you saying that in speaking her name Christ brings her into communion with Himself, breaking the barriers, so to speak, of objectivity? Only then she “knew” Him rather than to see Him as an object, the gardener? Same with those on the road to Emmaus? They thought the man who walked with them was just another local. But it could not go unnoticed that their hearts burned. Something was different. It was not until Christ opened up the scriptures, thus Himself, that their eyes were opened, and sealed, by ‘the breaking of the bread’, i.e. in communion, in unity, un-objectified. (Hard to put into words, Father.)
    Which brings me to the “taste and see…”, in brief, again I think of the intimate communion, the ultimate means to communion with Christ when He says “take, eat, this is My Body…drink, this is My Blood”. Oh indeed, what a wonder!

  24. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Jeff – So you and your wife, knowing nothing about Orthodoxy, commemorated your marriage by creating an icon! God is wonderful. And it seems to me that sometimes His sense of humor is a bit dry. I wonder if the Holy Spirit had his tongue in his cheek when he inspired you to make an icon, despite the fact that you did not yet have an Orthodox appreciation for icons.

  25. Justin Avatar

    Fr Stephen:
    “Taste and see that the Lord is good” always seemed like a eucharistic phrase to me. Of course, that’s exactly how the Church uses it. Interestingly, in Greek (how I’m used to hearing it) the phrase is audibly indistinguishable from the phrase “Taste and see that the Lord is Christ” – I always suspected the “pun” there was intentionally when this specific passage was placed by the Fathers as the communion hymn.
    In fact, the first time I attended the Lenten Pre-Sanctified Liturgy and heard that phrase chanted (in Greek) I thought they WERE saying “Taste and see that Christ is the Lord.” They chanted it about 15 times before I read it and saw that it was a “Holy Pun” (so to speak) on the passage from the Psalter. I suspect of course, that I’ve got that exactly backwards – I think the “original/literal” Septuagint rendering is the” pun,” and that the “Lamb slain before the creation of the world” intended “Christ” to be understood there well BEFORE the Psalter came into being. Of course, you have to “taste and see” in Kairos time as opposed to Chronos time to perceive that.

  26. Jeff Avatar

    Yes, I’m sure He was quite interested, maybe even a tad mischievous about it. I’m guessing His exceeding joy surrounds the event and us, then, now, and always, where now is then and then is now and always includes both. God, you truly are good. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

  27. Jeff Avatar

    And Father,
    Speaking of objectifying, I am amazed, humbled, and so grateful that even as I have objectified Him –using Him as it were as my own personal stash of opium (Marx) to effect emotions I wanted, to escape, to be happy, to fit in, to increase my status, to…fill in the blank– He has, even so, not only endured me, but as embraced me, has comforted me, has loved me. He does not objectify me. His love is pure. His life is all life and no death. And even though I have, once again, for I have known this before though not by this name, become aware of my sin, I will do it again. And yet, He does not waver in His love. For in Him I live and breathe and have my being. Glory to His holy name.

  28. Jeff Avatar

    And if course, it goes without saying, I am guilty of doing this to others as well. For that, I ask forgiveness.

  29. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    In the last few months, I have felt intensely drawn to iconography. This has come has quite a surprise to me for more reasons than one. Naturally, as a Catholic (though an Orthodox-leaning one) I had little exposure to Orthodox icons early in life and, when I did, I thought they were a rather odd sort of art. I sensed that the oddness was intentional but I had no idea what it meant. I have had an icon of the Theotokos hanging in my house for nearly 20 years (it came with the house) – but for a long time I felt nothing more than a vague affection for it.

    In more recent years, I have set up icon stands (I have two, for no known reason) on the eastern walls of my house and pray before them daily. Still, it hadn’t occurred to me that I should paint an icon myself. However, in the last 1+ years, I became increasing drawn to painting in general, taking some online tutorials and learning some of the general principles of art, e.g. color, form, etc. I’ve always had an artistic spirit but never formal training regarding even the basics. Then, something happened – and I cannot tell you exactly how or when. It seemed to develop in stages – reading of an icon, obtaining a print of it, feeling compelled to copy it…

    I simply have to create icons. And suddenly secular art holds little appeal for me – at least as long as there is an icon forming in my heart. I read and pray, draw and paint. The icon-making has revealed itself as sort of a metaphor for life. Sometimes I can see the truth of the icon before me but I find it impossible to represent it. I am helpless and humbled. At times, I keep trying, struggling over and over until I recognize that I am trying to control something that I have no power to control. What I am making looks ghastly and I almost give up. I step back. I make myself fast from my work with the icon so that its making can be separated from my self in its useless striving. I am humbled more. I pray, I beg to be able to see. “Show me your face!” I cry to the holy one that eludes me.

    And then there is a moment in which it happens. I see. There is a glimpse of reality – true reality – that somehow has emerged on the surface before me. And I feel a sense of awe, of amazement. Not because I have created good art but because I have been allowed to bring forth something so far beyond me. Again I am humbled. And afraid.

    I am afraid of myself, of my ability to wreck it. Not only do I fear accidentally spilling blue paint on the Virgin’s face – though I certainly do fear that. I also fear that I may destroy with my ego what God has allowed me to see and to share. I cannot trust my own motives. Pride tries to crowd its way into my consciousness and I have to keep pushing it out. I know this icon-in-the-making is not my creation but God allowing me to share in His creative life. And it is not because of any virtue or talent of mine that God permits it but because He wants it to be done. He wants His truth to be known. It is a beautiful truth that awakens the soul.

    Does one venerate an icon of one’s own making? It almost seems wrong to do so – but also wrong not to. The process, the struggle is so intimate that I sometimes cannot help but talk to the one who is appearing on the surface before me – there is something so much more than paint and wood there…

    Forgive me.

  30. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ


    Nice to hear about your love for icons. I’d like to share with you a website Father Stephen recommended a while back. Maybe it will help answer some of your questions.

  31. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Thanks, Paula. I will look into it further. So much to learn…

  32. juliania Avatar

    Like others commenting here, I love to paint icons, which I have done in a very primitive fashion since my youngest daughter was born. So, I too have some thoughts about how they speak to us, when we give them the attention they call for.

    At first, I wanted to disagree with the concept of ‘windows’, but I didn’t have hubris enough to make an argument of that, so I looked into other posts you have on that subject, almost going away, but I love them so, the icons – and then I saw I could say something more to add rather than to critique – and it came from a side post you made about what we know, this:

    “…Years ago, I was told that I should only speak about what I know (this came as advice to me from a senior priest who was speaking on the topic of preaching). “You always have a right to tell your own story,” he said and advised that my preaching should stay within the bounds of my experience…”

    Thank you for that encouragement, Father Stephen!

    In my own story, what icons compel me to say is that they are not so much windows in the sense of drawing us into another world out of our “being present to them” attitude, but rather they in their own very presentness bring themselves forward into our world. That our veneration of that presence is a recognition of the reaching of their world into ours. And this is how Renaissance art differs; it is realistic; it is a world that we go into as if looking through a window, but we are on the outside.

    So yes, icons are windows, but they are windows through which holiness and spirit enter and comfort our souls, strengthening us for the journey we are on. And so too, their silence speaks, or even sings.

  33. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. Windows in our homes have the purpose of letting the outside come in. Windows are two-way events.

  34. Byron Avatar

    Does one venerate an icon of one’s own making?

    Mary, the woman of whom I spoke in an earlier comment certainly would say “yes” (she has told me that she prays over and venerates the icons she makes). I think it is not incorrect to speak of icons as revealing those around us, whom we do not see. As you pointed out, icons are not necessarily our creation, but a revealing of God’s creative life around us (and, the icon maker perhaps, within us). At least, this is how I am beginning to think of them. Father, please delete this if it is off-base.

  35. Dean Avatar

    Recently we were in the high desert after rain. I looked over to mountains on my right (my wife was driving) and God’s goodness and beauty captivated me at that moment. I was almost overwhelmed by His presence through/under/in His wondrous creation. Roman’s one says that His Godhead, nature are clearly seen in His creation. His light and life interpenetrates all. So, not only icons draw us to Himself. His very nature is also revealed in His glorious creation.

  36. Merry Bauman Avatar
    Merry Bauman

    I became Orthodox nine yrs ago this Bright Saturday coming up. I had never owned an icon until my husband began sharing his with me. The Saints that were special to me I found I really needed an icon of them in our home. This last Valentines Day, I had the strongest urge for a particular icon. I had only seen it above our alter, but I hoped there was one for me. It was the enthroned Jesus. There was the Jesus I met as a child, who came and comforted me as I hid in the back of my closet. Michael found the perfect icon – made in the 1200’s originally and copied. I call it “MY Jesus” and I absolutely love it. I feel such a joy in my heart to see it and to venerate it. Matushka Olga of Alaska is also one of those for me. I found my icons in Fairbanks Ak, at the Orthodox mission of St. Herman. No one was there, but the doors were unlocked. (Fr. Issac Farha later told me that God must have opened them for me, because they are locked when the priest is not home.) I saw the icons and a basket to leave the money, and I bought both the large and the small icons. They have a special place in our home, and I feel her help and influence frequently. The joy of our wall of icons is, for me, like having beloved family members on our wall, and part of our home. It reminds me daily of the love and care they have for us – we need only ask. I gained a whole large family of loving Saints who want to pray for us, intercede for us, and wait only for our first asking them. This is just personal reflection. No theological expertise here, just the simple love for my icons and the real people whom they represent.

  37. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Some have mentioned the Orthodox Arts Journal. Please allow me to say Jonathan Pageau has taught – and is teaching me – more about art than I have ever known. I have always appreciated art and my appreciation for icons has been growing, but, thanks to Pageau, I am beginning to actually understand icons, as well as art in general. Even modern and post-modern art is beginning to make sense to me!

  38. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Jonathan and I are keynoting a conference in Seattle in May. Looking forward to being with him.

  39. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mary Benton, wow.

  40. Laurie Wolpert Avatar
    Laurie Wolpert

    Hi, Father Stephen. I have a question about the “one-story” and “two story universe”. Why don’t ordinary people perceive angels and the like in our day to day? I know some people have had experiences of the divine, but many of these experiences vary from person to person and they are not replicable. I have been someone who has enjoyed fairy tale land and the idea of things beyond, but I have never seen angels (at least not yet). What do you think?


  41. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Lori Woolverton – I had an angel pray for me just last week. I am sure most folks never noticed her, sitting on a bench in a downtown plaza. Angels are everywhere, I have learned. Sometimes they have bodies, sometimes not. But they are everywhere.

    Thanks be to God.

  42. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Laurie Wolpert – Demons are also everywhere. One of them, named Spellcheck, just changed your name to Laurie Woolverton.

  43. Steve Perisho Avatar

    Fr. Freeman:

    I have been unable to find an y contact information for you on this website.

    I’m wondering if I could have a more precise citation of the Acts for the assertion, “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.”

    I have the 2-volume 2018 Richard Price translation before me, but it lacks an index and is not searchable via Google Books.

    I have also searched the 1839 John Mendham translation (https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/011600694), but without obvious success so far.

    I would love to pin this lovely sentence to a precise location. Can you help? Hopefully you can harvest my email address from the form.

    If not, I am

    Steve Perisho
    Theology Librarian
    Seattle Pacific University

  44. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Here is the citation:

    Mansi, 13:232C

    Quoted in Sahas, p. 69.

    Sahas, Daniel J. Icon and Logos: Sources in Eighth-Century Iconoclasm. Toronto Medieval Texts and Translations, 4. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986.

    Mansi, Giovanni Domenico. Sacrorum Conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio. Florence: Expensis Antonio Zatta, 1859-1898

    The citation is from my Master’s Thesis done back in ’91. The Sahas work is monumental.

    Sahas’ renders the text: That which the narrative declares in writing is the same as that which the icon does [in colours].

  45. Steve Perisho Avatar

    Yes. According to a truly wonderful article by Liz James (“Color and Meaning in Byzantium.,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 11, no. 2 (Summer 2003): 223–33), which I’ve just discovered and finished, that would be the Sixth Session, passim, right? I.e. pp. 425 ff, of vol. 2 of the new translation by Richard Price (Liverpool University Press, 2018). (Dr. James wrote also this, among other things: Light and Colour in Byzantine Art, Clarendon Studies in the History of Art (Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press, Oxford University Press, 1996).

    I own a copy of the source-book by Sahas, so I’ll look there as well.

    Many thanks.

  46. Steve Perisho Avatar

    The word there appears to be ἀναζωγράφησις, which lacks the explicit reference to color (χρωματουργία) present in the passage of the heretical Horos to which the Council is responding at that point in its deliberations. Hence Sahas’ brackets.

    A largely inconsequential point in context (in, for example, the light of the article by James), of course.

  47. Jordan Avatar

    I have an abiding interest in language, and this morning as I was doing some writing on the matter the term “iconicity” wandered in to my mind. I thought the word was from one of your posts, so I looked it up and ended up here.
    Wondering if you can recommend any books on the “iconicity of language.”

  48. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    To my knowledge, the book hasn’t been written. I first wrote on the iconicity of language in my thesis at Duke. I’ll send you a pdf of that document.

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