Tuesday, November 3, 2009

B&W, W&O Chapter 7: Icons & the Incarnation

Two chapters in two days? Control your shock! :)

To be fair, they were short chapters, and there's something about the 'off day light savings time' that makes me more energetic. Cool-ish weather!

So, I've done a couple of posts dealing in general terms with icons before: nyah and nyah. (Also, less importantly, here, here and here. Not that any of my posts are *important*, per say...)

Moving on...

"Icons are art for the heart."

To the mind, an icon is so tall, by so wide, done on such and such material, in such and such way, by this person, in this school, and it is worth so much money on the market at the moment. We define the art given our knowledge of the subject (or lack thereof, the author points out). Our mind, as with everything else, sees it and compares it to other icons, or other pieces of art, and qualifies it and ranks it in that manner.

The heart, however, simply resonates with the spiritual reality portrayed upon the icon's surface.

Western art tries to evoke emotion from its viewer, or make them think (in the case of some of the more avant garde art I've seen...). In contrast, icons do not make this attempt. What the icon does is invite the viewer (and to an even greater extent the *believer*), to dive more deeply into the mystery. An icon is not meant to be an exact image of a person or an event. They are meant to represent the deeper truth, the 'real reality'. So an icon of a Saint, or Jesus, or Mary is in no way meant to exactly show what they looked like in life.

Icons can be seen, in a fashion, as guards against heresy. It has arisen, from time to time in the church, the belief that the world, flesh, etc. is *evil* and nasty and to be punished and scourged and 'done away with' as much as possible, because it's the spirit that matters and is good, not the flesh. This belief in the 'evilness' of the physical leads to a desire to distance the Creator from His creation. And while yes, God is above His creation, He also chose to become a part of it. In the beginning, He declared it *good*. And what God has declared good, who has the right to call it evil?

"The whole notion that God is completely separate from His creation, and that matter is inherently less than perfect and therefore to be avoided as much as possible, is entirely alien to Orthodox Christian tradition, and the icon bears significant silent witness to this fact. The words of the Gospel are uncompromising: 'In the beginning was the Word...and the Word became flesh.' Not only does the Word become flesh, but He is also the agent of creation: 'all things were made through Him' (John 1:1, 3, 14). This is the Word of God, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, who was in time to become Jesus. Perfect God, but also perfect man, Jesus is no secondary creative power necessitated by the application of a theory, but God-made-man, the theanthropic Savior.

"(It is interesting to note that the word which describes Jesus becoming a human being is given a slightly different sense in the Western languages [affected by Latin] from that which is understood in the languages of Orthodoxy. The Latin word incarnatio [from which we get 'incarnation'] actually means something like 'enfleshment.' The Greek word that incarnatio translates is enanthropoisis, or 'enhumanment.')

"Thus, by extension, the existence of icons as supporters of our spiritual life proclaims the Incarnation of Christ. The Word made flesh fills all of creation with His presence, and thus the physical world starts its long transformation into the Kingdom."

Once we've seen that God is willing and able to enter into the world He Himself created, rather than stand outside and observe it, then we have to face the ability of matter to be 'God-bearing', and not only in some symbolic fashion.

In the Divine Liturgy (or Mass, if you're a Catholic), at some point during the service, before Communion, the bread and wine on the altar are transformed from mere representations of Christ's body and blood into His *actual* Body and Blood. There're no explosions, no giant flashes of lights, no choir of angels (that we can see...) announcing the moment. It simply happens. Not even with a whimper, but silently. Prior to that moment, they are icons.

An icon is a God-bearing piece of creation. A creation made by God in the first place, but distorted by the Fall. However, since God became man, this same material, through the work of the individuals whose labor goes into the physical aspects of the icon, is returned to the fullness of its spiritual origins in a way that most physical objects are not.

"In Orthodox tradition we are not encouraged to star at icons, to contemplate them. When used in prayer, they are not the objects of devotion, but simply a center of presence. The devotion belongs beyond the icon, and the veneration of the icon is always veneration of the person or event depicted on it.

"Once prepared and blessed, the icon remains a protrusion of eternity, of the Kingdom, into the present world. The icon, unlike a human person, cannot ever be less than it is - an icon cannot sin, nor can it mar its own image of God in the same way that human beings can do so readily. Icons, then are a guarantee, in a sense, of the relationship between God and the world."

This is an icon of the Life of St. John the Forerunner (Or St. John the Baptist, or John the Baptist, depending on your Orthodox/Catholic/Protestant stand).

And here's one of him holding his own severed head. See, this is what I mean about the icon not meant to represent actual reality...


  1. YAY more art history. I love them, I do. Icons are such an interesting part of art of the western world. So many amazing works have been done that are icons. My fav alterpiece is The Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch. Not really an icon but I love it.

    I still have trouble understanding the difference between an icon and an idol. I suppose the difference is that the icon is not meant to be worshipped as the being it depicts? Some people don't get that though lol. Do they cover that in this book? Seems like he would cover that topic.

  2. Another interesting and informative post. Thank you so much!

    We saw some really great Orthodox and Catholic icons in Syria. I find them intriguing since I've never been around icons much.

    I think icons are not meant to be worshipped, whereas idols are, right? I still recall God talking about idols in the OT -- He scoffs at the Israelites making things they had to move themselves because they had no ability to walk, yet the Israelites worshipped those man-made things.

    Enjoyed this. Yay for 2 chapters in one day! :)

  3. LK,

    Art, while I cannot produce it, is a constant love of mine. I am in awe of people who can draw/paint/sculpt, mostly, I think, because it's a talent I lack entirely. :)

    An idol, in the common use of the term, is any physical object (usually a statue) that is worshiped as a deity. The belief is that the deity somehow, indwells the statue, and can (theoretically) move and eat and talk, etc. through it.

    In proper terms, however, an idol is actually anything that one places in importance over God. So a false god is an idol, but so is food, money, sex, a boyfriend (any person, really), your job, tv, movies, books, etc. Anything that you place above God in your priorities becomes an idol to you.

    An icon is not meant to be worshiped. They're used as reminders of holy people or events, but never as divine themselves.

    The author didn't cover this, but I think that's because it's written with the assumption that its audience is those who have some basic knowledge of Orthodoxy already. It's a 'beginner' book, I think, but not 'basic'.

  4. Susanne,

    Yep, you've got it. :)


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