Update
Home / LITURGICAL ARTICLES & THEOLOGY / Iconography / ICONOGRAPHY – A STATEMENT OF IMAGE
ICONOGRAPHY – A STATEMENT OF IMAGE

ICONOGRAPHY – A STATEMENT OF IMAGE

Created in the image of God - Self Knowledge

Introduction

In recent times, there has been a subtle but noticeable trend of Byzantine iconography manifesting itself within the decor of Roman Catholic and Protestant churches all around the world. To the discerning Orthodox Christian observer, initially there is joy at the fact that other fellow Christians are adopting and using iconography as an expression of faith, and thus serve as a common meeting point to meditate and discuss matters of Christian faith.

However, this initial joy gives way to concern because the Orthodox observer begins to notice that the depictions put on display, give one the impression of being icons, but in actuality are static Byzantine styled pictures and not icons. This particular unease is stirred further by the manner in which icons are actually used or “deployed” within these other various Christian congregations, that use normally witnesses these images as serving primarily a decorative and aesthetical function of secondary importance.

Consequently, the very arrangement of these images becomes quite haphazard. The forms and colours that these images take, often ignore the guidelines of iconography, because they become subject to the “likes” or “dislikes” of the minister or congregation who “commission” the image as if it were a mere “work of art” (as characterised by the image’s aesthetical function). In a similar vein, there is the adoption or slavish copying of Orthodox Christian iconography, whose full import or meaning is neither understood, nor utilised effectively within these worshipping communities. As a result, many of these “icons” which are usually produced, usually by non-Orthodox who have learnt iconography from an Orthodox iconographer, display static and confused iconographical forms.

The most obvious reason for this outcome, stems from the fact that the non-Orthodox iconographer is confronted with two differing spiritual, liturgical and theological perspectives and practices that have followed differing courses. In their sincere desire to remain authentic to Christian iconography while at the same time attempt to convey its meaning within the context of their own spiritual tradition, there inevitably arises this tension between stasis and confusion. The non-Orthodox iconographer is thus forced into one of two choices;

*1. Either they express the belief of their own convictions or ecclesial tradition, in which case their end product would diverge from iconographical forms and would have to search and develop a new iconographical tradition, or;

*2. Mimic lavish Orthodox Christian iconography, which expresses the belief and practices of Orthodox Christianity that may possibly differ in varying degrees from the beliefs and practices of the non-Orthodox Christian iconographer and their fellow brethren.

This latter point becomes even more evident, when a non-Orthodox communion calls upon the services of an Orthodox iconographer, who naturally produces Orthodox icons, that express Orthodox beliefs, but are displayed for decorative effect in the midst of a non-Orthodox congregation, and is subject to their particular perceptions of style, form and colour, while its deployment ignores the image’s meaning or goes contrary to it.

In either of these scenarios, iconography ceases to be iconography and becomes nothing more than just another fad or artistic stylisation, that in one or two decades will be replaced by another form given the immense pressures and changeability that Western Christianity has become subject to, in order to “reinvent” itself so that it can remain “relevant” and “popular”. Of course iconography contrasts sharply against this particular dynamic, but adheres to the dynamism of tradition that remains faithful to its origins and core values, while adapting to express devotion and faith within our present context. It is probably this point which has elicited interest from non-Orthodox Christians towards iconography in the first place; while at the same time prompt them to search and examine carefully the roots of their own spiritual heritage after tiring from living within a tradition that has either diverged from its origins, or being subjected to a constant state of flux.

Benedictine Monks in Desert community in Abiquiu - New Mexico

For example, within various quarters of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe and America, we see monastic orders returning to the customs, traditions, ordinances and practices that their founders had instituted, along with the austere lifestyle and devotion that those founders sought to impart to their disciples. It is of course a beautiful thing to witness people searching and rediscovering their unique identity and the roots of their spiritual-existential origins.

With regards the Orthodox Christian, it is a reminder of the dangers posed when one loses sight of their origins, and seeks to “innovate” or “remain static”. In both cases, the consequences are either divergence and loss, or fundamentalism and a non-living faith. Therefore the dangers of not knowing the importance, or purpose of iconography which our Church has preserved, utilised and perpetuated, would bring us to the same “image” problem, (pardon the pun), that non-Orthodox confront when seeking to draw upon the rich wisdom of iconography, but misuse it. This is not to denigrate non-Orthodox Christians, but highlights the questions and considerations that Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christians need to take into account with respects to iconography, and how it can serve as a faithful medium of Christian expression, experience and witness.

Problematic consideration

Origins, Considerations & Meaning

With these thoughts in mind, we should consider certain questions that are pertinent to our reflection, that is:

*What is iconography?

*What is the purpose of iconography?

*What are the characteristics of iconography?

*What do icons express?

*Who is an iconographer?

Without a doubt the very name of this profession reveals that it “professes” something unique, and that is the divine calling inspired by God, and complemented by the pious effort and struggle of its adherent to remain receptive to God’s inspiration. Thus we apply the name iconography to this calling, because encrypted within it are two key words icon which means “image”, and graph which means to “write”. Therefore, an iconographer is one who “writes the image” as revealed in working in synergy with God, because God seeks to manifest through this author/writer to the remainder of humanity, visions of Paradise, the teachings of God and the mysteries of Faith.

Writing an Icon

As such, one can see that an icon is not purely a work of art, or art for art’s sake, or for aesthetic pleasure, but is an integral item of devotion and prayer. It is an image that inspires contemplation and meditative prayer that has its vision upon eternity, the loving mercy of God, and the beauty of God’s presence and of Paradise. It is not a vision that is confined to our own human reality or comprehension, and thus cannot be a 3-dimensional, “realistic” or “humanistic” image in accordance to our earthly perceptions of order, form or dimension. If anything, the icon often reveals how our earthly reality seems strange and distorted from the perspective of Faith and God’s intended purpose for Creation.

Therefore when Orthodox speak of iconography as a form of “Holy Tradition” (as opposed to “human” or “Church tradition”), just like Holy Scripture; They are making a declaration that iconography is a form of Divine Revelation which seeks to induct the faithful into the mysteries of the “eternal liturgy” which is the Paradise of Heaven. Yet these windows into Paradise do not reveal exhaustively or in entirety the full impact of that reality or the truths and meanings which are linked to it.

That is why iconography deploys symbols, distortions, lighting, colour, asymmetrical and unbalanced forms with strange movement upon a 2-dimensional depiction, so as to remind us of the finiteness of our knowledge, wisdom and being. The full story of that eternal reality, will only be revealed by God Himself in the fullness of time before us.

Transfiguration icon - St Andrews Theological College chapel

As such, icons are intended to be used as items of prayer and devotion, providing the faithful a focul point when in prayer. Icons provide an image on which we can focus on and avoid forming our own mental images during times of prayer and devotion. And as we know, the human person by virtue of their physical and psychological nature, forms thousands of images, ideas and thoughts throughout the course of a day and within a lifetime. Icons are there to assist a person to remain focused and avoid distractions, by channelling their thoughts and prayer towards the eternal mystery of God and His works, as well as His adopted family, the communion of the Saints and the Angels.[1]

It is true that in the post-iconoclasm era until our present day, there is a danger of “iconomania” whereby every part of a church building is covered in icons; thus taking the focus away from God and the altar which are the central points of reference within liturgical worship. Therefore when a church is built, the choice and order of iconography must be given due care, because it may make the interior look cluttered and busy, causing the eyes and the mind to wander and thus cause the soul unease through distraction.

Walls covered in icons

The early Christian and pre-iconoclasm Byzantine basilicas displayed immense wisdom and self-restraint in this respect when employing iconography. They did not plaster all the walls and ceiling with iconography, but deployed Scriptural quotes and Patristic thoughts through calligraphy, they used stonework and tiling to convey deep meanings as well as sacred geometry and patterns, just in the same way mosques do today.[2]

Example of Sacred Geometry in Islamic structures

Sacred geometry emplyed in liturgical space

In any case, the misuse or abuse of iconography lowers it to the level of secondary importance that is purely serving a “decorative”, “aesthetical”, “superficial” or “unnecessary” function within worship or devotion. Yet if we are to insist on calling iconography an “artform”, then we should call it “ecclesial art” which is defined as, “the use of material elements as a medium for the revelation of God to be expressed”.

This naturally brings us to the very theology of the icon, because iconography expresses something central as to what we know about God and how He has revealed Himself to all of Creation. That point of revelation is manifested by the very fact that icons consist of physical/material matter which convey those things which are immaterial and eternal. It highlights the very nature of the human being who was created by God as a material and physical being, but who has the potentiality by God’s grace and image within them to transcend such a finite reality.

Blacherniotissa Icon - The Original Platitera

At another level, the theology of the icon is also a theology of the Incarnation. That is, the immortal and immaterial Lord “physically” entering into the finite, mortal and material reality of our world and historical time, by becoming one of us. In more poetic terms, iconography reflects the Incarnation, which is the physical entry of God into the material world, God becoming man, God becoming matter which is uniquely at the heart of Christian Faith. It was on this point, on which iconophiles (defenders of icons) like Saints John of Damascus, Methodios the Confessor and Theodore the Studite or Bishop Theodore Abu-Qurrah, utilised to explain the purpose of icons and the reason why they should not be destroyed.

The line of thought they adopted was drawn from Holy Scripture, because they recognised that iconography was an expression of Incarnational theology, because the iconographer could not write the image of God in His eternal nature since “…no man has seen God” (Jn 1:18). However God as the Incarnate Messiah can be represented according to the earthly nature that He acquired and the time that He was amongst us, because He “became human and took flesh”.

Icon of the Nativity - Festal Icon of the fist day of Dodecaimeron

Of Christ who took a material body, God proved that matter can be redeemed, unlike the claims of many religions and philosophies which asserted (or still assert) that physical matter is evil in of itself. Yet God deified (sanctified) matter, making it “spirit-bearing”, and so if flesh can be a medium for the Spirit, so can wood or paint, although in a different manner. As St John of Damascus put it, “I do not worship matter, but the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who through matter effected my salvation”.

One could supplement this point by highlighting the function of icons, in that one does not worship icons, but through icons we come to worship God, just like the use and reading of Holy Scripture serves as another material aide in worshipping God. In any case, as cited by one of the official statements of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, “The doctrine of icons is tied to Orthodox teaching that all of God’s creation is to be redeemed and glorified, both spiritual and material”.

Icon of 7th Ecumenical Council

The Iconographer

Invariably given the purpose and importance of iconography, especially as a part of Holy Tradition, it has naturally developed in close association with the liturgical life, beliefs and theology of Orthodox Christianity. As such, iconography is not reflective of the personal whims, beliefs or traditions of an iconographer. Hence, the solemnity and importance of the iconographer’s calling, the author of images must be a liturgical being and a person of steadfast faith themselves.

Consequently an iconographer must be a person of the Church who lives its annual life-cycle from year to year; who partakes of its Mystagogies (sacraments), who fasts, who prays, who does charitable works, who is knowledgeable about the Faith, who reads Scripture and the Church Fathers, and most importantly, is guided by the directives of a canonical spiritual father. They cannot be an unbeliever or a person who is not under the guidance of a spiritual father, or not live and partake within the liturgical and Mystagogical life of the Church, nor be ignorant of the Faith; otherwise they are not an iconographer, and what they “produce” is not an icon, but a mere artistic depiction devoid of God’s gracious inspiration, or the experience of God. It would be inconsistent with this “divine vocation” if a said iconographer was writing images of the divine while living in a de-facto relationship, or taking drugs or fornicating with multiple partners.

The canons and ordinances which direct the conduct of an iconographer when writing images, cite that for an icon, the author must engage in a period of austere fasting, prayer and charitable works, so that their effort is graced by the Supreme Author, God, who reveals visions (theoria[3]) of Himself and His works within the universe; so that others may be moved and inspired when they gaze upon the final icon product, causing the onlooker to contemplate and meditate upon the awe-inspiring mysteries of God.

Of course when an icon is completed, as the ordinances regarding icons state, it should be brought to a church, where it will be placed under (or if it cannot fit, leaning against) the church’s altar and left there for 40 days before it is placed in its final position.

Orthodox Altar

Mass Production

These ordinances regarding icon consecration also apply to the modern phenomenon of “mass-produced” icons, which are a paradox of iconography and its blessed heritage. And it is a paradox in the sense that the image which has been written by an iconographer, is multiplied into many impersonal and uninspired copies, that obliterate the uniqueness of each icon.

Without doubt this is an effort to dispense with the role and presence of an iconographer; as well as obstruct the grace of God to inspire unique interpretations and expressions of the same icon prototype, or reveal a “new” image that had existed or expressed eternal truth, but remained hidden.

In any case, mass-production has commercialised this vocation and caused icons to be taken for granted. And as we know, familiarity often breeds contempt or abuse, whereby people “dispose” of the images in inappropriate ways and not in accordance to Church ordinances. Those very directives cite that if an icon has deteriorated beyond recognition then it must either be restored or disposed of through burning, and if for whatever reason it is necessary to “dispose” of an icon under any other circumstances which are “legitimate”, it should be either given to a Church or ritually burned. And if the icon is a “heretical” and “unecclesial” image, than it too must be burned. An example of such a false icon is the one which depicts God the Father as an elderly man sitting alongside Christ, while the Holy Spirit is depicted as a dove hovering between them.

Heretical Depiction of the Holy Trinity

But in returning to the question of mass-produced icons, we must consider how many parish newsletters, Christian diaries and so forth, replicate iconographic images which are disposed of in inappropriate ways each year. This of course jars sharply against the historical reality, whereby once upon a time, families or individuals may have only possessed one or two treasured icons at the most within their homes, which were in all likelihood heirlooms passed down from generation to generation.

The paradox is, that with mass-production, icons have become more accessible and affordable, allowing homes to keep more of them, but it seems that as a result, their importance and sanctity may have been diminished. Yet it has given rise to an unfortunate occurrence, in that there are factories in countries like China which churn out icons that are sold for within retail shops for $2 each. The irony being that the godless who refuse to allow, and who monitor and persecute the same Church which has revealed the expression of iconography, profit from its very mass-production! An even greater irony being, that mainland China has sought to obliterate any evidence of its Christian heritage which has roots in Assyrian and Eastern Orthodox Christianity over the course of 2,000 years of an on and off presence.

It has even seen fit to do everything possible to prevent Eastern Orthodox and Assyrian Christianity from re-establishing itself within China, or allow either, to reclaim their church properties and send priests to serve the Chinese congregations. Yet they have no hesitation in profiteering by mass-producing and exporting Orthodox icons and other liturgical items, while the Chinese faithful are denied these very devotional objects.[4]

Icon of the Holy Chinese Martyrs

Symbolisms, Meanings & Iconographic Schemes

In having raised some of the various points which are important to the vocation of iconography, we also need to reinforce them with some basic explanations about the symbolisms, meanings and presentational order of icons. Within icons we observe unusual particularities that avoid presenting a naturalistic or humanistic three-dimensional image. When looking at icons we observe, distorted and twisted figures, long noses, big ears, extended foreheads, the asymmetrical buildings that look like they were built by shoddy carpenters, the strange looking trees and plants, or the unusual coloured lights and darkness penetrating through the icons, could easily be the world’s first example of surrealist expressionism.

And yet these “surrealist elements” all tell a story or convey a reality that eludes our physical eye or logic in daily life. Saints who are shown holding a crucifix in hand tell us that they were martyrs for Christ and the Gospel. This is known popularly as the path of red martyrdom towards Paradise and salvation, because their entry was bathed with their own blood. Those saints who are shown holding scrolls reveal that they were Prophets, confessors of the Gospel, or bore witness to it through a life-long dedication of asceticism and service to God’s Word and the faithful; better known as the “white” martyrdom, because they endured life-long suffering as opposed to martyrs shedding blood over a short course of time.

St John the Russian 03

St Gerasimos Cephalonia 02

Then you have saints, (usually hierarchs) who are holding a Gospel book in their left hand and blessing with the right hand, because they were teachers, guardians and defenders of the Faith against heresies and schism. In any case, the majority of saints within iconography, usually hold their right hand in blessing the onlooker, but also to signify that it was the right hand that they used during their lifetime to invoke the name and power of God by performing the sign of the Cross.

St Nectarios of Pentapolis 03

Then we have saints who hold a small box in one hand and a spoon-like object in the other, which are the medical boxes that physicians and doctors once carried with them in days past. The spoon-like object, known as the “lance”, was the means by which they administered their medicine to the ill and dying. The saints who hold these two items were physicians by profession or those who had received the charism of healing from God, like the humble, naive and illiterate St Tryphon of Lampsucus. Some of these saints are known as “unmercenaries” (anargyroi), that is, those who did not accept or receive payment for their ministry of healing like Sts Cosmas and Damian of Rome.

Icon of Sts Cosmas & Damian of Rome

Other characteristics that many of the “sanctified” figures may possess within icons are the extended foreheads which indicate the attainment of immense knowledge and wisdom, particularly the uncreated wisdom of grace bestowed by God upon them. The exaggerated ears on various saints tell us one of the qualities we must strive for, which is to be one who listens carefully and to be particularly attentive to the word of God, as well as our fellow man.

St Simeon the New Theologian 01

The halo of course indicates to us the enlightenment of a saint whose radiance emanates from their face which reveals the unlocking of God’s glory and grace that exists within their being and is dormant in all humans, because we are all created in the image of God, according to His likeness.[5] Thus the halo and the radiance of a saint’s face shows the onlooker the divine graceful potentiality that exists within them. Yet the figure of a saint and the halo is reminiscent of the image of a candle which gives light within the darkness, thus the saints are “living candles” which shine like beacons within the darkness of the world to show us that we are not alone, nor are we the first to journey along the path of faith. But that by being consoled and guided by the light of their example, we too may find our own way with God’s blessing.

It is for this reason that the icons of saints are usually placed on walls, because they are like living bridges through time, space and “ontology” (being) that link the earth with the heavens, as symbolised by the earthy colours of a church’s floor and the celestial imagery of church’s ceiling. They are present within our midst, praying alongside of us during liturgical services, thus serving as a physical link within our present, finite and linear timeframe with that of their own era as well as the eternity of the “afterlife” within the presence of God.

This placing of the icons of saints upon the walls is also a reminder that within the liturgical services, no matter how few or numerous the congregation is, they are also accompanied by the presence of the angels and all those faithful who have passed on into the eternal life; praying alongside the “earthly” congregation and spiritually participating within the services. The floor and ceiling of the church also reinforce the purpose of the church building and the meaning and reality of liturgical services, which is to show the unity of Heaven and Earth. The latter of course is merely tapping into and partaking within the eternal liturgy of Heaven. As such, the “iconography” of a church floor often deploys geometric patterns or images of the created world and earthly life upon a background of earthy colours or of white signifying the original purity and good for which God intended creation to be.[6] The ceiling would be wood-panelled with various pictures or carvings within each panel, that would be coloured with gold and blue backgrounds.

Alternatively, if the ceiling did not have wood-work, it would simply be painted blue with images painted in gold or yellow. The images employed would be symbols of the cosmos such as the sun or the moon, interspaced with eternal and Christian symbols like “chi-rho” (the first two letters of the Greek title “Christ” – “X” and “P”) or the eight-pointed star, and so forth. If a church has a dome, then all this imagery would lead the eye to the presence of the Prophets and the Apostles who stand in prayer together with the various ranks of angels, looking up to the image of Christ the Pantocrator (Ruler of the Universe) who looks down upon all of creation.

Christ_Pantocrator_mosaic

Apse icon of Platytera

Within the altar apse of a church, the high point is usually crowned by the icon of the Virgin Mary as the “Platitera” (“the one who is wider than the universe”, because she carried within her womb the Christ who could not be contained by time or space). Alternatively this very space could be used to depict, in accordance to older iconographic schemes, the icon of the Resurrection, the Ascension, the event or person to whom the church is dedicated to, or Christ offering Holy Eucharist to the Apostles and all of humanity.

Resurrection icon in apse

Christ administering Holy Eucharist

Beneath this section of the apse, there is usually a gathering of sainted bishops bowing in prayer with scrolls in their hands. These figures are the persons who not only defended the Faith and the integrity of its liturgical worship, but made contributions to the forms of liturgical worship (according to God’s grace) and articulated its expression and theology. Figures such as St Basil the Great, St James the Brother of the Lord, St John Chrysostom and others, are usually placed here. At the Offertory Altar, known as the “Oblation” or “Proskomide”, icons of the Nativity of Christ or the “Immense Humility” (Akran Tapeinosis) are usually depicted.

Orthodox Altar

Festal icon of Christ's Nativity 02

Akran-Tapeinosis - Immense Humiliation

Of course this arrangement of icons is not the only iconographic scheme and order of Orthodox churches, but it has become commonplace since the post-iconoclastic era. However, there are efforts to rediscover and reapply earlier iconographic schemes drawn from the pre-iconoclastic era which better reflect, assist devotion and express the Faith of Orthodox Christians in our modern-day reality. This could be in part, due to the fact that we live in a “post-Christian” era that resembles the ecclesial reality and tensions that early Christians endured within a hostile Judeo-Pagan environment.[7]

The more simplistic and not heavy theological and stylised forms, which do not cover every naked inch of church walls or ceilings, may better speak to us and to our hearts, while refocusing our attention upon our Faith, than the recreation of the glories of post-iconoclastic Byzantium. I for one would like to build and design chapels in accordance to the rich, but simple, traditions of earlier iconography and church architecture that are only preserved and utilised in a few places today, but alas I neither have the money or the land to realise such a vision!

Western Iconographical Forms

During the period of undivided Christendom, the heritage and devotion of iconography was ever-present and flourishing within the West. Historical accounts, in particular, often relate the practice of iconography within the British Isles, whereby the numerous Celtic and Anglo ascetics who had journeyed to the East and brought back with them, apart from the austerity of monasticism and learning, the beauties of Eastern iconography. This is not to say that these British ascetics copied verbatim the authorship of iconography. But they took what they learnt, with the grace of God, and brought forth a localised style that still adhered to iconographic tradition.

Book of Kells - Evangelist & his Symbol

The best surviving examples can be found in the illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells. And even though these British ascetics still had an immense love for “eastern styled” icons by importing or authoring them using imported material; they still realised the need to author icons that expressed the eternal mysteries of Faith, within their cultural context and using local materials to create the paint colours. And this is one of the key points about iconography, in that it draws upon the use of bark, earth, leaves, rocks and so forth, that are drawn from local surroundings, in order to be processed into the very colours used by the iconographer. Furthermore the icon that is “authored”, which relates the eternal image prototype, is one that is also uniquely local and expresses its own cultural context.

Within Western Christianity, the tradition of iconography began to diverge away from the ecclesial reality, and with the post 1054 schism followed by the Renaissance and subsequent periods, the shift towards secular art and humanism begins to take root. The iconographer was replaced by the artist, who was not necessarily an ecclesial being, and one who may employ people off the streets to serve as “models” for Biblical figures. It became commonplace amongst many of these artists to hire prostitutes or call upon their mistresses to pose as the female figures of Holy Scriptures and Christian history. This was not too dissimilar to the same secularisation of Church music with the use of musical instruments within liturgical services or the development of opera.

The point here, is that these things are not negative in themselves,[8] but that they blurred the line between the spiritual ecclesial environment with that of the secular realm. In more specific terms with reference to iconography, it turned it into a universalist and humanistic expression of decorative art, instead of an item of devotion. It is quite clear, that the absence of ecclesial art or Spartan-like appearance of Protestant churches in the Post-Reformation era, was a clear revolt and rejection to what was perceived as “tacky”, “showy”, “profane”, “idolatrous”, “man-made” images that were not essential to faith or devotion. Consequently within the Western Christian phronema[9], ecclesial art is viewed even today, as something purely decorative and aesthetical and not intrinsic or as an aide to devotion, spirituality or liturgical worship.

Stations-of-the-Cross

However, this is not to say that Western Christendom was deprived entirely of iconography, because in spite of such negative developments, there was one true example that has survived into our present era. That form which is truly authentic to Western Christendom and functions as an icon does, are the “Stations of the Cross”. Traditionally, Western Christians have sought to relate the various stages of Christ’s Passion and journey towards the Cross in a series of 12 depictions; thus representing the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 Apostles who went forth into the world with the Gospel message. Historically though, the Stations have never been confined entirely to twelve depictions, but there exist also other various numbers of depictions including 14, 16, 33 Stations of the Cross and so forth.

Whatever number of depictions is accorded within a church, the origins and function has remained the same. That origin traces itself back to the pilgrimages that Western Christians would make to the Holy Land, and more specifically to Jerusalem, where they would journey in the footsteps of Christ’s Incarnational ministry. In more specific terms the stations of the Cross were drawn from the pilgrimage itinerary of Holy Week services in Jerusalem, where the pilgrims would be taken to the places associated with Christ’s betrayal, arrest, conviction, abandonment, torture, humiliation and crucifixion.

Pilgrims journey on Via Dolorosa - Jerusalem

Naturally, not everyone in those days were able to travel and make the pilgrimage, and so to make it more accessible to the commonfolk in Western Christian nations, the clergy there, inspired by the grace of God, brought the pilgrimage journey into their churches. This “iconographic pilgrimage” became entrenched within liturgical services and devotions of the Western Christian Holy Week; especially when the Muslim overlords of the Middle East barred the way to Holy Sites to Christian pilgrims, and expanded the scope of their persecutions, harassments, intimidations and discriminations of both local and foreign Christians. This was coupled with their destruction, profanation or expropriation of Christian Holy Sites.[10]

Thus the Stations of the Cross came to replace the pilgrimage to the Holy Lands that Western Christians once made, and brought it within the midst of their local parish. Western “iconographers” inspired by the light which God gave them, developed the beautiful and unique images, which unfortunately in later times were replaced by statues and sculptures. Yet in recent years, there has been a desire amongst Western Christians to rediscover and recapture those earlier and original images of the Stations of the Cross, and remove the Renaissance inspired three-dimensional sculptured images.

Stations of the Cross in slight Byzantine iconographical style

Epilogue

In any case, all that can truly be said, is that it is food for thought, but hopefully this article may have helped to explain what is iconography, what its purpose is and who is an iconographer. Hopefully it will have helped clarify why iconography is important within Christian faith and devotion, and help avoid the excesses or abuse to which this noble vocation and ecclesial expression has come under in recent times. Yet it is hoped that this article may have helped to clarify any misunderstandings, and encourage Heterodox Christians to not adopt Orthodox iconography as another “fad”, but to search and rediscover their own heritage and beliefs, and develop an iconography that authentically reflects it; because Orthodox iconography expresses what Orthodox Christians believe and practice. And what Orthodox Christians believe and practice may not necessarily correspond with the beliefs of a non-Orthodox Christian congregation utilising Orthodox iconography within their liturgical space or worship.

We therefore must remember that iconography is not art for art’s sake or a decorative trimming, but is an integral expression of the Incarnation within our midst, that provides us a means to focus our attention, and meditate upon the mysteries of Faith and the vision of Paradise. And that this vision is not one that follows or conforms to our perception, as shown by the avoidance in iconography, and dictated by Church canons, of depicting three-dimensional, symmetrical and humanistic forms. Nor should we forget that God may utilise such material matter to wrought miracles or to manifest His grace within our earthly reality. But that also means we must keep in mind, that we venerate the images depicted in icons and not worship them; because they are merely an aide to our worship of God who revealed the vision that inspired the icon, and through which God can use as a medium of grace, just as He can work through liturgical services, music, people and Scripture. In remembering all this, we must then note that the person who is encharged with the task of bringing to material expression the experience of God, must be a person devoted to God, and living the ecclesial liturgical cycle under the guidance of a canonical spiritual father, so that they be an authentic author of divinely inspired images.

Icon of Christ & the Theotokos of Australia

We dedicate this article to our esteemed Australian-based iconographers, particularly Monk Arsenios of Pantanassa, Fr Leonidas Ioannou, Petar Stefanovic and Apostolos Lagoutatzis. We also dedicate this article to George Varsamis and Paul Jaboor who inspired its writing. – VM.

Inspiration Lightbulb


[1] These are adopted by grace and by virtue of being creations of God, whereas the actual “family” of God is His own internal mystery, the life and communion of the Holy Trinity.

[2] Of course the Islamic tradition and use of sacred geometry and patterns within mosques, art and architecture have their origins and inspiration within Byzantine Christianity. But then again, that is also due to the fact that it was Eastern Christian craftsmen and architects who designed and built many of the most famous structures of Islam over the course of 1,400 years of history. Suffice to say, these ideas were adopted with the approval of Islamic scholars and their various councils which determined that these “images” or “symbols” best expressed their theology and beliefs.

[3] This word literally means “visions of God”, but it can also mean “experience of God” and “encounter with God”.

[4] It is clear that the only god of this godless nation which calls itself communist, is money. And whoever possesses it, is considered good despite their immoral and misanthropic behaviour; while toddlers are killed multiple times in the streets by oncoming traffic in full public view of crowds of pedestrians, of whom none lift a finger or bother to notice. So low and inconsequential the value and image of the human person is considered in modern China. And yet this same nation and its people have the audacity to mass-produce icons for export. The graves of their ancestors can only look upon their progeny with shame, disgust and contempt for their insatiable avarice and disregard for the human person. What can Confucius or Lao Tzu say?!

[5] It is worth noting that we were not created in His likeness, but according to it. St Basil the Great and other ecclesial figures point out that this is because the task God has set before us with the gift of life, is that we must work alongside God in striving towards likeness of God.

[6] However white is often used to represent the earth we walk upon since in many Mediterranean lands the earth mainly consists of white stone.

[7] We must not forget that it was not only the pagans who persecuted, harassed, tortured and killed Christians in those formative 300-400 years of Christianity (or whenever the opportunity arose like under the Caliphate, the Ottoman period or during Communism), but the doctrine of Pharisaism had become entrenched in many quarters of Judaism which made every effort to destroy the Church. Remember that St Paul was hired as the vigilante Saul who put to the sword many Christians. The expulsion of the Christians from the synagogues was another example which aimed to expose Christians to pagan persecution, since only Jews were excluded from offering worship or veneration of Roman imperial cults. The infiltration of churches, the destruction or corruption of Christian documents, correspondences and Scriptures was a policy zealously pursued by many Jewish authorities and communities. The hatred towards Christ and His followers became doctrine and codified within the Jewish Talmud, with many invented stories that the Pharisees created from their fertile imaginations, such as Christ perishing in Hell in a sea of burning hot faeces or that Mary was a whore who had been raped by Roman soldiers. The numerous alterations made to the Old Testament Scriptural canon, such as the changing of phrases, the removal of books and chapters in order to “discredit” the beliefs of Christians and the prophecies regarding the Messiah. The sum of all this led to the present-day Masoretic text which was written in Hebrew using cubic Aramaic lettering that found its final form in the city of Baghdad during the early Islamic Caliphate period. Yet this merely reflects a cycle of deception that began with Christ’s crucifixion, when the Pharisees put charges before the Romans that Jesus was seeking to become the political king of the Jews, rather than cite His claims to being the Messiah and Son of God. To the Romans they could not care less if Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah or the Son of God, rather they would have merely laughed it off and passed Him for mad and let Him go. But to assert, as did the Pharisees, that Jesus was seeking to become a king in a land that the Romans had conquered was a grave concern and a prosecutable offence. The Romans of course may have given the order for Christ’s execution, but who was it that put them up to it and deny the crime? The difference is that the descendants of the Romans adopted faith in Christ and confessed their errors; while the Judeans not only deny the past sins of their community leaders, but try to cover it up and shift blame; while many of their present-day leaders promote hatred against Christians and undermine Christians, as attested to the disturbed teachings and statements of figures such as Mordechai Eliyahu, Benjamin Netanyahu or Rabbi Ginsburgh or Rabbi Ovadia Yosef etc. Yet the thing that sticks in the throats for many such leaders, over the course of 2000 years was that God would extend salvation and the Promise of the Covenant (as spoken of by the Prophets) to non-Jews, the Gentiles. If Jews can point the finger at Anti-Semitism, then they have a finger pointed back at them for being Anti-Gentile and calling Gentiles, “goyyim” (cattle), and treating them as such within their theology and practice. Historically, Jewish aversion to the Christian message and persecution of it, was not particularly based on spiritual or theological foundations, but more of an objection to the presence of Gentiles within their midst. Even today, in synagogues worldwide, within fellowship groups and catechism classes, one of the subjects often touched upon is whether there is such a thing as a “good gentile”, and if such do exist how should they be treated. In the Talmudic tradition it exhorts that even the best amongst Gentiles should be manipulated, used and killed. Speaking from a theological perspective there is an irony in this assertion, because Abraham, the father of the Jews was a Gentile himself when God called him to a specific vocation known as the Promise. The thing that could be deduced ultimately, is that many Jewish leaders and practitioners of the Mosaic Law throughout history, have through their own hatreds and evil, exposed their fellow Jews and jeopardised their well-being, by cultivating a negative and racist attitude towards Gentiles, which has precipitated Anti-Semitic sentiments and actions. Of course these same leaders often try to equate their community as the victims of history and use it as leverage to secure their interests, rather than forgive or forget. But they turn a blind eye to the evils they and their community have perpetrated against others such as the virtual Jewish monopoly on the Trans-Atlantic slave trade or the involvement in the 1955 Pogrom of Greeks in Istanbul etc… In any case to the discerning Christian, this merely shows that the Gospel even after 2000 years, is still controversial and invokes very strong feeling, which still brings about suffering for the Lord. But it also shows the usual failing of humanity to be human, irrespective of religion or culture, we all fall short, because we have all been the victim and the persecutor at one point or another. The shadows of the genocides of the 20th and 21st century are stark reminders, let us not allow the memories of those multitudes be dishonoured by perpetuating such demonic hatreds. As one Romoniote Jew and Holocaust survivor said in blasting an Askhenazi Jew here in Melbourne, “…have not our people learnt from the evils of Holocaust and listened to the words of our lawgiver Moses to know what humanity is, and yet we dishonour those who perished by using them as an excuse to ill treat others and lord our power and wealth over them?” The reference was made particularly in light of the release of the film “Inglorious Bastards” which coincided with Israeli military action in Gaza, and as the Romaniote Jew cited “is nothing more than reverse Holocaust hatred”.

[8] Well, the posing of people to serve as models for the depiction of ecclesial and Scriptural figures is inappropriate.

[9] Behaviour, mindset and outlook.

[10] And is the key cause that instigated the Crusades.

About admin

6 comments

  1. Very well written, powerful… I have really enjoyed this website, it is a beautiful witness. It reminded me of a quote from N.G. Pentzikis (A dear friend I am told of your Archbishop Stylianos). The quote is as follows: “In Byzantine art, poetry, painting, and music, life appears stylized. In other words, the human body, clothes and ornaments, furniture, inside and outside spaces, houses and streets, trees and animals, are presented not for the value which they may have in the present but as intermediaries that help us perceive another life. Through the centuries we came to identify the other life with the world of the ideas, which gave way, after the French Revolution, to various monistic conceptions and has become for us shadowy and ambiguous. . . . But the other life is not a question of ideas; and if Europe has forgotten this in its wasting of the moral resources of faith, we, who during four hundred years of slavery, preserved ourselves only by the conventions of our worship, after the fall of vain ornamentation in Byzantium, are in a position to know it, since we have witnessed the resurgence of our life as freedom, without any ideological rhetoric. By simply persevering, our life was able to refill the framework which we received from our myth.”
    The Art of Pentzikis has inspired much of my own writing- http://phenomenalogos.blogspot.com/2012/07/color-being.html
    In Christ,
    Fr. Micah

    • I apologise for my late reply regarding your comment. Yes our Archbishop is a very erudite man, some would say controversial, but I believe it is more of a case of misunderstood as people have often read their own opinions and thoughts into his teachings and writings. This is partly due to the fact that they are not easy texts or teachings to comprehend, as they express the reflections of a very distinct voice and experience that does not think according to the usual line of thought. Yet he has held very close associations with men like Pentzikis, Yannaras, Kehagioglou and many other men and women of arts and learning. I would suggest reading and obtaining copies of his various works, particularly his poetic compositions which are very deep and telling in their thoughts. Most of them are of course in Greek, and in a Greek that is not easily approached.

      As for your website I have enjoyed reading quite a number of articles on it and would like to utilise some on this weblog with you permission of course (and according to your directives). In any case I believe we have your site as one of our weblinks because both my co-worker and I enjoyed the content.

      As for your praise of this article and our humble weblog, it is merely our attempts to put our own experience and thoughts of God and His Church with all its richness into some sort of coherent expression by which we can make some sort of sense of that experience and thought. In other words, the writing is more for ourselves to clarify these themes/insights to ourselves. But if it can help others as we sought to respond to a nagging catechetical need for the faithful and those interested in Orthodoxy within Australia and to a lesser extent, Oceania, then at least others can profit from the agony of putting pen to paper. Problem is, with the struggle to survive with everyday life, it does not allow us time for actual writing or translation work. I had started a work some 3 years ago entitled “1821: For the Faith and the Fatherland, Freedom or Death” which has sat on my desk with 50 other articles yet complete and another 40 unfinished translations. Other works include the “Inspiration of the Aborigines: The Biblical Dreamtime”, “Paradise is a Garden”, “Neither seen nor heard, interviews with a Gazan Orthodox Christian”, “Cultivating an Australian Orthodox Identity”, as well as many exegetical works and much more. It would definitely help if there were people who could help manage the weblog and its Youtube accounts so that I could concentrate all efforts upon writing and gardening (which inspires the articles, despite their stilted English!).

      Anyway keep up the good work on your end at least, and hopefully one day you may bless Australia with your presence on a visit to our churches.

      Meta pollis en Christo agapi,
      VM

  2. Mary Grace Wallsten

    I would please like to know who is the saint pictured in this page holding a cross, his arms folded over his chest.

    • Mary, That’s Saint John the Russian, a new martyr of Evia, Greece. He is much loved. His feast day is May 27. Look him up:)

    • St John the Russian was born around 1690 in the south of Russia to pious Orthodox parents. Upon reaching maturity he was called to service in the army of Peter I, to serve as a simple soldier. During the Prutsk campaign of the Russo-Turkish war he was taken prisoner. As the case then, he ended up as a slave of the Turkish cavalry commander who took John to his home in the village of Prokopion, near Caesarea in Asia Minor.

      Like all captured Christian soldiers, John was threatened, tortured, subjected to all means to convert him to the Muslim faith. John was resolute in his resistance to this inhumane treatment, bravely enduring humiliations and beatings.

      Noting John’s firm faith, his master’s heart softened, and John was assigned to take care of his master’s stable, which also became his living quarters. Recalling the cave and manger where his Saviour came into the world, John rejoiced in his small dark corner of the stable as a little paradise where he could freely pray and offer praises to the true God.

      Occasionally, John would leave his bed to keep vigil at the nearby Church of the Great Martyr George, and on Saturdays and Feast days receive Holy Communion.

      As the cavalry commander prospered, he understood his blessings and prosperity came through his servant John, and noted this to his fellow citizens.

      Foreseeing his end, John called for a priest from the church he had attended and asked to partake of the immaculate mysteries.

      The priest was afraid to openly bring the Eucharist into the stable. Being divinely inspired, he dug the core out of an apple and lined the cavity with beeswax and placed the communion inside. He then visited the saint at the stables and gave him Communion. After receiving communion, John fell asleep in the Lord on May 27, 1730. He was about forty years old.

      His relics were brought from the village of Prokopion to Euboea (Evvoia) by refugees from Ürgüp in Cappadocia, after the Asia Minor Disaster of 1922-24. For several decades the relics were in the church of Ss. Constantine and Helen at New Prokopion, Euboia, and in 1951 they were transferred to a new church dedicated to St John the Russian (within the new Monastery of Saint John the Russian). St. John’s body is small, and he is clothed in a garment similar to an altar server. His face is dark and is covered by a gold mask; one of his exposed hands is also quite dark. Thousands of pilgrims flock here from all the corners of Greece, particularly on his feast day (May 27).

      Source: Orthodox Wiki

      COMMENT by MODE OF LIFE
      A final comment I should add to this information, is that St John the Russian endured much humiliation, trials and tribulations, as well as physical abuse from his master and from other Muslims during his years of captivity. This abuse never ceased, but lessened in its degree of severity. Mind you this was not any different to what Orthodox Christians have endured for 1,400 years living in dhimmitude under Islam.

      In any case, if memory serves me well, upon his death, his relics were desecrated by the Muslims, as his prayers, presence and relics were working miracles for Christians and Muslims alike, and was a major cause for Muslims to convert to Christianity. Either way, the Christians of Prokopion, ransomed his relics and placed them safely in their local church, where they derived great strength and comfort from the prayers and miracles that St John continued to bestow them under the hardship of oppression, discrimination and persecution by their Muslim neighbours and overlords. When many of these Greek Orthodox Christians survived the many genocides of the late 19th century and early 20th century (events still denied by the Turkish state today), they were expelled from their homeland in the aftermath of the Asia Minor Catastrophe (1922). The event of the catastrophe is painted as Turkey’s struggle for independence from “Greek oppression”, when the reality was that the Asia Minor campaign was a response to the genocides perpetrated by the Turks upon their Christian “subject peoples” (Greeks, Armenians, Arab Christians, Syriacs and Assyrians).

      The refugees from Prokopion, naturally took the relics of their beloved patron protector in Christ, St John the Russian, and brought it to the settlement they established in Greece, which is Neo Prokopion in Evvia (Euboea). And you can see the monastery which is dedicated to St John there, but many fragments from his relics are to be found in many parts of the world today, as he is well loved by many Orthodox faithful, and his popularity has continued to grow ever since he was brought to Greece, and became known to the wider Orthodox Christian ecumene.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*