When is an icon not an icon?
There are several answers to the question. Some of them would be technical, even somewhat argumentative as the strict canon governing icons gave way to more “Westernized” styles in the 17th century and beyond – but there have been notable “icons” among even very “Westernized” icons. St. Seraphim of Sarov prayed before such an icon – and some have been known to weep and many of them hold a deep place in the heart and devotion of Orthodox people in many places across the world.
The answer, as I said, could be technical. An icon, since it is like Scripture, has rules that govern its composition and content. Not every religious picture is an icon – even though it may easily inspire devotion and reverence. It has its place.
I spent better than two years working as a Hospice Chaplain in the mountains (mostly) of East Tennessee during the time after my conversion to Orthodoxy, while I was being trained for ordination in the Church. Most of the homes I was privileged to enter were rural, modest, and Baptist or Pentecostal. Most of the Baptists were not Southern Baptist, but Missionary Baptist, and some Primitive Baptist. Pentecostals covered a different spectrum (though they are much alike in this part of Tennessee). To my surprise, most homes had religious pictures. Among the most popular, interestingly, was the Sacred Heart of Jesus. There was no consciousness whatsoever of Catholic devotion to the Sacred Heart – but the picture said something about Jesus that was immediately recognized and cherished. I could not argue with the thought. I even recall one home that had a sizable statue of Mary – the family loved the Mother of God, though not particularly aware of Orthodox or Catholic doctrine about her.
That experience has always made me careful not to hurry towards criticism of religious art – as I said, it has it’s place.
I heard one comment this week, however, that struck me as the truth in the deepest sort of way. In a conversation about icons, a particular example, known to several of us, was raised. The master iconographer immediately said of it: “It is not an icon!” I was surprised – but the explanation went to the heart of things.
“The icon has hate in it and Orthodox icons cannot have hate.”
The example was an icon that contained some political content – I’ll not go into details – but the point was profound. An icon is a “window to heaven,” which cannot also be a window to hate. I am sure that some will point to icons of the Last Judgment and their portrayal of hell, etc., and ask how these are icons. They are icons just as Scripture describing such things are Scripture – but the Scriptures are not the bearer of hate unless they are being badly misinterpreted (which they often have been). A heart of hate will find hate wherever it looks, but will not see heaven no matter how hard it looks.
Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love (1 John 4:7-8).
When an icon does not agree with this – it is not an icon.