Icons are not about art. Icons are not about left-overs of Byzantine style. Icons are not about the idolatrous impulse within fallen humanity. Icons are about the very nature of our salvation. The history of Western theology, particularly the opposition to icons within the Protestant movement, has removed one of the most traditional components of Christian theology and handicapped the modern imagination and understanding of our relationship to God.
Our encounters with God, when icons are not present, are relegated to an imaginary world of “spiritual things,” or replaced by models of experience which can be highly delusional if not blasphemous (I am here speaking of some forms of pentecostalism). Thus the modern choice is between a God of the mental world or a God of the psycho-physical world – extremes that are brought about by the iconoclasm that has become inherent to our modern ways of thought.
Icons, as stated above, are not about art. They are a way of seeing and understanding many things – indeed the whole of the universe – in which God is not absent but has made Himself present – without at the same time becoming the universe. The theology which underlies the making and veneration of icons also provides a key to the Patristic understanding of Scripture that escapes the confines of literalism on the one hand and the emptiness of modernist forms of criticism on the other.
Icons are utterly distinct from the sacraments – though in modern non-Orthodox theology the terms “icon” and “sacrament” are frequently used in a less-than-accurate manner. The Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, in offering a precise definition of icons and their place in the Church, made it abundantly clear that the Holy Eucharist is not an icon (the iconoclasts had said that it was an icon, and the only one that could be venerated). The Fathers of the Council were clear that the Eucharist is not an icon, but the true Body and Blood of Christ. Thus a sacrament offers something more than an icon.
But what is it that an icon offers that is less than a sacrament and yet more than nothing?
In short, an icon offers a means of seeing, interpreting and encountering the Truth of things, that is somehow less than the thing (for lack of another word just yet) itself. It is not a sacrament of which the Orthodox faith says, “make this bread to be the precious Body of Thy Christ, etc..” The sacrament does not point to something (or someone) beyond itself, but itself becomes the Body of Christ.
An icon does not become other than what it is – but its existence points towards something (or someone) else – and makes them present in a representational manner. [The precise theological language of iconic representation is that an icon is a hypostatic representation – in the language of St. Theodore the Studite – but I will refrain here from such a technical discussion].
In pointing us towards the Truth, an icon shows us what we might not see otherwise. Thus the icon of a saint, more than mere biography or photography, points us towards the reality of the risen life in Christ. It bears witness to the glorification in Christ of a person.
In the same manner, it is possible to speak of creation itself as icon (rather than sacrament) in that, through the eyes of faith, all of creation points beyond itself and bears witness to the glorification which it will have in Christ (Romans 8). Some particular things, places, events, have a very potent iconic function. Thus the tomb of Christ, though clearly having a pivotal historical role in our salvation, also points to more than the small edicule within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
It is, on earth, the center of our redemption, the womb of the world to come – but it points to a fullness of Pascha that broke every confine and lifted the definition of space beyond anything we imagine.
The veneration of icons is not about art, much less, idolatry. Icons are, like many things that were given us throughout the history of our salvation, markers that teach us how to see, how to know and how to love. The veneration of the saints in the Holy Icons is a lesson to the heart of how to venerate Christ in every person (who is made “in His image” [icon] ). Without the holy altar, and all that surrounds it, we would likely never learn to see the True Altar which is in heaven, and within the heart of every person. We would not know how to enter that Holy Place and sup there with the Lord.
The icons of the Church are a school for the human heart, teaching it how to see the world and yet to see more than the world. We live in a society that is quite familiar with veneration – but directed in the wrong place and for the wrong reason. We venerate talent, sexual beauty, money, even criminality at certain times. We venerate what is manufactured and sold to us – often no more than an illusion. Thus even actors and actresses frequently resort to “body doubles” in order to appear to be what they are not. We learn to venerate what is effectively – nothing. Little wonder that such veneration leaves us empty: it has the substance of cotton candy.
Interestingly, those who oppose the proper, Orthodox veneration of icons, are frequently themselves the venerators of false images presented by the world. Captive to the passions, they oppose what is true (icons of the Truth) and easily accept what is false (the images that cater to our passions). Nothing good or holy is protected by such iconoclasm. Instead, without the proper and complete understanding of icons as taught in the Seventh Ecumenical Council, Christians stand unarmed in a world where images, most of them false, bombard us and our children at every turn.
I want my children to know the good from the bad. I want them to love the one and turn from the other. The Church has given us, by God’s grace, the proper instruments and understanding to school the hearts – both of our children and ourselves. Without the Holy Icons and the theology that supports them, Christians stand poorly armed to conduct spiritual warfare in a hostile world. May God give us grace to rightly see what is rightly depicted.