God “adorns himself in magnificence and clothes himself with beauty.” Man stands amazed and contemplates the glory whose light causes a hymn of praise to burst forth from the heart of every creature. The Testamentum Domini gives us the following prayer: “Let them be filled with the Holy Spirit…so they can sing a doxology and give you praise and glory forever.” An icon is the same kind of doxology but in a different form. It radiates joy and sings the glory of God in its own way. True beauty does not need proof. The icon does not prove anything; it simply lets true beauty shine forth. In itself, the icon is shining proof of God’s existence, according to a “kalokagathic” argument.
Paul Evdokimov in The Art of the Icon
“Kalokagathic” – what a wonderful word! It’s is a Greek coinage, combining the word for beautiful(kalos) and the word for good (agathos). To see an icon is so very far removed from viewing an art object. First off, an icon is never an object. Faces in an icon are never in profile, but look at us face to face. To rightly see an icon is to see it in relationship, that is, to see it personally. And the person whom we see is not the wood and paint, but the one whom the image on the wood and paint represents. It is this encounter that makes it possible to speak of an iconographic proof of the existence of God. I know there is a God because I have seen His image.
In the most perfect sense of this understanding, Christ is the proof of the Father’s existence, because He is the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). Thus Christ is the visible of the invisible. “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” (John 14:9).
It is also true that man is created in the image and likeness of God – though only in Christ, the perfect man (and perfect God), is the image and likeness truly realized. But Christ Himself extends the image – gathering into Himself, “the least of these my brethren” (Matthew 25:40). Thus every human being offers the opportunity of an encounter with God – if we have the eyes to see. Every human being is proof, poor though it may be, of the existence of God.
Pavel Florensky in his wonderful book Iconostasis, says that “Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity exists, therefore God exists.” The first time I read the statement I was brought up short. It took time to see what he meant and to see that it was true. A couple of years later one of my daughters was visiting Moscow. She sent a postcard say, “I have seen Rublev’s Trinity. It’s true.” What a marvelous witness!
This article, one of my earliest on icons, seemed apropos for the current series.
It strikes me as odd to read this article only because I am still trying to mold my mind around Orthodoxy and the Patristic mindset.
I am a catechumen and have been for only a short time. When speaking of “proofs” an icon is (was) not the first thought to come to my mind. Philosophy, logic and argumentation would be obvious firsts.
When you say “Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity exists, therefore God exists”, this statement I do not understand though after much prayer in the future I may be able to.
Thank you, Father, for your recent series on icons, iconography and the world. I may not fully comprehend everything I read but it does make me think (and pray).
John — I have been Orthodox for nearly 19 years, and there is still stuff I’m trying to get my head around. Don’t try to understand everything all at once, before chrismation — you’ll go crazy. 😉
Father — the icon of the Theotokos, “Softener of Evil Hearts,” visited my parish this past week. For a long time I had a sketchy relationship with the Theotokos, having been brought up Catholic in the days of wild mariolatry, and only in the last few years did I understand that what I had been rejecting all along was that false image of her. But understanding that to have been a false image, and then coming face to face with the *true* image — well, any difficulties I may have had with the Theotokos are firmly in the past now. Your daughter’s comment only confirms my own experience (and I would have had a lot of trouble understanding what you’ve written about without that experience).
An understanding of the iconic character of reality from the Chronicles of Narnia? I have always like this passage.
Aren’t you a star any longer, asked Lucy.
I am a star at rest, my daughter, answered Ramandu. When I set out for the last time, decrepit and old beyond all that you can reckon, I was carried to this island. I am not so old now as I was then. Every morning a bird brings me a fire berry from the valleys in the sun, and each fire berry takes away a little of my age. And when I have become as young as the child that was born yesterday, then I shall take my rising again (for we are at the earth’s eastern rim) and once more tread the great dance.
In our world, said Eustace, a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.
Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.
I remember, many years ago, when studying mathematics in collage that I asked my professor what made a proof a proof. I think we were doing geometric proofs in plane geometry, following Euclid. He said that a proof is what ever will convince our fellow mathematicians that something is true.
This answer changed the way that I think of proof. Even in mathematics nothing is chiseled in stone. A proof isn’t something discovered that always existed and is inevitable. It represents a consensus of the experts. And the “experts” are those trained in a certain way of thinking, with a certain education.
So it is with icons. They are a proof for those who’s education and training open them to it. They are proof to those trained in the knowledge of the heart. Orthodoxy’s major challenge is training our hearts to “think”. A daunting task in this age of rationality to the absurd extreme.
It is only in putting off our modern religion of “Reason” that icons make “sense”. That there is another, higher, kind of knowledge is, perhaps, the most important realization of our age. Icons help train our hearts for this higher knowledge like nothing else can.
Icons allow Christians to venerate Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and Christian saints. It is not the icon itself that is venerated, but rather what the icon represents.
The icon is proof of God’s existence, because it radiates the true image of God. Moreover, we know that God made man in His own image and likeness.
I am wondering what is the false image that you think we Catholics (both Eastern and Western) have of the Mother of God?
Pace e bene, Vito
Icons then are another way of our Father revealing Himself to us so that we may see and know Him through His Son. I am Orthodox but as I read this post I realized how far this lesson is from what I once believed. The Orthodox tradition is so rich in wisdom and understanding and I am constantly amazed by my lack of understanding/knowledge. Thank you Fr. for opening another door.
The Ikon of the Holy Trinity perfectly illustrates the Gospel of St. John chapters 14-16, particularly 15:26.
Rublev fasted and prayed (possibly 40 days) before writing this Icon. As I meditate upon it, I have come to believe he was gifted as a prophet.
While looking at the Ikon, read Psalm 110:1; Mark 16:19; Luke 22:67-69; Acts 2:33-34; Romans 8:34, and the above passages in John, then just gaze at the Icon for a while… remembering that in the East, writing reads from East/right to West/left.
The Son is sitting at the righteous right hand of the Father and both The Father and Jesus Christ are looking in unified intent and purpose toward The Holy Spirit, sending The Spirit, dressed in the golden garb of anointing, embued with the power of truth, love and life for The Mission and Work of leading, teaching and giving life to the Church.
This is the Era of the Holy Spirit and that is why the Spirit is wearing the golden gown of holy anointing and glory.
The Ikon invites the Christian in, to join the holy intimate loving fellowship, the will and purposes of the Trinity, where we may sit at the left hand of The Holy Father and feast on Heavenly food that ends all hungers and drink living water that quenches all thirsts. Amen.
Except the figure at the far left is “The Father” with the house behind him and the figure on the right is “The Holy Spirit” with the mountain behind him with “The Son” in the middle with a tree behind him. So, the Son and the Holy Spirit are looking to the Father from whom Christ was begotten and from whom the Holy Spirit was sent. At least this is what I’ve always been taught in relation to this icon.
That would place the Son at the left hand of the Father.
i am curious/confused (probably more on the confused side which has, as a byproduct, peaked my curiosity) about the icon of the Holy Trinity.
it is my understanding that, as a rule, God the Father is not depicted in any icon, and that also, in the Holy Trinity icon it is actually Christ in the center with angels on the sides. is my understanding correct? and if so, why is the icon called the Holy Trinity?
Sibyl and Aaroneous,
The association described by Aaroneous is the most common one that I’ve heard, though there is no verbal record describing exact associations on the part of Rublev. Rublev took a common subject, the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah, which depicts them as well, and gave us this sublime icon. But there has always been a bit of discussion about various ways to “read” it.
Of course, icons frequently defy our ability to “read” them – for they are not purely symbolic paintings in the more modern sense. That are iconic – they are windows – they make present that which they represent. In that sense it is often better to close your eyes and be present before an icon and pray than to read it.
Having said that – it’s also true that there is frequently subtle forms of symbolism within icons – but this is not their primary means of representation.
It is called the Trinity, or more properly, “The Old Testament Trinity,” because the passage in Gen. 18 from which this icon is taken, has 3 angels and a peculiar switching between the first person singular and the third person plural – a grammatical oddity that the fathers always saw as a “prefiguring” of the Trinity – but not an appearance of the Trinity. Thus the icon is an image of an event that “pre-figures” the Trinity and is not a direct image of any person of the Trinity.
The hospitality of Abraham and Sarah, a similar icon, frequently has a cross in the nimbus of the central angel and the IC XP designating the figure as Christ – thus Christ (the Logos) with two angels – which is perhaps a more precise patristic reading of the Genesis account. But even that reading still has a role as a pre-figurement.
One thing that is confusing to some, is the complete comfort within the fathers to read a passage in several ways with no sense of contradiction. It is our habit of literalism (one and only one meaning) that tends to be uncomfortable with this common patristic treatment.
I have to admit as someone who preaches several times a week – I’m glad that the Scriptures admit of more than one meaning. Were it not so, after 30 years my sermons would be dull indeed (though I am frequently told that I have only one sermon).
thank you Fr.
what about writing the Father in an icon? is it ok to do that? i’ve seen images of the Holy Spirit/Dove in icons, but not any of the Father (that i can recall) are there any rules on that?
There is a canon against writing the Father in an icon – but it is not unknown. Under Western influence where Catholic religious art portrayed the Father (the canons on icons were not in place in the West), religious art in Orthodox lands began to produce images of the Father. They are a contentious matter, somewhat. There are such images, I believe, even on the Holy Mountain. For some, that trumps the earlier canon (usage and acceptance having a certain force of its own). For myself, I prefer to observe the canon, but to not judge those who have regard for its usage and acceptance in very holy places.
During the period of the Ottoman yoke in southern Europe and the Westernizing policies of Peter the Great and his successors in Russia, there was a very strong influence of Western ideas and practices within many Orthodox lands. There have been a number of very strong Orthodox reactions to this over the past 200 years in various places. The work of Fr. Georges Florovsky as well as a number of others in the twentieth century re-established a grounding of theology in the Fathers. At the same time there has been something of a renewal of Hesychastic theology and practice in Orthodox monasticism (Mt. Athos has staged a remarkable resurgence in recent years). Throughout all of this, the canons of the Church have remained intact, the liturgical treasures have not been gutted. Orthodoxy is coming out of an oppression and imprisonment from a variety of sources and is perhaps standing more firmly on its own foundations than for hundreds of years. I see this as a miracle of God’s grace and providence, preserving the Church from perhaps its most insidious oppression in history.
There are some that are very reactive to contemporary Orthodox criticisms of the West (it is sometimes quite vociferous). But there is a history (an inner history) in which Orthodoxy is not simply critiquing the West but is also re-discovering itself. This, of course, is a generalization that has many notable exceptions and should not be applied to “all things Orthodox.” But it is an accurate description of significant parts of contemporary Orthodox experience. My confidence in contemporary Orthodox life is in the promise of God to His Church and in the fact that He maintained crucial parts of its life intact – despite the worst of historical problems. By the same token, I am also quite aware of contemporary issues within Orthodox life (jurisdictions, etc.). But Orthodoxy has a very strong self-awareness on these things and moves forward in its own lumbering, patient way.
aaahhh, thank you very much Fr., i am greatly appreciative for you taking the time to answer my question…and quite thuroughly…thank you!
There is something very compelling to me, Father Stephen, about the idea of Orthodox iconographers longing to depict the Trinity, but knowing that this was beyond their inspiration. And then, after 1400 years of waiting, Rublev is shown how to do it. Had the canons settled for an old man and a dove, would there have been any impulse for Rublev to write his icon? I suppose sometimes that patience pays off.
Good point, indeed. For me, it makes the real point of the canon that forbids it. Not to heat up a controversy, but those icons of the old man, Christ and bird are either too literal, or too “symbolic”. It does not have the power of the mystery within Rublev’s work. Interestingly, a Russian council, at one point solemnly declared Rublev’s Trinity to be the greatest icon ever painted. I have yet to meet any argument to the contrary that is compelling.
Something in this post reminded me of one of my witnessing points when answering questions about Orthodoxy but particularly about ikons.
When giving a tour of our temple I will point to the large ikon of the Anastasis (which is really the Descent into Hades ikon, where Christ is yanking Adam up by the wrist and Eve is standing next to him with her hands looking as if she were applauding) and I say, “This ikon could not have been painted (or ‘written’ if I’ve already told them about the terminology) unless the event really happened. How else could anyone have even thought of this image, let alone paint it?”
I realise this is a rather simplistic explanation, but for some reason, it usually gets a lot of heads nodding in affirmation. Perhaps people are just humoring me. But that’s the way I relate to ikons.
They are truer depictions of the acts of God in our human world than photographic images are true depictions of what the eye sees. A photograph cannot be taken of something that is not there. Neither can an ikon be written unless it is written about an act of God.
Just as a photograph can be more than a picture, because the viewer may have memories of the event, so can an ikon be more than a mere painting, because the viewer may have experience of the event or person in it.
Photographs remember our past. Ikons remember our future.
“I have yet to meet any argument to the contrary that is compelling.”
I don’t know. I’m awfully compelled by the icon of the resurrection.