Behold the Beauty of the Lord:
the Significance of Icons in Prayers of the Christian East
When You said, “Seek My face,” my heart said to You, “Your face, O Lord, I shall seek.”
—Psalm 27:8, NRSV.
The word “icon” comes from the Greek word eikon, which means image or likeness. Praying with icons is a distinctive way of prayer in the Christian East. The silence and stillness that the icon brings is also cherished by Western Christians and leads them to discover praying with icons as a means to enter the stillness where God can be known and loved. The intention of this paper is to understand the significant place of icons in prayers in the Christian East through an evangelical’s observation. This paper consists of three arguments from psycho-theological, dogmatic-ecclesiastical, and mystic-eschatological perspectives, respectively. (1) The icon is an invitation to prayer. On one level, an icon is an image, which facilitates prayers through its signs and symbols. But an icon is much more than a beautiful religious painting. It is a purified image which sanctifies the place where it is located. In many ways, the icon serves as an aid for “a personal encounter with the Holy spirit in the person represented.” (2) The icon is a bearer of the Tradition of the Church. It carries the essential doctrines of Christianity and instructs the faithful to understand and carry out this prayer correctly. (3) The icon is a window of heaven, uniting the invisible, timeless, and eternal world and the visible, temporal, and fleeting one. It transforms the immediate prayers into the memory of the Church and carries the mystical experience of the Church to the faithful. Beholding the beauty of the Lord in love, we are transformed into His image and likeness, the purpose of our prayer and life— the living icons.
Invitation to Prayer
“The principal thing is to stand before God with the intellect in the heart, and to go on standing before him unceasingly day and night, until the end of life.” The statement of Theophan the Recluse, a Russian bishop in the nineteenth century, considers three significant points of understanding of prayer in the eastern Christian tradition. First, to pray is to “stand before God”. This implies that prayer is encountering God face to face. It does not necessarily need vocal words. In fact, standing before God is profoundly expressed in silence. Second, to pray is to stand “with the intellect in the heart”. The heart is the spiritual centre of a person, where “created humanity is directly open to uncreated love.” And mind and body are united in prayer. Third, praying is continual, “unceasingly day and night, until the end of life.” Prayer is not merely an activity, but the dignity of a human being.
Gazing at icons with complete attention is praying with them. Praying with icons is standing in the presence of God and descending with the mind into the heart. Despite its theological significance, the practical power of an icon is primarily its appeal to the eye. We can describe the eyes as the chief of the senses. Scientific evidences show that 80% of the information that we perceive is from vision. Speaking and thinking may be demanding at times, but we are forever seeing. Our society produces a continuous stream of rapidly changing images, which continually assaults our eyes and disturbs our minds. Just as we are responsible for what we eat, we also need to be responsible for what we see. “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” The Fathers also speak of the five senses as the “door” of the soul, and teach that we must “close our soul and strive to teach our body to keep itself aright in and by the grace of the Holy Spirit, so that our eyes may see with purity, so that our ears may hear in peace, and so that our heart does not nurture evil thoughts.” Praying before icons, we are taught “to fast with our eyes” in order to contemplate chastely the image of God that delights us.
Some recent psychological researches regard prayer as a learnable skill, which may involve cognitive, body-sensory and emotional aspects. For example, in her book When God talks back, Tanya Luhrmann argues that people learn to attend to their minds and emotions to find evidence of God, and both what they attend and how they attend change their experience of minds. Then, people begin to experience “a real, external, interacting living presence.” Vlad Naumescu claims that imagination could be seen as a key cognitive capacity through which people learn to experience God. He does not refer explicitly to praying with icons, but we can suggest that icons may facilitate this learning process, even on the level of images. For instance, our attention to the presence of God may be focused by the aid of icons. The scenes that icons depict can facilitate imagination in prayer. Symbolic actions before the icons, such as making the sign of cross, lighting candles, bowing or prostrating, and kissing the icons, trigger pious affections. Icons provide an opportunity for an encounter with God through the use of signs and symbols which are known as “border-crossers.” They allow us to draw together different levels of understanding and meaning and to experience different dimensions of human experience.
As mentioned above, an icon is far more than a beautiful image. The sole purpose of the icon is to lead us to prayer, contemplation, and worship. The icon has no distinctive value on its own, but draws all its value from its participation in the wholly Other. As Leonid Ouspensky says, “The icon never strive to stir the emotions of the faithful. Its task is not to provoke in them one or another natural human emotion, but to guide every emotion as well as the reason and all other faculties of human nature on the way towards transfiguration.” The icon is a sacramental channel of grace, allowing us to participate in the reality that it makes present. Since the icon contain the presence of what it signifies, standing before an icon is “standing before God”.
In many ways, therefore, icons can be considered as an invitation to prayer. The colour of icons brings silence and stillness, providing a sacred place for contemplation. Icons are made to give the impression of eye-to-eye contact with the person(s) depicted. We enter into a sense of gazing and being gazed at, and then respond to this interaction. The symbolic actions before icons sharpen our faculties for the reception of divine grace. Icons offer access through the gate of the visible to the mystery of the invisible, lifting up our hearts and prayers to God. As St. John Damascene said, “Icons evoke our hunger for God.”
Bearer of Tradition
In the Eastern tradition, praying with icons is not only a private prayer. In fact, the essential purpose of icons is for the liturgy “in which the message of the Word is complemented by the message of the icon.” Christians praying with icons at home see their home as a continuation of the church and their prayers as a continuation of the liturgy. The icon communicates the essential doctrines of Christianity of the Incarnation, salvation and human deification. Therefore, the icon has a crucial educational function, “not only in the teaching of the truths of the Christian life, but also in the education of the whole person.”
Before dealing with the various aspects of the place of the icon in the Church, we need first to offer a theological justification of the veneration of icons. As we know, the Old Testament strictly prohibits the making of images of God. For example, the second commandment of the Mosaic law: “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.” But in the New Testament, Paul calls Christ “the image of the invisible God”, and Jesus Himself says: “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” The defenders of images, e.g. St John of Damascus, St Theodore the Studite, and the Patriarch Nicephorus, claim that Christ’s incarnation made possible the painting of His face. “By His Incarnation, Christ put an end to Mosaic law and the proscription of images. The Old Testament gives way to the New testament, which reveals to us a true knowledge of God and liberates us from our former inevitable idolatry.” The prohibition of making images of the invisible God adumbrates the possibility to do so when God becomes visible.
The Ecumenical Council of 787 (Nicaea II) settled the iconoclastic controversy by confirming what the defenders of icons had formulated. “Icons should be kissed and that they are an object of veneration and honour, but not of real worship, which is reserved for Him Who is the subject of our faith and is proper for the divine nature.” The fathers distinguish sharply between “veneration,” which is accorded to icons, and “worship,” which is accorded only to God. Further, they emphasize the honour paid to the icon passes on to the prototype which it represents. As St John of Damascus says, “I do not bow down to matter, but to the Creator of matter, Who for my sake took on substance and Who through matter accomplished my salvation, and I shall not cease to honour matter, through which my salvation was accomplished.”
The final victory of the veneration of icons was at a Council in Constantinople in 843. The feast of “The Triumph of Orthodoxy” is still celebrated on the first Sunday in Great Lent. The kontakion, which is recited at this feast, concisely expresses the economy of our salvation and thereby the teaching on the image and its content:
No one could describe the Word of the Father;
But when He took flesh from you, O theotokos, He consented to be described,
and restored the fallen image to its former state by uniting it to divine beauty.
We confess and proclaim our salvation in word and images.
The beginning of the kontakion describes the divine Incarnation as the basis for the icon. The second part expresses the meaning of the Incarnation to restore “the fallen image to its former state by uniting it to divine beauty.” The last part ends with man’s answer to God; it is a confession of the saving truth of the Incarnation and of man’s participation in God’s work of salvation. Therefore, the icon is rendered a confession of the most basic and significant doctrine of Christianity: “God became man in order that man might become God.”
Through icons, the Church has cultivated an artistic “language” that expresses the same truth as the spoken language, and this language is clear and precise. “What a word communicates through hearing is what art shows silently through an image.” (Nicaea II) The Fathers see the icon as a Gospel for the illiterate. “Images are used in churches so that the illiterate could at least look at the walls to read what they are unable to read in books”, wrote St. Gregory the Great. In fact, in some instances, icons are more vivid than words in books. The icon can present simultaneously and concisely many things which may take some time to describe in words. Icons are also a concise means of remembering. St John of Damascus gives an example: “Many times, doubtless, when we do not have in mind the Passion of our Lord, upon seeing the icon of Christ’s Crucifixion, we recall His saving suffering.” As Ouspensky summarizes, the word and hymn of the Church sanctify our soul by means of hearing, the icon sanctifies by means of seeing.
The Gospel calls us to life in Christ; the icon represents this life. “If one of the heathens comes to you saying: show me your faith… you will take him to church and put him before all kinds of holy images”, says St John of Damascus. There is no icon without the image of a person: either Jesus Christ, the Theotokos, or a saint. But the icon does not convey the exact appearance of a particular person. The icon exhibits a person in his transformed and deified state. It shows us the body of a holy person, reflects the ascetic effort and expresses the joy of victory over the division and chaos in humanity. Therefore, the icon is “a teacher of the ascetic life in as much as it teaches us the doctrine of faith.” In this expressive way, icons lift us to the Prototypos, stir us to imitate their virtues, and help transform our character, our whole being. Icons do not only reveal the transfigured world of God, but also help us to participate in it.
As mentioned above, the icon’s purpose is liturgical. It participates in the liturgy along with the Gospel. In the Eastern tradition, the Gospel is not only a book for reading, but also a revered object: it is brought out in the liturgy for the faithful to kiss. In the similar way, the icon, “Gospel in colour,” is not merely for contemplation but also to be venerated with prayer. We have discovered the functions of icons as an aid for prayer and a form of education. However, the icon is much more than these: it is an object for veneration. If an icon is not venerated, it ceases to be an icon. As Pavel Florensky has explained, “Aside from its relationship to light, aside from its function, a window is, so to speak, nonexistent, dead. It is not a window; removed from the light, it is but wood and glass… So it is with icons, the visible representations of mysterious supernatural apparitions.” The veneration of icons does not end with matter; it requires a transition: from matter to spirit, from typos (the direct image) to the Prototypos (Christ), and from there to the Archetypos (God the Father). If we are to fully understand this transition, we must move to the foremost message: the icon is the unity and continuity between visible and invisible world.
Window of Heaven
The icon is a stylized image that is a “kind of window between earthly and celestial worlds.” The icon is certainly not the image of a disincarnate world. It reflects a transformed, transfigured, and eschatological state of the world. The fall of man led the entire creation alienated from its divinely-given purpose. “The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains” for the hour of redemption. After the Incarnation of Christ, man was restored to his original beauty. The whole of creation was also called to glorification of its Redeemer. Thus material elements are no longer profane. Through proper spiritual use, they become expressions of the new order of reality. In this way, icons that constitute the expression of the visible world can find their true dimensions and sanctity in reflecting God’s majesty. The icon opens a boundless vision which includes the past and the future of the world. It expresses the world of God as it was before the fall and as it will be in its eschatological perfection. Archbishop Stylianos claims that the icon carries the dogmatic memory which replaces and transforms the immediate. “Just as Christ conquered death through death, so also the icon, with its immediacy, abolishes the naturalistic immediacy of the world and turns it into memory in God.” In this sense, the prayers of the faithful before icons are transformed, beyond their immediacy, into the memory of the Church.
On the other hand, icons reflect the mystical experience of the Church. Icons do not merely bear the teachings of the Church, but also carry her prayer tradition. The iconographers do not write icons “from themselves.” Their icons are deeply rooted in the Church Tradition. The role of the iconographers is like that of who write or preach. Just as spiritual integrity is expected of the priests, so it is of the iconographers. The icon grows from prayers. “The icon is an embodied prayer. It is created in prayer and for prayer, whose driving force is the love of God and yearning for Him as perfect Beauty.” In this way, the icon brings the prayer of the Church to the faithful who contemplate it and pray before it.
The icon has cosmic meaning. The Greek word “cosmos” means beauty and goodness. Dostoevsky declares, “Beauty will save the world.” Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite interprets Beauty as one of the names of God in his relation to human persons. In his words “man was created according to the eternal model, the Archetype of Beauty.” Evdokimov believes that man has been bathed in the light of the Beauty. By nature, man thirsts for beauty and yearns to see the face of God! As the Psalmist cries from his heart, “Your face, O Lord, I shall seek.” Through the icon of Christ, we see the face of God-become-man. The icon, being “a vision of God”, invites us to participate into the transfiguration. “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”
The icon is mystical. As Paul says, “this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” The symbolic language of the icon itself is not sufficient to move from the man to the divine. It is the grace and action of the Holy Spirit. The icon speaks about Divine Energy and about light. If man is transformed by the icon, then the uncreated light penetrates the depth of his being. In the words of Macarius the Great, “The soul which has been perfectly illuminated by that indescribable beauty of the luminous glory of the face of Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit… is all eye, all light, all face.” The illumination of man is the “divination” which the Fathers talk. Participation in the Divine Energy leads man himself to become light.
Every icon portrays a person. St Theodore the Studite states, “The icon of someone does not depict his nature but his person.” It is the love that unites Christ’s human nature and divine nature. Through the icon of Christ, the place of his presence, we encounter Christ his person in love. The love that is shown in the veneration of the icon renders to Christ and through Christ, we enter into a direct relationship with God the Father. This attitude of the person praying before the icon is appropriate to “the inhabitants of the heavenly Jerusalem, who are able to see God in everything.”
We are influenced progressively by what we contemplate. A Christian who contemplates the Risen Christ through the icon and purifies himself progressively becomes an icon of God—a living icon. “Created in the image and likeness of God”, we defaced the divine reflection in the Fall. The Fathers distinguish the “image” of God and the “likeness” of God: we are given the image of God at our creation, but the “likeness” of God will be bestowed only in the heavenly kingdom. “Man is an icon of God, but only insofar as he is fully man, radiating the presence of Christ.” This is an invitation to us to see a Face of Christ in every face.
To summarize, the icon invites and instructs us to pray. It brings us the prayer of the Church and transforms our prayers into her memory. It reveals the beauty of what it represents and what we behold. By it we are transformed. I believe that an experiential knowledge of icons would be beneficial for everyone’s spiritual growth, for both Eastern and Western Christians. As a communal tool in the Christian East, icons link the contemplation of the Church and the private prayers of the faithful. To what extent, can our personal prayer practices be linked to a living community of faith? The notion that we are “living icons” of God makes every ministry a kind of “sacrament” of the presence of the Lord. How do we respond to the invitation to restore a face to those “without a face”? “One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.”