A Brief Explanation of the Orthodox Iconographic Theology
By Sarah H. Begley, ThM
A Brief Explanation of the Orthodox Iconographic Theology
“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 diving beauty.
We confess and proclaim our salvation in word and images.”
- Kontakion of the Triumph of Orthodoxy
Theology, for Christians, is not merely an ideological or academic construction. We live our theology in our day to day physical world. We may worship an immaterial God, but live in a material world and so our worship necessarily involves the material. This is where Christian Art—Iconography—makes its home, at that intersection of the mystical and the material. When we speak about Christian Iconography we must not do so in a detached sense, as an art historian or critic, but rather from an experiential one. As Christians we come in contact with God through this human made art in a physical and metaphysical way. Our art helps us to understand who God is, what He has done, and who we are and ought to be. It is theology manifest in color. One might think to begin a discussion of Iconography with first describing what an icon looks like, but it may be more helpful to begin with why they are rather than what they are.
Images are not just allowed—they are necessary!
“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven
above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down
thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:4-5).
Seems pretty straight forward. God is telling his people two things: (1) that He is their God above all others, meaning that worship of false gods must cease and (2) that they cannot make an image in which He can be circumscribed.1 Worship of the one true God must be done without idols, for, unlike the false gods, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is in His nature ever-existing, uncircumscribable, and unable to be envisioned by eyes of man, certainly not constructed by their hands.
Why does the Christian church promulgate the use of images despite this divine prohibition? To begin with, idols and icons differ fundamentally in their nature. Idols are images, plastic or otherwise, which are worshipped by virtue of the fact that they contain a supernatural or divine presence. Essentially, they are gods. However, God is “wholly other” and therefore cannot be contained in a
material image which man has created. Not all images are idols. Even in the Judaic tradition there is not a full abolishment of sacred artistry. One of the first examples that that theologians use to combat the apparent prohibition against sacred images is that of the Ark of the Covenant.2 In Exodus 25:22, God speaks to Moses and commands him to construct two images of cherubim out of gold to be placed at either end of the ark in which the commandments were to be kept. If all sacred imagery were prohibited, how is it possible that God would command Moses and His people to make what is essentially an object of sacred art? St. John of Damascus asks the same, “How therefore can you say that what the law orders to be made is prohibited by the law?”3 These images are not the idols which have been prohibited. God does not say that His people ought to build the ark and its cherubim in order that they might worship it, as Nebuchadnezzer did, but rather He commands the Israelites to build a place at which they can “commune” with him.4 God is not in the ark, nor is He in the cherubim; but He speaks with his people from the “mercy seat”—the space between them.
To this end, art in Judaism, such as mosaics on synagogue floors were not accorded the same reverence as was the image of Christ over the Halki Gate, or the Virgin of Kazan, or Our Lady of Częstochowa or Einsiedeln. The Israelites can depict historical and theological events and they can make images of the heavenly, but they cannot make an image of God, because they have not seen Him and to circumscribe Him in physical matter by their own imagination would have been the definition of the prohibited idolatry. The difference comes with one of the most seminal events in the history of salvation—the Incarnation.
It is the Incarnation which provides the foundation and the raison d’être of the sacred image— the icon. Human beings could not create an image which could contain God—God alone did this when He sent his Son to be born of a woman, the Theotokos, the Mother of God. St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, writes (partially alluding to St. John of Damascus), “But no corporeal image could
be raised to the true God Himself, since He is incorporeal. . . But because in the New Testament God was made man, He can be adored in His corporeal image.”5 St. John again writes,
For it is clear that when you see the bodiless become human for your sake, then you may accomplish the figure of a human form; when the invisible becomes visible in the flesh, then you may depict the likeness of something seen; when one who, by transcending his own nature, is bodiless, formless, incommensurable, without magnitude or size, that is, one who is in the form of God, taking the form of a slave, by this reduction to quantity and magnitude puts on the characteristics of a body, then depict him on a board and set up to view the One who has accepted to be seen.6
We have seen God and therefore are not prohibited from depicting him. “God no longer conceals himself,” says Pope Benedict XIV, “but now shows himself in the form of the Son.”7 Every sacred image is a celebration of humanity’s uniting with the divine. Icons are not inventions of the human mind, but rather a pious representation of God’s true icon—Jesus Christ and those through whom he has shown himself to humanity, i.e., Mary and the Saints. The physical world is now intrinsically connected to the divine in a way that it had not been before. Because of this connection, the material world is able to proclaim the glory of the God not just in its nature, as divinely created, but also in its physical form. The stones themselves will now literally begin to “cry out.”8
The icon is “dogma of Chalcedon in an image.”9 Icons represent the person of Christ, His humanity and His divinity seamlessly united. The ability of sacred images to adhere faithfully to the principles of Chalcedon was a source of concern for the Iconoclast movements (of any era). This is an important quality of the icon, as to do any less, meaning depict only his divinity or his humanity, would be sliding down the slippery slope of heresy—into either Nestorianism on Monophysitism. It is for this reason that those who create the sacred images execute their work in such a manner as to be true to the person of Christ, the same Jesus Christ who was born in a manger to Mary and died on the cross at Golgotha, but also the same Christ whom the Apostles beheld glorified on Mt. Tabor and met on the road to Emmaus. As St. John so succinctly puts it, “I depict what I have seen of God.”10
How exactly to do this, is a major source of consternation between the East and the West. The truth is that orthodox sacred art, whatever tradition it comes from represents Chalcedon faithfully, neither depicts solely the divine or solely the human, though, to be sure, there have been many pitfalls in both directions. But here we must digress, and perhaps leave the aesthetics for a little later on.
These theological truths were debated by the Seventh Ecumenical Council at Nicea in 787 AD, the Acceptance of the Seven Ecumenical Councils is necessary for all faithful of the current Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, including clergy, bishops, patriarchs and, yes, even Popes. Even the Great Schism could not divide the Church on this point. God created Christ as His image for humanity and so humanity may create images of Him. But what ought we to do with such images? How are we to relate to them?
Now that we have them, how best to use them?
Walk into any Orthodox Church, and indeed the majority of Christian churches and you will see images. Whether they are referred to as icons, images, statuary or just paintings they not simply adorn the walls of these sacred spaces (not to mention the homes, offices and persons of the faithful) but they are used as objects of devotion during all the scared offices of the Church. Priests cense them, the faithful venerate them, they are the focus of prayer and a conduit for the contemplation and communication with the divine. Such use of images might seem very natural to some, but as with their very existence it is important to clarify and explain our usage of these images.
For each time that we see their representation in an image, each time while gazing upon them we are made to remember their prototypes, we grow to love them more, and we are even more induced to render them veneration of honor (timetike proskynesis) by kissing them and by witnessing our veneration, not the true worship (alethine latreia) which, according to our faith, is proper only to the one divine nature, but in the same way as we venerate the image of the precious and vivifying cross, the holy Gospel and other sacred objects which we honor with incense and candles according to the pious custom of our forefathers. For the honour [sic] rendered to the image goes to its prototype, and the person who venerates an icon venerated the person represented on it. - from the Horos of the Seventh Ecumenical Council11
Icons are to be venerated and that veneration is passed on to their ultimate prototype. What this means is that the Church recognizes that through God’s grace and the Incarnation, matter can be used as a conduit for prayer. Bishop Kallistos Ware describes icons as not an end in themselves but rather a “channel of communication.”12 They play a mediational, mystagogical role in the life of the Church, allowing all persons and all times to be mystically present with each other in an eternal ecclesiastical community. In his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XIV), echoes the same mystical understanding of images that underlies the theology of Nicaea and that has been practiced by faithful in the West for centuries. He writes:
The image of Christ and the images of the saints are not photographs. Their whole point is to lead us beyond what can be apprehended at the merely material level, to awaken in us new senses in us, and to teach us a new kind of seeing, which perceives the Invisible in the visible. The sacredness of the image consists precisely in the fact that it comes from an interior vision and thus leads us to such an interior vision. It must be a fruit of contemplation, of an encounter in faith with the new reality of the risen Christ, and so it leads us in turn into an interior gazing, an encounter in prayer with the Lord.13
This communication through prayer and veneration also has a pedagogical dimension. Since the inception of Christianity, sacred images have been used as a way of communicating information, whether veiled or explicit. All self-documented Christians, even Protestants, agree that images uniquely allow even the most poorly educated among Christians to understand the history and mysteries of the Church and her dogmas. Consider the detailed frescoes on the walls of monasteries in the Middle East, which graphically depict even the moment of the judgment day, or the magnificent Gothic cathedrals of Europe through one can gaze upon the entirety of scripture in one sweeping view. It is through sacred images that Christians are able to not only remember and learn about salvation history, but also participate in it, as they create a “living history” which springs off the pages of dusty books and bring the whole community, past and present, into temporal communion.
Images preserve, for us, “historical reality in the representation of Christ, the saints and the events of the Bible.”14 The raison d’être of icons, the Incarnation, also provides them with their educational significance. Christ was incarnate in history, and it this history which the Church seeks, in Her wisdom, to preserve for her people. Time has a different sort of meaning in the liturgy: Present, past, and future become one. Icons are not merely a reminder, though this quality is by no means to be understated, but they provide a real, tangible link to those persons and events which, though alive in the minds and hearts of the community, may not be physically present with us. It is for this reason that historical reality, in terms of representation images, become paramount. Sacred images, as has already been said, are necessary because in the life of the Church they represent, in a physical way, the reality of the Incarnation and humanity’s integral connection with God through his Son. Anyone who looks at an image of Christ has therefore been educated in the intricacies of the dogma of Chalcedon.
So we have them, we use them, what ought they to look like?
So what, in the end is a icon? What do they look like? Simply put, an icon is an image (coming from the Greek “eikon”). In modern usage this tends to refer to a two dimensional (usually painted) image, but can also refer to any sacred image whether rendered in paint, mosaic, embroidery, bas-relief or statuary. This might seem strange to some Eastern Orthodox, as there is certainly more use of statuary in the West than the East, but it is not entirely unknown.15 For instance. there are ivory statuettes of the Theotokos and the Christ child, dating from Byzantine Constantinople, currently residing in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. There are also still extant examples in Church use, such as Our Lady of Montserrat (12th century). These surviving images attest to the use of statuary by Orthodox Churches. It would appear, though many might suggest otherwise, that there are no authoritative doctrinal statements prohibiting statuary in Christian churches. There is some disagreement on the subject in secondary texts, plenty of Eastern authors who decry the use of statuary in Orthodox Churches and yet others who do not. Leonid Ouspensky, who books on the theology of iconography and icons in general are widely known and respected, treats painted and sculptural images as part of the same whole from the outset, merely using a footnote to point out that “contrary to current opinion the Orthodox Church never forbade the use of statues; such a negative prescription would have no basis in the teaching of the Church.”16
The Seventh Ecumenical Council statement on iconography is especially poignant.
“We, therefore, following the royal pathway and the divinely inspired authority of our Holy Fathers and the traditions of the Catholic Church (for, as we all know, the Holy Spirit indwells her), define with all certitude and accuracy that just as the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross, so also the venerable and holy images, as well in painting and mosaic as of other fit materials, should be set forth in the holy churches of God, and on the sacred vessels and on the vestments and on hangings and in pictures both in houses and by the wayside. . .”17
The Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council made no stipulation as to what style Christian sacred images were to employ, simply that they use correct theology. It would therefore seems that all “orthodox” (meaning that the image manifests correct theology) artistic traditions ought to be treated as part of the same whole.
Now, if one is to be honest, one must admit that in all cultures and ages there have been aberrations when it comes sacred art. Iconographers/artists are fallible and sometimes the unorthodox art they produce can be, at best, the fault of a simplistic piety and at worst, the result of a wish to produce something that is more about propaganda or individual creativity and name recognition than about theology. This is why, at various points in her history, the Church, both East and West, has set boundaries on her artists, sanctioning some images and censoring others. For instance, Canon 82 of the Councils in Trullo or the Quinisext Council, (692) held that that Christ the Lamb of God ought to always be painted in human form rather than in that of a literal sheep, the Council of Trent (late 1500s) made mention of the need for sacred art to invoke piety rather than more illicit emotions and the Russian “Hundred-Chapters Council” or Stoglav (1551) dealt with how the Trinity ought to be represented iconographically.18 The purpose of the sacred images, after all, is to be a useful part of Church tradition and images which are not in accord with that tradition (scriptural, theological or otherwise) cannot be considered a useful part of the whole. But this does not mean that all Christian sacred images have to use to the same artistic style. Is a 19th century Russian Icon of Christ with its tendency toward realism more “Orthodox” than the stylistic Pantocrator in the Hagia Sophia? Is folk painted style icon of the Virgin more dogmatically correct than one painted (or “written”) by Kontoglou? Certainly not on the basis of style alone. What truly makes an image an “icon” is its theology. What does this image tell us about Christ and the Saints? Does it show us the same Christ we know from Scripture and that we experience in the Sacred Offices? It is the theology that is important, not the style.
Christian art is the one of the most visible ways in which the Church represents herself to the world, especially in such a visual culture as our own. Icons, of whatever sort, are the physical manifestations by which various traditions define themselves. All over the Orthodox world one finds different ways that her people have made images of Christ and the saints, from the Byzantine panel icons in egg tempera to European wood carvings and statuary or the extraordinary embroideries on vestments and altar cloths to the cloisonné and enamel work found on chalices crosses. It is unfortunate that often sacred art is used as a point of separation more than a point of unity. The rabbit warren that is image theology is never-ending, but it is most important to be aware of the culture pitfalls and theological misunderstandings and to properly navigate it in a way which will allow sacred images to be seen for what they are—icons of the incarnation.
1 Exodus 20:23
2 John of Damascus speaks to this, as do the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical council, and St. Thomas Aquinas, not to mention later writers such as Ouspensky, Evdokimov, and Pope Benedict XIV. This is one of those arguments which is quite common. It is even mentioned in Charlemagne’s Libri Carolini.
3 Defense Against Those Who Attack Holy Images I: 16 4 Exodus 25:22
5 Aquinas, III. 25.5
6 I, 8
7 Benedict,. The Spirit of the Liturgy. (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2000) pg. 116
8 Luke 19:40
9 Ouspensky, Léonide. Theology of the Icon: Volume 1 (Crestwood, N.Y: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1992) pg 152 10 I:16
11 Patristic and Byzantine Review 7, no. 1:16
12 “Praying with Icons," in Paul McPartlan (ed.), One in 2000? Towards Catholic-Orthodox Unity Slough: St. Paul's, 1993, 148
13 pg. 133
15 Useful articles on this point: Eastern Orthodox Statues by Fr. Les Bundy ( orthodox-statues.html) and Russian Statues - Some Answers About Their Status in the Eastern Church by David Clayton (
16 Volume 1, pg.35
17 Text of the Seventh Ecumenical Council as found on
18 Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon: Volume 2 (Crestwood, N.Y: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1992) pg/ 291