The Icon: to See and to be Seen

Triumph of Orthodoxy, late 14th cen., National Icon Collection (18) British Museum

The first Sunday of Lent, the Sunday of Orthodoxy, is our first taste of the joy of the coming Resurrection. After all, every Sunday is a little Pascha, even during Lent. On this Sunday we have the special occasion to celebrate the Orthodox vindication of art as a means of ascent to God. But the Icon is more than just devotional art. It is essentially a celebration of the human face, the human person, whose dignity is revealed to us in the face of God, Jesus Christ. 

In Greek, the word prosopon means both “face” and “person.” In the Greek Old Testament this word is used extensively and is often translated as “presence.” The face indeed evokes the whole presence of the person. It is the principal means by which we relate to each other personally, as the frame of the eyes and the seat of the senses.

We often take for granted the Christian significance of the person. We understand that personhood is intrinsically related to our free, dignified, and embodied existence in time and space. But let us turn to some examples of non-Christian approaches to personhood to see how Orthodoxy stands apart. The biography of the Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus opens up with this statement: Plotinus “seemed ashamed of being in the body. So deeply rooted was this feeling that he could never be induced to tell of his ancestry, his parentage, or his birthplace. He showed, too, an unconquerable reluctance to sit for a painter or a sculptor” (Porphyry, Life of Plotinus 1). Plotinus objected to the painting of any portrait of himself since it would be pointless to have an “image of an image.” According to him, our body is just a faint, illusory manifestation of our true, non-material, impersonal being. 

I remember being surprised when I saw Jewish religious art for the first time. First off, I had assumed it wasn’t even a thing, because of the Second Commandment: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” (Ex. 20:4) . But there it was, in a Jewish diner. It was a painting of the Exodus of the Israelites through the Red Sea. The most surprising thing was that none of their faces were showing. It was just their backs facing the viewer. 

Coomaraswamy, a commentator on Hindu art, says the function of Hindu art is to dispel the illusion of individual existence and be united with the Absolute. “The goal before us all is salvation from the limitation of individuality, and realization of unity with unconditioned absolute being,” he writes. By individuality he means personality.

Orthodoxy agrees with the basic principle – or rather, with the Second Commandment – that God is undepictable. Why do we depict God then? There is one major justification for iconography in Orthodox Christianity, and that is the Incarnation of Christ, in the flesh, in the body, as a human person. It is because this is how the Word chose to save us, by manifesting Himself in the body and sanctifying our humanity thereby, that we glorify Him through icons. And because the Church of the Saints is His mystical body, we celebrate them in like manner. 

The Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council determined that we can depict, and we ought to celebrate, Jesus Christ in both words and images, because He Himself became fully human. He does not represent some abstract ideal of the perfect ‘human being,’ but was incarnate as the real, historical, Jewish Jesus of Nazareth. However, his incarnation as a particular man of course has universal implications, which were foretold by the prophets of old. Through our participation in the Eucharist, our collective bowing, kissing, and venerating of icons, we are woven together as Christ’s mystical body. 

As we commemorate in the Procession for the Sunday of Orthodoxy, 

Memory Eternal to them who with words sanctify their lips and their hearers by means of those words, and who both know and preach that the eyes of the beholders are similarly sanctified through them, the mind is lifted to the knowledge of God, as well as by the divine temples also, the sacred vessels, and the other precious ornaments.” 

This is all about the sanctification of the senses, of the concrete body: our lips, our ears, our eyes are sanctified. As we hear in this hymn, words and hymns are analogous to icons as well. What are they but verbal images?

Indeed, the great Fathers of the Church often have an “iconic” approach to the spoken word. At the end of the famous Funeral Oration for St Basil, St Gregory concludes that the purpose of the speech is for “you to always look upon [Basil], and to be established in the Spirit both as seeing him and being seen by him.” The Holy Spirit establishes our mutual relationships with each other and amongst the saints in the bond of love. The power of words, memories, and icons are all put to the purpose of strengthening this bond.

We examined above how the person in other religious and philosophical traditions is made out to be an imperfect thing meant to be overcome and transcended. Not so in Orthodoxy. The person’s existence is rather perfected, sanctified, and elevated in body and soul. The iconographic emphasis on personhood is of crucial importance. As we read in one hymn about the proper depiction of the Virgin Mary, although she was prefigured by many signs and types in the Old Testament (e.g. the ark, the lampstand), “she was born a maiden and remained a virgin after giving birth to God, and for this reason she is represented as a maiden in the icons rather than obscurely depicted by types”  (my emphasis). We emphasize her personhood, not just her symbolic significance. And that is how we develop a relationship with her and her Son. The icon is an immediate imaging-forth of the person.

All this may seem like a dense, intensely theological discussion, but here is the take away: when you look at an icon, you encounter a person. You cannot remain unchanged by that encounter. You cannot unknow that person. This brings you into a whole world of possibilities.

There is a fascinating book on Byzantine icons by a group of art historians, called Byzantine Things in the World. The editor Glenn Peers has some thought-provoking reflections about interacting with an icon. He points to the example of St Onouphrios, the half-naked, long-bearded desert-dweller (incidentally, in Greece they call you an “Onouphrios” if you’re skinny like me). “Now, an encounter with Onouphrios is potentially many things, and it is for one a total meeting, an encounter with another that forces mutual recognition of person and presence.” You are confronted by “that demanding athlete of God,” and Peers concludes that, “Salvation rests in the matter of relation.” (pp. 84-85)

St Onouphrios, by the hand of Emmanuel Lambardos, Heraklion, Crete, 17th cen.

The only thing I would add to the discussion in that chapter is that symbols still have a role to play, too. After all, along with encountering the man Onouphrios, I see him standing tall like a light-tinged palm tree in the barren desert. It evokes the imagery of an oasis, or a hidden Paradise. The hymnography of the Church helps us to interpret these images in both their symbolic and personal meaning for our lives.

The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, as pointed out in this same book, argued that the starting-point of true ethics is not some abstract moral principle. Everything begins with the face in front of you. Ethics begins with the recognition of the value of the person. The Ten Commandments were revealed when “the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Ex. 33:11).

The daily veneration of icons ultimately has the effect of training us to treat and honor all those we meet as being made in the image of God. It teaches us to mourn when we see that image being marred and corrupted by passions, conflict, and war. But above all, it gives us hope that each person created in the image of God has a unique, eternal value in the unfading light of the Resurrection.


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