Metropolitan Anthony Sourozh

ON ICONS

12 March 1984

An icon is an image, but an image which is meant to be a statement of faith. It is a statement of faith in line and colour as definite, as completely rooted in the faith and experience of the Orthodox Church as any written statement and in that respect icons must correspond to the experience of the total community, and the artist who paints them is only a hand, only one who puts into line and colour what is the faith and the knowledge of the Christian body in the same way in which a theologian is the expression of his Church, and the Church has a right to judge him. That explains why one of the rules given to icon-painters when they learn their trade is that they should neither copy slavishly an icon painted before them, nor invent an icon. Because one can not identify slavishly with the spiritual experience expressed by another person, on the other hand, one cannot invent a spiritual experience and present it as though it was the faith of the Church.

Now, an icon is a proclamation of faith primarily, in the sense that an icon of Christ, an icon of the Mother of God or of saints is possible only since the Incarnation because they all relate to the Incarnation and its consequences. The Old Testament taught us that God can not be represented because indeed, the God of the Old Testament was the Holy One of Israel, He was a spiritual Being that has revealed Himself but had never been visibly present face to face with anyone. You remember the story of Moses on Sinai when he asked God to allow him to see Him and the Lord answered, No man can see My face and live. And He allowed Moses to see Him moving away from him, as it were, from the back but never meet Him face to face. It is in Incarnation, through the historical fact that God became man, that God acquired a human face and that it became possible by representing Christ, the incarnate God to represent indirectly God Himself.

Now, there is one thing which is absolutely clear to all of us is that no-one knows what Christ looked like. So an icon is never meant to be a portrait, it is meant to convey an experience and this is different. The difference between, perhaps I should have used the word snapshot rather than portrait, any attempt at saying, this is what Christ looked like is fantasy. We have no likeness of Christ, but what we know is that from the experience of the Church and of the saints, Who He was and this Who He was can be expressed in line and in colour. And this is why so many icons do not aim at beauty, at comeliness, we do not try to represent Christ in the Orthodox tradition as the most beautiful, virile man whom we can imagine. We do not try to represent the Mother of God as the most comely and attractive young woman, what we try to represent or to convey through the icon is something about their inner self.

And this explains why certain features in an icon are underlined out of proportion while other features are just indicated. If you look at an icon, a good icon, not the kind of thing which you find commonly, say in Russian or in Greek churches, but icons painted by the great painters of Orthodoxy, you find that certain things are singled out the brow, the eyes that convey a message, while the cheeks or the mouth are just indicated as common features. And the aim of an icon is not to present you with a likeness of the person but with the message, to present you with a face that speaks to you in the same way in which a portrait is different from a snapshot. A snapshot is a very adequate image of the person photographed at a given moment. Its exactly what at that given moment the person was, but it leaves out very often most of the personality of this particular person, while a good portrait is painted in the course of many sittings that allow the artist to look deeply into the face of a person, to single out features, which are fluid, which change, which move but which, each of them, express something of the personality. And so that the portrait is something much more composite, much more rich and much more adequate to the total personality than a snapshot would be although at no moment was this particular face exactly as the painter has represented it on the portrait. It is not an attempt at having a snapshot in colour but of conveying a vision of what a person is.

Now, this being said, we treat icons with reverence, and number of people in the West think that to us icons are very much what idols were in older times for pagan nations. They arent. They are not idols because they do not purport or even attempt at giving an adequate picture of the person concerned. This I have already mentioned abundantly but I will add this. Whether it is in words, in theological statements, in doctrinal statements, in the creeds, in the prayers and the hymns of the Churches, no attempt is ever made in the Orthodox Church at expressing, at giving a cogent, a complete image of what God is. Already in the IV century St. Gregory of Nazianze wrote that if we attempted to collect from the Old Testament, from the New Testament, from the experience of the Church, from the personal lives of saints their sayings and their writings, all the features which reveal to us what and who God is and try to build out of them a completely coherent, a complete picture of God, what we would have achieved is not a picture of God, it would be an idol because it would be on our scale, it would be as small as we are indeed, smaller than we are because it could be contained in our vision, in our understanding.

(To be followed)



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