Called to Beauty through Iconography

by Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J, appearing in Volume 16

Iconography proclaims the Christian faith in color and form. It is visual theology capable of moving people at their very core. Icons give pleasure and deep satisfaction, but by their very nature, they have been designed to mediate the presence of God and to call the Church to worship. 

Icons of the Trinity and of Jesus Christ, of the Mother of God and the saints, invite us to imagine ourselves as “God’s works of art” (Eph 2:10). They ask us to imagine our lives of “faith made powerful through love” (Gal 5:6). The call to participate in God’s beauty was already anticipated in the Old Testament verses, “let us make man and woman in our image, according to our likeness” (Gen 1:26) and “yet you have made them a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honor” (Ps 8:5). For the Lord, the God of Israel, the Israelite nation was exceedingly beautiful as “with the dignity of a queen” because of the divine splendor bestowed on them (Ez 16:14).

Without the experience of love, which includes beauty, truth, and goodness, people of faith and those of no faith wither and die like a branch detached from its vine. Icons are a powerful guide to inner beauty. Today, we gasp for such loveliness.

The Incarnation: the Historical and Doctrinal Basis for Veneration of Icons

In 1987 the Eastern Churches celebrated the twelve hundredth anniversary of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which met in Nicaea to affirm the value of venerating icons. Eighth-century opponents, iconoclasts, argued that God could not be depicted in human terms. Advocates, known as iconodules, and in particular Saint John Damascene, taught that the doctrinal basis for venerating icons lies in the fact of the Incarnation. Because Jesus, the “image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), entered into the human condition, he could be depicted in his human nature. The Creator of matter became matter for us and, through matter, redeemed us. In the mystery of the Incarnation, the formless becomes a visible form. Eventually the iconoclast controversy was resolved in favor of the veneration of icons.

The Christian East best sums up the Incarnation in the words divinization, deification, or theosis: “God became one of us that we might become like God.” Eastern fathers such as Saints Irenaeus (died ca. 202), Athanasius (died 373), Gregory Nazianzen (died 390) and Gregory of Nyssa (died ca. 395) developed the doctrine of “image and likeness” and wrote extensively on this theme. In the West, its parallel phrase is: “Through God’s gifts, you will be able to share the divine nature and to escape corruption” (2 Pet 1:4). Saint Paul describes our transformation into Christ as the ascent “from glory to glory” (2 Cor 4:18).

An Overall Understanding of Iconography

The theology of the icon is linked to the theology of symbol. When a reality, interior and spiritual, is expressed in the external and material, it is called a symbol.

Early Christian symbols, like the cross, the Chi-Rho, or the fish, became shortcuts for teaching the various aspects of the Paschal mystery, the passion, death, and Resurrection of the Lord. Symbols are meant not so much to question suffering but to offer Christian hope as a response to suffering. If iconography and other sacred arts are intended to put us in touch with the Transcendent, they do so from within their specific disciplines.

Our language limps when it tries to affirm the sacred or any attribute of God. To say something about God’s holiness, we normally observe the sacred in our own experience: in nature, in human beings, and in their activity. From this limited knowledge, we come to know something about the sacred, even while acknowledging that God’s holiness far surpasses our capability to understand it. In order to identify it as sacred, an icon must pass through three steps: similarity, dissimilarity, and the thrust or leap toward Transcendence. How then can the mind and heart make their ascent to God through iconography?

(1) Similarity: the Familiar

When iconographers craft their materials for worship and prayer, they use what is universally familiar as their starting point. Visuals first attract the senses; iconic human figures can readily be identified as human. Still, icons depict not primarily the aspects of the person that are physical, emotional, or psychological but the graced, divinized person. When the eye first notices an icon, it sees not only what is familiar but also what is unfamiliar. The latter is the purified component appealing to the sublime in man and woman. Why are both needed? Because we are embodied spirits. In iconography, the holiness of the graced person lives in the body, but the body takes on the aura of holiness. With other sacred arts, iconography is a complete art form.

To create color, iconographers select natural rather than synthetic products. All elements of creation are part of the iconic process—animal, vegetable, and mineral. Primary colors, especially gold, red, blue, and green, each with its own symbolism, are brilliant. If less distinct colors are used, there is a reason for it. Moreover, iconographers make skillful use of symmetry and balance as well as geometric forms, especially the circle. These patterns express peace, unity and harmony.

(2) Dissimilarity; Remotion, or Negation

In this step, iconographers make a transition from the familiar to the less familiar. They introduce a note of strangeness to the figure in order to suggest “the Beyond they are trying to express through the icon.” They change, remove, or exaggerate some of the similarity to indicate that “the goal is far different and higher than the original familiar and sensible springboard” from which they started in step one.

If a work of art, though referred to as religious, remains stuck in the first step, the likeness to the human, it is disqualified from meriting the title sacred art. It remains absorbed in the natural. It is too earthbound. In the stylized iconic form, artists bring about dissimilarity—a kind of negation—to elevate the viewer toward the heavenly. How does the iconographer introduce a note of dissimilarity or strangeness when writing (painting) an icon?

To begin with, no real person has modeled for the iconic figure. Iconographers have committed to memory set patterns that have been handed down through the centuries. The figures appear otherworldly and less earthbound, more removed, more remote than realistic. There is no ostentation or theatrical pose except insofar as theological meaning calls for it. The body is slender to suggest an abstemious way of life. Icons are conspicuous more for exacting craftsmanship than for artistic innovation.

How are the facial features changed to convey the quality of holiness? The straightforward pose, disciplined and reserved, conveys moral authority. There is no substitute for eye-to-eye contact. To represent God’s glory shining forth to the exterior, the complexion has a copper or rosy sheen to it. The oversized eyes, large and expansive, see everything through the vision of faith. Curiously enough, the eyes remain fixed on the viewers regardless of where they are in a room. The mouth, small and pinched, suggests a decided reserve. These figures speak little; they are more attuned to God than to worldly taste. The noses are elongated and thin, as are the hands, whose fingers are long, nimble, and graceful. Wide foreheads symbolize wisdom.

Through change, negation, or exaggeration, the icon is intentionally set apart from the familiar, though it is not devoid of it. The importance of this second step cannot be overstated. Dissimilarity distinguishes iconography from western forms of painting and portraiture.

(3) The Leap toward Transcendence
Dissimilarity can trigger the élan of the spirit to soar beyond the familiar toward Transcendence. Through the dynamism inherent in the negation of step 2, this religious work can stimulate the leap toward the Infinite. God’s grace activates the mind, heart, and will to leap beyond itself heavenward to transcendent Mystery. In this step, the holiness of the image has been depicted. This graced figure expresses the belief that God’s life is at work deifying man and woman and the world in which we live. Let us apply these steps to three icons, Jesus the Teacher (Jesus the Pantocrator), the Vladimir Mother of God, and Rublev’s Old Testament Trinity.

Jesus the Teacher, Jesus the Pantocrator

From the beginning of the third century, Jesus has been depicted in several guises, for example, as a young shepherd dressed in a simple tunic, as Jesus the Teacher, and as Christ the majestic Ruler of the world (the Pantocrator). Jesus is the manifestation of the hidden God, whom he has shown to humanity. One of the earliest and most beloved icons of the Christian East is that of Jesus the Teacher, located in Saint Catherine’s monastery at the base of Mount Sinai. It is the oldest still-inhabited monastery in the world. Dating perhaps as early as the reign of Justinian (527-65), this icon is painted with heated wax colors, encaustic pressed into wood. Its iconographer is unknown.

Jesus the Teacher from Saint Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai. Image: Public Domain

A bearded Christ wears a brownish-purple imperial tunic and a dark blue cloak. His head is encircled by a mandorla or halo. His oval face, emphasized by the circular contour of a well-trimmed and full head of hair, radiates quiet strength. The light of God’s glory illumines his face and is depicted by a warm copper glow with a touch of rose. His penetrating eyes, in direct contact with the viewer, are highlighted by short white lines above and below them. The same white lines highlight his forehead and nose. Not surprisingly, his nose and mouth are small and pinched.

The left hand holds a jeweled book, the Book of the Gospels. If it is opened, a consoling and didactic scripture verse is printed across its pages: “I am the light of the world,” or “Learn of me for I am meek and humble of heart.” His right hand is strong and secure. The fingers, elongated and thin, are arranged in a stylistic way: the thumb, fourth and fifth fingers touch and are curved inward toward the palm. The index and middle fingers are raised and symbolize the two natures of Jesus, the human and divine. With this pose, he blesses the viewer.

Christ the Teacher may also be depicted in a Deesis, a triptych, sometimes of mosaic, with the Mother of God and Saint John the Baptist on either side of him. An exceedingly attractive man, Jesus is “as handsome as a man can be,” an apt commentary on Ps 45:2, “you are the fairest of the sons of men; grace is poured out upon your lips; therefore God has blessed you for ever.” This man who is God is on a mission.

If the figure of an iconic Christ is enthroned on the ceiling in the apse of a church, it is called Christ the Pantocrator, the majestic ruler of all things. The throne is symbolic of the final coming; Christ is the God of judgment. The icon is expressive of Saint Matthew’s verse: “Unto me all power is given in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:18). The icon is seen as the image and glory of God. A famous example of Christ the Pantocrator is located in the Church of the Cefalù in Sicily.

The Vladimir Mother of God

The Vladimir Mother of God belongs to that class of icons called “loving-kindness.” This icon depicts the mutual tenderness of the Mother and her Child in contrast to other icons in which the primary emphasis is on the divinity of the Child and the majesty of the Mother. In 1155, Luke Chrysoberges, patriarch of Constantinople, presented the icon as a gift to the Rus prince George Dolgorukhy. Subtitled “A Miraculous Icon,” the icon remained intact during a raging fire in the Cathedral of the Assumption. The iconographer is unknown.

The Vladimir Mother of God emphasizes the love between a mother and child rather than Christ’s divinity and Mary’s majesty. Image: Public Domain

We notice that Mary is depicted as a slender, middle-aged Oriental woman. Not surprisingly, her head is covered with a black veil that contrasts with the Child’s bright garment. The golden-edged border, falling symmetrically, encircles her face like a mandorla, highlighting her delicate features. The prominent star on her veil suggests nobility of thought as does a similar star that covers her heart. The copper flesh tones of her complexion, with a touch of rose blush, suggests God’s light shining forth on her face.

Mary’s dark, almond-shaped eyes gaze into space with sorrowful concentration. The shadows cast by her eyebrows and lashes intensify her sadness. Her nose is curved, long, and slender, and the corners of her mouth are slightly lowered. She is mindful of Old Testament prophesies that foresee the sufferings her Son will have to undergo. There is, of course, Simeon’s own prediction that a sword would “pierce her soul” (Lk 2:34-35) . Mystically, she ponders without brooding. 
The Christ-Child is depicted not like a typical babe in arms. Instead, the Child assumes the weight of the God-Man. In pressing his face against his mother’s cheek, the Child takes the initiative and offers solace to her. The artist has painted the Child’s complexion in tints, lighter and brighter than his mother’s to offer hope to her. Lovingly, she tilts her head toward him. His left hand has slipped behind his mother’s head to clasp her neck, and he presses his left cheek to hers. As his lips approach hers, he stretches his right hand toward her left shoulders to embrace and kiss her. Strength from his small but powerful right hand stretches toward his mother. The high sheen of the royal garment, with its shadows and fine lines, looks majestic. Who cannot be moved by the icon’s tender expressions of human feeling. This beloved icon of elegant yet simple beauty is located in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

Rublev’s Old Testament Trinity

The icon of the Old Testament Trinity was painted by the Russian monk Andrei Rublev (1370-1430). Anticipating persons and events in the New Testament, he depicts the mystery of the Trinity through the Old Testament story of the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah (Gen 18). In the narrative, the couple hosts the three angel-visitors at Mamre who will foretell the birth of Isaac to the elderly couple. The angels are seated at a table on which stands a cup with a sacrifice offering. The angels hold traveling staffs. Abraham and Sarah are not in the icon.

Rublev’s depiction of the Holy Trinity as the three angels who visited Abraham and Sarah in the Old Testament narrative. Image: Public Domain

The basic form of this icon representing the Trinity is a circle. It is seen in the bowed figure of the angels deferring to one another. Their wings touch each other as a tri-unity, while the hands of the two outer angels lean toward the center angel who clearly attracts attention. The circular shape of the picture encompasses and calls attention to the cup on the table, the symbol of the Eucharist.

The angels wear a common blue and green in varying degrees of intensity to symbolize unity in color. The center angel is Jesus, clothed in strong, clear colors because of his coming in history. He wears a magenta tunic with a gold ribbon draped over the shoulder under the cloak of solid blue-green. Because the Father has never been seen by human eyes, Rublev has chosen indistinct hues of pale orange colored with a tint of blue-green for his clothing. Wearing a green cloak over a tunic of azure blue, the Consoler-Spirit symbolizes life and sanctification. With the other two figures, Jesus blesses the cup with the stylized Eastern blessing. The facial features of the three figures suggest a set of identical triplets of dignity and rare beauty. The raised eyes of the Father appear anxious because of the sacrifice his Son will accept.

The unity brought about by the clothing and circular form and motif of the composition reveals Rublev’s masterful insight into the mystery of the unity of the Godhead in three Divine Persons. The icon offers deep satisfaction because through color, form, and symbol, we grasp with delight the truth of the central mystery of Catholic Christian faith. Its loveliness has captured the admiration of the Christian West, thereby surpassing abstract Trinitarian symbols. The beauty, truth, and formal goodness of the icon invite one’s contemplation and a resolve to live in the presence of the life-giving Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One way to do this is carry about in our imagination this work of art that serves the life of prayer.

The Icon Screen

The most noticeable external difference between Eastern and Western Churches lies in the presence of an icon screen which separates the apse from the nave of the church. Also referred to as an iconostasis, it is a piece of furniture measuring several feet high and often reaching to the ceiling. The icon screen may be viewed either as a link or as a separation. It is the place where heaven and earth meet. The heavenly mysteries are enacted on earth where the Church lives and struggles. Used mainly in Byzantine Churches, the icon screen comprises several panels and three doors: the Royal Doors in the center, the Deacon’s Door on the south side, and the Server’s Door on the north. It is decorated with icons of Jesus, the Mother of God, and the saints.

Breathing Again with Two Lungs

In 1985, John Paul II stated in a striking metaphor, first used by Yves Congar: “The Church needs to learn to breathe again with its two lungs—its Eastern one and its Western one.” He wrote the apostolic letter “Light from the East” (Orientale Lumen) to mark the centenary of Pope Leo XIII’s apostolic letter. Both documents were intent on safeguarding the significance of the Eastern traditions for the entire Church. As if to confirm the equal dignity of the Churches of the East and the West, iconography has assumed its proper role, and even priority of place, in many sectors of sacred art because of the sacrality inherent in it.

Beauty and Catholic Faith

Finally, beauty and the Catholic faith belong together. The sacred arts in all their beauty proclaim the great Christian truths in non-discursive ways and for their pleasure, delight, and deep satisfaction they offer to the beholder. More importantly, beauty is a stepping stone to contemplation that Saint Irenaeus of Lyons (died second century) expressed in his dictum: “The glory of God is man and woman fully alive, but the glory of man and woman is the contemplation of God.”

The Church’s last three pontiffs have urged artists and the faithful about the need for a beautiful faith. Artists have performed at the Vatican, a place where the Church’s patronage of the arts is frequently celebrated. Paul VI reminded them: “Remember you are the guardians of beauty in the world,” while John Paul II stated that the Church needs art and that art needs the church. Benedict XVI continues to plead for restoring beauty to her rightful place in the Church’s theology, worship, and mission.