Iconography. What is an Icon?
Icon of Vladimir Mother of God
Orthodox Iconography has three basic functions. The first is primarily pedagogical; the icons depict in lines and color what the scriptures and other writings of the Church say with words. Second, they function as a means for the Orthodox Christian to effect true worship. By coordinating the eye with the mind, the worshiper is drawn past the representation to what is represented. Third, iconography possesses a sacramental function. It is “symbolic” in the older and wider sense of being the locus or place where Divine reality and created reality meet (from the Greek word symballein meaning to “throw together or unite”). Thus what begins as simple teaching and learning ends as one of the great mysteries of the Church.
Thus, for the Orthodox, following the decrees of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, iconography is indispensable because icons teach us and bring us to the mystery of the presence of God in the world in a way that is unique to the visual arts. Icons are not merely representations of a worldly reality. They are not simple “religious” pictures. They are “dynamic manifestations of man’s spiritual power to redeem creation through beauty and art. The colors and lines of icons are not meant to imitate nature; the artists aim at demonstrating that men, animals and plants, and the whole cosmos can be rescued from their present state of degradation and restored to their proper “Image”. The icons are pledges of the coming victory of a redeemed creation over the fallen one.” (Nicholas Zernov “The Russians and their Church” p. 105) The Orthodox dare to say this because in Jesus Christ Divinity and humanity meet in one person. Because Jesus is the first and the primary mystery or sacrament, the way is opened for all created matter to become a vehicle for the presence of God and the grace of God.
Icons are the present visual manifestation of that restored creation which was manifested by Christ in His transfiguration, and which will be with God at the end of time. They are the present disclosure of God’s presence in our midst. They are a concrete reminder that the Kingdom of Heaven is not merely some futuristic concept of a “pie in the sky”, but is present at each point where time meets eternity. They are thus the result of a spiritual vision, which is informed, as far as is humanly possible, with purity of prayer and deed. They are the result of a spiritual vision, which, because it has itself been formed by the uncreated reality manifested to the Apostles Peter, James and John in the Transfiguration of Christ, goes beyond created reality.
Orthodox Iconography is the visual expression of Church doctrine. Therefore icons are not secular pictures with a religious topic, but art which, by its obedience to the canons of the faith, is an expression in lines and color of the teachings which the scriptures, the writings of the fathers, and other verbal expressions, express in words.
For Further Reading
Leonid Ouspensky, The Theology of Icons
Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press
Catherine Aslanoff, editor The Incarnate God: the Feasts of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press
Kallistos Ware, Mother Mary trans. The Festal Menaion, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, South Canaan, PA, 18459