Dear Fountain Pen,
I don't know if you are still reading this thread, but if so, though it may be hubristic of me, I think I can help with your questions. Over the years I've become a passable parrot of the thoughts and explanations of my betters.What Icons are:
What icons are not:Explanations:
- Images/remembrances of the champions and exemplars of the faith who have been revealed in the Church by God for veneration and emulation.
Textbooks in the faith for the illiterate.
Windows to heaven.
The dullest edge of beatific vision.
Hieroglyphs, Beatific Vision/Windows to Heaven:
- It would help to know the basic history of how icons interred the Church, there are four sources according to the Tradition. 1st. Christ, the image of God, made an image of Himself and passed it on to the King of Edessa with a promise to send to him one of His apostles after Christ had completed His earthly ministry. That apostle was Mattias, and according to Eusebius, Edessa was one of the the first, if not the first Gentlle city to convert to the faith…indeed it converted so deep in Christian history, in the first or second generation, the dating cannot be entirely certain.
2nd: The Apostle Luke during his interviews with the Theotokos painted the prototype of the Theotokos and Holy Child images you find at the front of every Orthodox temple. According to the Tradition, the Theotokos said upon viewing St. Luke's work that her Son would bless that image. He later made more copies, and if memory serves there are at least four or five images of the Theotokos surviving that reputed to originally have been from his hand.
3rd: The holy martyrs: This is where images of the saints come from. In Egypt and Palestine the funerary custom was to attach an image of the deceased, usually from a time of their youth and health, to the face of the body to be placed in the tomb. It served as a kind of grave marker, and given the particular funerary sensibilities of the Egyptians from pharonic times, the image on the board and the the deceased were believe to enjoy a mystical ontological connection beyond the grave. When people in these regions became Christian, they kept many of their old funeral customs, and when the deceased was a martyr it was customary within the Christian community to take their relics (bones) into the Church for the veneration of the faithful. You can read about how tenderly early Christians felt about the relics of their martyred in the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp, who was a disciple and spiritual son of the Apostle John. When the relics came into the church, the funerary images came with them. So in those early centuries one began to find Christian temples whose walls were adorned with the images of those who had given their lives for Christ…members of the great cloud of witnesses of whom the world was not worthy. Naturally, over time those images began to be copied and shared, especially of martyrs whose life and death were especially noble in the service of Christ.
As this practice became particularly Christian in its representation of the martyrs, the images became less overtly naturalistic and more theologically representative. When the old funerary custom provided an image of the deceased as they appeared in the prime of their life, Christian funerary images of the martyrs showed the martyrs as persons whose lives were transformed by Christ..in union with Life Himself. Thus it was later argued that all images of the saints are images of Christ insofar as they are images of Christ as revealed in this or that holy person.
4th Jerusalem: As Christianity grew in popularity, and conversions multiplied, and even the emperor himself and his mother became Christians, and it was safer to travel as Christian, and the emperor's mother had gone to great lengths to seek out and adorn the holy places in Jerusalem, Jerusalem then became a site of great pilgrimage. The Christians of Jerusalem commemorated the events of Christ's life and that of other biblical figure by painting images of them and adorning their their temples with them along with those of the martyred saints. Visitors were very taken with these images, and wanted copies to take home with them as keepsakes, and inspiration pieces for their places of worship. Soon enough a whole cottage industry of sorts grew up in and around Jerusalem to produce biblical event/life of Christ icons for the pilgrims who in turn spread them all over Christendom…for in those early centuries, the activities of the Church at Jerusalem, the eldest of them all was looked to as a standard bearer…so whatever was done and approved of by the Church in Jerusalem generally favorably received and often emulated.
The funerary experience of the Church with her martyrs established the idea of the connection between the image and the prototype. It was similar in concept to the idea that the statue of an emperor present in a place of official gov. business solemnized the business…sort of like the way we regard a notary seal as making something official, only more-so. So just as the government had images of its ruler in places of government business, the Church had images of her ruler in her temples. The image and it's prototype were understood to be connected, the image in a way making present the person who was the prototype. This also coincided with similar perceptions in the liturgical experience of the Jews at Passover, where one who has eaten the meal and heard the recitation of the story of the exodus to have been mystically present at the original event. This mindset greatly informed the compositional aesthetics of icons as these things began to be pondered and standardized within the Church. This is why well wrought icons have a reversed perspective, which seems to distort the "natural" appearance of things represented therein like chairs and pedestals, buildings, etc. The vanishing point for the composition is located in the viewer, not on the plane of the horizon. This means the icon does not exist as a mere flat representation, but creates through its composition a sacred space in collaboration with the viewer. The image 'wraps' around the viewer, moves towards him, includes him in the event depicted or in the presence of the person whose image it is.
It was not only Egyptian funerary customs which contributed to Christian iconography the graphic legacy of Egyptian hieroglyphics. This is at the root of why one often hears of icons being written, not painted…even though technically speaking they are made with paints. Hieroglyphs followed certain conventions of the division of space and the representation of informational content. A geometric study of the placement of images in a well made icon will show these same divisions of space as found in hieroglyphic inscriptions. One also find conventions such as distance represented in height planes, of more important figures shown larger than less important ones, and a variety of artistic conventions to convey abstract or spiritual ideas…even the choice of colors has distinct meaning. For example, events that occurred indoors are shown outdoors but under a fabric awning. The divine light in a saint is shown by a golden nimbus, plants take fantastic shapes to point to otherworldliness…back towards paradise. First red, and then later gold leaf was used to represent light. There's a whole catalog of emblems and gestures that convey a variety of theological ideas…enlarged ear lobes over long locks of hair, for example are not necessarily indications of coiffure but is a way of showing that this person was sensitive to hearing the voice of God. Angel hair styles are modeled on those of Persian boy servants of that time…thus showing they are servants of God. Images of the holy are always show full face or at least 3/4 and thus open to communion with the viewer. Images in profile are theologically, ecclesiologically closed. So when an icon is seen all these compositional factors enter into how that image is understood and related to…how it is read. For example you could spend months studying the implications of the composition of Andre Rublev's Hospitality of Abraham (Holy Trinity). Some have even gone so far as to suggest that it's composition is so profound as to be in itself a proof of the Holy Trinity. I cannot speak to that, but it does possess immense depths.
Given that the image is not just portraiture, but a kind of image conveyed sermon/hymn on a given holy theme composed in accordance with carefully chosen canons with regard to it content and execution, that they are regarded as being in line and color what the Gospels and Epistles are in the written word, it is in this respect they must be encountered and contemplated. Same message, same content, different media.
Consider a favorite hymn which is well crafted and theologically rich. One first experiences it externally…you read the words and follow the notes and sing along. It touches you, and as your life experience grows your love and appreciation of the hymn grows as well. Soon enough you sing it from memory…no need for a book…and then one day you penetrate the words. You go behind the text to place where the composer was when he was inspired along these lines. You encounter the place where the hymn came from…and from that day, it's not just another's words you agree with and sing…but your own song, for you have tasted the spring it flowed from. That is how an icon works. It is first experienced externally, then appreciated and loved, then one day the heart penetrates the image…as if a window had been opened and passed through. The place where the image came from, the holy vision to some extent is experienced and the prototype touched. Now the heart has been educated and sees beyond what the eye beholds, the image is a bridge leading towards the reality, joining this world to that, the duller end here, the glorious end there. Now the external prayer said before the image has awakened in the heart and the heart moves swiftly in prayer to stand before God and the whole congregation of Angels and Saints, the triumphant assembly of the Church of the Firstborn, and Word of God.Ostentation:
The line here is relative. The principal we follow is that the worship of God and all associated with it should be beautiful. It's beauty should harrow the heart that it may receive and bring to fruit the seed of everlasting remembrance before God. Each community of faithful does what is within it's power to beautify its worship. What is ostentatious in one context is a fit and precious offering in another. That said, yes people do go overboard when the ornament obscures rather than reveals the object ornamented. Some oklads (protective metal coverings for old or much venerated icons, usually of river and gold and sometimes jewels) are a bit much, leaving only little bits of the icon visible for veneration.
The question of ostentatious veneration and venerations run amok were dealt with in the canons of the 7th ecumenical council. Prior to it, some went so far as to ingest bits of its paint, received communion from the hands of the icon of a beloved saint, used to stand in as godparents. All these other similar uses were identified and forbidden. The council explicitly stated that icons may receive only that level of veneration appropriate to be shown to another man. It is on this point though moderns trying to critique icon veneration often get in trouble. Moderns tend to be very democratic and egalitarian…the idea of the appropriateness of bowing and prostrating before kings, emperors and potentates is a million miles from their thoughts…but it was not so far from the thoughts of those who drafted the canons of the 7th council, in whose time such gestures of honor and respect were entirely common. We must learn our cultural myopias and take them into account in our judgements of ancient times and ways. As humans we have a limited physical vocabulary…a deep bow in one context is veneration, in another it is latria…adoration and worship. Only context and the interior state of the heart determine it for sure. That said, abuse is not an argument against right use. The Church has determined the boundaries of right use. It is up to us to observe them both positively and negatively.Comments:
Being able to throw images in the trash…as if the image did not matter. During the iconoclastic controversy an certain iconographer refused to obey the emperor's edict against painting icon. After several years the iconographer was caught and dragged before the emperor who placed an icon of Christ on the floor and told the iconographer to trample it, because it was just paint and wood. Instead the iconographer pulled a coin from his purse that bore the emperor's image and trampled it instead. In fury the emperor commanded the iconographer be executed and as the guards dragged the hapless man away, he cried out, "You see your majesty, an image is not nothing!"
Bright Lines: There aren't any visible to the human eye though they run thorough the middle of every human heart. We may not say to an icon, "You are my God." Nor may we treat it as if it were God. Yet we treat them with great joyful reverence in public and in private…even in procession. We do not pray to an icon, we pray before it, because as noted it creates a sacred space which includes us and invites us to prayerful contemplation and worship.
Icons are not objects of naked intellection and aesthetic appreciation, rather they create places for an event of communion between us and Christ and His saints. The very nature embodies the Orthodox understanding of Christian gnosis…it is in experience, in communion, in participation, not in discursive thinking or ideation. And our experience is filtered and guarded with an icon because it stand compositionally and theologically within the Spirit lived experience of the Church across the ages. And when an icon gets too old, too damaged to be repaired or used as it was created for, then it goes into the fire…not unlike our attitude towards a worn out national flag. It is disposed of respectfully.
So, please forgive my longwindedness, but I hope have have touched upon your major questions and concerns about Orthodox icons and iconography.