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. It’s 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 aren’t. 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.
If we want to understand what a theological statement is — and that applies not only to written statements but also to icons, I should think the nearest approximation would be to say that theological statement either in words or in lines, or colours, or indeed in music, or in the pageant which the liturgical service is, is very much like the sky at night. What is characteristic of the sky at night is that we see against the darkness of the sky, the translucent darkness of the sky, we see stars, which are combined in constellations. These stars are points of light and these constellations are recognisable, so that by looking at the sky at night we can find our way on earth; but what is important in the sky at night is all these stars are separate from one another by vast spaces. If you collected all the stars in one place, you would indeed have in front of you a glowing mass of fire but you would have no pointer to any direction, you would be unable to find your way not only in heaven but also on earth. What is important is the vastness between the stars and so are also the statements which are being made theologically, again in word or in line, in colour. They give us a glimpse and they leave a vast space into which we must penetrate in silence, in veneration. And the silence and veneration which is paid to them, I think, can be well expressed by the word “mystery”.
I know that in colloquial language “mystery” is something mysterious, something which is secrete, hidden and should be unveiled and seen through. The Greek word “mystery” comes from a verb “muen”, which means “to be spell-bound”, to be held absolutely mute in silence because of the deep impression something makes on us. It has given the French word “muet” which means “dumb”. Confronted with the overwhelming sense of the divine presence all we can do is to bow down in adoration. We are silenced in mind, in emotion, we become totally receptive and not passive but actively receptive. If I was to give an image, I would say our attitude at those moments is that of the bird-watcher. You know what happens to the bird-watcher. He gets up early in the morning before the birds are awake, goes into the wood, goes into the field, settles down and then he remains intensely alert at the same time as he is totally immobile because if he budges, he moves, if he doesn’t become part of the background, the birds will have disappeared long before he has noticed them. And so the attitude of the bird-watcher is this intense alertness that combines a total liveliness with a total stillness. This is what one could call the attitude of a believer has with regard to the mystery of God and also with regard to any statement, any expression that conveys God or things divine to us. We look at things in silence in order to receive a message and the deeper the silence, the more perfect the silence, the more completely and perfectly the message can reach us.
Obviously, when we look at an icon, we may discover that it has got features, which we apprehend or analyse intellectually. When it is a face, the impact may be more direct but when it is a scene, like an icon of Christmas, an icon of the entry of Christ into Jerusalem, an icon of the Crucifixion, there are features, which we can examine with our eyes and take in with our mind, but once it is done, we are confronted with something which is an object of contemplation. And I’ll give you an example or two.
The first example I wish to give you is an icon of the Mother of God which probably no-one of you has seen. It is in the South of Russia, there are very few reproductions because it is not considered as being one of the great and beautiful and classical icons of Orthodox Christendom. What it represents is – against a darkish background, the face of what I would call a peasant young Woman, square face with a parting in the middle, her hair falling on her shoulders, without a veil and looking straight not at you, as most icons do, but simply straight ahead into the vastness, into eternity, into infinity, — you must find out into what. And then the second thing you notice is that in front of Her chest there are two hands in agony clasped in pain and anguish. And when you ask yourself, why is this young Woman dishevelled, why has She lost her veil, why is Her hair falling like this? Why is this fixed gaze and this agonised hands? And you look at the icon, you see in a corner of this icon painted in very pale yellow colour the Cross, a Cross without a body. It is the Mother of God who is confronted with the death of Christ, not the dying, not the mystery of Her own offering of Her Son to God and to men but of His being dead, of the seeming defeat, of the end of all Her hopes, of the serene pain of Her heart.
This is one example, but once you have analysed these elements, looked at the face, asked yourself, what do these eyes see and seen it in the corner of the icon what do these hands speak about and understood, then you are confronted with the same thing, which confronts the Mother, – with the Crucifixion, with the love of God revealed as life and death, with the love of God, which says to us, “What you, — each of us singly, not the collectivity of mankind, each of us singly — means to Me can be measured by all the life and all the death of the Only-Begotten Son of God become man through the Incarnation born of the Virgin, crucified on Calvary after the tragic week of the passion.” So at that moment the icon is no longer a story, it is a direct challenge, a confrontation with an event to which we can respond by adoration, by conversion, by a change in us, by prayer in the vastest possible sense of this word. Not by repeating words of prayer, not by doing what a boy of our congregation, when he was seven, said to his mother, “Now that we have finished prayering, could we pray a little?” — which mean:, now that we have said all these words which are written in the book, which I can’t read yet but which you rehearse to me very evening, can’t I stay before God and tell Him that I am sorry for one thing or another, that I love Him, that I am happy and then say “Good night” and send a kiss to the icon which is too high for me to kiss...
The other example which I wanted to give is that of an icon of the Incarnation, a Christmas icon — a mountain, a cave, in one corner the Angels singing to the shepherds, on the other hand, the three kings travelling, in another corner Joseph sitting and being tempted by Satan who whispers to him that there is there something quite wrong in the whole situation, and then the Mother of God and the Child. But this icon, of which I am thinking in particular, does not show us the Child in the manger. It’s not the classical half emotional picture, which we see so often. Instead of the manger there is in pink stone an altar of sacrifice and the Child lying on it. And this icon is a theological statement not only about the Incarnation as the divine act that made God immanent in the world that the world may be saved, it speaks to us of the fact that the Son of God became Son of man in order to die, that His birth was the beginning of entering a world of suffering, of pain, of rejection and of death. And once we have discovered that the mountain matters nothing, that the shepherds and the kings, that Joseph and his tempter are features of the past that has simply brought the message to us, we are confronted with the central event – God has become man and by becoming man He has accepted to become helpless, vulnerable and enter into the realm of suffering and death. And then we are confronted with a God Whom we can worship in a new way, not a God Whom we worship in the great cathedrals because of the unsurpassed beauty He represents, not the All-Mighty one but the God Who has chosen to become one of us, frail, unprotected, helpless, given to us, and we see what mankind has done to this God, who had taken full responsibility for His creative act by dying of it and of its consequences.
So this leads me to the last point, which is obviously very short. Confronted with an icon, we receive a message and this message is always exactly as a passage of the Gospel is or a prayer written by a saint is, is a challenge for us – how do you respond to what you see, what do you do? Who are you in relation to this event, to this person, to this face, to this particular experience of the Church of God, of the Mother of God, of the saints of God, of the martyrs, of the Apostles and so forth. And this is the beginning of an act of prayer. Now, we treat icons with veneration not because they are beautiful and not even because they convey an essential message but because somehow we are aware of the fact that they are connected with the person represented on them and the event. I will give you one more of those flat analogies which are natural to me.
We don’t treat an icon as an idol but we treat it exactly in the way in which you would treat the photograph of someone whom you love dearly. It may be your departed parents, it may be your parents alive, it may be the girl or the boy whom you love with all your heart. You look at these photographs and you do not imagine that they are the person, you do not worship them but there are things which you would do and things which you would not do to them. If you have the photograph of someone whom you love with your whole heart alive or departed, you will not simply take your teacup and plant it on top of it because it is the best way of protecting the table. And you will be probably foolish enough at a moment when there is no-one who looks at you to take the photograph and give it a kiss. Well, it’s exactly what we do about icons. We give them a kiss, we are less shy and we do it publicly, but we do it because they are the only way in which we can kiss the person who is absent in a way, who is present in spirit, yes, whose image is there being like a window, like a link, like a connection with this person.
And our praying to icons is not praying to the wood or to the paint or even to the scene or the face represented. All these things become transparent in the way in which the photograph is transparent to us because it is the person whom we perceive, whom we see, whom we love, whom we treat with tenderness and reverence when we hold a photograph of a beloved person. And our praying to the icon is a praying that reaches through the icon. It may be a help to us because it is not everyone of us who is capable of shutting his eyes, abstracting himself or herself from all surrounding and feeling that he is or she is in the presence of God, and there is nothing between God and him, there is nothing that he needs to connect him with God. But ultimately we must come to the point when having looked at an icon, receive its message, received indeed its challenge, its call, we must be able to shut our eyes and be in the presence of God Himself and the saint who is represented in it. And this is what St. John Chrysostom says in one of his sermons. He says to us, “If you want to pray, take your stand in front of your icons, then shut your eyes and pray.”
Apparently, what’s the point of having icons if you shut your eyes and don’t look at them? The point is that you have taken one look and this look must have awoken you, you must have had one look and be alive to all the message and all the challenge that it has and now you must be free from the particular elements of this icon and be able to pray, to sing to God.
And I will end by an example, by an image, which is not properly of an icon but which convey to you probably better than I can this idea of our whole self beginning to sing and to respond. I was nineteen then. and I was reading together with an old deacon in one of the small churches in Paris. He was very old, he had lost all his teeth with age and the result was that when he read and sang, it was not as clear as one might have hoped for, and to add insult to injury, he read and sang with a velocity that defeated me, my eyes could not follow the lines. And when we finished the service, being as arrogant as one may be, some may be at nineteen, I said to him, “Fr. Evfimiy, you have robbed me of all the service with your reading and singing so fast. And what is worse, you have robbed yourself of it, I am sure, because I am sure, you couldn’t understand a word of what you were saying.” And so the old man looked at me (I don’t know why but he liked me) and he said to me, “O, I am so sorry, but you know, I was born in a very-very poor family in a very poor village of Russia, my parents were not in a position to keep me because they were too poor to feed me, so they gave away at the age of seven to a neighbouring monastery where they fed me, they gave me education, they taught me to read and to sing, and I never left the monastery until the revolution. And I have been reading these words and singing these words day in, day out, day in, day out for all my life. And now, you know what happens? When I see words, it is as though a hand was touching a string in my soul, and my soul begins to sing as though I was a harp, which is being touched by a hand. I don’t cling to the word. You still need it, but for me seeing it or seeing the notes is enough. I begin to sing with all my being.”
Well, this is what we should become when we can look at an icon and immediately receive the impact of it, so that our whole being begins to sing and sing and sing to God in whatever tune. It may be repentance, it may be joy, it may be gratitude, it may be intercession, it does not mean anything, what means something, which is essential is that we should sing to God as a harp sings under the hand that has touched it.