THEOLOGY OF ICON
The art of Icons in the Eastern Orthodox Church is a holy, liturgical art, like all the church arts, which have a spiritual purpose. The aim of these arts is not merely to decorate the church with paintings, in order to make it more pleasing to the faithful, or to delight their ears with music: it is to elevate them to the mystical world of faith by the spiritual ladder, the steps, or rungs, of which are the holy arts, the composition of hymns, church -building, religious painting and the other arts. All these work together cultivate the mystic Paradise in the souls of the faithful. Accordingly, works of art in the Eastern Church are commentaries on the divine word.
The art of Icons in the Orthodox Church is called “hagiography”*or “holy painting” because it depicts holy persons and subjects. The painter, or “hagiographer” is not simply a craftsman executing a painted representation of a religious subject: he has a spiritual office, which he fulfills in the church, just like the priest, and the preacher. The liturgical Icon has a theological meaning. It is not, as we have said, a painting made to delight our eyes, or even to remind us of holy persons, like the pictures we keep at home to remind us of our beloved relatives and friends; it is painted in such a way as to elevate us above the corrupt world. It, therefore, has nothing in common with paintings that portray people in a material manner, including Saints, as we see in the religious art of the West. In the liturgical icon, holy persons are portrayed in their purity.
For this reason, liturgical art does not change like other human affairs, for it is immutable, like the Church of Christ to which it gives expression. The holy tradition is the column of fire that leads the church through the wilderness of the unstable world. This comes as a surprise to men of the present century, who are not prepared to plunge into the depths of the spiritual sea but swim on the surface of the senses, carried away by the currents and eddies of the waters.
Liturgical art nourishes the believer with spiritual sights and sounds, filtering what enters through the gates of the senses, delighting his soul with the heavenly wine, and bestowing upon him peace of mind. Technical skill in this art is not merely a mechanical matter but partakes of the spirituality and sanctity of the things it wishes to portray. For this reason, the technical vocabulary of religious painting, the names of the tools, and the expressions used for all aspects of it, have a religious character. The very materials used by the religious painter are blessed, humble, fragrant, delicate.
The beauty of liturgical painting is the beauty of the spirit, not of the flesh. The art is abstinent and austere, expressing richness through poverty, and just as the Gospels and the Old Testament are concise and laconic, so Orthodox religious painting is plain, lacking in excessive ornamentation and vain displays.
The old religious painters fasted when they worked, and when they began an icon they changed their underclothes, so as to be pure both internally and externally. As they worked, they chanted psalms, so that their work would be executed in a spirit of contrition and so as to prevent their mind dwelling on worldly matters.
For this reason, the most preeminently liturgical Icons seem malformed to those who have the spirit of the world, and in their eyes, the people portrayed have neither “form nor beauty” for “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God” (Romans 7,7.) “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh” (Galatians 5, 17). In holy icons, “the flesh is crucified along with passions and desires”.
Their spiritual beauty is “the fine distortion” through which Saint Symeon the Younger Theologian said that he saw in the fasting faces of his spiritual children during the great fast of Lent. The Mystic Gate, the gate to the East, is and shall be closed to all those who occupy themselves with knowledge of the flesh, which, “inflates” or makes a man proud, according to St. Paul. Whereas “the eyes of the Lord are on the humble, to delight in them”. Just as the religious painters who made the holy icons had piety, humility and faith, so should we who venerate them, in order to be worthy of the mystic grace shed from them. In the words of St. Gregory the Miracle-Worker: “This power is needed both by those who prophesy and those who listen to prophets, and one should not listen to a prophet, upon whom the spirit of Prophecy has not bestowed judgment in what he says”.