Just What Do Catholics Believe About Icons?

24 05 2010

Icon of the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy

Do we have too high a regard for them? When I was young there was a TV advertisement for a candy bar that was chocolate-covered Turkish delight. The slogan ran: ‘Fry’s Turkish Delight- Full of Eastern Promise.’ Thanks to the wonder of You Tube I can indulge a bit of nostalgia as well as let you see advert here. The East it seems holds a fascination for the West. It evokes images of exotic mysticism that the West imagines, wrongly, it does not possess. I see this is a reflection of the general crisis in confidence of the West in its own culture. This has seen us ditch our own traditions and pull others things into the vacuum in an undiscerning and haphazard process. This is not always expressed so superficially as the Turkish delight advert and it is not always a bad thing. The growth of interest of icons, identified with the Eastern Church, has helped to ignite a greater movement towards the re-establishment of authentic Christian art in our churches. This is good, of course.

However, the same superficial fascination that can be harnessed to sell candy bars and many other things – books, films and so on – has created a mystique about icons that is inappropriate, I feel.This isn’t simply a difference between the beliefs of the Eastern and Western churches (although that might be part of it). Whenever I write about icons I get responses from people who are very often Roman Rite Catholics who tell me that Catholics can’t paint icons, only Russians or Greeks can do it (even though the fact is that it is as much part of the Western tradition as the Eastern). Some tell me that only religious can paint them despite the fact that I know accepted and thriving icon painters who are not monks or nuns. I am told that I should not say that an artist ‘paints’ icons, rather that he ‘writes’ them. Even my teacher, who is as Orthodox as they come, refers to this insistence on terminology as ‘a bit precious’. (I am told that this happens because the word for write and paint is the same in Greek.) And, perhaps most importantly, people speak of icons as though the saint depicted is really present in the icon.

Make no mistake, we have just been going through a terrible modern iconoclastic period and the veneration of sacred imagery must once again be raised to its proper place in our prayer and worship. I wonder though, if the pendulum is not swinging too far.

So what does the Church really believe about icons? I have done my best to find out. As I understand it, the orthodox view was articulated in the 7th Ecumenical Council and with a later clarification by the Synod of Constantinople, which finally closed the iconoclastic period in AD843. This is celebrated today in the Eastern Church as the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. The Church Father who expresses this is St Theodore the Studite. Theodore was abbot of the Studios Monastery in Constantinople and he is revered in the Eastern Church as well as Western. (He is probably more known in the Eastern Church.) What is ironic is that the error of attributing to the icon a presence of the saint by iconophiles (those who were in favour of them) is one of the things that the iconoclasts objected to so strongly that it provoked them into seeking to eliminate the use of sacred images altogether. Theodore, like the iconoclasts, opposed this view; but he provided an alternative theology that justified the use of sacred images.

I recently wrote a long article of several pages summarizing the theology of Theodore, whose icon is shown right, here. For those who haven’t the time, there are several points that come out of it that may be surprising to some:

1. The essence of the saint is not present in the icon. Therefore an icon is not praying with us, it is just wood, gold, paint etc. The connection to the saint is made in our minds, especially through the imagination, when we see the characteristic likeness portrayed. So if the icon is covered up, for example, by metal cladding, it has no sacramental value (unless the cladding has been panelbeaten into a likeness, in which case it is the cladding that evokes the saint for us). Theodore illustrates with the point that once the icon becomes damaged so that the likeness is destroyed, it is just thrown away.

2. Icons, when blessed, are sacramentals. In this respect are the same as other sacramentals such as rosaries or crosses. Their value is that they predispose us to grace, they are not themselves channels of grace. This distinguishes them from sacraments.

3. Theodore’s theology applies as much to any form of art in which the characteristic likeness appears. Therefore the view that what we now consider to be the iconographic style is a higher form than the other traditions of the Western church, such as the gothic and the baroque, cannot be justified. Theodore spoke of icons, but only in the sense of ‘image’. He did not refer to specific styles or traditions beyond that. Accordingly, his theology, applies as much to statues as much as two-dimensional images.

Read an account of the theology of icons of Theodore the Studite here

Read an account of how the form of icons relates to the Catholic worldview here




7 responses

24 05 2010
Douglas Bonneville

Would it be fair to say you “write” an icon if you are working in the Orthodox tradition, but you can “paint” one in the Gothic or some other new tradition using any method, theologically grounded or not, consciously or not, to produce an icon?

For instance, I’ve been studying the Flemish Classical method of painting, and love the methodology. I’m not sure I want to understand theological reasons, or try to backpeddle them into a 500 year old tradition of painting. I like the science of it well enough and would be content to let it speak for itself. The patience required for the many steps of the Flemish method are enough to teach any modern, Pollack-inspired, impatient artist a few virtues.

If we are to have a new renaissance of icon making in Catholicism, shouldn’t it be based on the very best of the methods we’ve learned in 2000 years (and many more) of painting traditions? Or should we just go at it willy-nilly since virtually no institutions of art bother to teach classical oil methods, and much less egg tempera?

For instance, the multi-layered, time intensive, optical color mixing method of the high Renaissance is enough in itself to put a dent in post-post-modern understandings of what painting (even more so, Art itself) is or can be again, if it were taken up with conviction. What if we merged a new visual style with the old, a Vatican II ecumensism, and JPIIs new evangelism with the best of the time honored oil tradtions? We’d have something new?

24 05 2010

Hi Douglas, thanks once again for the comment. It’s difficult to respond to so much here about how to re-establish the culture of beauty. As a general principle I argue for the reconnection with our artistic traditions (which is the liturgical traditions of the iconographic, the gothic and the baroque) in the spirit of understanding. Then, artists will understand the full visual vocabulary available to them and start to produce their own stuff as required today, but drawing on the timeless principles.

But in regard to ‘writing’ icons. The point I was making is that I see it as pedantic use of language that shrouds the process in mystery unnecessarily. Not even the Orthodox painters I know to say that they write icons. Also, icons are not an exclusively Orthodox or even Eastern form. They are as much part of the Catholic tradition. The Romanesque is iconographic for example. The study of iconographic form, is crucial to our re-establishing the culture of beauty, but they must be understood properly I feel. Here is another article I wrote for the Catholic News Agency that deals with the subject as well.


24 05 2010

That advertisement is hysterical David – and your point is well made…

26 05 2010
Deacon Lawrence

Hello David,
I agree. Too often when talking to Orthodox Iconographers I get a sense they feel the “west” is trying to “steal their stuff” as it were. This is a pity. The eastern church has developed a theology of icons which we should respect and learn from, but as Catholics we are not bound to their canons. This is essentially the position of Pope Benedict in his “Spirit of the Liturgy.” And there are Catholic iconographers who disagree with that.
I have had the same experience with iconographers, many of whom feel only Orthodox monks can paint icons and the first step in creating one is to go and cut down a tree.

13 08 2010
lisa petrini

I do not mean to annoy you with this question, i apologize if i seem ignorant. Do you have to be catholic to paint/write icons?

14 08 2010

No not at all. However, the artist is more likely to produce a good icon if they believe what the icon represents. Incidentally, I’m guessing that you are using the work ‘write’ out of respect and not wishing to cause offence. But don’t worry about using the word ‘write’. That just arises because in Greek there is no word ‘to paint’ that is distinct from ‘to write’ and there are a lot of Greek icon painters. We are communicating in English and so ‘paint’ is fine. If the process that produces an image involves having a brush in your hand, you’re dipping it in paint and then applying paint to a surface to create the image. then that sounds like painting to me!

21 11 2010
Halo, halo! « The Way of Beauty

[…] an exclusively Eastern form is contrary to the Catholic view. I have written before, here and here that what characterizes the iconographic form is that it is a style that is consistent with an […]

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