Icons: The Participatory Full Affirmation of the Incarnation

Last night, at the recommendation of Fr. Raphael, I watched the second episode of Andrew Graham-Dixon’s 2007 documentary Art of Eternity, ‘The Glory of Byzantium’. In this episode, he visits some of the great sites of Byzantine art from c. 500 with St. David’s in Thessaloniki to 1315 with the Chora monastery in Constantinople.* In between, Graham-Dixon brought us to Ravenna — San Apollinare Nuovo and San Vitale — as well as Hosios Loukas Monastery in southern Greece and the 13th-c mosaics in Hagia Sophia. Before we go any further, the apsidal mosaic from St David’s, Thessaloniki:

Along the way, he interviewed an iconographer and a priest. The iconographer explained to Graham-Dixon the idea that a Byzantine icon has ‘rhythm’; this use of the word didn’t make a lot of sense to an Anglophone, so he had the iconographer explain. Basically, Byzantine icons are drawn in such a way that the perspective is not at all like looking through a window (which would be the goal of Renaissance art). Instead, the idea is that the image is coming at you out of the wood on which it is painted.

Apsidal mosaic, San Vitale, Ravenna

This rhythm of the image, this movement towards you, explained the iconographer, brings you into the world of the image. It is no longer a strictly two-dimensional object, no longer merely geometric. You are participating in the image yourself. This, he said, is central to the Orthodox theology that lies behind Byzantine icons. In Orthodox theology, you know something by participating in it. We know God, to use the greatest example, by participating in God (an idea not without biblical precedent, if you get your ideas of ‘participation’ correct). Thus, when you behold an icon, you are participating in the image itself.

Later, Graham-Dixon interviewed an Orthodox priest. The priest explained many things about icons and their importance. He, too, brought out the significance of participation. When the Orthodox venerate an icon, they are not actually venerating the tesserae of the mosaic or the paint and plaster on wood, but the person of whom the image is made. This is an important distinction lost on many Protestants and, I fear, some Orthodox as well.

What this priest left out, or had cut from the interview, is the main reason icons are important. Icons are the full affirmation of the reality of the incarnation of God the Word. God became flesh and pitched his tent among us. He had two eyes, two ears, a mouth, and a nose. He walked on two (dirty) feet around the Judaean and Galilaean countryside. He touched real lepers with real hands. He preached with a literal voice from an actual larynx. He shed real tears at the death of Lazarus. He died a real death for us on the Cross. He rose again in just as real (if not more real) a body as before.

With the Incarnation, we behold God. Face-to-face. For 33 years He was literally present to the human race in an actual human form. This means that the prohibition on images doesn’t apply to Jesus. We may not know exactly what he looked like, but we do know this — he looked like a man. Because he was a man. Fully human, yet fully divine. As in this mosaic over the doorway into the church in Hosios Loukas Monastery:

By allowing images of Christ, we produce a tangible way of celebrating a full affirmation of the incarnation of the Creator God Who irrupted into human history and changed things forever.

When you take this theology of the incarnation that lies behind the theology of the icon, and then reflect on the idea of participation in Orthodox theology, you come across something beautiful. It is not truly the icon itself, the physical object, that is worthy of veneration, but the One Whom it represents. And when we behold an icon of Christ face-to-face, we are invited to participate in that image, to participate in the action of the image, to participate in the life of the Person Who looks upon us.

Graham-Dixon’s documentary is not available on DVD for normal people, unfortunately — I got it from the Edinburgh College of Art library, recorded from TV onto a DVD. I think it may be illicitly available on YouTube, though…

*If you have a date in Constantinople, she’ll be waiting for you in Istanbul.

2 thoughts on “Icons: The Participatory Full Affirmation of the Incarnation

  1. Both Episode 1 and 2 were superb. Thank you for bringing them to our attention.

    “In Orthodox theology, you know something by participating in it. We know God, to use the greatest example, by participating in God (an idea not without biblical precedent, if you get your ideas of ‘participation’ correct).”

    Well put. I would go the whole distance and say that according to the Biblical narrative, “relational participation in” is salvation.

    Paschal blessings

    • You are welcome Lazarus! I’m glad you enjoyed the documentary. I’m fond of Andrew Graham-Dixon, having first encountered him in the more fun-filled ‘Italy Unpacked’.

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