3. God’s Image, Living Icons

3. God’s Image, Living Icons

3. God’s Image, Living Icons.

Icon is the Greek word for image or likeness. All of us are living icons, made in the image of God. Jesus is also a living icon, since “He is the image, the exact likeness of the unseen God.” (Colossians 1:15). An icon is not an object to study or appreciate in an artistic sense. It is an object of contemplation and prayer, a visual aid to worship.

“Icons can be considered as Scripture written in imagery.” (Lawrence Cross).

Icons are not realistic, not three-dimensional, and do not reflect the natural world. They are meant to draw us into another world, to be used as windows to heaven, to be imaginatively present in the heavenly realms. The focus doesn’t stop at the painting, but one’s vision goes through the image into the Kingdom of God for spiritual contemplation. The lack of earthly perspective is intended to usher us into divine reality.

“When one looks at an icon, one has the sense that God is looking back. Our whole person is involved. What the prayers and music of the Liturgy convey through the ears, the icon conveys visually.” (Robert Smith)

“The icon is not meant to be a sentimental piece. The faces of those depicted in an icon are always devoid of their feelings, suggestive only of virtues such as purity, patience, forgiveness, compassion and love.” (anon.)

“Icons are also silent. The mouths of the characters depicted are never open. There are no symbols that can indicate sound. This stillness and silence creates an atmosphere of prayer and contemplation.” (anon.)

“The icon painter ignores the classic laws of artistic proportion. Elongated bodies seem weightless; the line of the underlying landscape is deliberately broken up into geometric forms. Also, in icons, temporally distinct incidents are often presented simultaneously, and this rearrangement of space and time shows us that we are in the presence of a spiritual landscape, inward looking and harmonious, a landscape that invites men and women of every age to contemplate truths that never change.” (Michael Evdokimov)

The process of painting an icon mimics Creation, when everything started out in darkness and then came light. The painter must start with the darkest colors and each successive shade must be lighter until the final brushstroke is the lightest color. There is no shading over a light color with a darker shade. There is no compromise with this, otherwise there is a violation of that Creation principle, the consequence being that it is not actually then an icon.

“An icon is essentially the work of a painter who, after fasting and prayer, succeeds in conveying visually some aspect of God’s involvement in our life.” (Robert Smith)

Painting an icon of Jesus proves to be an exercise of meditation, adoration and prayer. When painting Jesus’ ear, for example, one contemplates the words and sounds that Jesus listened to, what his ears were open to hearing, how his ears were connected to his heart as he heard cries of those who wanted healing and forgiveness, how he so clearly heard his Father and obeyed Him. As one paints Jesus, one considers and prays through the physical and spiritual aspects of Jesus, his nose, lips, eyes, fingers, hair, shoulders, everything about him. Painting an icon of Jesus is essentially a disciplined and focused affirmation of his Incarnation, a personal meditation on Jesus, the personal God. Painting an icon of Jesus is an imaginative, concrete spiritual experience based on the real humanity of Christ.

“Iconography is not an artistic creation, and can be qualified more as a reproduction. But the individual iconographer’s spirituality is present in the creation of every icon. Although icons are remarkably similar, we never find two absolutely identical.” (Leonid Ouspensky).

“The painter depends on inspiration, but what he needs derives from the Holy Spirit sent into our hearts to open them to the meaning of God’s word. Any impulse not directed in this way to the service of what God has said to us in Scripture and tradition is foreign to icons.” (Robert Smith)