Monday, July 2, 2012
St. John of San Francisco: Sermon on Iconography
Iconography began on the day our Lord Jesus Christ pressed a cloth to His face and imprinted His divine-human image thereon. According to tradition, Luke the Evangelist painted the image of the Mother of God and many icons painted by him, still exist today. As an artist, he painted the first icons of the Mother of God, but also those of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and possibly others which have not come down to us.
Thus, iconography began. Then it came to a halt for a time. Christianity was cruelly persecuted: all that was reminiscent of Christ was destroyed and subjected to ridicule. Thus, during the course of the persecutions, iconography did not develop, but Christians attempted to express in symbols what they wished to convey. Christ was portrayed as the Good Shepherd, and also in the guise of various personalities from pagan mythology. He was also depicted in the form of a vine, an image hearkening back to the Lord's words: "I am the true Vine. ... ye are the branches" (Jn. 15:1, 5). It was also accepted practice to depict Christ in the form of a fish, because if one writes in Greek "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior" (Iisus Hristos, Theu Ios, Sotir) and then groups together the first letter of each word, one discovers that one has written the Greek word IHTHIS, "fish." So, Christians depicted a fish, thereby reminding people of these words, which were recognized by all, who believed in the Savior. This also became known to the pagans, and consequently the image of the fish was held suspect.
When, following the victory of Emperor Constantine the Great over Maxentius, freedom was given to Christians. Christianity quickly transformed the Roman Empire and replaced paganism. Then iconography flourished with full force. We see directives concerning iconography at the first ecumenical councils. In some church hymns, which still are frequently used, iconography is mentioned.
Now what are icons? Icons are precisely the union between painting and those symbols and works of art that replaced icons during the time of persecution. The icon is not simply a representation, a portrait. The icon reminds of the spiritual aspect of the Saint depicted.
Christianity is the inspiration of the world. Christ founded His Church in order to inspire, to transfigure the world, to cleanse it from sin and bring it to that state in which it will exist in the ages to come. Christianity was founded upon the earth and operates upon the earth, but it reaches to Heaven in its structure; Christianity is that bridge and ladder whereby men ascend from the earthly Church to the Heavenly. Therefore, a simple representation, which recalls the earthly characteristics of some face, is not an icon. Even an accurate depiction, in the sense of physical build, still signifies nothing. A person may be very beautiful externally, yet at the same time be very evil. On the other hand, he may be ugly, and at the same time a model of righteousness. Thus, we see that an icon must indeed depict that which we see with our eyes, preserving the characteristics of the body's form, for in this world the soul acts through the body; however, at the same time, it must point towards the inner, spiritual essence. The precise task of the iconographer is to render, to the greatest extent possible, those spiritual qualities, whereby the person depicted acquired the Kingdom of Heaven, won the Lord’s imperishable crown as the Church's true significance is the salvation of man's soul. That which is on the earth perishes when we bring the body to the grave; but the soul passes on to another place. When the world comes to an end, consumed by fire, there will be a new earth and a new Heaven, as the Apostle John the Theologian says, With the eyes of his soul, he foresaw the New Jerusalem, so clearly described in his sacred Revelation. The Lord came to prepare the whole world for this spiritual rebirth. To prepare oneself for this new Kingdom, one must uproot from within oneself those seeds of sin which entered mankind with our ancestors' fall into sin, distorting our pristine, grace-endowed nature; and one must plant within oneself those virtues which they lost in the fall. Our icons speak of the Christian's goal is to change and improve daily.
In remembering the saints and their struggles, an icon does not simply represent the saint as he appeared upon the earth. No, the icon depicts his inner spiritual struggle; it portrays how he attained the state where he is now, considered an angel on earth, a heavenly man. This is precisely the manner in which the Mother of God and Jesus Christ are portrayed. Icons should depict that transcendent sanctity which permeated the saints. The Lord Jesus Christ is the union of all that is human and all that is divine; and when depicted in an icon, the Savior must be painted so that we sense that He is a man, a real man, at the same time, something more exalted than any man, that we not simply approach Him as we would approach a visitor or an acquaintance. We should feel that He is One Who is close to us, our Lord, Who is merciful to us, and at the same time an awe-inspiring Judge, Who wants us to follow Him and wishes to lead us to the Kingdom of Heaven. Therefore, we should not depict only the spiritual aspect of the saint, completely disregarding how he looked while alive on earth. This would also be an extreme. All saints should be depicted so as to convey their individual characteristics as much as possible — soldiers should be portrayed arrayed for battle; holy hierarchies in their Episcopal vestments . . . It is incorrect to depict bishops of the first centuries vested in the sakkos, for at that time, bishops wore the phelonion, not the sakkos. This is not such a great error, for it is far better to make a mistake in what is physical than in what is spiritual, to ignore, the spiritual aspect.
However, it is far worse when everything is correct in the physical, sense, but the saint appears as an ordinary man, photographed, devoid of the spiritual. When this is the case, the depiction cannot be considered an icon. Sometimes undue attention is spent on making the icon beautiful. If this is not detrimental to the spirituality of the icon, it is good, but if the beauty distracts our vision so that we forget what is most important — that one must save one's soul, must raise one's soul to the heights of Heaven — the beauty of the depiction is detrimental. It cannot be considered an icon, but merely a painting. An icon is an image, which leads us to be holy, God-pleasing person, or raises us up to Heaven, or evokes a feeling of repentance, compunction, prayer, a feeling that one must bow down before this image. The value of an icon is that, when we approach it, we want to pray before it with reverence. If the image elicits this feeling, it is an icon.
Our iconographers were zealous about this reverence, as can be seen in those ancient iconographers of the time before Russia’s conversion and our Russian iconographers, too, beginning with the Venerable Alypius of the Kiev Caves, who painted a number of icons of the Mother of God, some of which still survive. These wondrous icons, which continued the Byzantine tradition of the painting of icons which inspire compunction, were not necessarily painted in dark colors; frequently they were done in bright hues; nonetheless, these colors evoked a desire to pray before such icons. An example of this style can be seen in the holy hierarch Peter, a native of Galicia who later became Metropolitan of Kiev and All Russia, painted icons, some of which were until recently to be found in the Cathedral of the Dormition in Moscow. An entire school of iconography was also established in Novgorod under the direction of the holy hierarch Alexis of Novgorod, where a whole series of icons have been preserved. The Venerable Andrew Rublev painted an icon of the Holy Trinity which is now famous not only in the Christian world, but throughout the half-Christian world as well.
Unfortunately, this Orthodox movement started to collapse when Russia began to be infiltrated by Western influence. In certain respects, Russia's acquaintance with the European West was very beneficial. Many technical sciences and other useful knowledge came from the West. We know that Christianity has never had any aversion to knowledge of that which originates outside itself. Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom studied in pagan universities, and many writers, among whom were our spiritual authors and many of the best theologians, were also well acquainted with pagan writers. The Apostle Paul himself even cited quotations from pagan poets in the Holy Scriptures. Nevertheless, not all that was Western was good for Russia. Western ideas also wrought horrible moral damage at that time, because Russians began to accept, along with useful knowledge, that which was alien to our Orthodox way of life, to our Orthodox faith. The educated portion of society soon sundered themselves from the life of the people and from the Orthodox Church, which was regulated by ecclesiastical norms. Later, this alien influence touched iconography as well. Images of the Western type began to appear in icons. Perhaps these icons were beautiful from an artistic point of view, but they were completely lacking in sanctity. They were beautiful in the sense of earthly beauty, but these icons could even be scandalous at times, and devoid of spirituality. These were not icons. They were distortions of icons, exhibiting a lack of comprehension of what an icon actually is.
--St. John of Shanghai & San Francisco