One of the first things that comes to mind for many people when they think of the Orthodox Church is its highly embellished liturgical style: the incense, the vestments, the ornate candelabras, and of course, the icons. Walk into any church in Greece and you will be immersed in a full sensory experience, with images covering the walls from floor to ceiling and the faint smell of frankincense still hanging in the air.
The Church of the Apostle Paul in Corinth, Greece
Protestant American Christians sometimes jokingly refer to this as “smells and bells.” Many Episcopalians since the Oxford movement of the 19th century have incorporated more of these aesthetic elements into their worship, often causing some controversy about whether they are becoming “more Catholic” or “more Orthodox.” Many Puritan-leaning Christians (Baptists, Quakers, and “non-denominational” folks) remain skeptical and critical about the use of such ornamentation, fearing that it leads to (or is already a manifestation of) religious arrogance and idolatry.
Running underneath all of this is a basic misunderstanding. The difference between Protestantism and Orthodoxy is not the use of material objects per se, but the entire worldview within which the material world is understood and experienced. And this worldview is something that nearly all Westerners – both religious and secular – share. Our common post-Enlightenment heritage tells us that the physical world has little, if any, religious value or spiritual significance. A tree is just a tree. A building is just a building. A table is just a table. To say otherwise has become for the religious person idolatry, and for the atheist absurd.
The 17th and 18th-century thinkers of Western Europe, in their attempts to codify and re-classify all of human existence in purely rational terms, gave birth to a whole new way of thinking about the relationship between human sensory experience and our moral, political, and religious lives. Within this “Cartesian” mindset, the limits of human existence are determined by what can be empirically known through observation.
As a result, our emotional intelligence and imaginative capacities – those things which form our ability to see and experience things beyond what is empirically observable – were relegated to the sidelines of knowing, re-classified under new designations like “religion” and “art.” And the latter concept – “art” – was defined by its ability to remain cut off from any moral interest or responsibility.
Thus, many Westerners have a difficult time appreciating iconography, not because we no longer understand the Orthodox religion, but because we no longer understand art. Having reinvented the concept to suit our Cartesian worldview, we are no longer able to perceive art’s value beyond its ability to entertain us – whether that means “dressing up” religious teachings or advertisements to make them more enjoyable, or letting it simply exist for its own sake.
This paradigm is not only foreign to Eastern Orthodoxy, but to most cultures of the world. The peoples of Africa, the Americas, and the South Pacific also made little or no sharp distinctions between their spiritual and aesthetic lives, and had no equivalent concept of “art” prior to their colonization by the West. That’s because art is not meant to be merely decorative (“art for art’s sake”) or merely instructive (“books for the illiterate”) but both and so much more. The arts are their own language, having the capacity to speak their own “Word.” They contain meanings that cannot be reduced to words. A picture contains content that can’t be simply translated into text.
This fact remains a stumbling block to the text-biased Western mindset, but it is how the Orthodox Church can claim that icons are equivalent to the Scriptures as revelations of the truth.
The Church of the Apostle Paul in Corinth, Greece
There is a story from 11th century Russia, when Prince Vladimir of Kiev was apparently trying to decide what faith to adopt for himself and his people. He heard from an envoy of people who had just returned from worship in Constantinople, saying “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men.”
By emphasizing the senses in worship, the Orthodox Church remains grounded in the thoroughly Biblical conviction that the whole material world – not just individual minds – will be transfigured and saved at the end of time. Icons are like early installments in the already/not-yet coming reality of the Kingdom of God, bearing witness to the sanctification of the entire material world through the Incarnation.
Not just any image depicting Jesus or a religious scene is worthy of being considered revelatory, but only one that faithfully and meaningfully depicts the likeness of its subject. This concept of “likeness” is important in the practice of veneration, since it is not the image itself that is venerated, but the likeness that the image shares with its subject – and through that likeness the subject itself.
Interestingly, this concept of “likeness” is not dependent upon mere physical, photographic similarities (conforming to things like facial structure, height, weight, what they are wearing, skin color). Christ does not have to look like the same person in every image. That’s because the worthiness of images is based not in how “realistic” they are on the surface, but in how well they communicate the deeper truth of persons or events.
It you have seen enough Orthodox icons (or if you read our previous post about the Byzantine & Christian Museum in Athens), then you probably noticed that the figures almost always have a somewhat abstract, two dimensional quality. Unlike earlier portraits from classical Greece and Rome, where they placed a high value on realism and utilized techniques to create the illusion of spatial depth, early Christian art is semi-representational, with flattened backgrounds and enlarged eyes, almost like cartoon characters:
Icon of Christ with Abbot Menas, 8th century (the earliest surviving Coptic icon)
Indeed, some of the artistic conventions of Byzantine iconography could be seen as an early form of illustration or comic book art, combining images and text to tell stories and often utilizing multiple frames within a single piece. Consider this icon of St. Macrina, which tells the story of her life in four panels below the main image:
Or this monumental work of multiple panels – what’s called a proskynetarion – depicting Christ, Mary, and the martyrs along with a variety of other images that tell the story of the faith:
During the Renaissance, artists began placing a higher value again on more “realistic” styles and techniques, and ever since, artists and historians have had a bad habit of seeing Byzantine and Coptic art (along with contemporary forms of “illustrative” and semi- or non-representational art), as lower, primitive, elementary, and representing an overall “decline” in artistic sophistication and skill.
But is it always better for art to be “realistic”?
Take the two images below, both of the Ascension. Which one is “better” religious art?
Most Westerners, trying their best to be objective, would probably end up choosing the image on the right, only because the figures depicted in it are more realistic.
But this is both artistically and theologically problematic. Much of so-called “realistic” art strives to be faithful to its subject matter on a surface-level only. Like our Cartesian worldview, it is only interested in going skin deep, and always preferences what can be empirically observed over deeper meanings and potentialities.
Thus, from a theological perspective, it is less fully Real, and therefore less suited to religious imagery.
Also, when we consider the impact images have on us, we see that realism in art also demands less engagement from us than abstraction does. Abstract art requires us to fill in the gaps with our imagination. It is, in essence, relational. Meanwhile realism uses techniques to achieve an illusion of the “real world,” which can impress and delight, but much like a parlor trick, in the end, asks nothing of us.
There is a reason why religious people from Moses to Muhammad have sought to avoid any visual images of the Divine (and in the case of Muslims, even of the Prophet). It is the same reason that fans often abhor film adaptations of their favorite books. Something that can exist in infinite formulations within the mind’s eye is always diminished when it is depicted in a single particular instance, especially when that instance becomes canon.
Consider the havoc that Michelangelo’s white, male, bearded depiction of God has wreaked on the religious imagination of Western Christianity:
Clergy can tell us until they’re blue in the face that God is not really a white, bearded guy in the sky. In spite of ourselves, we’re all still thinking of this dude:
Religious images can be incredibly powerful, and incredibly dangerous.
And yet, the scandal of the incarnation lies precisely in the notion that God can and did become particular, even while remaining transcendent and infinite. That is the Great Mystery of Christianity, and it is an unspeakable paradox.
Byzantine iconography reflects that paradox faithfully through a carefully crafted and thoughtfully executed artistic style that combines respect for material form with meaningfully-chosen abstractions that point us beyond what we can see and know and towards transcendence. Attentiveness to form and to what is beyond form are both understood as necessary for depicting a true “likeness” of Christ.
In light of this, Byzantine & Coptic art (and other forms of illustrative and abstract art) are probably far better suited to representing and expressing the Christian worldview than much of what has passed for Western Christian “religious art” over the last six centuries.
Additional Note: Some people have asked about the notion that icons are “written” rather than painted and “read” rather than seen. It is my understanding that this is largely a Western mistranslation, and one that many Orthodox clergy, theologians, and iconographers find conceptually problematic. There are a number of good articles out there on the subject, but I think this piece offers well-written argument highlighting some of the artistic and conceptual issues, while this article shows the problems with the translation.