We live in a sensual world that hunger and thirsts and aches for miracles and for supernatural phenomenon. It is as if there is a void inside of us all. But if we live in a physical world then how can we long for the supernatural? The two things do not seem to be complimentary but rather they seem contradictory don’t they?
Here is what I mean by that. Senses are of the physical world. They are tangible, measurable and understood by all who have eyes to see, ears to hear, and tongues to taste, noses to smell and bodies to touch. On the contrary, miracles and supernatural phenomenon are not tangible but are unexplainable and most probably understood as being more spiritual than material or physical in nature.
So what is the answer? Do we just continue to stuff our face with food and drink? Do we keep reaching out for sex and creature comforts? How are we to stop feeling so empty and unfulfilled? The answer is in the question. We long for fulfillment of physical and spiritual because we have been created as physical and spiritual persons. The senses may seem to be just physical aspects to our humanity but if we are body and soul then their effects must be felt within both.
St. Anthony called the sense the doorways to our souls and in fact wondered how much images affected our hearts and souls to either order them rightly or disorder them. In fact scripture tells us in Luke 11:34 “The lamp of your body is your eye. When your eye is sound, your whole body too is filled with light; but when it is diseased, your body too will be darkness.”
In todays world we see that people are searching, longing and hungry for more than just food to satiate their taste buds or movies or music to delight their eyes and ears. We are all searching for something beautiful. The double rainbow guy on YouTube demonstrated an unadulterated response to seeing something profoundly beautiful and but even more than that they was given a glimpse into the spiritual reality that it “meant” something.
Paul Evdokimov, a Russian theologian that believed all people should have an icon in their homes. He wrote that “if mankind aspires to beauty, it is because we are already bathed in its light; it is because mankind by nature thirsts for beauty and yearns to see the Face of God.” I agree with him that we thirst for beauty and yearn to see the face of God.
It is my opinion that the double rainbow guy yearns to see the face of God. In fact I have often shared with youth that very same video. Before I have them watch the video I ask them to imagine his reaction to seeing this beautiful rainbow was the reaction of Adam when we awoke in the Garden of Eden and saw Eve for the very first time. After they stop giggling, a quiet hush comes over the group. I think the girls are in awe of feeling that someone could look upon their feminine goodness with such joy, such appreciation, wonder and excitement. They boys are looking around with new eyes and thinking to themself; “Is the gift of woman something more spectacular than I have previously thought?” When we become desensitized to the beauty around us, we must find ways in which to re-encounter it. Icons are one example of how to do this.
The double rainbow guy responded in a way that I could imagine a human being responding in the first encounter of being in the presence of a living icon. Eve was “written” in the image and likeness of God. Her body revealed something about God to Adam and in their meeting he understood his own body in an entirely new way.
We are made in the image and likeness of God. The difference is that we have not yet been transfigured. I have met some people that radiate Christ, like an icon. This is of course the goal and what ultimately attracts people to Christ, we we act as a living monstrance and radiate Christ to all those around us.
But what is an Icon? Simply put an Icon is sacred art that is also theological in that it literally (not figuratively) teaches the doctrine of the Catholic Faith in regard to the person or persons it is “written” about.
Author Michel Quenot writes “ An icon is certainly not the image of a discarnate world-in the sense that it would refuse creation. Rather, it is the image of a world transformed, transfigured, rendered transparent by a spiritualization which embraces the entire cosmos.”
So our choice is to understand personhood as the corporealization of the soul or the spiritualization of the body. Icons chose to reveal the latter. Icons’s write this truth. I say written because Icons are said to written and not painted. In fact, years ago an iconographer had to get an imprimatur of his work to make sure it was free from doctrinal error lest someone would be led astray. That is how precise an icon is.
Iconography actually means to “write an Icon”. Icon’s are more than just pictures or paintings; they are theology in color. The person creating or commissioned to the do the icon was usually a monk or priest trained in the canons and rules of iconography.
There are many aspects that distinguish an icon from other kinds of sacred or even secular art. There are also certain specifications and criteria that set icons apart. Because an icon is a language and it speaks truth about the sacred mystery that its image contains there is no room in the image for the artist to insert his or her interpretations. This is one of the most important things for us to remember.
The clothing style, colors, postures, gestures, geometry of the image, in fact every aspect of the icon is held to a strict and unyielding set of rules to ensure that in the end the icon will reveal the invisible existence of the world beyond our material senses. An icon makes visible the invisible and it is for this reason I believe it is the pictorial language of Theology of The Body.
Leonid Ouspensky, a Russian iconographer wrote that “the task of the icon is to guide every emotion as well as our reason and all the other faculties of our nature towards Transfiguration”.
In fact that is a major component of icons. They reveal the transfiguration to us in a way we can receive. It is gentle, non-judgmental and inspires us to greatness beyond our comprehension. That’s the beauty of it, you do not have to understand it to receive from it.
We may not be aware of why the image both seems to draw us in and repels us but in fact it is making visible the invisible reality of the journey that we are all on. We are being called to what all Saints have done before us, Embrace Our Greatness. We are to embrace the Holy Spirit, to allow Him to permeate, penetrate and transform our hearts and in doing so we will emanate Christ to all those around us. If images can open our hearts and bypass intellect and reason then perhaps we should surround ourselves with images that enable our hearts to be made flesh rather than to harden them like stone. If you don’t have an icon in our home, pray to the Holy Spirit and ask Him to bring you one.
St. Paul writes in Romans that “all creation is eagerly waiting for the revelation of the sons of God” (Rom 8:15). All creation means that the entire material world, the cosmos even time itself inherited our human destiny, which was tainted by original sin. Then it must be true that as Christians we have an obligation to help liberate all of creation from sin and evil.
Michel Quenot states in his book “The Icon” that “It is our task to spiritualize the matter we use every day to help further restore all creation to God. “(Eph 1:9-10)
He is not talking about making them idols. Our contemplation, love and worship is reserved for God and God alone but icons permit us to contemplate beauty and incarnation which of course draws our attention to the creator God Himself. Icons speak of the incarnation. They make visible the invisible reality of the supernatural; they reveal God came in the flesh. In fact most iconographers first icon that they write is that of Jesus Christ as He reaffirms to them that God was made flesh. This is the entire premise of an icon.
The Muslim world understood this so well that it became their reason the Muslims destroyed icons during the iconoclast period. They viewed Icons as images of God, which was against their religion. It should be stated that Icons really are an image of God as the Shroud of Turin ( the cloth covering Jesus Christ in the Tomb which then captured the image of his body at the time of resurrection) was the template used to create the first Icons of Jesus Christ. Jesus say’s “whoever sees me sees the father”. There is a great mystery in the incarnation and how Christ made visible the invisible and icons reveal this same mystery.
Not all images make visible the invisible however a true icon can. How can an icon make visible something that is invisible? It is because an icon is Eschatological. This is from the word “Eschaton” and speaks of where we as human beings are headed. We will one day be resurrected and reunited to our glorified bodies and so in a real way an icon is revealing a person that has been so permeated and penetrated by the Holy Spirit that the light of truth and God shines from within them. We see the entire person, body ad soul radiating from an icon. That is why there is no external light source like we see in traditional art. The focal point of the piece also draws our attention to a bigger theological truth rather than to an object.
Icons reveal persons not objects or bodies. In today’s world we are moving more and more to seeing people as objects of use. Nicholas Gogol wrote that “When souls start to break down, then faces also degenerate.”
We are no longer seeing the person in front of us. What is beautiful about icons is that they are revealing how God has given us “personhood”. Personhood is that dignity of being unique and unrepeatable persons. There is no one like another and our person will exist for all eternity. Our personhood is also male or female. Our bodies make visible that invisible reality and are inexplicably tied to it. Death was never God’s plan for human beings. It was sin that disordered our human nature and so an icon reveals the transfigured person. This is our destiny. We are called to become new creations in Christ.
God was made flesh and in this flesh given a face. We belong to him and his gift of self has given us freedom from being faceless. Our identity then, is from Christ. In a world where most peoples identities are so flawed and in need of restoration, icons draw us to the reality that no one is faceless. If we continue to move towards a world that seeks to remove the face and the person that is revealed there, we will lose our identities. We see this happening already in secular art and even photography. Why is it that artists used to paint portraits so regularly while now we see animals or objects instead? That has even translated to photography. Many people no longer get professional portraits done. It may be that today’s art is reflecting a world in crisis. If this is true, then perhaps icons are a language of truth, life and love that our wounded world is in desperate need of discovering.
Icons speak to us. They speak truth, life and love. The reveal to us the entire person yet we see them without corruption. It is as if we are seeing the human being yet we are seeing their transfigured bodies filled with the Holy Spirit, thus the light that shines from their faces and bodies as well as by seeing their enlarged eyes or foreheads (filled with wisdom permeated by love) etc. There can be exaggerated size to the senses for the exact reason with the exception of the ears, as the ears no longer need to listen to the sounds of this world.
When a person views an icon and sees the person faced towards them, their frontality attracts the viewer and in fact begins to open them to the existence of an interior life. Icons then, bestow a grace of receptivity. Like a plow opens a field, they open the earth to receive the seed, which is the word. Icons seem to be a means from which the Holy Spirit can flow through to all in its presence; all that is required is for someone to look upon it
There is another aspect of an icon that speaks of an eschatological aspect. This is the fact that many times the laws of geometry, proportions or even gravity may not apply. That is usually because icons seek to manifest the heart or the essence of the objects, animals, mountains, buildings or even people that it is capturing to better express their meaning and the meaning of life. In fact the icon is not just seeking to express the theological truth or meaning of a person it is to incarnate the spiritual presence of that person.
Monk Gregory, a famous Iconographer said “Only a picture that has a face looking at us and human face transfigured by divine grace has the right to be a holy icon.” This was why he said the eagle used in the Gospel of John couldn’t be used as an icon or image of St. John but only a symbol. Icons are not symbols. They are doorways that we can move toward them and that the person in the icon can move toward us. It is a spiritual movement but movement nonetheless.
What we look at does affect us and can open or close our hearts. Iconography is a unique form of art that not only opens our hearts; it transforms them with truth, life and love. Once we understand the basics of what an icon is we will explore the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe to discover the truth, life and love that is “written” there for the Church of the 21st Century. It is a message of hope, battle, of healing and of Mercy. It’s message has been waiting for the Church of this century to discover it and we have never needed it more than we do now.
Our lady of Guadalupe’s image on the Tilma, which I call the Icon of the New Eve and the Shroud of Turin, which I call the Icon of the New Adam, are two icons that were not “written” by men but “written” divinely. If we can receive spiritual grace by being in the presence of icons, how much more will receive from an image not painting by man but written by the finger of God Himself?