The icon and the image

The thinking behind the Russian Orthodox Church's famous icons

If you go into an Orthodox church, what is perhaps most striking is the multitude of pictures to be seen.

Everywhere you look there are pictures—icons—mostly painted, though in some churches there may be mosaics, too. The walls, the dome, the apse, the ceilings are all painted with depictions of Christ and the saints; in the church there may be stands bearing individual icons; and stretching across the church, there is an icon-screen sealing off the sanctuary from the main body of the church.

The icon-screen, or iconostasis, has rows of icons: icons of Christ and the Blessed Virgin, or as we call her the Mother of God, either side of the central doors. They are flanked by other saints, John the Baptist and the patron saint of the church and beyond that, figures of angels. Above, there are further rows sometime reaching up to the ceiling.

What is the point of this plethora of icons? Not that long ago, they were regarded as a primitive, stunted form of art in comparison with the art of the West. Fashions change, and now they are highly valued; over the last few decades there have been a number of important exhibitions of icons at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Victoria and Albert Museum and elsewhere. Though they are certainly works of art, often displaying great skill (the fifteenth-century Andrey Rublev was a painter of unparalleled genius), they are not primarily works of art, but objects of devotion. They belong to the context of prayer: both the public prayer of the church, during which they are solemnly censed, and also in private devotion. It is customary for Orthodox households to have a place set apart for prayer which is an ‘icon corner’ (the ‘beautiful corner’, as the Russians call it) where there are icons with lamps burning before them. In praying before icons, we bow to them and kiss them. What is the point?

First of all, they are tangible, material objects. Orthodox Christianity believes in the goodness of God’s creation; we are beings of flesh and blood, as well as soul and spirit; the material creation, though marred by the Fall.

Secondly, icons express aspects of the faith in pictorial form: in teaching, one picture is often worth a thousand words.

Thirdly, the most striking aspect of the icon is the depiction of the face; as we look at the icon, we encounter the loving gaze of the face of Christ, or the Mother of God, or one of the saints. The icon is often called a door: a door into the world of Christ and the saints, who live transfigured by the light of the Resurrection. Unlike Western paintings from the Renaissance (before the rise of modernism) the icon is not a window on to the familiar world of buildings and fields, rather its perspective is reversed, so that the figure in the icon seems to move towards us and draw us into the world he or she inhabits. Again, in icons of Christ, it is the human face of God we encounter: the face of one who took flesh for our sake, who became recognizable as a human being, who became ‘one of us’.

The icon then reminds us of the truth of the Incarnation.

Furthermore, the word ‘icon’ means ‘image’. We, and all human beings are created ‘in the image of God’. So, we are to regard all humans as ‘icons’ of God, through whom we encounter the divine—as precious beings we should reverence, just as we bow down before an icon.

Andrew Louth was ordained a priest of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchal Diocese of Sourozh four years ago and serves a parish in Durham. He is also Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies in Durham University.
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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.