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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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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