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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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.