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.
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The promises of Brexit can't be kept. You can only decide which bits to betray

Vote Leave's great success was in presenting a menu of contradictory options as if they could all be secured. 

If Britain leaves the European Union but retains its membership of the single market and the customs union, has it really left? Barry Gardiner doesn’t think so. Labour’s shadow trade secretary, writing for the Guardian, argues that to satisfy those who voted Leave, Britain must regain control of its own borders – forcing it out of the single market in order to lose free movement rights – and its own laws, forcing it out of both the customs union and single market to avoid regulatory harmonisation.

Jeremy Corbyn has argued that single market membership and EU membership are one and the same, as has Caroline Flint. They have kept the options open on the customs union. Are they right?

As I wrote yesterday, it’s hard to explain what drove Britain’s Brexit vote without conceding that objections to the rules of the single market played a significant role. Gardiner is undoubtedly right to say that two of the biggest drivers of the vote were control over borders and laws, both of which cannot be achieved while remaining within the single market. Neither can the third biggest driver, which was more money for public services in general and the NHS in particular – that £350m a week. Because if the United Kingdom retains its single market membership, it will continue to “send money to Brussels”.

There’s a “but” coming, though, and it’s a big one. The first problem is that while the majority of people who voted to leave did so for reasons that cannot be fulfilled if we remain in the single market, those votes weren’t enough to take Britain out of the European Union. Leave only triumphed because it also secured the votes of people who thought it would take the country out of the political project but would retain a Norway-style arrangement.

The second is that those three big mandates cannot be reconciled with each other. If the United Kingdom leaves the single market and the customs union, then the promise of more money for the NHS will be difficult, perhaps impossible, to deliver, at least not in the way that people envisaged. (When people said they wanted £350m extra in the NHS, they didn’t mean “in order to pay for drugs that are more expensive, to recoup the cost of our new regulatory regime and to plug the recruitment gap left by EU citizens with high-priced locums”. They meant that the NHS would do everything it does now and more, not run to stand still.)

The great success of Vote Leave was in presenting a whole menu of contradictory options as if they could be served on one dish. But you cannot have the Extra Hot and the Lemon & Herb on the same piece of chicken. You have to choose. The big failure of the political class has been not to advocate for one of those options over the other. (Theresa May has effectively been running on a ticket of “Extra Hot, Lemon & Herb, and the French will pay for it”.)

You cannot have a Brexit that unlocks trade deals with India and the rest of the BRICS (five major emerging national economies) and reduce the uncontrolled flow of people from elsewhere around the world to the UK. You can’t have a more generously-funded public realm and pursue a Brexit that makes everyone poorer. You have to choose. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.