God became man so that man might become God by grace. Or as St John of Damascus put it:

I do not worship the creation rather than the Creator, but I worship the one who became a creature, who was formed as I was, who clothed Himself in creation without debasement or departing from His divinity, that He might raise my nature in glory and make it a partaker of His divine nature.

This explains why we have icons of holy people as well as of Christ. In the saint we see Christ shining forth. We worship God alone, but we venerate and honour all those people and things through which God comes to us.

Deification, or transfiguration as it may be termed, also explains the characteristic style of icons. The way an icon is painted suggests a world shining with the glory of God. It is not just what is depicted that is significant about the icon tradition, but how this is depicted. It is possible to depict a holy person in a profane way, omitting to suggest their transfigured state. Conversely, one can depict a mundane object in a sacred way, showing it in its paradisiacal state.

Deification is the norm that God intended for man, and so a naturalistic portrait, as wonderful and sympathetic as it might be in a painting, is not actually depicting man in his full and ‘natural’ supra-natural state.

Aidan Hart, Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting, 3.

I mentioned recently that I had been doing some reading on iconography in order to prepare for a talk that I’d been asked to do. In the process I read two introductory books that I had only glanced through before. I found them both very good introductions and thought that it might be worth highlighting them for those who are interested. Both are very good starting points for people who want to understand the place of the icon in the Orthodox Church.

Michel Quenot’s The Icon: Window on the Kingdom (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1991; Mowbray, 1992), while providing an accessible introduction for a general readership, nevertheless offers a fairly comprehensive discussion of the history and theology of the icon, and of its role in spiritual transformation, and of the way that the various aspects of style and composition influence this. While by no means polemical, it explains clearly how eastern and western art went their different ways. The icon is something very different from what the West came to see as “sacred art.” Quenot is not opposed to the discovery of the icon by westerners, but he does warn us of the dangers involved in this and insists that the icon should be rediscovered in its true integrity, for it is “a traditional iconographic purity which expresses the profound truths of faith” and the icon is an object that exists in order to be venerated.

Amid the surfeit of images swamping our world, today, the icon testifies to the spiritual outlook and vision of an authentic Christianity, that of the Divine Humanity of Christ. Its language of love is revealed when the eyes meet. It not only imperceptibly enriches and fructifies every face that gazes at it, but contains the vivifying impulse that leads to the joyful rediscovery of a Christian, theological art. (164-165)

Jim Forest’s Praying With Icons(Orbis Books, 1997, 2008) covers some of the same background as Quenot’s work, providing insights into the history, theology, and what goes into producing an icon. However, this book is more personally written – beginning with a description of the author’s own experience in discovering icons – and is more focussed on enabling people to appreciate the icon’s role in leading us to prayer. While this book is irenically written and clearly aimed at a broad audience (it is published by a Catholic publisher) Forest does not avoid questions of the western loss of the role of the body in prayer, and presents the icon in terms of a broader Orthodox understanding of prayer, fasting and spiritual discipline. Like Quenot’s book, Forest discusses several well-known icons. However, he also, very helpfully, provides various texts of prayers as a conclusion to the book entitled “Prayers of the Day.” Their efficacy is witnessed to in the following description:

My wife and I stand side by side before our icons before going to bed. Occasionally we are joined by guests. In the beginning our effort required reading together parts of the service of evening prayer used in the Orthodox Church, but gradually the prayers are learned by heart and no book is needed. We end our prayers with intercession, using several lists we keep. We have come to recognize this part of the day as one of the essential activities of our married life, bind us more closely together. (55)

Both books provide several colour reproductions. Those in Forest’s book are mainly well known old icons, while Quenot provides several examples of the work of Father Gregory (Krug) whose icons I am particularly fond of.

The Nativity of Our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ.
(Icon: Novgorod school, late fifteenth century, photo courtesy of Jim Forest).


The descriptive part of the icon corresponds to the Kontakion of the festival: “The Virgin to-day bringeth forth the Transubstantial, and the earth offereth a cave to the Unapproachable. Angels give glory with the shepherds, and the wise men journey with the Star; because for our sake is born, as a little Child, God the Eternal.” Two other scenes, based on Tradition, appear in the lower corners.

In its content the icon of Christ’s Nativity has two fundamental aspects: first of all, it discloses the very essence of the event, the immutable fact of the Incarnation of God; it places us before a visible testimony of the fundamental dogma of Christian faith, underlining by its details both the Divinity and the human nature of the Word made flesh. Secondly, the icon of the Nativity shows us the effect of this event on the natural life of the world, gives as it were a perspective of all its consequences. For according to the words of St. Gregory the Theologian, the Nativity of Christ “is not a festival of creation but a festival of re-creation”, of a renewal which sanctifies the whole world.

“The Nativity of Christ” by Leonid Ouspensky in Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons(Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983) 157.


A quick glance at the icon of Christ’s Nativity now gives us a better idea of the significant parallels existing between the two feasts: both of them can be called “Pascha.” The Child-God is born mystically in the heart of Hades. “Torch-bearer of Light, the flesh of God beneath the earth dissipates the darkness of Hades,” proclaims the liturgy of the Nativity, which is echoed again at Matins of Holy Saturday: “You descended to earth to save Adam and not finding him, O Master, you went down into Hades to look for him.” The Nativity thus heralds the Resurrection; in a way, it even includes it. Does not the Divine Child lie in the cavern wrapped in swaddling bands which are similar to the bands of Lazarus who was raised from the dead? The dark cavern is an image of hell, which we find again in the icon of the Baptism of Jesus, where the Jordan River is transformed into a watery tomb, an element of the cosmos which is purified by His body. Nor should we forget the black grotto we see beneath the Cross in the icon of the Crucifixion.

Michel Quenot, The Icon: Window on the Kingdom, 142-143

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it today! I apologise for the relative silence of this blog, and hope to make amends in the coming week!

As the visual center of the body, the face dominates everything else. In his Notes of an icon painter, which we have already mentioned, Monk Gregory [Krug] writes:

Only a picture that has a face looking at us and a human face transfigured by divine grace has the right to be a holy icon.

And further on he states:

The eagle which holds the Gospel Book cannot be an icon or image of John the Evangelist, but only his symbol.

Let us note here that the ancient Greeks called a slave aprosopos, i.e., he who has no face. So by assuming the features of a human face, God restored to us a face in His own image, chained as we were like slaves without faces – aprosopos – because of sin.

If Christian art from the beginning of Christianity gave us figures with full frontal views, the same was not true later on, without speaking of today, when real faces simply tend to disappear or just turn up as caricatures.

This is exactly what the renowned art critic René Huyghe declares in his book: L’art et l’âme – Art and the soul:

As fast as the human face, above all in its nobility, has disappeared from contemporary art works, its opposite – the Beast – has substituted itself in a strange way, appearing frequently as if to witness to a tacit obsession of our times. (Paris: Flammation, 1980, p. 342)

Does not today’s art reflect a world in crisis, deprived of security and truth? Despite a profusion without precedent of media at his disposal, modern man experiences a growing difficulty to meet or encounter his neighbor, whose face he so often does not even notice.

Michel Quenot, The Icon: Window on the Kingdom(St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1991 / Mowbray, 1992) 93.

I’ve been reading on icons for a talk I have to give. Will say more again, but this book is a very good introduction.

I happened to chance upon this yesterday, and rather suspect that some readers will be interested:

The Orthodox Christian Network has started a series of  interviews with Father Andrew Louth, based on his book Greek East And Latin West: The Church AD 681-1071 (The Church in History) (which I once started reading and, well, never mind, I may get hold of it sometime again). I listened to the first part last night, which was on iconoclasm. Unfortunately the first half of the half hour programme was taken up by someone else, and what Father Louth could say in fifteen minutes was limited, but still worth listening to. The next one is due to be on the filioque, and there are few scholars I would trust more to introduce people to that topic, so will be interested to hear what he says.

An afterthought:  for those who don’t know or weren’t around in the earlier days of this blog, there are also these lectures by Father Louth:

I intended to write about this at the end of the previous post but ran out of time then.

Two days ago Joris van Ael, the Flemish iconographer whose work I mentioned in a previous post, gave a talk to our community in which he highlighted the common roots of eastern and western religious imagery. (Well, he was actually here to give an intensive workshop to two of us, but that is another story). Something that he said struck me as worth noting, as it intersects with themes that keep recurring for me. Having emphasised the wide variety of iconographic expression, and the creativity of differing traditions, he addressed the question of what the common factor was in all these traditions. What is it that makes something an icon, as opposed to, say, other forms of western religious imagery? This is a question that I have often been asked, and I have always found my answers inadequate. Yes, one can speak of a particular style, of working within a tradition, even of working within a canon, but that remains at a surface level. And, yes, one can also speak of the icon’s theological and liturgical role, but that can be understood as implying a sort of didactic role which, while not untrue, only touches the surface.

Joris’ answer was that the icon has both an element of resemblance and similarity, but also of dissimilarity and elusiveness. There is the contrast between light and darkness, between proclamation and silence. The icon leads us to a point that goes beyond our thought processes and leads us to the Mystery that is beyond all expression. In the icon the Unnameable appears.

Now this is of course rather paradoxical, for iconography pays great attention to the details being correct and, indeed, to persons and events being properly named. Yet such detail is there precisely to lead us to something greater. And the same thing applies to liturgy and theology. It has sometimes struck me as rather ironic, but perhaps also instructive, that those liturgical traditions that are most insistent on careful adherence to the rites are precisely the traditions that are most able to lead us beyond themselves. And, likewise, apophatic theology is not to be found in the traditions (if one may call them that) that have become rather vague on what they believe, but precisely in those traditions that place great emphasis on correct belief, but which are aware of the limitations of our human expression.

Some food for further reflection!



For, in what way could we be partakers of the adoption of sons, unless we had received from Him through the Son that fellowship which refers to Himself, unless His Word, having been made flesh, had entered into communion with us? Wherefore also He passed through every stage of life, restoring to all communion with God. … For it behoved Him who was to destroy sin, and redeem man under the power of death, that He should Himself be made that very same thing which he was, that is, man; who had been drawn by sin into bondage, but was held by death, so that sin should be destroyed by man, and man should go forth from death. For as by the disobedience of the one man who was originally moulded from virgin soil, the many were made sinners, and forfeited life; so was it necessary that, by the obedience of one man, who was originally born from a virgin, many should be justified and receive salvation. Thus, then, was the Word of God made man, as also Moses says: “God, true are His works.” But if, not having been made flesh, He did appear as if flesh, His work was not a true one. But what He did appear, that He also was: God recapitulated in Himself the ancient formation of man, that He might kill sin, deprive death of its power, and vivify man; and therefore His works are true.

Irenaeus, Ad. Haer. III, 18, 7


The theory of recapitulation stands at the center of Irenaeus’ theological system and describes best the role of Jesus Christ in His Incarnation. It connotes a re-beginning of the human race, now, however, back in the opposite direction where Adam originally found himself upon his creation. Christ reverses the process that hurtled sin-infected man and the entire cosmos that was under his dominion away from true Light, Life and Incorruption towards sin, chaos and death. God gathers up again in His Logos His entire work by fulfilling it according to His original plan through an intimate association with the living Logos in the individual human being, made according to this Image and Likeness of God that is Christ

George Maloney, SJ, Man, the Divine Icon. The Patristic Doctrine of Man Made according to the Image of God (Pecos, NM: Dove Publications, 1973) 43-44


I was supposed to be preparing classes on Saint Irenaeus these last couple of weeks, but my preparation was put on hold due to the necessity of finishing painting the Paschal candle, something that I left far too late! However, I have been conscious of his idea of recapitulation while working on it, of the wonder of our entire humanity being taken up in Christ and thus transformed. Christ does not simply do something for us, but in us; He reconstitutes our entire being, revealing the mystery of humanity to itself, defeating evil in all its manifestations and drawing us up into His Light.

A blessed Easter!

(As an aside: One of the things I have been wondering about in writing on this blog is what to do about inclusive language. This is also a problem in the posts on Zizioulas. I am enough of a – one-time? – feminist to find the generic use of “man” problematic, but I’m not sure that I have the right to edit other people’s work and find constantly inserting sic! rather pedantic. The problem is of course particularly acute when dealing Patristic anthropology and theology, where it is precisely Christ’s taking on of our entire humanity – female as well as male – that is of crucial importance: I think for instance of Gregory of Nazianzus’ “What is unassumed is unhealed”, something that appears to be being undermined in what is sometimes called “New Catholic feminism,” but more on that another time.

While on the subject, it may be worth noting that when I painted the Paschal candle four years ago, I insisted on doing an icon of the Resurrection in which the Risen Christ grasps both Adam and Eve by the hand. I am now less bothered by such “inclusivism,” for what is conveyed is the meeting between the Old Adam and the New Adam and the identification between them. And that is about humanity and has nothing to do with gender. Feminists may find that I’m selling out, but I will also argue tooth and nail with anyone – such as Balthasar and his followers – who tries to assign ontological significance to gender or to suggest that women are any less identified with Christ than anyone else!)


… the words conceal a still greater descent, an even deeper entrance into the world of matter, of the body. God takes this lowliness of humanity onto Himself, its fragility, its fallen state, what the Fathers will call its capacity for suffering, its transitoriness and its mortality. He penetrates deeply into our mortal nature, seeking and entering into all the corners and crevices of our being in order to imprint the trace of His love. He seeks to create a point of contact in the darkest corner of our psyche and our body. From now on our entire humanity is known to God from within. The light of His love that is hastening towards us shines everywhere, even into the grave. From this point on God’s inviting love can touch us wherever we are, inviting us to accompany it through everything to resurrection.

Joris van Ael, Jezus’ lijdensverhaal in 16 iconen, (Averbode / Ten Have, 2007) 13.

One of the things that I have been working on recently in little bits and pieces of stolen time is translating an essay from this beautiful book. Joris van Ael is a Flemish iconographer and the icons reproduced in the book – which can be seen on his website here (go to bottom of the page and look under “Passiecyclus Brasschaat 2003”) – provide a meditation on the Passion and Death of Christ that is true to the iconographic tradition but whose subject matter is not that often represented in icons. The textual commentary is also rooted in the Patristic tradition – and particularly in the theology of Saint Maximus the Confessor – and, together with the icons themselves, is a most appropriate aid for entering into these Mysteries in their never-ending depth. 

If I can succeed in turning this essay into readable English I want to have a go at translating the rest of the book.

There is also a French translation, with a longish foreward by Dom André Louf.