Notes on the Theology of Icons, Part 1: Stylization

Prior to my departure to Germany I led a class at my church on Greek Orthodox iconography. Not being Orthodox, I was pleased to invite and partner with Father LeMasters, the priest of St. Luke's our local Orthodox congregation. Fr. LeMasters visited the class one evening to discuss Orthodox theology generally and the theology of icons specifically. Two weeks later the class had a field trip to St. Luke's where we observed the icons and discussed their role in Orthodox worship. At St. Luke's the congregation's official iconographer also spoke to us.

Surrounding these classes I also gave a couple of presentations about my discoveries concerning Orthodox iconography. Again, I'm not Orthodox so I'll call these posts "notes" to signal that one shouldn't read these posts as authoritative accounts. These are exploratory observations from someone outside the Orthodox tradition.

What I want to do in these notes is point out a few of the visual features of Orthodox iconography noting the theological rationales behind them.

To begin, to understand Orthodox iconography one needs to come to grips with a core notion in Orthodox theology: Theosis.

Theosis refers to the process of divinization, deification, or "making divine" by participating in the Life of God. The idea of theosis is probably best captured by St. Athanasius: “God became human so humans would become gods."

Western Christians may superficially understand theosis, but the Eastern vision of it is a bit stronger and deeper than is typically understood in Western churches, particularly Protestant churches. That is, salvation as Protestants understand it is largely about one's status as Saved or Lost before God. To be Saved is to have one's sins forgiven. This view of salvation tends to be dominated by the soteriological metaphor of penal subsitutionary atonement.

Theosis, by contrast, is a deeper and richer concept. Salvation is less about status than about more and more deeply participating in, and being transformed by, the Life of God. To be saved is to be changed from human to divine.

Once we understand the Orthodox focus on theosis we can begin to appreciate a variety of visual features in Orthodox iconography. Specifically, we see how the icons are attempting to portray theosis.

When we look at an icon we are seeing the depiction of someone who is alive. Yes, the person portrayed in the icon (e.g., Jesus, Mary, a saint) may have "died" but the icon is an attempt to depict a person still very much alive and with us. These persons are well down the path of theosis. For example, during their earthly lifetime saints have moved well into the Life of God. They have been transformed, even while on earth. Now, in heaven, this process has continued. Thus, to depict a saint in an icon is to depict someone both human and divine. More specifically, it is to depict someone who was human now becoming divine. A depiction of the fusion between flesh and spirit.

This theological facet of icons is why Orthodox icons are so stylized. Naive readers of icons might be struck by their lack of realism, wrongly assuming that Orthodox iconographers are unskilled artists. This would be a mistaken assumption. The icons are highly stylized to reflect a spiritual truth: These people are both body and soul, human and divine, flesh and spirit:

“…as it accumulated spiritual qualities, the icon sought to transform the flesh, to deprive it of its course material substance, to dissolve it in light and re-mould it in spiritual plasma. Icons are sacred images that reflect the physical and the spiritual, the human and the Divine, the visible and the invisible.”
--A History of Icon Painting, p. 13

"In calling to mind the saints and their struggles, an icon does not simply represent the saint as he appeared upon the earth. No, the icon depicts his inner spiritual struggle; it portrays how he attained to that state where he is now considered an angel on earth, a heavenly man. This is precisely the manner in which the Mother of God and Jesus Christ are portrayed. Icons should depict that transcendent sanctity which permeated the saints."
--Saint John of San Francisco

A beautiful feature of this aspect of icons is how the body, in all its physicality, is embraced by Orthodox theology. This is in stark contrast to the gnostic strains often found in Western Christianity with its deep ambivalence about the human body.

“Yet this movement away from matter to spirit never leads to the disappearance of the bodily element in the icon, to abstractionism, in which symbols and signs exist without anthropomorphic forms. That would mean going beyond the bounds of Christology. Orthodox icons are based on belief in the Incarnation, which not only does not deny the flesh, but sanctifies it and gives it new, higher meaning. Christianity found a truly royal path between two extremes--the cult of the body and its rejection--in the sanctification and transfiguration of the flesh.”
--A History of Icon Painting (p. 14-15)

This embrace of the physical, not just in the style of icons but also in their mere existence as physical representations, is one of the most attractive features of Orthodox theology and iconography.

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4 thoughts on “Notes on the Theology of Icons, Part 1: Stylization”

  1. Thank you for presenting this very revealing post on Orthodox iconography and theology. It was truly enlightening.

  2. I'm dying that I missed your presentations. Would love to have you come for a discussion in my art history course. Interested? Probably late fall semester. Thanks for the post. Mike W.

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