Icons and religious pictures

The Divine Liturgy makes the whole world function in a trinitarian way. It puts the whole of nature into trinitarian action. Once man had participated in the Liturgy, he has an inner vision of the world. He observes one constant, made up of the changeable elements of this world seen in a trinitarian light. One expression of this inner vision is Orthodox iconography, a script illegible to anyone who has not participated in the Liturgy.

A religious picture is an altogether different thing from a liturgical icon. The one is the creation of someone’s artistic talent, the other the flower and reflection of liturgical life. The one is of this world. It speaks of this world and leaves you in this world. The other brings you a simple, peaceful and life-giving message, coming down from above. It speaks to you of something which has gone beyond the categories of yesterday and today, here and there, mine and thine. It addresses itself to human nature universally, to man’s thirst for something beyond. Through the icon, an everlasting and unchanging reality speaks without words; a reality which, in the clarity of silence and in tranquillity, raises up from the deepest level that which unites everything in man.

If the icon spoke a different language, it would torment man. If it relied on historical accuracy, it would merely be saying to us: You did not have the luck to be there then and see these events as those who crucified the Lord saw them.

If the icon depicted Christ suffering in pain on the Cross like a condemned man and rejoicing in the Resurrection, it would has us prey to the vicissitudes that lead to death, in the thrall of our passions. It would not give us anything beyond what we already had ourselves.

If an icon depicted night and day in romantic shades, it would leave us in the prison of the created world which we have come to know so well since the fall. If it feared the night, if it could be obscured by natural darkness, then we should be in the position of the unbaptised; we should fear death, and death would cut short our hope in life. We should remain in the territory of death.

If the icon used perspective it would put us, in a harsh but polite manner, outside Paradise and outside immediate participation in this world, like the foolish virgins; instead of our being partakers in the Wedding, it would throw us out into the darkness and cold of objective vision, into deception.

In other words, if the icon remained on the level of a religious picture, when it spoke to us of the fact of salvation it would merely be offering us and artistic diversion to make us forget, if possible, the prison and the territory of death. It would be a mockery.

As it is, it is Deliverance. The icon is not a representation of events. It is not an idol that has been manufactured; it is Grace incarnate, a presence and an offering of life and holiness.

Archimandrite Vasileios, Hymn of Entry pp. 81, 88-89.

This understanding of icons and religious art is a testimony to the gulf between Orthodox and Western confessions in spiritual understanding and inner vision. If the Liturgies were one then this vision would be one; it is not. This confirms that the breach between Orthodoxy and others is not a merely matter of semantics, historical misunderstandings and politics but something far deeper and more profound. It is a different life and spirit. It is a different liturgy, it is a different baptism and a different church. It would require a complete change of man to his inner being for a union to take place; one requiring a rebirth in Christ. Can these confessions be united without the Spiritual rebirth of all those coming into the Church?


  1. As it is, it is Deliverance. The icon is not a representation of events. It is not an idol that has been manufactured; it is Grace incarnate, a presence and an offering of life and holiness.

    This is a very helpful explanation. Thank you for posting it.


  2. I’d very highly recommend the new book by Gabriel Bunge on Rublev’s Trinity, published by St. Vlad’s. It is full of insights like this (Bunge is an Eastern Catholic, but seems to be completely in tune with the Orthodox understanding of such things.)


  3. Rob,

    Thanks for the recommendation. It has to be better than Andrei Tartovsky’s much lauded 1966 Soviet era movie on Rublev that we finally gave up on and sent back half finished due to gratuitous crudeness and violence, imo. His internal spiritual journey was well portrayed as was the countryside and stunningly iconic cinematography of people’s faces, which seemed to me influenced by 1000 years of Russian Orthodoxy. I don’t know, maybe I’m being too Puritanical about it. Plus my kids were watching so maybe that made me uptight. But I found it initially disturbing. I really don’t know how historically accurate it was either in its biographical content or its portrayal of the culture. Russia is a land of extremes – good and bad.


  4. There’s a third option besides materialism and gnosticism. That would be Incarnation.

    Gnosticism – God is Spirit only and deals with us through our invisible components and has nothing to do with the material universe which will be rightfully destroyed.

    Materialism – Atheist belief that the physical universe is all there is. It is the end all be all.

    Incarnation – God joins creation without confusion thus providing our salvation through the Virgin Mary, Christ’s Body and Blood, and His Precious and Life-Giving Cross for example.

    “God then is mingled with everything, maintaining their nature: and in His holy flesh the God-Word is made one in subsistence and is mixed with our nature, yet without confusion.”

    St. John of Damascus on The Place of God and More


  5. Charles,

    What is the difference between a word and a picture? Those who want to see a strong clevage between the two usually end up with a very impoverished view of art as being of only instrumental value, which lends itself nicely to the use of art for strictly political gain rather than having any intrinsic value. This I think leads many people to rightly worry about the charge of Gnosticism in such religious bodies.

    Secondly, God commanded plenty of artwork in the tabernacle and then the Temple, even in the holy of holies, long before much of anything was written down. So I would counter with the claim, that God deals primarily with man thru ritual rather than word. What makes you a Christian is a ritual, baptism, not a book. (Gal 3)

    In any case, the complaint seems to have more to do with a committment to unspoken nominalism than some biblical model.


    materialism is a necessary part of Gnosticism since matter is the opposite of the good deity. Matter is dead, lifeless and all effect and no cause at all. Modern day materialists simply cut off one end of the spectrum but the same fundamental dialectical impetus remains, which is why you get dialectical materialism such as Marxism or Darwinism, political or species change through opposite forces getting us to either the genetic or political promised land.


  6. Nominalism vs universals, spirit vs. matter, male vs. female, upper vs. lower class, artists/liberals vs technologists/conservatives – diabolical dialectics!

    All (are, can be, will be?) united in Christ.


  7. As it is, it is Deliverance. The icon is not a representation of events. It is not an idol that has been manufactured; it is Grace incarnate, a presence and an offering of life and holiness.

    What does “Grace Incarnate” mean? If I came upon that phrase outside of the context of this blog, I would probably have interpreted Grace Incarnate as referring to Jesus Christ.

    By “presence”, are you referring to Somebody specifically, or a something (Something?) which causes your heart to burn within you, as in Luke 24:32?

    How is it Deliverance? What does it deliver you from? By your capitalization, are you saying that it is salvific?

    What does “an offering of life and holiness” mean?


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