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Icons - Windows to Another World

The art of painting, or writing icons in early Christianity started, by giving a visual presentation of Christ. Later other subjects have been included, like Virgin Mary, the Saints and Martyrs. During centuries, the techniques for this art have developed, better to express the heavenly, uncreated light, and the symbolism of form, colour and content. The effects of icons range from being windows to the Kingdom of Heaven to miracles of healing, and the icons becoming alive in different ways. Icons produce definite effects on the onlooker; some of them cause miracles to take place, through the action of the Holy person that it represents. Approaching an icon requires, that the onlooker be tuned to it. This tuning relates to the practise of prayer in front of the icons. It is at the same time a necessary part of preparation for writing or painting icons. The questioning brings us to general prerequisites of Icon painting, what it demands from those wanting to write them or to approach them.

The Background and Scope

This study is based on the Eastern Orthodox iconography, which I know something about although I do not claim to be an expert - in fact, I started writing icons in July 2008; my study is based on standing in front of them and looking at the icon. Limiting this study to the Eastern Orthodox iconography is convenient as there is no need to talk about the clashes within and between the various Christian churches and denominations concerning icons.

As we all know, art and the symbolic representation are not Christian inventions. The painting of icons relates closely to the origins of Christianity. Richard Temple presents this clearly, tracing the origins from Pythagoras through the Hellenistic period (325 BC to AD 313), ending with Plotinus and the Neo-Platonists. He writes: ‘The artistic, stylistic and, some would say, the spiritual origins of icons are to be sought in the historical period that goes back several centuries before the lifetime of Christ and which continues until the beginning of the fourth century AD. From the lifetime of Christ up until the latter part of this period Christians stood on the margin of history; they were an obscure minority group whose influence, socially and culturally, was not widely apparent until Christianity became the official religion of the Romans in AD 313’ (Ref. 9).

Fayum portrait of a woman
Click for a large picture

Two Fayum portraits of a woman

These influences were important sources, not only for the definition Christianity, which the church authorities later did, but also for the painting of icons. In the words of John Anthony West: ‘The symbol, in Egypt, is a scrupulously chosen pictorial device designed to evoke an idea or a concept in its entirety. It is a means of bypassing the intellect and talking straight to the intelligence of the heart, the understanding’ (Ref. 6). Examples of this are the Fayum portraits from the first four centuries AD, which were in the sarcophagi between the wrappings of mummies in Egypt. They are the first known portraits where the subject looks directly to the onlooker with an intense gaze. This type of painting is typical to icons and it is, indeed, one of the unique features of the art.

The origins of icons pose a question: can this form of art be restricted to the historic and spiritual images of Christianity? The answer is yes, when the subject is restricted to the Christian icons. The answer is no, when we consider it in the larger context of Objective Art. To give icon painting its due - it is perhaps the best known art form that has found the ways and means of expressing a relationship with a higher level of being.

Generally about Paintings

In painting pictures, the interpretation by the artist is the basic factor, which comes before the expression. In visual arts, and in this context, in paintings, mosaics, drawings and frescos, the artist ‘creates’ the work of art with his own inspiration, imagination, vision, technique and skill that he or she possesses and can use. Many magnificent works of art were created over the past 2000 years, also on Christian subjects. This is including artists like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and many others. These are works of great beauty and grandeur, pleasing to our eye. We have feelings of enjoyment and wonder when we look at this kind of art. Depending on our associations and the subjective state we are in, these feelings can also be very different from one person to another (Ref 2)..

Icon Writing is a source of knowledge, and in this sense, it relates to language. This is the reason why it is often said that Icons are written, and not painted. They are like Calligraphy in pictures. In visual arts, this language is the language of symbols. With the help of the symbolic language, the artist expresses the ideas and feelings that he wants to put into his work. In Icons, nothing is indefinite; every form is decided beforehand. To paint a "genuine Icon" is only possible at a higher level of consciousness (awareness), when the writer is not identified with his or her own functioning, thoughts, emotions, and as a consequence, avoids putting into the Icon something of his own, something from this world we live in. The Icon speaks about another World, the world of silence. Of this world, St. John of the Cross (a Saint venerated in the Roman Catholic Church) said:

"The language of God is silence; everything else is translation".

Icons express this silence, the prayer, or better, the result of prayer, or in one word, "Hesychia".

Some more details:

St. George and Dragon

St. George and Dragon

The word "icon" comes from the Greek eikon, which means "image" and "to represent". Icon images, called ‘prototypes’, are of Christ, Virgin Mary, the saints and martyrs and important events from the Bible and the tradition of the Church. Icons represent the qualities in sacrifice, humility, devotion, faith, hope and love - and, not to forget, consciousness. Iconography is 'visual Theology', which thousands of years ago was also important because not all people were able to read. The first icons of Christ and His Mother are said to be painted by St. Luke. Some of the first ‘icons’ were painted on the walls of the catacombs - link to pictures in the catacombs.

Icons are called "windows to the kingdom of heaven" because they represent the spiritual world and the Kingdom of God that is within us. Icons are one of the ways God is revealed to us. Through icons, the Orthodox Christian receives a vision of the spiritual world. For the image of God the human image of Christ is used. In this way it is possible to have images of God himself in icons. Since the 9th Century, the Orthodox Church has established a set of technical rules, canons, for the artistic form of icons.

Apart from veneration the icon is for meditation and revelation. An icon communicates visually the unseen divine reality that comes under the perception of the senses. It suggests the light of another state of being, the state of deification.

In icons the person dominates the whole surface of the icon. The figure is brought in front to represent better the desire to establish a direct relation, intimate, with he who looks. If there are two or three persons, the picture must restore the communion of love that exists between them.

The predominant feature ascribed to saints is light. If the icon is to make this visible, it must have its own language. Forms and colours show the metaphysical luminosity of the represented. They manifest what the eye has not seen, but without suppressing all that is human. Everything is represented in its relation to the Divine. Naturalism is put aside and man and landscape are shown in a transfigured state.

Valamo Iconostasis
New Valamo - Old Church

The iconostasis is a wall of icons that separates the people from the servants, a symbol of a temporary separation. The iconostasis plays an important role in the Liturgy. The priests recite prayers and cense the icons, especially those left and right of the royal doors, making the presence and participation of the Holy person real, so that as the liturgy develops, the function and the symbolism of the iconostasis becomes clear. The person participates in a very tangible way in the communion of saints and the glory of the kingdom, when he kisses and venerates the icons of the lower row. The iconostasis is not a 'symbol' or an 'object of devotion;' it is the gate through which this world is bound to the other.

The icons cannot be represented according to the imagination of the artist or a living model. The relationship between the ‘prototype’ and the image would be lost. The icon writers use manuals, which describe the iconography scenes and colours to be used. However, the use of manuals alone is no guarantee for the painting of the sacred image. The painter must be 'illuminated', in contact with the ‘prototype’.

The Rules for Writing Icons

It should be born in mind that making the sign of the Cross, praying etc. can be done automatically, like most often is the case. These rules have an entirely different meaning when they are done with presence.

My First Encounter with an Icon

The deeper meaning represented by the icon requires from its writer an inner enlightenment, a higher level of consciousness. For the icon to talk to its observer a similar higher level of consciousness is required. The icon itself provides this as a possibility and allows us to penetrate its hidden meaning.

The Orthodox Church Museum of Finland in Kuopio has many fine quality icons, mainly original Russian icons that have found their way there from the Valaam Monastery. Over some thirty years ago I visited the museum for the first time. Nothing noteworthy was taking place until I came to an icon representing Staretz Macarius, who was one of the Elders of the Optina Monastery in Russia. He was a Staretz for nineteen years until his death in 1861. I had recently read a book about him and for some reason he appeared to me to be just the Optina Elder who expressed himself in a way that talked to me more than the others did, although Elders Anthony and Leonid, who I also read, were much more ‘popular’ and better known.

Suddenly he was looking at me! There was an eye contact between us that felt very real and made cold shivers run down my spine. This seemed to take quite a long time – I have no idea exactly how long, perhaps one minute – and I felt it strange. I was standing some seven feet from the icon and his gaze was constant and intense. I then moved to another position sideways his eyes following me. I went 10 yards further and he was still watching. When I some minutes later left the building he was still looking.

In Finnish I would express this look from the icon with the words ‘the icon is addressing me’. This ‘addressing’ was a piercing look that went directly into my marrow. It is unique to the icons. I have not acquired the habit of kissing the icons and cannot even recall if I made the sign of the Cross, most likely I did. The point is that the icon had spoken! The Orthodox interpretation of this in the words of a Russian theologist called Jevgeni Trubetskoi is: “we do not look at the icons, the icons look at us” (Ref 8). It was not ‘I’ who was looking, but it was Staretz Macarius who looked at me.

The ‘shock of the encounter’ (Ref. 11), as it is called by Richard Temple, does seem to be related to ‘being’, to ‘I am’. In the icons representing Christ the text often used in the nimbus around His head is based on Hebrew, Greek or Slavic words that are often translated as ‘I Am That I Am’.
During the 2000 years the techniques have changed, but the reality of our inner world and the unchanging God are still the same as it was then. If the icon painter is able to tune into his subject then he can produce an icon. It then remains for each of us to tune ourselves and to let is speak!

What Does It Take to See an Icon?

When I first saw and Icon I had no idea of the demands it makes on the person who is confronted with such a work. I thought that if I see one then it will 'do' something and do it without any particular action on my part.

What we need to appreciate these works is perhaps best, apart from learning, expressed by the word 'experience'; not just any experience, but experience of the subjects that are being presented in these works. If what we have in our 'bag' in connection with icons is the ritual, the history it tells and only the outer form, then that is what we get out of it.

We can be reminded of (and as to repetition we can repeat) only those things that we have experienced. The illustration of this is the story of Captain Cook and how the aborigines in Tasmania could not see his ship, because it was far away and they had never seen one before. The same applies to the sense of hearing when we listen to music - as a Westerner I do not hear all the sounds in Chinese music. All the Asians do not hear the difference between the consonants 'l' and 'r' etc.

This inability to see or hear is because these have not been experienced; a blindness and deafness inside. This is just as much true about the artist; without the experience of a higher state of consciousness there is no way it can be expressed.

Yet experience alone is not enough, an Icon can not be created and it does not open in our normal waking state; it can only be created and fully appreciated when we are awake.


Ref . 2 - P. D. Ouspensky: In Search of the Miraculous, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957, p. 296

Ref . 5 – Archimandrite Arseni: Ikonikirja (This book is in Finnish, the name translates: Icon Book), 2001, Otava, Finland, p. 68

Ref . 6 – John Anthony West: Serpent in the Sky, Quest Books, 1993, p. 129

Ref . 8 – Archimandrite Arseni: Ikonikirja (This book is in Finnish, the name translated is: Icon Book), 2001, Otava, Finland, p. 92

Ref. 9 – Richard Temple, Icons and the Mystical Origins of Christianity, Luzac Oriental Limited, 2001, p. 16

Ref. 10 – P. D. Ouspensky: In Search of the Miraculous, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957, p. 302

Ref. 11 - Richard Temple, Icons and the Mystical Origins of Christianity, Luzac Oriental Limited, 2001, p. 94

Ladder of Divine Ascent
St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai

Optina Elders

Elder Macarius of Optina
Elder Macarius of Optina

Kyrie Eleison

"The word mercy in English is the translation of the Greek word eleos. This word has the same ultimate root as the old Greek word for oil, or more precisely, olive oil; a substance which was used extensively as a soothing agent for bruises and minor wounds. The oil was poured onto the wound and gently massaged in, thus soothing, comforting and making whole the injured part. The Hebrew word which is also translated as eleos and mercy is hesed, and means steadfast love. The Greek words for ‘Lord,have mercy,’ are ‘Kyrie, eleison’ ­ that is to say, ‘Lord, soothe me, comfort me, take away my pain, show me your steadfast love.’ Thus mercy does not refer so much to justice or acquittal ­ a very Western interpretation ­ but to the infinite loving-kindness of God, and his compassion for his suffering children! It is in this sense that we pray ‘Lord, have mercy,’ with great frequency throughout the Divine Liturgy."
Anthony M. Koniaris

Elder John of Valaam

Elder John of Valaam
Elder John of Valaam

Elder John was born in 1873 in the Tver region north of Moscow and was given the name Ivan Aleksejevits Aleksejev. He came to stay in the Valaam Monastery lake Ladoga when he was 16 years old. Much later, in the year 1938, he was elected by the monks in the position of a confessor. Elder John was one of the app. 150 monks who escaped to Finland and settled in the present new Valaam in Papinniemi, where he died in 1958; his grave is in the cemetery of New Valaam.
The grave of Elder John
The Old grave of Elder John;
photo Jari Hietavala 2007

The Birth of Russia

The original Russians were most likely Swedes, who went East from Roslagen, the Swedish Uppland province with its beautiful archipelago situated slightly North of Stockholm on the East coast of Sweden.

Scandinavians known as Varyags began to raid the Eastern shores of the Baltic and penetrate Eastern Europe by the 9th century. Their legendary leader was Rurik, who established himself at Novgorod in 862, laying the foundation for Kievan Rus. The Varyags, some of whom were known also as Rus or Rhos, came down the Dnieper and established a trade route from Kiev to Byzantium. Rurik is known as the first Russian sovereign. He died in 879.
Rurik’s successors founded the powerful Kievan state, which lasted until the 13th cent. The house of Rurik also came to rule the grand duchy of Moscow, and later all Russia, until the death of Feodor I in 1598. Varyag migrations parallelled those of the Norsemen and Vikings in the West.

Short Monastic History in Russia

The Varyags were influenced back in Scandinavia by Christianity from the West. The Eastern influence according to the tradition is that bishop Michael was sent to either Crimea or Kiev. In the 10th century there were Christian churches in Kiev and Constantinople. During the 11th century Kiev had already 400 churches.
Monastic life was introduced by St. Anthony of Kiev. He was professed in the Monastery of Esphigmenou on Mount Athos, with which the Russian Monasticism has a close connection. In 1062 the Kievo-Pecherskaya Lavra was founded by Anthony and his followers. This was the beginning of the Monastic tradition that spread across Russia in spite of wars, invations and revolutions.

In the beginning of the 20th century the total number of monasteries in Russia reached its height. There were over 1150 monasteries with nearly 100.000 religious living in them; by this time most of them were women, while the number of men had been slowly decreasing.

Igumen Hariton of Valaam

Igumen Hariton of Valaam

Igumen of the Great Schema Hariton of Valaam (1872-1947) was leading the Monastery at the time it moved from the Old to the New Valaam. He came originally from the Russian town called arriving in Valaam in 1894 to start his Spiritual Warfare; he was the Igumen of Valaam from 1933 until his death in 1947.
No doubt Farther Hariton's greatest challenge was to take the 200 monks who survived on the islands on the Valaam islands in Ladoga to their new home, the New Valaam in Finland. A partial translation of his other great work, the book called "The Art of Prayer", is standard reading in the studies of the Prayer of the Heart.

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