All the icons in the Empire of Byzantium were burnt, smashed or whitewashed 1,200 years ago. Only a handful survived, from territory where the Emperor’s writ did not run. One, of Christ as the Ruler of All, (below) was kept in the monastery of St Catherine in Sinai, where it remains.
By Christopher Howse
First published in the Telegraph, 29 July 2011
Christ, who will come to judge the living and the dead, bears a grave expression of compassion. His right hand is raised in blessing. His left hand holds the book of the Gospel, dignified with a jewelled cover. Behind his head is the golden glory of heaven, which we tend to overlook as a mere “halo”.
“The icon painter never invented, never inaugurated,” comments Sister Wendy Beckett. “The whole point of the icon was that it was true.” Sister Wendy, the hermit and art critic, has put together 42 icons under the title The Iconic Jesus (St Pauls, £19.95). “It was because Jesus was human that there could be icons made of him,” she writes. “In worshipping that humanity, we are drawn into the divinity we cannot see.”
The Byzantine emperors of the eighth century broke icons out of timid, confused thinking. They supposed that the humanity of Jesus should not be worshipped, so nor should his image. Traditional belief was bold and sharper, for a sharp knife is less dangerous than a blunt one, which mangles and slips.
The great defender of icons, John of Damascus (who died in 749), lived under Muslim rule (indeed worked for the caliph for some years), which forbade any images. John’s starting point was the adoration due to the humanity of Jesus. The temptation would be to say that his humanity ought not to be adored, since Jesus was born as a man, and we must not worship a creature.
But John argued that “we adore the flesh of Christ not for its own sake, but because the Word of God is united to it in person.” There were not two people walking Galilee, Jesus the man and Jesus the Word of God, but only one person. It was his humanity that was visible.
A similar argument applies to icons of Christ. The icon is a picture of someone, a person. “Who is it?” we ask of a picture, expecting a name as the answer. Jesus Christ, as the name of a person, applies to the Word of God before ever he was born in Bethlehem. The one person is God and man. We do not adore the abstract “humanness”, but it is inseparable from the person.
John of Damascus argued that an icon of Jesus is worshipped with latreia, the service due to God – divine worship. The wood and paint are not worshipped but the person whom they depict. “Worship paid to the image is transmitted to the original,” stated the universal Church council of Nicaea in 787, quoting St Basil.
So an icon of Jesus is not an exercise eliciting response to artistic qualities. In the modern idiom, we learn to see through the eye of a named artist – Bacon or Freud. In the iconographic tradition the artist is in effect anonymous. The icon is a door into heaven, and if some doors are more beautiful, all have the same function.
In his book The Meaning of Icons (written in 1952 with Vladimir Lossky), Leonid Ouspensky observes that the icon, like the Scriptures and the Cross, is a form of revelation. It is also a liturgical art, not because it is used in church, but because the liturgy and icons both do the same thing. They are both means of communing with God, and this is no mere mental musing. “God became man in order that man should become God,” he says, using a formula of the early Church fathers.
There is a prayer that the priest says when adding a drop of water to the wine in the chalice for the Eucharist: “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” Just as we are made in the image and likeness of God, we hope to be remade in the image of Christ, the living icon.
Christopher Howse’s “A Pilgrim in Spain” is published by Continuum (£16.99).