The Knowledge of Icons that Leads to God - Version 1
March 02, 2013 Length: 68:35The V. Rev. Archimandrite Luke Murianka, Abbot of Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York.
Dn. David Companik: Good evening, everyone. I’m Dn. David of St. Jonah Church, and I’d like to welcome you to our event, “Sacred Art, Sacred Music,” which begins today and goes through Sunday, and would like to thank everyone who’s attending tonight, especially anyone who’s traveled a long distance. We’ll have special thanks especially to our guests, Archimandrite Luke of Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York; Curt Sanders, not present with us tonight, but he will be in attendance for tomorrow and the day after. He’s also traveled from a long distance. I’d also like to recognize Fr. John Whiteford, the rector of our parish, St. Jonah Orthodox Church. He’s known for his publication of Sola Scriptura and for his extensive contributions to English liturgical text resources.
Now, Fr. Luke is with us, as I said, and he will be speaking tonight. He serves as the monastery abbot, the seminary rector, dean, and faculty member of the Holy Trinity campus, which is both a seminary and monastery. He’s the first to hold these positions following the reunification of the Russian Church Abroad, of which we are members, with the Church of Russia. This event alone, this reunification, has allowed the Orthodox world to rediscover in new ways Holy Trinity Monastery and Seminary as the genuine spiritual centers they have always been. So, Fr. Luke, we thank you again for coming to speak with us. We look forward to learning more with you about the knowledge of icons that leads to God.
Fr. Luke: Well, I’m going to say some things that might be very familiar to you and some things that you might never have heard of before. Some things I need to speak about concern the origin of icons and their history, and mostly—and what for us is most important—the role they play in our lives as Orthodox Christians. Some of this has been summed up by one of the directives of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which decided that icons were pleasing to God, to be used in our churches and homes as a means towards salvation. The Fathers at that Council said that “union of God takes place through faith, through teaching, and through the image.” What they did actually was they brought the image, which is another word for “icon,” onto the same level as faith and word of God, Scripture. Such an enormous and important role, icons have been deemed, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the Fathers of the Orthodox Church.
Icons have a history that is as old as the Church itself. Not only the Fathers of the Council, but historians and the witness of 2,000 years of history tell us that the images that we now surround ourselves with hail from the apostolic times, that icons are not the invention of a later date, but were actually known from the very beginning of Church life.
Everything in Church life is dedicated and directed towards salvation. I wanted to start out with even the model of a sort of traditional basilica or church which is in three parts, where you have the altar area representing heaven itself; then the nave here, with the body of worshipers; and the narthex, the furthest part, which represents actually the uninitiated or the world, which needs illumination from the altar area, which is bringing the light of God to the believers and extending it further out into the unillumined part of the universe or of the world, which is represented here in three parts.
What I’m trying to convey to you here is that everything that takes place within the Orthodox Church is based on symbolism, but symbolism for us is a form of teaching; it conveys something. Likewise, not just the Church itself but the symbols and the teaching that we find in the word of God and the Scripture, we also find represented in the images of the Church; the same teaching is conveyed to us, the same—what we might say the goal of our salvation, and the goal of our salvation is union with Christ. That is the goal of salvation, and that is achieved through various means. I’ve already said that the Fathers say through faith, through teaching, through the word, and through the image.
The early Church knew icons; the Church knew images in the catacombs. The catacombs, as you know, were the places where Christians buried their dead, and they illustrated these places in the crypts with images. The images are identified, as you see here, as the head of Christ, and the letters, “Alpha, Omega.” It’s very important, because this conveyed the idea that Christ is the beginning and the end, that is, he is God; it is God himself.
It is very important, that initially there were very simple images used. You might know some of them, of the fish, the boat, etc., for those who were initiated into the Christian faith. But later it became necessary to extend that into something more concrete that people could relate to, because only a few knew what these other images were: a lamb, a shepherd, perhaps with a lamb around his shoulders. This is already getting closer. We have an image of Christ, we have the letters. We’re conveying something more of teaching.
Then you can see from this how [an] image used to illustrate in a context of worship and a context of burial, actually, where Christians gathered, later transformed itself from an image that looked more realistic in this respect into something that’s iconographic.
This gives you an idea of how—I’ll explain a little bit later about what happens in icon that differentiates itself from a realistic portrait. The Church talks about development. We have a Roman lady. The Romans were very adept at painting portraits. This is a somewhat realistic portrait of a Roman noble lady, and the people who have studied the development of iconography itself have seen a connection between different schools that have contributed. You know, the Church will use as many different aspects of contemporary life as possible in order to convey its teaching. In this we see something realistic.
And then we have an Egyptian lady. And here we have somebody that’s a little more stylized. You see in the nose and the eyes, and if you bring the two of them together, one of the earliest icons that we have… Keep in mind the Egyptian portrait and keep in mind the Roman portrait, and here we have one of the most famous icons, and some would consider it the holiest icon in the world. It’s on Mount Athos, and if you look closely at the face of the Mother of God, you can see elements of both something realistic and something, perhaps, more Middle Eastern or even Egyptian, if you get a closer look at the eye. So the earliest icons, the earliest portraits, incorporate different elements in order to convey something which we simply accept now as iconographic.
What’s the “purpose” behind icons? Well, certainly artists and iconographers, many of them know how to create something realistic, but that’s not what our goal is here. What we’re looking for is something not secular but something heavenly. We’re trying to bring people to that front part of the church, which we talked about as symbolic of heaven. We’re trying to bring them from the world, from something that’s fallen and needs to be redeemed, to something that’s above our experience here. This is where, if you would just take the Roman lady, then you just end up with something of this world. Of course, the Egyptian, it’s still a little more spiritualized because it was used in the context of death. These are funeral portraits.
But the icon is trying to convey to us something that’s not only a woman and a child, but something that’s even further than that. It’s conveying not just the external, but the internal state of that person’s soul, in order to bring us, like in the image of the church that we showed initially, to that higher state. In other words, it’s teaching us that there’s something different that we need to strive for than just what’s conveyed in that, let’s say, portrait of that Roman lady, and we need to understand it. That’s why studying iconography is useful, but, more importantly, we have to remember that iconography has only one purpose, and that is liturgical. It’s for prayer.
Icons are not created just to embellish churches or houses as decorations, but they’re there as a teaching means, and then something even deeper, which I will sort of towards the end of what I have to say here in my brief remarks explain to you. But the purpose of iconography is for worship. It’s liturgical, and not just to be used… Although icons are used to beautify churches and homes, their main purpose and you might say their initial purpose is exclusively to be used as forms to direct our prayers, because prayer in the Orthodox understanding of its spiritual life, is the main means that a person uses to achieve union with God, because it’s the most available to us. We could always engage in prayer, and icons are used not just to help us focus our prayers, but actually, like everything else in the Church, to teach us how we should be praying properly.
Going back to the catacombs, when people might question about the origin and the purpose of icons, we see that the early Christians would bury a martyr. We know that they served their services in the catacombs, and above the tomb of the martyr frequently would have the slab above the grave and in front an image of the martyr himself. The only logical explanation is that the people during their celebrations of the Eucharist and their prayer services, they had these images to focus their attention when they were glorifying or praying for the intercessions of the martyrs, or the Savior, or the Mother of God. It’s there for their prayer life.
Even to the point that, in our Church life today, if you know a little bit about the structure of Orthodox liturgical worship, what’s necessary is a table and an antimins, and the antimins means it’s in place of the mins, and the mins is that slab, in Latin, which was on top of the grave of the martyr, so that we’re actually reproducing in our modern liturgical life what the early Christians were experiencing in the catacombs. Instead of the whole tomb, we have relics of the martyrs sewn into a cloth which is consecrated and it’s called in place of the slab. That’s been going on now for 2,000 years, and that connects us with the early Christians, in a physical way, in a symbolic way, and through images, because in some of the catacombs, the entire room was frescoed: the ceiling, the walls, everything used images. It’s quite logical to presume that the people related to these images in terms of focusing their prayers.
If anyone has a question, you can interrupt me. I don’t mind being interrupted. This is not an academic talk, so just go ahead, or I’ll wait till the end.
The first icons: we already showed you some of Christ and the Virgin Mary, where she was also represented in the catacombs. There was a search for a style that became within the Church something canonized with a certain structure. In other words, freedom of expression is guided by the rules, and the rules of iconography we can see they repeat themselves from the very earliest icons like this one of the Iveron, up to the icons around us today at the exhibit, and some of the newly painted icons. You’ll see one thread of a single tradition that has been not broken since the beginning of time.
What we’re looking for, if we begin to study a little more [closely] the actual image itself, we’re looking for a sobriety of expression and ideas that are expressed with a minimum of detail and a maximum of expression. In other words, the icons are expressing something prayerful to us, and they’re doing it by using as little detail as possible, but just little twists and turns of expression, because we don’t want to get lost in the details. That’s for worldly painting, which will lead you into a worldly state of soul.
The person represented in the icon communicates something of their inner state to the person that’s gazing at the icon, praying in front of the icon, and mostly what they’re conveying is a state of prayer. You might know something of the history of iconography. There was a great persecution that took [place] in the Byzantine era of our history, where an attempt was made by the enemies of icons to destroy all of them, called iconoclasts, and finally the Church expressed itself after two great persecutions. I’m going to skip over that history today, because it’s a very peculiar, particular history of the actual history of iconography, and it would be, I think, too much today.
It might be enough to tell you that there was a Council of the Church called the city of Trulla in 692, which established some rules. Some of those rules are very important for us now. Some of the rules had to do with representations. They said that Christ is no longer to be represented as a lamb with blood coming out, that he is to be represented as a man, because we believe that God became man and because in the Old Testament, God was invisible and had no shape, but in the New Testament he assumed, he was, as St. Cyril of Alexandria, says, “He was enfleshed,” and because he was enfleshed and we could see him, the holy Fathers said he needs to be depicted. There’s no longer any reason why we have to say God is formless, because Christ himself says, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” So there’s no reason for us in any way to ignore this, but the Fathers of the Councils said that [Christ is] no longer symbolically represented, but represented as a man.
They also made decisions about the holy Cross. They said the holy Cross is not to be used as an ornament, especially on the floor as part of a decoration. A number of these decisions were not accepted. At that time there was only one Christian Church, but the Church in Rome did not accept it, and to this day in the Roman Catholic Church sometimes floors are decorated with crosses, and it’s never done in the Orthodox Church, because the Fathers of this Council actually forbade it. Some of these things were actually put into statements that guided the Church and gave it certain rules that it was to follow, and some of them were not accepted.
Even in terms of the differences which you might see purely in what I call “religious paintings” an iconographic style was not accepted in the West. Rather, what happened was a free development. In other words, there’s an idea in Western Christianity that each generation is somehow personally inspired by God to express in music and in architecture and in art whatever the artist feels is necessary for that generation. So that’s why we have, after around the tenth century, you begin the Renaissance, the Baroque period.
We have modern religious paintings with angels upside down, floating in the air, and doing all kinds of bizarre things, styrofoam altars, things like that, almost spray-can incense at this point, because there’s this idea that each generation gets the chance to express itself as it feels God is inspiring it. You have Masses by Leonard Bernstein and things like this that are totally ridiculous and absurd.
But in the Orthodox Church, rules were established, and guidelines, in order to preserve what’s most important for us, and that is to convey holiness, to bring us to that front part of the church from which the light of God comes to the people and actually enters into their life, incorporates itself into their life. This is the idea that icons are trying to convey to us, and I’ll explain a little bit more as we go on. Yes, Drew?
Drew: How would the icon that Christ that you put in the holy Napkin…
Fr. Luke: From the origin of icons, we might say where did the first icon of Christ come? According to Church tradition, there was a prince in Odessa who heard about Christ and wanted to visit him, but he couldn’t, because of his illness, and he sent someone to speak to the Lord, and the Lord washed his face, placed a towel, and his image was imprinted on the towel, and that image went back to Odessa, and by touching it or venerating it, the prince was half-cured of his leprosy. Later on, one of the apostles—I think Thaddeus—after the feast of Pentecost actually went to that country and baptized this prince, and he was fully cured. But this became a famous icon that’s celebrated with a holiday of its own called “the Image not made by hands,” because no hand actually painted or wrote that image. It actually was made by Christ imprinting his image on this towel, and it was famous throughout Church history, and it’s celebrated in August as a feast day of the Church.
That’s actually the beginning of, you might say, the hand of God himself bringing us into the veneration of an image, and the power that the actual image itself has when it depicts the prototype. The prototype would be like the image of one of us that was conveyed into an iconographic image, that we believe that what the prototype has acquired in the spiritual realm is conveyed through the image of the icon and further to us, but I’ll get to that a little bit later.
The meaning and the content of the icon itself… I want to give you some idea about… the Peter and Paul medallion will be up here, and you can see something to look at here. This is a medallion that was formed of Peter and Paul. It was found here in the cemetery at the beginning of the third century. You can focus in on the way St. Peter is on the right and St. Paul is on the left. Some people, when we look at the icons around us and they’re identified with historical people, for example, Peter and Paul, when they look at the icon, they say, “How do you know?”—that’s always the question—“How do you know how they really looked?” And “How do you know that what you’re depicting in this icon has anything to do with… Who knows what Peter [looked like]? There were no photographs back then.”
But we do have, for example, this medallion, and this is not just this medallion, but there are other images. This is a naturalistic medallion, like someone might stamp a coin or something like this of the queen or of the president or whoever you might have. You can see, for example, the characteristics of these two saints, certain characteristics of the faces, some characteristics of the face of St. Peter, and some characteristics of the face of St. Paul, and then we’ll show you an icon of Saints Peter and Paul. Now, you can obviously see that you know who is St. Peter and St. [Paul]. They’re even on the right and on the left side here. There’s no doubt whatsoever that this is an iconographic portrait that takes the original image from the medallion or from something else, and this tradition is something that is continued up to this very day.
In the past, when a righteous person would die and would be buried, one of the ways besides, you know, in the catacombs they were depicted right on the walls, for example I know from the Russian tradition on the actual casket they would paint a portrait of the person who died, on top of the casket. If that person became popularly venerated, that portrait would act almost as the connection between the people who venerated that person and the actual person lying in the coffin. Later on, after the Church recognized that person as glorified from the people’s veneration, they would actually tell the iconographers to go to that portrait and paint your icon according to that image in that portrait. And this is how we can say with a surety that from that medallion to these iconographic images of St. Peter and Paul, we’re not trying to reproduce exactly.
We know exactly how to reproduce if we needed to; we just get an artist to paint a portrait. But that’s not what we’re trying to do. What we’re trying to convey is the spiritual state of St. Peter and St. Paul through a painting which is, of course, not the easiest thing to do, and something that represents and asks of a tradition something much deeper than just technique. Technique is something you can learn anywhere; just go to an art school.
And the people who did the medallions, they had that technique, but we go back to them, and even to this day there are iconographic handbooks that, when people want to know how to depict St. Somebody—St. Tatiana or Moses the Prophet—we have kept a record of how in Church tradition these saints are supposed to be depicted. We don’t have photographs of them. However, we do have many photographs of 20th century saints, like the new martyrs of Russia, of St. John of Kronstadt, of St. John of San Francisco, and you yourself can go to the portrait or go to the photograph and look at them and then look at the icon, and you can see the connection for yourself.
This hails right back to the first centuries, from Christ to his Mother, to the most famous of the apostles, the martyrs, etc., we do have. And there’s another witness, too, and that witness is in the spiritual experience of the Church. Somebody will have a vision in the Church, whether it’s sleeping or whether it’s when they’re awake, and they’ll come and they’ll say, “I saw St. Peter in my vision,” or “He appeared to me,” and the bishop will say, “How did you know it was St. Peter?” And they say, “I recognized him from the icon.” And this happens over and over and over in the Church.
It’s another witness that what we have in these icons is not an attempt to realistically in detail represent these people, but it still bases itself, not on something that’s totally spiritualized, but nonetheless is spiritualized, but has its basis in reality, and that’s very important, that we’re not just looking at something that’s been made up or invented, but these things show us that this tradition goes all the way back to the first century, and even further back, because we have traditional descriptions of the prophets in the Old Testament, of St. Moses, etc., that we still use to this day to more or less convey the image of that saint.
What we’re trying to convey here is a transfigured person, a person that has been changed in the icon. The icon is showing us that flesh and blood and clothes have been affected by actual contact with God. We’re talking about a person in the Orthodox Church which has been deified or come into such close relationship with the Spirit of God that everything about them has begun to change.
I could show you somehow… You could see some [part, a glimpse] of what is impossible, ultimately, to convey fully. In order to understand, ultimately, the theology of the icon or the essence of the icon, one has to live within that tradition. To just simply view them from what I’m speaking of or studying them is ultimately impossible. To fully understand them, one has to take part in the actual tradition, and then they come alive, and it’s the only way that they can possibly be fully understood. In fact, many people have come into the tradition just by understanding icons.
Let’s go back to Peter and Paul. As I said, the icon portrays the deified or the spiritualized state of the prototype, of the original. We saw the medallions; I could show you some other images of the Mother of God. We’re trying to preserve identity with the saint in terms of what they actually look like, and some kind of historical accuracy, because otherwise if you were to take a photograph of St. John of San Francisco and paint an icon so poorly, it was such a bad icon, that people who have seen many photographs of [the] saint would say, “That’s not St. John. That’s a mistake. That person made a mistake,” because you need to have some kind of identification. But these are only small aspects; it’s not the major aspect here.
These details are important for us to maintain some contact with the saint, but even the slightest likeness, because, of course, you can have thousands of different icons of St. Peter and Paul. They’re all going to be slightly different, but they all maintain the same, more or less, details in the features.
Sacred art, which we’re not talking about here, is something that you see in the West, and that is historical. You’re trying to convey something that actually took [place] in history, but iconographic art is liturgical; it’s part of our prayerful life, our worship. How is the holiness actually conveyed in these icons, what we’re trying to talk about when we see them as stylized images? Well, there are many different ways. First of all, the halo. The halo represents that the image that we’re looking at is coming to us or shining to us from the other world. The halo represents the light of heaven. The actual faces and the parts of the body that we see are highlighted in such a way, in a specific way, that the Church tradition has taught the iconographers as to illuminate the grace of God that’s coming through that person. They’re not just highlights to give contour to the face, but actually to convey the fact that the person is participating in the light of God.
Another thing is, which people who don’t paint icons don’t really notice that much, are the clothes of the saint. Why are the clothes depicted like this? Well, there’s a very good reason for this. They are clothes; they’re robes; they have folds. Why is everything so angular? Why is everything so straight? Why is everything so ordered? We believe that, through the grace of God, that the soul of the person, which was once in a state of disorder and predominated by a lack of focus, has now been totally focused and brought back into the order that once Adam and Eve had before they fell and our inner life broke into pieces.
That is the state we find ourselves in now: we’re broken into pieces. Our thoughts are going in one way; our feelings are going in another way; our will is going this way. But in the icon, everything has now been brought, through contact and through union with God, back into order, even the clothes, because we believe, as we know that the holiness of the person is conveyed through everything, not just through the person, but we read in the Scripture that they took pieces of cloth and touched them to St. Peter or to St. Paul and they took it and they placed them on the sick and they were healed, just by being touched to their body, which shows that, through the body and through participation in a life in God, that this holiness began to find its place in the rest of the world, and even in the clothes of this person. That’s why. Of course, it’s nothing that you could [see]; if it was actually happening in me, you wouldn’t notice it unless it was really happening and you had the spiritual eyes to see it.
But in this way, by depicting them with this orderly sort of angular clothing, we’re trying to say, “You see? Even their clothes, because their soul was in perfect order, the clothes represents this orderliness.” As St. John Chrysostom said, that “the kingdom of heaven is a kingdom of harmony and order, and the kingdom of the devil is a kingdom of chaos.” So wherever we have chaos and disorder, which most of the time we have all around us, we can know that the devil’s involved. But we’re striving to put… And also the expressions. If you notice the expressions in some of the larger icons. There is feeling; there is emotion, but it’s been… There’s an expression in Russian, in spiritual life, khraneniya chuvstv. It means for a person that has learned to order and put their emotions under control. This is a very difficult thing to do, but it’s all part of a person’s spiritual development.
The people represented in the icons around us have feelings, but they’re under control. They’re no longer out of order. And everything about them represents something that is actually teaching us, that when we stand in front of this icon of the Mother of God, she’s saying, “This is the way you need to be. This is the way you need to focus your feelings, the way you need to focus your prayers. Everything needs to come back into order.” And directed, frequently, as you’ll notice, she’s pointing at her Son. She’s saying, “That’s the direction to my Son.” This is what we’re learning from these icons. Father?
Fr. John Whiteford: I was wondering if that icon we have of St. Nicholas on the iconostas is an example of what you’re talking about, where his crosses are all in the same direction.
Fr. Luke: No, actually, the crosses… Well, yes. That has something to do with the actual way that the crosses are depicted, but crosses of that type, there was actually a time where only certain bishops were permitted to wear vestments with these crosses, and this honor was given, for example, in Russia it was actually given to Russian bishops at a certain time that you are allowed to wear vestments with all these crosses on them. Of course, this is the way everything is ordered in iconography.
Of course, these are bishops, too, but they’re not depicted in Byzantine robes, naturally, because they’re apostles. Although in Eusebius’s History of the Church, he talks about St. John the Theologian as wearing a mitre, which is amazing, because it means they were wearing mitres back then, in the first centuries. So, yes, but that would be another example of what I’m trying to convey here, that ultimately we’re seeing harmony in these representations over chaos, is what’s coming through the icons. If you look at them closely, attentively, you’ll see that, that they’re trying to say something, convey to us something that’s non-worldly, a perception of the spiritual world is trying to be conveyed or is being conveyed through the icons.
Like I said, we know perfectly well, [if] you go back, we know perfectly well how to convey the world. See, if we want to, we can paint this; if we want to, but what is this? What kind of order, what kind of spirituality, what kind of other-worldliness, what kind of kingdom of heaven is represented in this portrait or this painting of the Virgin Mary? Nothing. It could be anybody.
But take that, and then take the top one. And look at the difference. It’s the same person, it’s the same Child, but, of course, it’s a universe of difference between the expression on her face and the whole image here compared to what we just saw with that, what we refer to as “Baby Jesus.” This is something quite, quite different, and, again, with one hand and the other hand, she’s pointing at him. Of course, much has been written about her expression, but you would have to say that it conveys something that is very difficult to express in just a worldly sort of understanding, of what she’s thinking about or what she’s feeling.
A lot is expressed there, but there’s something that, even if it’s sorrowful, it’s not the same kind of sorrowful feeling that we feel over worldly loss, perhaps sorrow because of… well, because she was told that she would experience a sword piercing her heart by St. Symeon, and because of her own holiness, she perceived the future, but, again, it’s possible to convey what we saw in the other picture very easily, but this, the goal of this is something quite different. It’s to show that there’s a change that has occurred. The Church is using all of this to tell us, not just to say, “Yes, that’s the change, and it’s very holy,” but it is actually guiding us.
This is something that brings us a little closer to one of my last remarks that I want to make here about what’s happening between the actual person being depicted, the wood or the icon, and the believer. This is where sort of everything comes together. We believe that the grace, the Spirit of God that transformed the person being depicted, abides in the image, through Church tradition we know that when St. Luke painted an image of the Virgin Mary and showed it to her, she prayed that the grace of her Son and her prayers would remain with that image.
We believe that that Spirit of God that [abode] or that person took part in also takes part in the image. And that same Spirit establishes a relationship between the saint and the worshiper. In other words, because we believe that the Spirit of God is everywhere present and fillest all things that the Spirit that transformed the person abides in the image, and when we pray in the Spirit, that same Spirit unites us through the image with that person, and therefore everything comes back to the prototype, and this is where we commune with the other world, and this is what the Church is calling us to through iconography.
It’s saying that you need to come into and take part in these spiritualized images because they have been changed by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, which you enter into when you begin to pray, and therefore you become united all together with this, through the image to the person and with God himself, who is the source of all of the sanctity that’s around us and in the Church.
And I think that’s enough for now. Thank you. Any questions? Yes?
Q1: I was wondering how would the Church view the icons of God the Father.
Fr. Luke: Well, there are some… There have been statements. That’s a very controversial subject. There are some Councils that have forbidden the actual painting of God the Father because God the Father is God as Spirit, and the reason why we depict God the Son is because he was born of the Virgin Mary, and I think St. Cyril’s expression is the best one: “He became enfleshed,” human. So we saw him; we can see him, and he still has the body. It’s transfigured now, transformed through resurrection, but it’s still a human body. But on the other hand, we certainly know of images of God the Father for many, many centuries existing throughout the Orthodox world. Many, many, hundreds and thousands and millions of Orthodox Christians and saints prayed in front of these images, and we don’t read anything from St. Tikhon or St. Seraphim saying they’re heretical, you can’t do this. That’s all I’m going to say about the image of God the Father; I’m not going to comment any further on it. I would prefer not to. Yes?
Q2: Father, you mentioned earlier that St. John the Theologian wore a mitre? I needed you to explain what that was.
Fr. Luke: Mitra, a mitre, like a bishop’s. Eusebius, in his famous History of the Church, mentions that.
Q2: What did it look like?
Fr. Luke: I don’t know. We don’t have any… The apostles and our Savior are depicted in tunics and togas, because that was the Roman dress of the time. The Jews had traditional Jewish dress, but they had adopted Roman customs, like at the Last Supper, they leaned, like on benches, and ate. These were customs that had been already adopted, cultural customs. The tunic and the toga were common clothes.
Q2: And how do you spell it?
Fr. Luke: Oh, I can’t. I’m bad at spelling. I can’t help you. T-u-n-i-c.
Fr. Luke: Mitre, like the bishop wears when he serves liturgy.
Q2: Thank you.
Fr. Luke: Are there any other questions? Yes, John?
John: I know that in certain monasteries in Greece they have icons depicting philosophers.
Fr. Luke: Yes, I’ve seen those. I’ve seen iconographic depictions of Plato and Aristotle, but they have square halos, which [is] a way of saying… What they’re trying to say is that God’s providence spread out even in the pagan world, and his truth—we’re not talking about people being saved outside of the Church, whether it’s the Old Testament Church or the New Testament Church, but, if you want to read about this, Clement of Alexandria [and] other Fathers and teachers of the Church have spoken about this. It’s a way of saying that, somehow, the grace of God and his wisdom [were] understood by these, to some degree—not fully, but to some degree—by these philosophers, and that’s why they’re depicted. It’s sort of like a condescension towards [them].
The Fathers talk a lot about [philosophers]. All of them were very well-educated in the first century, so they read Plato and Aristotle, and they had great respect for them, and they were amazed at how much, what’s called “natural revelation,” how they were able to understand such things without having the Church to teach them these things, which is possible. People become wise just because of natural inclinations.
John: So they interact with these icons in the same way?
Fr. Luke: No! I would not suggest you pray in front of Plato or Aristotle! No, no, please! Don’t even go there, even in your mind. In fact, there are a lot of mistakes that the great philosophers [made], and they’ve contributed to Western civilization enormously, and in a good way, and also the language of the philosophers was incorporated into the language of the theologians, because they didn’t have any other way of expressing abstract ideas. And they used them, and there were many of the Holy Fathers [who] were criticized by other people for using pagan expressions, but there were no other ways to express some of these abstract ideas, so we have them to thank for formulating some of these expressions.
Fr. John: A week from this Sunday, it’ll be the Sunday of the Last Judgment, so we’ll have the icon of the Last Judgment, and since it has hell and the people who were there, how do you venerate that icon?
Fr. Luke: First of all, it depends on the iconographer and [whom] he puts in hell, because we’ve had some difficulties with that, where iconographers have put some people that they wanted to see in hell, in hell. This kind of thing happens.
Well, first of all, it’s traditional—there’s not enough time; I’ve given you extremely briefly [a] sketchy talk about iconography, and it’s a very deep subject, very important. I think when I summed it up at the end, if you didn’t even understand what I said, you could see there’s something very profound going on here. It’s that we’re being united through the Holy Spirit through our prayers, with the image, with the saint, with God himself; it’s all connected through all of this.
But in churches, traditionally, the fresco of the Last Judgment would be on the back wall, because when people left the church, it’s the way the Church is saying, “Remember, this is the future. As you leave the church, don’t forget that that judgment will come.” [Whomever] we put in hell—really it’s the iconographer—in our illustration in the monastery, we just have sort of undefined sufferers there, but some people will—I won’t even go into the details [of whom] they’ll put there. Yes?
Q3: I had a question. What makes the Iveron one of the holiest?
Fr. Luke: Well, it had a very miraculous history. It had the way it appeared on Mt. Athos across the water from Constantinople during the iconoclastic persecution. If you read the whole history, [it tells] how the monk actually crawled out on top of the waves to bring the icon back. It’s very huge. I’ve been able to venerate it twice.
Fr. John: It’s taller than you.
Fr. Luke: Yes, it’s very large, and it’s in a special case in a chapel outside, to the side, in the monastery, the Iveron, Georgian monastery. There have been many miracles. Pirates stabbed the icons right here, and blood came out of the icon. You can even see it in the original; it looks like flesh, opens up. There are many other examples. There’s a presence. Some people have said that when they go to the tomb of the Mother of God in Jerusalem, and then they’ve stood in front of this icon, they feel the same; it’s the same. But she’s very, very strongly present.
Q3: Her face reminds me of the one you see from Mt. Sinai, and they said that the iconoclasts just forgot about it.
Fr. Luke: Well, on Mt. Sinai it was so far away that they didn’t get there, and a lot of icons have been preserved there that are older than any other icons, because there was no way to get them and destroy them.
Q3: And her face, Panagia’s face looks similar to the one that you see of her with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and it seems as if, in that, and here, too…
Fr. Luke: It could be a connection, but there’s a tradition that says when the icon disappears, or it leaves Mt. Athos, the monks have a blessing to leave, and the end of the world will come. There’s a tradition on Mt. Athos about that this icon, protects. And also the “Axion Esti,” “It is truly meet,” is also quite holy and has quite a history as well. I don’t want to start arguing what’s the most holy icon in the world, but I would say this is… Yes?
Q4: You know how it speaks about worship of idols… In the Catholic Church, you know how they have those statues? Do you think it would be bad to worship…
Fr. Luke: Venerate. There has never been a decree of the Orthodox Church forbidding statues. It doesn’t exist. And there are a couple of famous miraculous statues in the Orthodox Church. One is in Russia, of St. Nicholas, a wooden statue. It’s just that that tradition fell away, and the Roman Catholic Church continued with statues, and iconography as well; they have icons. Probably in the Byzantine tradition, there was no development, and because it lent itself too much to a realistic depiction, which—we don’t want to go to this world; we want to go to that world. [With] statues, it’s hard to make them stylized. It’s much easier with an icon, but it’s never been forbidden, to have…
Unfortunately, like I said, if you look, and not only that, but when we see icons of Christ crucified, for example, we’re not looking at a man, suffering, but we’re looking at the God-man, suffering, but many depictions in Western art of the Crucifixion, it’s purely human suffering, deep human suffering, and that’s it. But in the Orthodox [understanding], that’s not all that’s happening here. That’s what iconography is about, it’s to teach us: it’s not what you see; it’s what you don’t see. St. Paul himself says, “The things that you see are temporary, but the things that you don’t see are eternal.” If we’re supposed to be rising up to that, then we need to step a little bit away from something that’s so entirely realistic and of this world, because we’re told we’re supposed to be not of this world. Yes, George?
George: Here we talk about the Catholic versus the Orthodox theology, and certainly the icon. There’s a great difference between the icon of the Catholic Church versus the Orthodox Church. Is that [a] reflection of the theology?
Fr. Luke: Yeah, it’s very much everything is very connected. The way people worship, the way they depict their images, their music, all of that: we live the way we pray, and we pray the way we live. All of it’s very much connected, but it’s impossible for me tonight to begin to talk about the difference between Roman Catholic spirituality and Orthodox spirituality. It’s much too involved for right now.
Q4: So I was wondering: how would you recommend, in your own personal way, to approach an icon to gain the most from it?
Fr. Luke: That’s a good [question]. I think, first of all, it depends on who the person is. Everything that I said about iconography… You have to be careful not to try to understand everything in Orthodoxy. That’s a danger, too. We need to participate. Church life is where the answer is. The more you’re involved in the actual life of the Church, the rhythm of the Church, the easier it will be for you to communicate with everything that’s part of the Church. You have to remember that we said that it’s faith, the word, Scripture, and the image. For 300 years, the Christians didn’t have a Bible that we have. So [now] it’s very common; everybody has a Bible, but back then there were no books, so how were they saved? How were the Christians saved? They were saved in Church, because they were members of the Church.
In the New Testament, the word “Christianity” is never mentioned one time, but the word “Church” is mentioned 120 times. For early Christians, being a member of the Church was what it meant to be Christian. What did they have? They had Church life. A life in the Church was what saved them. That was the difference back then, and iconography is part of the life of the Church, so if you take part in the Church life, then it’ll bring you closer. You need to have icons around you, you have to have icons in your home, and you have to have a place where you can pray in front of icons, too. It’ll eventually… It begins to, as we say, “click,” but you need to practice. You need to be in the whole rhythm, the spirit of Church life. That’s more important than anything. Yes?
Q5: How do innovations in icons take place? I know there’s very strict rules and icon-writers refer back, but once in a while there’s innovation, like Rublev and the Trinity, or something like that, that takes it forward. How is that not a violation of the rules?
Fr. Luke: First of all, it’s a tradition that’s handed down from iconographer to iconographer, that we learn from one another, and also we have the originals, podlinniki, the first ones, and we keep going back, each generation. Frequently, all the icons in this room can be and probably were used or could be used as models for another icon. If I’m going to paint—and this is what happens, for example, in our iconographic studios—if we have an order to paint an icon of the Tikhvin Mother of God, frequently people will find five or six or seven Tikhvin icons and put them in front of them, actually on the table, and they’ll take bits and pieces from all of those icons that were painted 200, 300, 400, 500 years ago, and they’ll incorporate them into their icon, so that everything falls in. It’s a little bit different, because they’re always going to be a little bit different, yet they all fall into the fact that that’s a Tikhvin icon, and there’s another Tikhvin icon over there. The two of them are a bit different, but you can recognize them as the same type.
Commenter: Actually, that one, Father, says at the bottom, this one is actually the copy of another miraculous icon.
Fr. Luke: Yes. It’s a tradition that’s… Now, to step out of the tradition is very dangerous. A new iconographic type, as such, needs to be sanctified through usage and through acceptance by the Church. Things are rejected by the Church, also. Then there’s just sometimes fantasy, people’s fantasy, and things like that never last. The traditional, standard icons and the iconographic types are the ones that are tested by time. The odd thing will fall out, and you just won’t see it.
Q5: Very similar, then, to [what] you have [with] the development of Scripture and everything else. There’s a natural weeding out.
Fr. Luke: Yes, in the Church, and the Church cleanses itself of different innovations and things like that eventually, and sometimes in no uncertain terms. It’ll actually anathematize things that [are an] innovation or renovation. The Church doesn’t need to be renovated or innovated. Yes?
Q6: So I got the chance to visit a Russian Orthodox church in São Paulo, Brazil. One of the most bizarre icons I saw there, in the corner of the dome above the sanctuary, was [an] all-seeing eye like a Mason would use. I thought that was the most bizarre icon I’d ever seen.
Fr. Luke: Yeah, again, iconographic symbols: there are many of them, and they’re not all of the best kind, so I can’t… I don’t want to comment on that, but you’ll find them in a number of churches. It’s better to avoid them, as a matter of fact, but, again, you have to be careful, not only bringing something new, but throwing out something old in the Church, because there are sometimes certain sensibilities in people’s religious and their pious feelings that it’s better not to come in and just slash and burn before… It’s better to instruct, to teach, and, little by little, replace things that are not appropriate with things that are more appropriate, rather than just saying, “All this goes out. We’re going to burn everything.” Yes?
Q6: Are there still myrrh-streaming icons in America?
Fr. Luke: In America? Yes, in Hawaii. We have a myrrh-streaming icon that travels quite a lot. It was here, recently, in Houston. In America, that’s the most popular one, I think. It’s traveling around a lot now, as the copy of the myrrh-streaming icon that was from Montréal, which was a copy of the Iveron icon here, and was placed on this icon, actually, itself, because José spoke to me about it. He said when he was given the icon, he took it to that chapel, and he placed it on the original icon, and then when he came back to America a year later, it began to stream myrrh. Then he died, and the icon disappeared, and this copy began to stream myrrh, and it’s an exact photographic copy of the [original], so there’s connections.
And the fact that it’s streaming myrrh is [a] miracle that’s visible to everyone, [which] also brings in what I just said: it’s a visible sign from God that icons are real and blessed, and it also brings the proof of the truth of all of Orthodoxy, because icons are in the heart of the Church. A miracle like this happens, it’s God’s way of also strengthening the faith of Orthodox Christians, saying that all of this is true: if this is true, then everything else is connected. Yes?
Q7: I heard you say that blood came out of the Virgin Mary [...], so did the blood come from the icon?
Fr. Luke: Yes, it came from the icon. He took a sword, and it came from the icon, and when he stabbed it, it opened up, and blood came out. It’s still [there]; you can still see it, here, in the chin. It actually peeled open like flesh on the icon. Even today; I’ve seen it in person. It’s quite awesome. Yes?
Q8: What type of paints were used to paint those?
Fr. Luke: Different mediums have been used in history to paint icons with, even wax, colored wax, there’s some very famous icons.
Q8: Is it a lot different back then from what they use today?
Fr. Luke: Depends on what was being used at the time. The only thing that… Sometimes one of the lesser mediums were oil colors, oil paints. Egg tempura is very popular and traditional.
Q8: Does each iconographer mix their own?
Fr. Luke: That, again would require quite a lecture on iconographic painting technique. Good iconographers would actually go out and look for stone that they would crush to make the colors themselves. They did everything from scratch. We know people that, even to this day, will look for a certain color, and they’ll actually crush it into the pigment. It depends on what they’re looking for. Some of the colors we can’t reproduce now. We don’t know. Some of them are such a shade of blue or something, that, chemically, we might be able to, but naturally, we’re not sure what they used to create that color.
That’s also all part of the technique, and there are guidelines, also, for what colors need to be used. Sometimes they’ll say, if the color doesn’t appear in nature, don’t use it; you shouldn’t use colors that you’d use for advertizing signs in the street, because they’re garish. More earth colors, although it doesn’t exclude brilliant and bright colors also, but again, there’s a dictated tradition, because we don’t want to be disturbed by the icon. Some people who don’t know how to paint or paint poorly, when you look at the icon, you find it disturbing, but we don’t want to be disturbed by an icon. It’s just unpleasant because of the colors.
Q8: Can you take a photograph or would that damage it?
Fr. Luke: No, no, you can take pictures of icons. That doesn’t [damage it].
Q9: I had traveled to Albania a few years ago. They had managed to salvage some, not a lot of, Onoufrios’ icons most famous for the most brilliant, beautiful reds, but it was made of mercury or lead or something that killed him.
Fr. Luke: That’s sad to hear.
Q9: The color is gorgeous, and he’s famous for it, and the icons themselves are just lovely and arresting, but it wasn’t the best thing for his health.
Fr. Luke: That could be true. Any other questions? Yes, John?
John: Saints are usually canonized after there’s already a popular veneration of the relics?
Fr. Luke: Most, except for martyrs, who are recognized immediately.
John: So what are the rules for what can be venerated and what can’t?
Fr. Luke: Whatever the Church basically… What will happen, in certain cases like the Blessed Xenia, St. John of San Francisco, St. John of Kronstadt, people keep portraits in their icon corners, and they serve as icons until the person is actually recognized and glorified by the Church. It’s not uncommon for this to happen, to just use a portrait.
I was present when the icon of all the new martyrs of Russia was painted in Jordanville, and Fr. Cyprian, the entire studio was covered with photographs, because we had photographs of all the saints, including the tsar and all the nuns and the monks, but he was actually painting from photographs that people had, that you can see even now. All these photographs have been preserved.
When new martyrs are recognized, which are going on, there’s a database in Russia which is collecting information, and all the time people are coming and saying, “My uncle was a priest or a layman, and he was shot or tortured to death,” and they’ll bring a photograph, and an iconographer will take that photograph and turn it into an iconographic image, and you can see clearly the changes that take place.
But when you have a modern saint, you have to be careful not to stylize them too much, because the people who know from the photograph, they’ll say, “That’s not him” or “That’s not her, because I know what they look like,” the guys in the photograph. So the modern saints, even like St. Seraphim of Sarov, I was told, “Don’t attempt to paint it, because it’s too difficult, because it has to be both iconographic and realistic, because we have so many portraits of St. Seraphim, that if you don’t do it right, it’ll look horrendous and people will say that’s not St. Seraphim.” So sometimes it’s more difficult with modern saints. Although within the Greek Byzantine tradition, they don’t pay much attention to that. They definitely know what they’re going to do, and they just do it, and more or less you recognize who it is.
Yes? Anything else? I think maybe that’s enough for tonight. Thank you.
Dn. David: Thank you, Father. Thank you very much.
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