Monday, April 7, 2008

The Ikon As Scripture - Some Random Thoughts

I've been reading a wonderful, eye-opening book by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo called the Ikon As Scripture. Noting my recent interest in iconography, our priest passed it on to me calling it his "new favorite" book and I can see why. I'm a little more than half way through it but I've already come across some pretty profound insights and so I thought I'd share them as I go. The most striking was the labeling of one my fondest childhood Sunday School room images as the "Antichrist". Recognize this picture? I think it hung on the wall of every Sunday school room I ever entered and served as thought fodder for those moments when staring at the walls suddenly seemed much more interesting than singing one more round of Jesus Loves Me complete with hand gestures. Archbishop Lazar labels it in his book " 'New Age' Cult Style Christ. A type of Antichrist" He goes on to explain that in this picture, "which [is] very popular at this time, we see, not the God-man, Jesus Christ, but a California cult leader. He is sensuous, sexual, beguiling - a combination of Robert Redford and Charles Manson. [This] portrayal represents everything that Christ is not, and nothing that He is. They are simply pictures of an antichrist - a pretender in the place of Jesus Christ." Holy Cow, he's right!! There is not much of the divine to be discerned from this image. It is wholly a human portrayal with nothing of the Divine within it. Archbishop Lazar is quick to point out that if Christ is ever portrayed as anything less than Human AND Divine, then the portrayal is heretical. It tells us a lie about the identity of Jesus Christ. He must never be portrayed as Divine without His human qualities or as human without His Divinity....chew on that one a while....

On a completely different note, I was also fascinated by his explanation of reverse perspective in iconography. I suppose this is elementary to anyone vaguely familiar with icons but to the novice it was a wonderful new discovery. Basically speaking, rather than the picture on the icon beginning at the flat surface of the icon and ending somewhere in the distant background, the perspective is reversed so that the image begins in the back of the icon and actually ends somewhere outside the flat surface within the personal space of the viewer. For example, in this icon of the raising of Lazarus, I become a rather distant observer of Lazarus' exodus from his rotting tomb. However, in this one I am included as a guest at the far side of the table at the Passover meal with Christ.

Here I am placed alongside Judas as he gives Christ the kiss of betrayal (and thus the Orthodox fast on Wednesdays to show their connection to that kiss through the sickness of sin as exemplified by Judas right before and after the Passover meal) and, probably the one that moved me the most was realizing that in this icon, I become one of the mourners, the reverse perspective of the icon placing me practically on top of Christ's prone body and as one with the women who mourned his death. If you're having trouble figuring this out, try following the lines of the background structures. They will usually point you in the right direction.

Another point that struck me thus far (and JT as well when I explained it to him the other day) is the placement of the Theotokos and the Christ icons on either side of the Royal Door of the iconostasis. Again, this may be an elementary understanding of any Orthodox practitioner but it was all new to me. Archbishop Lazar pointed out that the Theotokos, marking the beginning of our understanding of Christ's humanity and salvation on the left and the Christ icon on the right marking His second coming and establishment of His kingdom leaves the Now in the center of the Royal Door. Each time the priest comes between the 2 icons he is marking our faith as it stands in the now. The Theotokos represents the Alpha and the Christ icon represents the Omega - the Beginning and the End - so that all that happens for the sake of the church militant gathered for the Liturgy is the working out of our salvation in the Now. Just think about that next time you're at Divine Liturgy (assuming my layman's explanation of it makes any sense whatsoever).

The last point I wanted to share was regarding this icon which should look familiar to anyone who has stepped foot in an Orthodox church as it is generally found on the East wall overlooking the altar. The Theotokos of the sign is an icon which was originally found painted on the walls of the catacombs (thus the curved East wall over the altar) and overlooking the tombs of the saints. The altar for the eucharistic celebration within the catacombs would be set up under the watchful eye of the Theotokos and on top of a burial site of a martyr or Christian deceased. Thus, in the "modern" churches, the Theotokos overlooks the altar on which is placed the antimension, a cloth with the relic of a martyr sewn into it. I was struck by the connection, once again, between the modern celebration of the Liturgy and its ancient roots in the early Christian practices.

I'm sure there will be more insights as I finish this book (hoping to get through it before Pascha). I'm finding it a great way to explore Orthodox traditions and learn more about the Divine Liturgy.


DebD said...

Very good stuff. I've never read that book, but did hear him lecture once on Icons and it was facinating. He put that picture of Christ (the anti-Christ) and an icon of Christ together, it was striking.

Another one he did was the crucifixion which was very striking.

Mairs said...

Ooh, Deb, I'd love to hear him speak! I bet he's even more convincing in person. The whole book is page after page of wonderful insights - get a hold of a copy - you'll be blessed!

magda said...

I like learning about icons, too. When my husband was giving a church tour at our Greek festival, I learned that the Archangel Michael is on the left door to represent the angel placed at the gate of Eden after the Fall. (The door people leave from.) The Archangel Gabriel is on the right door, because he welcomes us (through his involvement in the Annunciation) back into the Kingdom.

I very much enjoy your blog.

JoanE said...

So what exactly is the definition of an icon? I'm guessing that the halo placed around Christ's head is what is supposed to represent His divinity? Is it really fair to judge a modern artistic representation of Christ as if it was meant to be an icon? (Again, what is the definition of an icon?) Maybe it is a modern icon - just trying to understand here. But I can't agree with calling something the anti-Christ because the artist didn't follow Orthodox artistic rules when he wasn't trying to create an Orthodox icon. (Hey, you're picking on Frances Hook, one of my favorite Christian artists. And being an artist myself, I'd be upset to be told that my drawing of Christ was Satanic because it didn't meet certain rules that I'd never heard of).

Mairs said...


I'm sorry you were so offended by this. I think it boils down to a problem of language (read my earlier post on Conversations with the Heterodox ie. non-Orthodox). I'm finding as we peer further and further into Orthodoxy there is more and more I just don't have the words to explain to my non-Orthodox friends. It may have been a bit unfair of me also to start right off the bat with Archbishop's critique of other art traditions without explaining a bit more of his reasoning up to that point. I am no good at making well-reasoned and insightful arguments - I figure I'll leave that up to the professionals - so I don't often include them in my blog writings...

Anti-Christ is one of those language barriers. While I know in other circles, the definition of anti-Christ is Satan himself, the Orthodox have a bit broader view of that term. The author of this book never uses the word satanic.

And as far as the criteria for creating icons of Christ, there was an early church council which outlined how to properly do this. This was made necessary by the many heresies floating about which tried to strip Christ of either his humanity or his divinity depending upon which heresy was being attacked at the time. It was a very important point in the history of Christianity in terms of defining right theology about the Holy Trinity and each member of the Holy Trinity. Protestants, Roman Catholics and Orthodox all have these early church councils and their leadership to thank for defense of true theology (not to mention the many, many martyrs who gave their lives to defend this theology as well). The criteria for creating an icon of Christ are fascinating reading and provide lots of food for thought about what forms our theology and our beliefs.

I would love to have further discussions if you'd be able to get through his book and we could compare notes based on his more solid arguments, rather than my own ramblings.


-C said...

My two cents:


JTKlopcic said...

Crossposted from Anastasia's Corner

Well, it looks like we have touched off a bit of a controversy -- kinda like a Protestant iconoclasm...

A few thoughts, if I may:

First, the modern photorealistic depictions of Jesus seem to be stemming from a literalist approach to the Gospels and Christianity. Ironically, though, doing so presents Christ in the same manner that Pilate and the Sanhedrin viewed Him, not beholding His divinity. "I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes." (Mt 11:25) There is no revelation communicated through these images.

Secondly, there is nothing in these images that moves one to worship. In fact, there is nothing that really identifies the picture as being of Jesus. (In fact, the first one looks remarkably like a guy I knew in college.) As such, the image works more to inspire sentimentality than true worship. The best that one can discern from the picture itself is that the subject must have been a really nice guy.

Lastly, I think that some of us are a bit taken aback at how personally some have reacted to Abp Lazar's criticism of the artwork. It seems that critiquing the picture is interpreted as an attack on the personal piety of the people who display it. Maybe it's the word "heretical" -- change it to "heterodoxical (I made that up) and people would feel better?

It seems to me that on one hand, it's a serious thing to label someone or something as heretical, which seems to hover between "pagan" and "satanic" in modern Christian parlance (and often conflated with the other two). But, it is important to be able to make a distinction between an imperfect depiction of Christ and a theologically correct depiction. I am sure that the artist is a devoted Christian operating out of nothing but love for his Lord. However, that fact alone does not make his work immune from Christological flaws. Many devout people in and out of Scripture have held erroneous opinions that had to be corrected later. It's part of our fallen nature.

There are many who use images of Jesus in homes, offices, and classrooms to communicate the One they love and serve. Why not use the best available? I am sure that they would never stand for having mistranslations of the Bible hanging on their walls. Why should artwork be any different?

JTKlopcic said...

Another thought occurs to me:

The disagreement can be likened to people who squabble over historical events as interpreted by Hollywood film, such as K-19: The Widowmaker or Pocahontas. Some rail against the historical inaccuracies, while others uphold the changes made to create a consistent narrative. The question is, are we looking for Jesus Christ or art inspired by Jesus? There is a place for both, but we must be careful not to confuse one for the other.

-C said...

"...There is a place for both, but we must be careful not to confuse one for the other."

Exactly - and it is unfair to do just that, and unkind.

To call the portrait the anti-Christ and to call the art heretical is also both of these things.

Lord, have mercy.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

If a piece of artwork does not purport to be religious, but is secular, but portraying a religious subject, then of course there's a place for that, and it isn't fair to confuse it with an icon. That's if it's "art inspired by Jesus."

However, if a the image purports to be religious, or is considered religious by the viewers, then the comparison is fair and to criticize it accordingly is not necessarily unkind. And if it portrays a false Christ, then to say so is necessary, although the word "heretical" isn't.

Emily has done some of this, in a gentler manner than I am capable of, at and at

Mairs, this may interest you!

-C said...

An image can be religious and not be an icon, and there are lots of Christians who are not Orthodox. The western church has it's own religious imagery, which doesn't have to meet Orthodox criteria because they aren't Orthodox. This doesn't mean they aren't Christians.

Western religious art simply does not play the same role in church life as icons play in the life of the Orthodox - so a true or fair comparison between the two cannot be made.

For Orthodox Christians, icons represent truth. For western Christians, religious art represents art.