Theme: Icon, Image, and Modern Culture
by Deacon Evan Freeman
by Father Andrew Tregubov
By Ms. Andreea Balan
By Father John Hopko
More information about the authors can be found here.
Theme: Icon, Image, and Modern Culture
by Deacon Evan Freeman
by Father Andrew Tregubov
By Ms. Andreea Balan
By Father John Hopko
More information about the authors can be found here.
by Deacon Evan Freeman
As Orthodox Christians we are surrounded by icons both at Church and at home, but we also encounter a myriad of other images in the world around us on TV, on our computers, on our phones, and elsewhere. Among these ubiquitous images is pornography, once relegated to dirty magazines, but now piped through the Internet for mass consumption. One might identify both Orthodox iconography and pornography as “icons” of two competing worldviews: on the one hand, icons present us with the revelation of Christ and the theology of the Church; on the other, pornography epitomizes the pursuit of pleasure as an end in itself, something commonly encountered in the world. Both kinds of “icons” take as their central subjects the human person, but Orthodox icons and pornography present two very different visions of the human person as image of God.
Fundamental to a Christian understanding of the human person is our creation as human beings in the image of God:
…God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
Part of what “the image of God” means, and something that makes us different from plants and animals, is that we have freedom to make rational choices. And this is also something that icons and pornography share: a vision of the human being as a free being. But the two visions of freedom that icons and pornography present to us could hardly be more different.
In classical times and for most of Christian history, freedom was envisioned as the unhindered ability to realize one’s true nature as a being created by God. Only later, during the Enlightenment and in modern times, was freedom re-imagined as the individual’s right to choose anything, even in spite of one’s nature.
Pornography is a vision of the human person’s unconstrained pursuit of his or her physical desires, something that the fathers view as a tragic misuse of natural impulses. St. Gregory of Nyssa says:
For those qualities with which brute life was armed for self preservation, when transferred to human life, became passions…Thus our love of pleasure took its beginning from our being made like to the irrational creation, and was increased by the transgressions of men, becoming the parent of so many varieties of sins arising from pleasure as we cannot find among the irrational animals.
The natural instincts common among humans and animals, and given to us by God, are good when guided by our rational choices in obedience to God. But when unguided desires rule supreme we become wilder than beasts. St. Gregory says: “If reason should let go of the reins and like some charioteer entangled in the chariot should be dragged behind it, wherever the irrational motion of the yoke-animals carries it, then the impulses are turned into passions.”
Rather than freeing us, the passions enslave us. Our own human experience confirms this: compulsive overeating, drug addiction, alcoholism, and a growing epidemic of sex addiction are all examples of freedom lost to unchecked desire. Recalling the words of Genesis, St. Basil challenges us:
First the power to rule was conferred on you. O human, you are a ruling being. And why do you serve the passions as a slave? Why do you throw away your own dignity and become a slave of sin? For what reason do you make yourself a prisoner of the devil? You were appointed ruler of creation, and you have renounced the nobility of our own nature.
Presenting the illusion of freedom, pornography is in fact an image of slavery. The person pursuing desire as an end in itself forfeits the ability to make rational choices, and follows the irrationality of impulses and urges. Sadly, pornography is an icon of the human person denying the image of God in which he or she was created.
Icons, on the other hand, reveal a vision of the human person as a free being created in the image of God that is quite different from pornography. Icons of the creation of Adam and Eve provide a deeper insight into what it means to be created in God’s image.
God’s words in Genesis, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness,” take on new meaning when we see in icons of the creation that it is Christ who creates humankind. That we are created in God’s “image” becomes more concrete when we see this image as Christ.
New Testament and the fathers alike confirm that Christ is the image of the Father par excellence. To look on Christ is to look on God. But this is especially true when we see Christ as the crucified and risen one. It is ultimately in His obedience to the will of the Father in His voluntary sacrifice on the cross for the salvation of the world that Christ ultimately reveals the image of God to His creation.
It is noteworthy that even in icons of the creation of Adam and Eve, Christ is already revealed as the crucified and risen one. If we look closely at His halo, we see within it the Cross.
And so, icons teach us that to be created in God’s image means more than an open-ended individual freedom. It means something very different from the freedom to pursue the passions as envisioned in pornography. Icons reveal true freedom as liberty from the passions that enslave and entangle us, in order that we can become like and draw close to our crucified and risen Lord.
We see this in the 12th c. icon depicting St. John of the Ladder’s ascetical text, The Ladder of Divine Ascent.
In this icon we see monks striving to overcome the slavery of the passions that lead away from Christ. Through these ascetic efforts these monks draw close to Christ. It is this same ascetical struggle against the passions and toward God to which not only monks, but all Christians, and indeed all humans, are called.
Likewise, in this 21st c. icon of St. Maria (Skobtsoba), we see the image of a woman who has been transformed according to the image of Christ through her participation in Christ’s Passion. In her willingness to sacrifice her own life for the life of another in the Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany on Holy Saturday in 1945, St. Maria allowed herself to be created in the image of the crucified Christ, entering into His death in the hope of His resurrection.
Icons remind us that our creation in the image of God is something that should be reflected in our lives and in our actions. Just as icons reveal spiritual truths to us through color, so God calls us to reveal Him to the world through our lives and even our deaths. St. Gregory of Nyssa tells us:
Our Maker also, painting the portrait to resemble His own beauty, by the addition of virtues, as it were with colors, shows in us His own sovereignty: and manifold and varied are the tints, so to say, by which His true form is portrayed: not red, or white, or the blending of these, whatever it may be called, nor a touch of black that paints the eyebrow and the eye, and shades, by some combination, the depressions in the figure, and all such arts which the hands of painters contrive, but instead of these, purity, freedom from passion, blessedness, alienation from all evil, and all those attributes of the like kind which help to form in men the likeness of God: with such hues as these did the Maker of His own image mark our nature.
As Orthodox Christians living in the 21st century, we are surrounded by images: both the holy icons of the Church, and the many images that we encounter in the world. Presenting an illusion of freedom, pornography is an icon of slavery to the passions. Yet Orthodox icons present a different vision of humanity to us: men and women truly free and truly created in the image of the crucified and risen Christ.
 Genesis 1.26-27 (NRSV).
 Fr. Stanley Harakas states: “It is a unanimous patristic position that God’s Image in man of necessity includes freedom, or as the Fathers of the Church prefer to call it, ‘self-determination’ (autexousian).” Stanley Harakas, Toward Transfigured Life, (Light and Life Publishing Company, 1983), 101.
 David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies, (Yale University Press, 2009), 24-26, 224-226.
 Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, 18.2,4 (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers).
 Gregory of Nyssa, “The Emotions,” On the Soul and the Resurrection, (St .Vladimir’s Seminary Press), 57; cf. Plato, Dialogue with Phaedrus.
 Sometimes also called “process or behavioral addiction” or “hyperactive sexual desire,” pornography-fueled sex addiction is a testimony of the power of images to transform the human person. Mark Griffiths, “Sex on the Internet: Observations and Implications for Internet Sex Addiction,” The Journal of Sex Research 38:4 (Nov. 2001): 333-342; George Morelli, “Sexual Addiction: An Orthodox and Scientific View,” Orthodoxy Today, (http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliHypersexuality.php). St. Vladimir’s Seminary recently held a workshop, led by Dr. Albert Rossi, to address the growing pastoral problem of pornography and sex addiction: http://www.svots.edu/headlines/workshop-addresses-solutions-internet-pornography-addiction. In addition to the sacrament of Confession, Dr. Rossi recommends Internet accountability program Covenant Eyes (http://www.covenanteyes.com/) and the twelve-step group Sexaholics Anonymous (http://www.sa.org/) as helpful resources in dealing with the pastoral problem of Internet pornography/sex addiction.
 Basil the Great, On the Human Condition, “On the Origin of Humanity, Discourse 1,” 8 (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press).
 “Jesus alone is the image of God, but man is ‘according to the image,’ that is, image of the image…” Marius Victorinus, “Against Arius I.20,” Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, 69, (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press), 117; cf. Clement of Alexandria, “Exhortation to the Greeks” 10.
 John 14.9-10; 2 Corinthians 4.4; Philippians 2.6; Colossians 1.15; Hebrews 1.3; cf. Marius Victorinus, Against Arius I.20; Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks 10.
 “We must dare say that the goodness of Christ appeared greater and more divine and truly in accordance with the image of the Father when ‘he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross,’ than if… he had not been willing to become a servant for the salvation of the world.” Origen, Commentary on John 1.231, as quoted in Behr’s The Mystery of Christ, 34-35.
 Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, 5.1. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers.
By Fr. Andrew Tregubov
Author’s Note: Upon entering an Orthodox church, we immediately find ourselves in the presence of icons. What is their purpose or function? Are they mere visual props, creating a special “spiritual” atmosphere? Are they simply illustrations to the words of Scripture? The Church views the icons far above their different functions and uses as Her Triumph, as the gift of seeing Christ in our midst. In the deepest sense, all icons, even the ones not depicting Jesus Christ directly, show us other persons abiding in His presence. The Icon therefore is the gateway into the mystery of a personal meeting with God. It becomes a means of hope, a way of refuge, and an experience of joy.
Fr. Gregory Kroug (1909-1969) was born in Russia and lived in France. A reclusive monk who lived in great poverty, he participated in the “Russian religious renaissance,” which was, in part, a movement to rediscover the theological significance and artistic beauty of Russian iconography. His work reflects the pure form and content found in the golden age of Russian iconography (14th-16th centuries).
Once in a very great while, perhaps only once in an entire century, there comes a great iconographer like Fr. Kroug, a genius, who is a gift of God to this world, given the special task of revealing the face of Christ in a most direct, most wonderful way. The book The Light of Christ, published by SVS Press in 1991, is an attempt to bring these beautiful instruments of revelation to those who seek communion with God and also to save them for posterity. Here is the first chapter of this book.
THE HOLY FACE
In the Old Testament we find that God has forbidden the people to make and worship idols, to submit themselves to the image of a creature. That commandment was never abolished or changed. How then can we understand the veneration of icons?
Holy Tradition does not tell us the story of the appearance of the Icon of the Holy Face, or any of the icons, from a historical perspective; rather, it expresses very clearly the meaning of the icons, as they are understood by the Church.
At the time when our Lord Jesus Christ was teaching His disciples, the fame of His healing reached the ears of the ailing king of a little town called Edessa in eastern Syria. No physician could help him in his sickness, and even magicians did not ease his suffering. So when he heard that a rabbi in Judea healed all regardless of their diseases, he invited the Lord to come to Edessa.
The Lord declined, but the king was not discouraged. Because he knew that a person could be represented (made present) through the magic of art, he sent a court painter to make a portrait of Jesus. The artist met the Lord and was terribly upset that after working for a long time he could not paint the likeness of Christ. This is one of the very important points of the story: we are unable to discover God, to know Him, unless He reveals himself to us in a direct personal relationship. Expressing this truth, Jesus, out of compassion for the painter and the dying king, took a towel and wiped His face, and miraculously His Image was imprinted on the towel. The towel was taken to the king, and after praying to Christ through His image the king was healed.
It is out of mercy and compassion that Christ reaches out through His image to heal, to convert, and to save us.
The people in the Old Testament were forbidden to depict living beings because the essence of life is the presence of the Spirit of God: invisible, incomprehensible, and indescribable. The human spirit cannot grasp Him unless God reveals himself, and in Jesus Christ the fullness of God was made manifest to the world: the invisible God chose to make himself visible so that we can commune with Him and become one with Him.
What then can we read in His glorious face? Or, rather, what does He silently tell us?
His message is not limited to a superficial symbolism, such as inscriptions or the cross inside the halo, no matter how important this symbolism may be. The focal point is always His face, His eyes. The Icon is a revelation of the living person of Jesus Christ and in the deepest sense becomes for the one who prays before it the mystery of the personal meeting with God.
In the face of our Lord in this icon we see first of all something that for some people is quite disturbing: God is not indifferent or passive toward us. Nor does He show himself out of some need for self-revelation; instead, He opens himself to us by the active reaching out of His love. His face is not a mask behind which He is hiding; this would be only a comfortable old pagan idea to keep God at a safe distance. On the contrary, His face is a living call, an invitation to come.
This is what is so striking about the icon. In it we find God truly in our midst, “the one who pitched his tent among us.” Indeed, so closely and intimately does He enter into our lives that everything concerns Him; each moment is blessed by His attention.
The Lord comes to us in this icon as God-Man: by nature fully God and fully Man. In His face we see all that encompasses human nature: body, soul, emotions, thoughts, and will. No single element dominates or suppresses any other; all exist in perfect harmony, beautiful and transparent to the light of divine nature.
In the face of the Savior we clearly see something, the fullness of which was lost from human nature at the time of the fall: “peace,” peace between the free human spirit and that of God, an alliance or oneness of wills, the synergy of love. That was the gift of the risen Lord to His disciples when He came into their midst. That is the gift of His presence in the liturgy of the Church, the “mercy of peace.” That is the gift of the Icon.
There is a phenomenon in human life: sometimes we meet a total stranger and our hearts open up to him, reach out in friendship in a way that we do not fully understand. In what is called “love at first sight” we feel that we instantly and fully know another person just by seeing his face. We know nothing about him, no facts concerning his life, his job, his social position; and yet we are already bound to him, we have entered into his being, and therefore everything that we discover about him will come to us as a recognition. It is the same with Christ in this icon: responding to His appearance, opening our hearts to Him, seeing in His halo the holy name of God, “I AM”, we recognize the King invisible, “who by His measureless power made all things and in the greatness of His mercy brought all things from non-existence into being.”
by Ms. Andreea Bălan
The word pornography generally conjures up images of erotic films, dirty magazines, or famous adult-entertainment performers such as Jenna Jameson. We often have a rather limited definition of pornography that is usually restricted to triple X-rated movies. Pornography, however, does not have to be overt to be present. The entertainment industry promulgates such “softer” images (e.g., semi-nude models simulating sex acts), which are proliferating at an alarming rate, creating in the process an addiction that is just as dangerous as hardcore porn. The fad of depicting females in sexually submissive positions adds a distressing dimension to the problem, as it promotes, perhaps unintentionally, violence against women. The exploitation of the female image is as ancient as visual art itself and by no means a sign of the moral decadence of our society in contrast to the virtue of past generations. Even the presence of sadomasochistic themes in various publications or on T.V. is not a recent phenomenon, as one can find it, for example, in music videos from twenty years ago bearing Madonna’s signature. What is new, however, is the ever-increasing tolerance in our culture, especially among young people, as an acceptable way of portraying women: it is becoming the norm rather than the exception. These images of nude females in sexually vulnerable positions threaten the Scriptural view of the woman as a creature made in the image of God (Gen 1:27) who, as an integral part of the royal priesthood and the holy nation of God, is called to preach the gospel and serve humanity. Furthermore, they distort the sanctity of the human body by encouraging the audience to view the body simply as a sexual commodity and not as a temple of the Holy Spirit, as the Scriptures enjoin us to envision it (1 Cor 6:19-20).
Even a perfunctory glance at our entertainment industry reveals the pervasiveness of the motif of the sexually docile female in our culture. The March 2010 issue of Details magazine, for example, greets the reader with a familiar visage, in a somewhat unfamiliar pose: Robert Pattinson smiles enigmatically, snuggled by the legs of a woman with no face, gingerly touching her right shin with the tips of his fingers. As if in a trance, one skims through the pages until locating more pictures of Robert, all of which involve unclad females pressing their bodies against each other or the photogenic actor. Some are even blindfolded or photographed in submissive positions, the theme not exactly subtle. Perhaps the most startling aspect of the entire spread is the (intentional?) half-shadowy physiognomy of the female models.
Such images have become so mainstream that they pass under most people’s radar when it comes to what constitutes shocking or impermissible content. Regardless of the public’s numbness to it, this kind of sadomasochistic imagery in particular (and pornography in general) depersonalizes the woman, focusing all the attention on her body and erasing, almost completely, any interest in her personality (i.e., her spiritual, rational, and emotional aspects, which are essential components of the human person). Furthermore, it reinforces existing sexual stereotypes (e.g., the female is weak and submissive, while the male is strong and dominant), which are contrary to the Biblical command to mutuality and self-giving in sexual relationships (Eph 5; 1 Cor 7:4).
The unsettling phenomenon of the hidden female, or the female with no face, is not limited to the world of newspapers and glossy magazines: music videos pick up this same theme and harp on it with somewhat of a vengeance. Enrique Iglesias, the Spanish singer who has a rather large female audience, recently released two music videos that underscore women’s bodies at the expense of their faces. “Tonight (I’m loving you)” unabashedly displays blindfolded women in G-strings, while viewers become privy to Enrique’s sexual escapades with strange women in strange places, such as public restrooms, balconies, and hallways. In “Dirty Dancer” we see Enrique being given a private show by a pole dancer. The surprise does not come until the end, when, having finished her routine, the woman starts walking toward the singer, only to reveal that she has no eyes; a couple of seconds later she disappears from the screen, which promptly informs Enrique that his credit has expired: this all took place in a virtual reality!
The origin of the theme of the present-yet-hazy female, as well as the added aspect of virtual reality, is puzzling and merits a careful examination in its own right. Due to space considerations, let us only suggest that a picture such as the one Enrique’s video offers blurs the markers that would help identify the woman in question in a crowd, and thus cementing the split between the female’s physicality, on the one hand, and her character and personality, on the other. The woman is no longer seen as a human being with the capacity for rational thought and a person made in the image of God. To confer such a “status” upon them would demand that we treat women with deference and see them as more than one-dimensional physical entities. Such a view, regrettably, rarely sells magazines or attracts YouTube viewers.
Sadly, it can no longer be said that semi-pornographic images or sexually violent renditions of women are solely the domain of men. Many females in the music world launched videos that portray them in various stages of nudity or attired in sadomasochistic gear. Some have built an entire career on it. Christina Aguilera’s “Tonight Not Myself,” Rihanna’s “S&M,” and Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” rank, arguably, among the most disturbing. A whole slew of violent, sexual paraphernalia is on display in these videos: leather apparel, whips, chains, ball gags, blindfolds, collars, masks, and leashes.
It is ironic that the depiction of women in bondage comes on the heels of feminism, largely credited with bringing awareness of the abuses of women in the workplace and at home. We have seen major steps taken to protect women in our society. In the 1980s, for example, law enforcement agencies started taking domestic violence seriously. Even though the U.S., to this day, does not have a national law classifying rape as a crime, many states have enacted their own legislation concerning this sexual aggression, making it possible for women to prosecute their perpetrators in court. The battle, however, is far from over, as society is resisting, to some extent, the emancipation of women, which resistance is often helped by the females’ tendency to uphold sexual stereotypes. Our popular culture reinforces this proclivity, as it seems only to want to bury us under a deluge of damaging images that seem to impede the progress made. Nevertheless, it would be extreme to suggest that our celebrities, so fond of being depicted in sexually vulnerable positions, advocate rape or abuse of any kind. These images, though, do seem to betray a modicum of thoughtlessness on their part about the long history of women’s suffering, or at the very least they seem to point to a disconnect in their minds between the past and their current artistic exploits.
When asked the reason for choosing a bondage-inspired themes for their videos, female pop stars usually resort to claiming that such a concept best reflects their creativity, which seems to advance into ever more aggressive territory with each new album they release or video they shoot. Expressions such as “women’s liberation,” “artistic expression,” or “ ‘poetic license” are also heard, but they are so carelessly employed as to have become platitudinous and lost their meaning almost entirely. We are led to believe, then, that the independent, sexually-liberated female of the twenty-first century comprehends her freedom as license to do whatever she pleases with her own body, and the ultimate sign of this radical freedom is understood as her giving away this new found freedom to become completely the subject of another’s pursuit of sexual pleasure. This is the icon held up by our entertainers as worthy of emulation, an icon that heralds the age of the powerful, sovereign woman.
Ironically, this interpretation of freedom brings to light the real meaning of freedom: it begins (or ends) with a choice of masters, so to speak; him to whom we choose to be faithful determines whether we are truly free or deeply enslaved. The Scriptures, unlike popular culture, do not assume that our radical freedom is best exemplified in our relinquishing of our freedom to someone. Rather, freedom only starts when we become slaves of Jesus Christ (the Greek is that strong!). Freedom, at its core, entails worshiping the Creator rather than the creature (Rom 1:25). As servants of Christ then, we are not “free” to do whatever we desire with our bodies. As Paul teaches us, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:19-20). As hard as it is for us to adopt this language, we have no choice but to do so. We are not our own; we belong to Jesus Christ and him crucified. To glorify God in our bodies does not translate into permission to do whatever we please simply because we are free in Christ (Gal 5:1). We are not to use our freedom as a pretext for evil (1 Peter 2:16), but are to bring our freedom in line with God’s will for us and his creation, which is ultimately revealed to be a life of communion with Jesus and our neighbor, a life of service, but also a life of joy and one filled with God’s peace, which surpasses all understanding (Phil 4:7). We are all slaves to something – or rather, to someone (Rom 6). The question we must all answer is: to whom are we enslaved? To Jesus or to an idol?
Bondage, as we have seen, is intimately connected with the fading away of the woman and her half-presence. The Scriptural vision, however, restores women’s humanity and personhood by making them visible, integral members of the city of God. In Christ, we see women’s role as proper servants of the Lord revealed. John narrates how the risen Christ appears first to Mary Magdalene, and Mark relates how the women are charged with proclaiming the resurrection to the apostles, making them the first preachers of the good news. Furthermore, Jesus’ relationship with his mother, among many others, underscores women’s capacity for witnessing to the power and wisdom of God, as well as their instrumentality in God’s plan for creation. Luke tells us that when a woman in the crowd expresses her admiration for the one who gave birth to him (“Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!”) Jesus responds in a way that leaves no doubt as to the real dignity of his mother (“Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” [Luke 11:27-29]). Mary is not blessed because she physically bore Christ; she is blessed because of her faithfulness to God and his promise. Hence, Jesus opens the door for us to see women as more than just sexual objects, but as human beings with full access to God and as reliable witnesses to the life in God.
Woman’s quest for her identity has been, and continues to be, a long and painful one, and the icon that artists such as Lady Gaga and Rihanna hold up as the ideal to which we must aspire appears, in light of our reflection, shallow and ultimately detrimental to our being made in the image of the crucified Christ. It is easy, though, to blame solely those who are connected with the promulgation of these images (e.g., stars, music video directors, the media, etc.) and not to see our own participation in making sure of their continued existence. As long as we carry on watching videos portraying females in this way; as long as we continue labeling women in submissive positions as “hot” and “sexy”; and as long as we cannot get enough of “girl-on-girl action,” we perpetuate a way of thinking that promotes violence against women. Women can regain their dignity only when each one of us individually (and collectively) can resist the temptation to listen to the voices telling us what we must do and wear in order to be wanted by men; men can regain their dignity only when refusing to see women as disposable pleasures; and humanity will regain its wholeness and holiness only when we see our entertainers as victims of a destructive ideology and not as the enemies to be annihilated, as people who, like all of us, are in dire need of God’s mercy and healing.
 This short disquisition has not taken men to task as much as women. This is not due to an oversight, but to the fact that the author of this essay is a female and wanted to empower women to make choices that celebrate their womanhood in accordance to the Scriptural vision, rather than to the way of thinking so characteristic of the old creation, which is passing away (2 Cor 5:17). Men bear just as much responsibility, if not more, when it comes to how women are portrayed in the media: to care about women is not “feminism,” but an issue of universal concern for the Church. It is also worth noting that men, too, are exploited by our advertisement industry and it would be interesting to hear their side of the story, but this remains a topic to be picked up at a different time. The way the sexes are depicted in our society is something that should be of interest to both males and females because both sides suffer due to this depersonalization that inexorably takes place when one aspect of the human being (in this case, the body) is emphasized at the expense of the others.
By Fr. John Hopko
In the tenth chapter of his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul the Apostle speaks of the possibility of possessing a zeal, even for God, which is misguided. In the Church we are to be zealous, that is, enthusiastic and passionate, but in a sober and carefully thought out manner, guided by the fullness of our Orthodox Christian Faith’s Holy Tradition. Also, in being guided by Holy Tradition, we must discern carefully between that which is truly of the Tradition and that which may appear to be so, but is, in fact, ill-advised.
At the present time in the Orthodox world there is a phenomenon that may seem to be in accord with Holy Tradition, but which is actually misguided and mistaken. This phenomenon is the abundant reproduction and use of iconographic images in all sorts of ways and places that may initially seem acceptable, but which, upon deliberation, is unacceptable. It is this phenomenon that we will consider.
A strong and defining aspect of the Orthodox Christian Faith is our commitment to Iconography. The holy icons are not just an optional part of our Tradition; they are an essential element in the Church.
We know, of course, that the use of holy icons in the Church came into question during the Iconoclastic Controversy, which disturbed and distressed the Church in the Byzantine Empire during the 8th and 9th centuries. The iconoclasts (“icon-smashers”) charged that the use of icons was idolatrous and that the iconodules (those who venerated the icons) were guilty of worshiping and giving adoration to man-made images in place of God.
We know, thankfully, that the veneration of the holy icons was successfully defended in the Church, on the grounds that it was, first of all, not idolatrous; for the icon is not an idol, but a symbol. In the classic formulation of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (which convened in 787 A.D. in the city of Nicea), the honor given to the image passes on to its prototype. There is also an important distinction to be made between the reverence (dulia) that we give the saints and the fullness of worship and adoration (latria) that is reserved for God alone. The veneration of the icons is also defended on the vital doctrinal grounds that to do so is a powerful and central affirmation of the essential and foundational Christian teaching of the Incarnation. We are able to depict God in the holy icons because God became a man and took on human flesh—He became incarnate. Our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ, took on the fullness of human nature. Thus, being a human being, He is able to be depicted in the holy icons. Icons are indispensable in the Church, for they uphold and protect the essential and saving doctrine of the Incarnation.
The one hundred and twenty years of the Iconoclastic Controversy—which began in earnest with the persecutions of the defenders of the holy icons in 726 A.D. by Byzantine Emperor Leo III and ended with the triumphant and final return of the holy icons to the Church in 843 A.D. with the decisive support of Empress Theodora—was a period of bloody martyrdom for the iconodules. During the crisis, saintly martyrs were put death because they refused to disfigure or disrespect the holy icons when ordered to do so by the icon smashing authorities.
Given the central and vital role of icons in the Orthodox Church and the careful manner in which they have always been safeguarded and revered by Orthodox Christians, even to the point of martyrdom, it is sad, strange, and unsettling to witness the many ways in which we now allow the holy images to be subjected to the possibility of disfigurement and disrespect.
There are now numerous suppliers and providers who produce, for sale or free distribution, reproductions of the holy images either printed on paper or mounted on wood or cardboard. These iconographic reproductions are produced in massive quantities and disseminated widely. For example, they are being used as the opposite side of business cards or the cards that are distributed as remembrances at funerals. Sometimes, at large (often Church-sponsored) gatherings such reproductions are printed up in substantial quantities and distributed to the participants as keepsakes. Oftentimes, they are offered for sale in the catalogues of ecclesiastical supply companies or Church entities such as monasteries and seminaries seeking to sell these items in order to fund their work. Also, beyond these so-called icon prints and mounted facsimiles, it is now possible to purchase paper goods adorned with full-color iconographic reproductions in the form of stationery (including not only the writing paper, but also envelopes), note paper, as folders for weekly bulletins or parish newsletters, so-called “sticky notes”, bookmarks, and more.
Sadly, the last end of many of these images is not a place of reverence in a pious person’s home, but rather the bottom of the nearest wastepaper basket. If an iconographic image is printed on a piece of paper or card of the type that is usually discarded without much thought, how often can we suppose that even well-meaning people are making much of an effort to discern what is going on before they toss that item into the trash?
Recently, one of our major pan-Orthodox organizations sent out a bulk mailing to all their past donors. This mass mailing was certainly composed of thousands of pieces of mail. The envelope in which the mailing was sent was adorned on the outside with full color iconographic images, which were subsequently subjected to the likely deleterious effects of passing through the postal system. No doubt many of these envelopes arrived at their destinations with those holy images dirtied and disfigured; and then most of those envelopes, their primary function now fulfilled, were unceremoniously tossed in the trash, iconographic images not withstanding.
If we allow icons to be used as part of items that are perceived of as disposable (such as in and on catalogs, advertisements, flyers for various occasions, newsletters, stationery, envelopes, note paper, funeral cards, business cards, etc.) it is inevitable that they will be treated as such. No matter our efforts to educate ourselves and others about the reverence that ought to be paid to icons, the lesson that iconographic images can be treated as if of no great value—frankly, as trash—will be taught and learned if we proceed in a manner that allows for and, even, promotes such a false teaching. This process may be occurring unwittingly or unintentionally, but it is happening, nonetheless.
Another noteworthy aspect of this phenomenon is that, all too often, the particular holy image under consideration is treated in a questionable manner even before it is used. For instance, some years ago, a major Orthodox publishing house printed a large format book about iconography. On the cover, the illustration was only a portion of an icon of our Lord, Jesus Christ. In the interest of artistic effect, apparently, only the bottom left quadrant of the icon was reproduced in order to serve as the book’s cover art. The result is a dramatic and, to a degree, attractive and aesthetically pleasing representation of our Lord’s right hand held in the manner of giving a blessing. Nevertheless, the original icon is still not being reproduced in full for its true purpose. Rather, presented in this way, the partial copy on the cover of the book has now become just another example of a practice which is endemic in the Orthodox publishing world—a practice whereby images that ought to be reverenced and honored are being used merely to decorate and illustrate. No doubt, it is convenient to reproduce iconographic images as cover art and illustrations, for it is an effective way of marking a given publication as “Orthodox.” Nevertheless, should we not think about the greater ramifications of the decision to use iconography in this way?
Iconographic images can presently be found printed on coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets, air fresheners, bumper stickers, billboards, clothing, and more. One can easily obtain a t-shirt on which is emblazoned a beautiful icon of our Lord, or His Mother, or one or more of the saints. Technology has now made it possible to get hold of and use (and abuse) iconographic images in ways that just a few generations ago would not have been either imaginable or permissible.
In what seems like a pious impulse, parish churches will often now purchase affordable reproductions of icons for just about every occasion, in such numbers that it is impossible to appropriately venerate all of them on a regular basis. Thus, these items end up being stacked on shelves or stored in closets and cupboards, as if they were of little value, until the day comes when they are needed. Then, for a day or two, when the time is right, they are displayed and venerated with honor, until, sadly, the occasion passes and they are again returned to the storage spot from whence they came. These images are being treated as if they were holiday or party decorations, rather than as essential elements of Orthodox Christian worship and vital witnesses to central Christian doctrines. Isn’t this simply a mistake, a sad example of misguided and misdirected zeal?
One must wonder: What would the great confessors and defenders of the holy icons—persons such as St. John of Damascus who eloquently and at length defended the holy icons against the 8th century icon-smashers—say to us about what is being done with and to the holy icons today?
Repentance is necessary. It is time to consider carefully the holy images and our treatment of them. In the name and pursuit of Orthodox Christianity, we are, on the whole, no longer treating the holy images with a consistent level of appropriate reverence and honor. Thankfully, something can be done about this. For it is in the name of Orthodoxy, in the apparent effort to propagate knowledge and appreciation of the holy icons, that we are allowing circumstances to exist and persist whereby the holy images are being subject to disrespect and irreverent treatment. Ironically, most of this present misuse of the holy images is being carried out by those who probably know better and who, in fact, do care about the holy images. This means that those who need to hear the message that change is necessary should be ready to hear and heed that message.
We need to raise awareness of and sensitivity to this issue, especially within the Church, its parishes and institutions. We must revisit the Church’s teachings about the holy icons and seek to apply what we learn, today. We must make sure that we are limiting the use of the holy icons to circumstances wherein they might be appropriately maintained, reverenced and honored. Repentance in this regard must begin with each and every one us taking personal responsibility for the holy images and making the commitment to defend the icons with sober, rather than misguided, zeal.
Evan Freeman is a deacon in the Orthodox Church in America. He studied Art and Biblical Studies at Gordon College and graduated with his BA in 2006. He received his Master of Divinity in 2009 from St. Vladimir’s Seminary, where he wrote his thesis on the iconological writings of Pavel Florensky, Leonid Ouspensky, and Photios Kontoglou. He is now a student in the Master of Theology program at St. Vladimir’s where his wife, Robin, works in the Seminary Advancement office and helps conduct the Seminary choirs.
Archpriest Andrew Tregubov is the rector of Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Claremont, NH (OCA). He is a renowned master iconographer, author, and speaker. Originally from Russia, he emigrated to America in 1975 and studied at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York. His larger projects include Sts. Cyril and Methodius Church in Terryville, CT; Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit Church in Cincinnati, OH; Holy Resurrection Church in Clinton, MS; and St. John of the Ladder Church in Greenville, SC. His work and the work of his wife is available at their website.
Andreea Balan was born and raised in Romania, moving to the U.S. when she was 16 years old. After graduating from St. John’s College in Santa Fe, NM with a degree in liberal arts, she went to study theology at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. Upon completion of her degree in 2010, she relocated to Dallas, TX where she serves as the youth director for a local Orthodox church in the Antiochian archdiocese.
Ordained to the holy diaconate in May 1993 and the holy priesthood in June 2000, Fr. John Hopko has been pastor of Saints Cyril and Methodius Orthodox Church, Terryville, CT, since August 2000. For the past eight summers, he has also served as Director of the annual Youth Rally of the Diocese of New England of the Orthodox Church in America. A 1990 graduate of Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, Fr. John has been married to Macrina (Behr) Hopko for twenty-one years. Macrina and Fr. John are the parents of Thomas, Lucy and Peter.