Revisiting the Patristic Theology of the Icon Part 1: Setting Aside our Western Assumptions
In a recent interview on Orthodox Arts Journal I mentioned the problem that exists in the modern theology of the icon that was introduced at the beginning of the 20th century by Pavel Florensky and found it’s greatest expression in the works of Leonid Ouspensky and influenced theological thought in Greece via Fotis Kontoglou. On the one hand they rightly led Orthodox iconography out of “western captivity” in terms of painting technique by reviving the Byzantine/ Russian style, but at the same time led it into “western captivity” with regards to theology by introducing Neoplatonic and Romantic philosophical ideas that are not only foreign to the Patristic theology of the icon, but even contradictory to it. It is only in recent years that people like Professor George Kordis have started taking a necessary critical look at their theology. I was initially asked to write an article for the OAJ about the Patristic theology of the icon, but them my response to a comment was not published and I was then informed that my views (which they don’t even know), are incompatible with their views and that the patristic theology of the icon is not applicable in modern Western society. So I guess that this is an opportunity to put this blog to use that I originally began when I started working on a doctorate on Liturgical Time and the Icon. As the subject matter is broad and complex I will be breaking it down into a series of blog posts for anyone who may be interested in the Orthodox Patristic and Byzantine understanding of the icon. I will start off by very briefly looking at the problem of our Western assumptions when trying to understand both the Patristic and Byzantine understanding of the icon as well as the Byzantine painting technique.
If we want to understand what the Orthodox perception of the icon is and why the Orthodox Church uses the Byzantine painting technique and not an illusory naturalistic style, we have to start by studying the theology of the Fathers and Councils that defended and defined what the icon is and the iconography that developed in the period that immediately followed these councils and which expresses this theology. Anything before and after this period must be examined in light of it. Starting with iconography from earlier centuries or from 14th century Russia, for example, will only lead to false conclusions. The same applies to taking texts from Church Fathers like St Maximos the Confessor, St Gregory Palamas, St Symeon the New Theologian or the Areopagite writings and trying to apply them to the theology of the icon, because quite simply they don’t write about the theology of the icon.
One of the biggest hurdles we have to overcome if we want to understand the icon is our Western understanding of what an image is and how it functions and how this differs from the Byzantine understanding. And if we want to understand the icon for what it really is we need to set aside our Western assumptions and romantic notions and start thinking realistically, because that is how, as we will see, the Fathers understand the icon. This Byzantine realism is not to be confused with naturalism and what Western art historians refer to as realism (just as the abstraction in Byzantine art should not be confused with that in Modern Art). We are not bodiless. We cannot speak of our lives only in term of spirit. We have bodies; we must eat and drink. We shouldn’t incriminate material nature. There needs to be a balance so that we don’t end up in Manichaeism. The Patristic defense of the icon was the final defense of the incarnation, of God become man, of God taking on matter that can be depicted. This is why the theology of the icon is dogma, and not a mere “suggestion” as some think, and the restoration of the icons is celebrated as the Triumph of Orthodoxy. Unfortunately Western (including Orthodox) art historians/ theologians/ philosophers approach the icon with Western assumptions which result in distorted conclusions about the icon. It is very difficult for us to set these assumptions aside. Although we live in a society where we are bombarded with images, Western society is essentially iconoclastic. The image is not a thing in itself, but a medium that hides meanings, ideas, emotions, propaganda etc. behind the image.
Since its beginning, Western civilization, starting with Scholasticism has given the image a symbolic dimension. Scholasticism is diametrically opposed to Orthodox Patristic thought as it lacks the vital distinction not only between created and uncreated but also between the essence and energy of God. As Metr. Hierotheos Vlachos states, “There are no analogies between God and man, because then we end up in metaphysics, which the Fathers so opposed. Moreover there are patristic texts and synodical decisions as we see for example on the Synodikon of Orthodoxy where metaphysics is condemned, since it claims that parallels and analogies exist between the created and uncreated.” (See “The dangers of Parisian Theology). When the scholastic speaks of God he speaks of His essence. This results in a problem connecting the created with the uncreated. God is there and man is here and the only way to connect them is by means of analogy. According to the Scholastic concept of the analogy of being (analogia entis) there is divine reality (God) and the created world and there is an analogous relationship between them. The world offers an analogy by which we can comprehend God, so, for example, the world is beautiful because God is the absolute beauty that is reflected in the world. This resulted in the world becoming a collection of symbols that revealed divine reality in a univocal manner and so the elements of the world become “ontologically” connected and identified to a degree with that which was depicted:
“The principle of analogy, according to Thomas, isn’t based on indefinite and vague similitudes, but on a methodological criterion that allows us to conceive the nature of the cause, starting from the effects with the most univocal rules possible” 
“Medieval symbolism, thus, expressed an aesthetic conception of the world… Firstly there was metaphysical symbolism, related to the philosophical habit of discerning the hand of God in the beauty of the world. Secondly there was universal allegory; that is, perceiving the world as a divine work of art, of such a kind that everything in it possesses moral, allegorical, and analogical meanings in addition to its literal meaning”.
So we end up with the creation of a world that is a symbol of divine reality and during the Middle Ages and endless system of symbolisms was developed that revealed that manifested the hidden properties of God.
“Symbolic interpretation basically involves a certain concordance and analogy of essences. Huizinga, in fact, attempts to explain it as a capacity for thinking in terms of essences: the symbol and the thing symbolized have certain common characteristics that can be abstracted and compared…Colours were in this way reduced to essences, with a distinctive and autonomous value.”
The notion of colour symbolism is foreign to the patristic theology of the icon and only recently infiltrated into Orthodox iconology under Western influence.
At this point, for the sake of clarity it is necessary to make a distinction between a symbol and a sign so that it is clear what we mean when we use the terms. The two terms can be confusing as they are often used interchangeably, and even the Church Fathers use the term symbol with different meanings. With the symbol there is a mandatory relationship between symbol and symbolized. The symbol refers directly and univocally and has an obligatory relationship to the other thing and says what it is in essence.
“The Greek term,… differs both in range of meaning and in emotional connotation from its meaning in modern languages….Nevertheless, one cannot help feeling that when we nowadays speak of “symbol” we tend to emphasize the gap between the object (or form) that serves as symbol and the idea (or other content) that is to be symbolized. In Dionysian thought, the symbolon, while never negating the difference between symbol and symbolized, represents mainly what they have in common. Symbolon, in his view, is not only a sign, but is actually the thing itself.(emphasis mine)”
The word symbol comes from the Greek word συμβάλλω (symvallo > syn+vallo) which is derived from συν and βάλλω, meaning to put two things together. A symbol was used to recognize a contract or relationship. It was an object (a plate, for example) that was broken in two and each party would have half. When they met again they each had part of the symbol that would fit together perfectly. They have the same essence, They are the same plate. In the true sense of the word symbol, the Holy Eucharist is a symbol of the Body and Blood of Christ precisely because it is the very Body and Blood of Christ.
The symbol, then in its function as a bridge between the world and God, participates in both these realities. The degree of participation may vary from case to case, but in order to be called a symbol it has to bring together … it must participate in what is symbolized. Characteristic is the distinction made by Paul Tillich between ‘sign’ and ‘symbol’: a sign is something that points to a reality without necessarily participating in it, while a symbol is something that participates in the reality it symbolizes.”
So a sign, then, points to something without actually participating in that reality. Its meaning can change depending on the circumstances. A cross is a sign. For a Christian it signifies the Life-giving Cross of Christ through which we are saved. In other circumstances a cross can mean different things. For someone who doesn’t believe in Christ it can simply be a decoration, it can be a sign of addition, it can indicate a pharmacy. When we see a red cross on a white background we know that that is signifies the humanitarian organization.
Only a piece of the True Cross of Christ is a symbol of the Cross, because it is the Cross in essence and if all the pieces of the Cross are put together – συμ-βάλλονται – they make up the True Cross.
The basic characteristic of this symbolic way of thinking is that all forms become means of expressing a transcendent content. So when the Westerner looks at a form he asks, “What does it mean?”, “What is it trying to tell us?” This results in the trivializing of reality, turning it into a mere medium through which we reach the essential thing which is transcendent and beyond reality. This philosophy began with Scholasticism and later passed into art in the Renaissance with the development of a Neo-platonic aesthetic that began with the translation of Plotinus by Marsilio Ficino who combines elements of Neo-Platonism with Christianity. The introduction of Neo-Platonism took things a step further. Now there isn’t simply an analogical relationship between created and uncreated but an ontological one.
Since the time of Augustine through Scholasticism and the Renaissance the West became obsessed with the idea of Beauty and went about defining it by philosophical and mathematical means, something the Eastern Fathers never did. It is something that has only infiltrated into Orthodox iconology in the past century. The Renaissance painters believed that in depicting the beauty of the world they were theologizing because beauty is characteristic of the Divine. They gave beauty an ontological dimension, because beauty meant knowledge of God and truth.
Ficino … finds a transcendent element in all beauty. It is through this element… that beauty can lure love to its highest aspirations, and make a path to contemplation of the divine.
As George Kordis explains about art in the Renaissance “The work (of art) starts to talk about God, about the Truth, about a transcendent subject matter, consequently it cannot remain on the level of the sign and must attain more essential characteristics. A manner of painting develops – an image that has naturalistic characteristics and starts becoming autonomous from the viewer. It acquires its own dimensions and consequently its own essence.”
This relationship of the image with the viewer and how the image communicates with the viewer is vitally important as we will see later when we look at the Orthodox icon. In order to make the image independent of the viewer, the Renaissance painters created a dimension – an independent time and space – behind the surface of the painting using linear and atmospheric perspective and colour. In this way the objects that are painted on the surface acquire their own virtual reality, which is exactly the opposite of what George Kordis calls the icon’s “real virtuality or iconicity”. In Western society virtuality or iconicity came to mean that which is not real. The logical progression of Western art has led to the moving image of cinema and to virtual reality where the viewer leaves reality and enters a virtual world.
Despite being autonomous of the viewer, the image still needs to be able to communicate with him, otherwise it will hold no interest. To do so it, firstly focuses on the viewer’s emotions, and the people in the image start expressing emotions. This is one of the most important instruments used to influence the viewer and to pass on ideas and propaganda and to direct and manipulate him. The image itself must act on the viewer.
Secondly, the work of art is "contemporized" with the viewer. Because the work of art has its own time and space in the past and the viewer is in the present, people are depicted wearing the clothes worn at the time as the viewer, but this isn’t real contemporization, it is simply a deception. It cannot make the event present. They also used live models which is the reason why, when the Byzantines saw Western paintings they could not venerate them because they did not recognize the forms of Christ and the saints. The same thing happens in modern films where actors portray Christ. In Byzantine culture acting and theatre were not held in high regard.
he Westerner also depicts people and events in order to remember them, but this remembrance of the past has nothing to do with remembrance with the Eucharistic meaning of the word, where the event is present, and as we will see, the purpose of the icon is to make the persons and events depicted present in the same time and space as the viewer.
This is the image culture that surrounds us. It is essentially iconoclastic, because it has reduced the icon to a medium. Today when we see an image we ask, “What does it mean? What is it trying to say? What is the message hidden behind the image?” This is worlds apart from the Byzantine understanding of the image. The Byzantine when looking at image would ask, “Who it it? What is it?” He sought the person or thing or event that corresponded to the image, because if a thing has an image then it exists and the image bears witness to its existence. For the Church Fathers an idol was a form that didn’t correspond to a thing that existed.
“How therefore shall we not depict in images what Christ our God endured for our salvation and his miracles, so that when my son asks me, what is this? I shall say that God the Word became human and through him not only did Israel cross over the Jordan, but our whole nature was restored to ancient blessedness…”
“If anyone enters a house, in which a painter has painted on the walls in colors the story of Moses and Aaron, then perhaps he will ask about those who led them through the sea as on dry land: ‘Who are these?’ What will you reply when asked? Surely, ‘The Children of Israel.’ ‘Who is this striking the sea with his rod?’ Surely: ‘Moses’? So that if anyone depicts Christ crucified, is asked, ‘Who is this?’ He will say, ‘Christ God, who became flesh for our sake.” 
Contrary to what some contemporary Orthodox iconologists think, there is nothing crude or primitive about the Byzantine realistic understanding of the icon. The Western notion that “progress equals truth” and therefore we reject what came before and replace it with modern ideas and philosophies is a false one and completely opposed to Patristic theology and Orthodoxy.The Patristic theology and Byzantine understanding of the icon will show what they have to offer to modern Western society that keeps trying to escape reality.
To be continued...
 This is what led to the Hesychast controversy between St Gregory Palamas and Barlaam of Calabria.
 See George Kordis, Αυγοτέμπερα με υποζωγράφιση. Το Χρώμα ως Φώς στην Βυζαντινή Ζωγραφική. Θεωρία και Πρακτική. Pg 98 etc
 Umberto Eco, “Τέχνη και κάλλος στη αισθητική του Μεσαίωνα», pg 201
 Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, pg 56
 Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, pg 55
 “The word symbol and all its semantic derivatives, “represents”, “signifies”, etc., means one thing in the theological vocabulary of a Maximus the Confessor and a substantially different thing in the explanation of the liturgy by Germanus of Constantinople…” Alexander Schmemann, Symbols and Symbolism in the Byzantine Liturgy, Liturgy and Tradition. Ed. Thomas Fisch, pg. 112 See also Moshe Barasch, Icon: Studies in the History of an idea, 152
 Moshe Barasch, Icon: Studies in the History of an idea, pg.167
 Tilllich, Paul, Systematic Theology I, 1951, pg 265
 Zizioulas, Metr. John, The Eucharistic Communion and the World, 2011, pg 85
 Beardsley, M, Aesthetics from Classical Greece to the Present, pg.119
 Lectures in Theology of the Icon, University of Athens 2009
 Kordis, G, Αυγοτέμπερα με υποζωγράφηση. Το Χρώμα ως Φώς στην Βυζαντινή Ζωγραφική. Θεωρία και Πρακτική, Athens, 2009.
 St John of Damascus, Treatise 1.18 Three Treatises On the Divine Images, SVS Press, pg 32
 Ibid, Treatise 1.67, pg 58
6/4/2016 04:46:24 am
Thank you so much for this post! You give words to something that has been bothering me with the way people speak or write about icons. The way I feel when I paint or pray in front of an icon is something else than "what you read in the books". It´s been the books, not me... :) Can´t wait to read more!
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