Seven Functions of Icons: Number Four
Introduction: Sunday, October 15 commemorated the Seventh Ecumenical Council at which icons were restored to the Church as a confirmation of the centrality of Christ's Incarnation in Orthodox theology and a necessary aspect of worship. St John of Damascus was a key figure in this restoration and in his Defense of Icons, he lists 7 functions of Iconography. This post is part of a series on these functions we hope will be educational and inspirational, and lead you further towards our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Function Three: They lift us up to the prototypes, to the holy personages whom they depict, to a higher level of thought and feeling.
Icons have an anagogical function; that is they "lift our soul from the material to the spiritual realm, from a lower level of being, thought, and feeling, to a higher level." Constantine Cavarnos, Guide to Byzantine Iconography, Vol. 1
When we walk into an Orthodox Church, the icons help to reveal the real presence of holiness, and we are reminded why we are there. This experience can be breath taking, and our spirits are lifted up. There is a ascending aspect to how the icons have been organized within traditional architecture: each tier leads to the next one up all the way to the top, culminating in our highest point of focus, physically and spiritually speaking. This focal point is Christ Himself.
When we come into the nave, we begin to see this literal movement upward. Along the ground level, next to where we walk along the walls, there are icons of saints greeting us, each with their own stories, not unlike our own. In them we see the possibility of seeking God with our whole lives. We gather encouragement and strength from these fellow travelers who have gone before, and they lift us up toward Christ. In the tier above them, there are often scenes from scripture, stories of Christ's interactions with people in the world. These icons teach and remind us in ways we can relate to, but that also take us beyond the scene the same way scripture might. Here we are lifted up through remembrance of Christ's actions and words.
Above these scenes are icons of the Festal Cycle ... the 13 major events celebrated in the Church year. These icons show the cosmic and profoundly transformational events from Christ's life, most often in a sort of order of occurrence, including the Annunciation, Nativity, Transfiguration, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost. By now we are looking high up on the curved walls (pendentives) that sit atop four columns supporting the central dome of the nave. Here we see the four gospel writers. Above them, in a ring around the bottom of the dome are the prophets of the Old Testament who pointed the way to Christ before His incarnation. Above them, in the center of the dome at the highest part of the Church, is the icon of Christ as Pantocrator, Ruler of All. The icon is oftentimes rightly surrounded by a choir of angels endlessly singing His praise.
Icons vs Idols
A note on the icon vs the idol may help to show the anagogic power of the icon. In his book The Art of Seeing, Fr. Maximos Constas writes, "The idol delights in physical existence, in the delight we experience in vision itself, and its highest aim is to make that delight perceptible to us." He goes on to say that the idol "arrests our vision, confining it within a self-referential system, allowing us to see nothing outside itself" and "reduces the divine to the measure of the human gaze, arresting the movement of ascent precisely at the threshold of the invisible." (He may be describing the idol in the era of pop stars and "look-at-me" social media!) In contrast, he writes that the icon aims to free vision "by confronting it with the invisible," and to "summon the eye to a new mode of vision, by opening it up to infinite depth." The icon does not dazzle or enamor us, but rather confronts and unsettles us enough to seek the higher meanings beyond.
The classic structure of a Byzantine church gives us obvious examples of this fourth function of iconography, lifting us up to a higher level of being, thought and feeling. Can you think of ways the icons in your home do the same?