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Seven Functions of Icons: Number Seven

Introduction: Today, December 5, we celebrate St. John of Damascus, who was a key figure in the restoration of Holy Icons as a confirmation of the centrality of Christ's Incarnation in Orthodox theology and a necessary aspect of worship. St. John lists 7 Functions of Iconography as useful to our worship. This post is the last in a series on these functions we hope will be educational and inspirational, and lead you further towards our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Function 7 according to St John of Damascus:
They enhance the beauty of churches.

The justification and the value of the icon do not lie in its beauty as an object, but in that which it represents — an image of beauty in the divine likeness.
Leonid Ouspensky, The Theology of the Icon

As we have seen throughout this series on the Functions of Icons, they are much more than mere art of a religious nature. They teach us, remind us, make present to us the persons and events depicted, and share with us some measure of the grace they contain by way of representing people made holy by God's grace. Beauty may seem the simplest of these functions, for we may believe we know what beauty is and where and when we see it. 

Icons obviously add beauty to the temple. The colors, the shapes and forms, even the various styles they may be painted in; these all contribute to the beauty we take in as we stand and pray in a temple or in front of our icons at home. In our culture, we are very used to thinking of beauty in visual terms, but the beauty of the icon is spiritual and goes beyond what we see. 

"The beauty in the icon is spiritual purity, inner beauty and, in the words of St. Peter, 'let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious.' It is the beauty of the communion of the terrestrial with the celestial. It is this beauty-holiness, this divine likeness attained by man, that the icon portrays." Leonid Ouspensky, The Theology of the Icon 

Dionysius The Areopagite says that "God allows us to participate in His own Beauty." Paul Evdokimov writes in The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty, that "in his essence, man is created with a hunger for the beautiful; he is that very hunger because as 'image of God' and being 'of God's race' (Acts 17:29), man is 'related' to God." Quoting Gregory of Nyssa, he continues: "It is in being 'in his likeness that man manifests the divine Beauty.'" 

In the Divine Liturgy the priest prays in the dismissal: “Sanctify those that love the beauty of Thy house. Glorify them in recompense (or return) by Thy divine power.”

Fr Stephen Freeman comments on this in a post on his blog: "I think in particular of God “glorifying us in return” by making beautiful with spiritual adornment the temple of our souls and bodies. Having within ourselves a love of beauty – and beauty properly understood – is an essential part of the spiritual life." 

In the sacred icons, we observe the saints, the persons who have been made holy by their own hunger for divine Beauty, for Christ Himself. These saints are friends in the faith who have gone before us and continue to show us the way. We can go out from the temple into the "liturgy after the liturgy" as Mother Maria Skobtsova refers to our lives, and with an attentiveness to God, we can grow in this beauty, which originates from Him and is found in Him. The icons, whether in the temple or in our "little church" at home, are one way this beauty is transmitted to us. As we gaze at these holy images may they awaken our hunger for this spiritual Beauty, as well.

Apr 12th 2024

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