In art class, I taught our group the time honored technique of using a cartoon to transfer an image to another surface. Of course, their first reaction was, “Are we watching Saturday morning cartoons today?”
“No, it’s Friday. We’re going to make our own carbon paper,” I said, as I showed them how artists of old would rub graphite on the back of their drawings and then outline the major lines onto the wall or the canvas to transfer the image. The J. Paul Getty Museum has a great video on YouTube explaining this process.
“You mean we’re going to paint by number?”
“Not a chance. You still have to make your own color decisions and shading choices.” Really, by now you’d think they know my opinion on the easy way. As Jesus says in Matthew 7:13—
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.”
I didn’t bring any complicated images of the holy icons. I brought only ones with simple outlines. I knew this project wasn’t going to be as easy as people first thought. It’s not as simple as coloring within the lines.
An icon is an image of a holy person, but it isn’t a mere representation of the individual. When we make photographs or even painted portraits, we seek to make “likenesses” of the individual, and capture their outward details and idiosyncrasies. If we can also capture their inner spirit, we take the image to a master level. Icons, however, are more concerned with representing the inner, spiritual nature of the person, rather than their outward nature. After all, we don’t have any images of how the holy ones from the earliest days of faith actually looked. We only have their acts and the symbols connected with them, so in the iconography we can identify them by these qualities. The word iconography comes from the Greek: eikōn ‘likeness’ and -graphia ‘writing’, so when we paint, we’re actually “writing a likeness” of the holy image.
In the iconographic tradition, all of the faces are broad across the brow, to represent the holy wisdom of God residing in the saints, just as their elongated figures and extremities accent this holiness. The eyes, windows into the soul, are large compared to a natural face, while the mouth is small. The small mouth indicates the saint has conquered bodily passions. There’s always an ear open on an icon, for the icon needs to “hear our prayers.” Not that the icon is alive, but it’s more like an open window into heaven. Therefore, the saint’s ear is the open window through which our prayers flow into the golden light of the mysterious world beyond this material one in which we dwell both in shadows and light.
The color in icons also plays an important role. Red belongs to martyrs. Blue stands for wisdom. White symbolizes paradise and chastity. Green is the color of the Venerable Fathers. Gold symbolizes sanctity.
The icon painter and teacher of St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University, Svetlana Vasyutina once described an experience before the iconostasis or screen of images of the saints in the church. “A while ago, I was tortured by the question why it is golden. Once I was standing at a church, looking at the iconostasis. Suddenly, they turned off the electric lights, and only candles before the icons were burning. The golden traces were shining, giving back the light. It was as if, not the candles, but the halos, were radiating light. I was amazed; the light seemed not material, not as comes from a candle or a lamp. The golden color shows the person painted in the icon was granted a different kind of light.”
According to St. Paul, glory (doxa) appears where the form and the idea of God, which inhabits it, become one. This is especially true where form becomes a place of theophany (a visible manifestation to humankind of God or a god), where the body becomes the temple of the Holy Spirit. This glory is represented by the nimbus or halo of the saints. We hear Paul speak of this power in Philippians 3:21—
“He will transform our humble bodies that they may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.”
The disciples first saw this glory descending upon Christ on the Mount of the Transfiguration, as recorded in Matthew 17:2—
“And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”
To become completely transformed by the Holy Spirit wasn’t only a special gift given only to the saints alone, but it was meant for all believers. As Paul mentions in 2 Corinthians 4:7 (American Standard Version)—
“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the exceeding greatness of the power may be of God, and not from ourselves.”
A famous story in the Eastern Orthodox Monastic tradition follows:
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”
Many of us are barely alight with the fire of Christ, and we wonder why the glory of God doesn’t shine through us. Others of us hide our light under a bushel so we don’t stand out from the crowd. If we wonder why we aren’t going onto Christian Perfection in love of God and neighbor, or being a witness to Jesus Christ for others to follow, then we might need to read Abba Joseph’s recommendation once again:
“If you will, you can become all flame.”
When we paint an icon, we participate in a spiritual endeavor in which we are coworkers with the Holy Spirit. We enter into a kairos time, or God’s creating time, and are no longer only working only in human, chronological time. This is a mystery, not to be understood in ordinary terms, even if we begin at 10:15 in the morning and stop to cleanup at 11:45. Like the golden background, time has no meaning while we paint the icon. Our cares and concerns of this world can be given to the icon, and thus to God.
We make our prayer gifts in two ways: we hope to become more conformed to the image of God and we hope our images conform better to the icon before us. We’re going on to perfection, one bit at a time. In faith, we expect to be made perfect in love in this life, by the power of the Holy Spirit, or at the moment of our death, as the classic Wesleyan teaching states. The Orthodox doctrine of theosis, union with God, from which our Methodist teaching of sanctification derives, teaches we can have real union with God, just as Jesus had, being fully human and fully divine. We don’t become gods, but we participate in the full image of God, in which we were first created.
We can contemplate these beautiful words of St. Athanasius of Alexandria (+373), in his treatise On The Incarnation, against the Arian heresy:
‘God became “sacrophore”—bearer of our flesh—so that mankind might become “pneumatophore—bearer of the Holy Spirit.’” (Michael Quenot, THE ICON, p 55)
When we keep our heart set on the image of Christ, we remember his undying love for all creation. Then we learn the meaning of the faith of a loving son or daughter, in comparison to that of an unwilling servant. This is how John Wesley saw his own conversion at Aldersgate:
“I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Once we realize the law of sin and death no longer holds us in chains, we can freely live in life and love, now and always, if we conform our image to Christ.
Joy, peace, and divine light,
Paul Evdokimon, translation by Fr. Steven Bigman, The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty, Oakwood Publications, Pasadena, CA.
Sharing in the tabor light | New Camaldoli Hermitage
The Icon: Window on the Kingdom Hardcover – Import, March 19, 1992
by Michael Quenot (Author), A Carthusian monk
John Wesley Quotes, Oxford Reference
John Wesley’s Quotes – Seedbed
John Wesley: Journal of John Wesley – Christian Classics Ethereal Library
May 24, 1738– I Felt My Heart Strangely Warmed