On icons

An icon (from Greek εἰκών eikōn “image”) is typically a painting depicting Christ, Mary, saints, angels, which is venerated among Eastern Orthodox Church. (*)

Here you have some excerpts from the sermon of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom on icons.

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom


“An icon is an image, but an image which is meant to be a statement of faith. It is a statement of faith in line and colour as definite, as completely rooted in the faith and experience of the Orthodox Church as any written statement and in that respect icons must correspond to the experience of the total community, and the artist who paints them is only a hand, only one who puts into line and colour what is the faith and the knowledge of the Christian body in the same way in which a theologian is the expression of his Church, and the Church has a right to judge him. That explains why one of the rules given to icon-painters when they learn their trade is that they should neither copy slavishly an icon painted before them, nor invent an icon. Because one can not identify slavishly with the spiritual experience expressed by another person, on the other hand, one cannot invent a spiritual experience and present it as though it was the faith of the Church.

Now, an icon is a proclamation of faith primarily, in the sense that an icon of Christ, an icon of the Mother of God or of saints is possible only since the Incarnation because they all relate to the Incarnation and its consequences. The Old Testament taught us that God can not be represented because indeed, the God of the Old Testament was the Holy One of Israel, He was a spiritual Being that has revealed Himself but had never been visibly present face to face with anyone.

Now, this being said, we treat icons with reverence, and number of people in the West think that to us icons are very much what idols were in older times for pagan nations. They aren’t. They are not idols because they do not purport or even attempt at giving an adequate picture of the person concerned. This I have already mentioned abundantly but I will add this. Whether it is in words, in theological statements, in doctrinal statements, in the creeds, in the prayers and the hymns of the Churches, no attempt is ever made in the Orthodox Church at expressing, at giving a cogent, a complete image of what God is. Already in the IV century St. Gregory of Nazianze wrote that if we attempted to collect from the Old Testament, from the New Testament, from the experience of the Church, from the personal lives of saints their sayings and their writings, all the features which reveal to us what and who God is and try to build out of them a completely coherent, a complete picture of God, what we would have achieved is not a picture of God, it would be an idol because it would be on our scale, it would be as small as we are indeed, smaller than we are because it could be contained in our vision, in our understanding.

We don’t treat an icon as an idol but we treat it exactly in the way in which you would treat the photograph of someone whom you love dearly. It may be your departed parents, it may be your parents alive, it may be the girl or the boy whom you love with all your heart. You look at these photographs and you do not imagine that they are the person, you do not worship them but there are things which you would do and things which you would not do to them. If you have the photograph of someone whom you love with your whole heart alive or departed, you will not simply take your teacup and plant it on top of it because it is the best way of protecting the table. And you will be probably foolish enough at a moment when there is no-one who looks at you to take the photograph and give it a kiss. Well, it’s exactly what we do about icons. We give them a kiss, we are less shy and we do it publicly, but we do it because they are the only way in which we can kiss the person who is absent in a way, who is present in spirit, yes, whose image is there being like a window, like a link, like a connection with this person.

And our praying to icons is not praying to the wood or to the paint or even to the scene or the face represented. All these things become transparent in the way in which the photograph is transparent to us because it is the person whom we perceive, whom we see, whom we love, whom we treat with tenderness and reverence when we hold a photograph of a beloved person. And our praying to the icon is a praying that reaches through the icon. It may be a help to us because it is not everyone of us who is capable of shutting his eyes, abstracting himself or herself from all surrounding and feeling that he is or she is in the presence of God, and there is nothing between God and him, there is nothing that he needs to connect him with God. But ultimately we must come to the point when having looked at an icon, receive its message, received indeed its challenge, its call, we must be able to shut our eyes and be in the presence of God Himself and the saint who is represented in it. And this is what St. John Chrysostom says in one of his sermons. He says to us, “If you want to pray, take your stand in front of your icons, then shut your eyes and pray.”

Apparently, what’s the point of having icons if you shut your eyes and don’t look at them? The point is that you have taken one look and this look must have awoken you, you must have had one look and be alive to all the message and all the challenge that it has and now you must be free from the particular elements of this icon and be able to pray, to sing to God.

And I will end by an example, by an image, which is not properly of an icon but which convey to you probably better than I can this idea of our whole self beginning to sing and to respond. I was nineteen then. and I was reading together with an old deacon in one of the small churches in Paris. He was very old, he had lost all his teeth with age and the result was that when he read and sang, it was not as clear as one might have hoped for, and to add insult to injury, he read and sang with a velocity that defeated me, my eyes could not follow the lines. And when we finished the service, being as arrogant as one may be, some may be at nineteen, I said to him, “Fr. Evfimiy, you have robbed me of all the service with your reading and singing so fast. And what is worse, you have robbed yourself of it, I am sure, because I am sure, you couldn’t understand a word of what you were saying.” And so the old man looked at me (I don’t know why but he liked me) and he said to me, “O, I am so sorry, but you know, I was born in a very-very poor family in a very poor village of Russia, my parents were not in a position to keep me because they were too poor to feed me, so they gave away at the age of seven to a neighbouring monastery where they fed me, they gave me education, they taught me to read and to sing, and I never left the monastery until the revolution. And I have been reading these words and singing these words day in, day out, day in, day out for all my life. And now, you know what happens? When I see words, it is as though a hand was touching a string in my soul, and my soul begins to sing as though I was a harp, which is being touched by a hand. I don’t cling to the word. You still need it, but for me seeing it or seeing the notes is enough. I begin to sing with all my being.”

Well, this is what we should become when we can look at an icon and immediately receive the impact of it, so that our whole being begins to sing and sing and sing to God in whatever tune. It may be repentance, it may be joy, it may be gratitude, it may be intercession, it does not mean anything, what means something, which is essential is that we should sing to God as a harp sings under the hand that has touched it.


My sources: First, Second, and photo.

4 thoughts on “On icons

  1. this is wonderful. Although I am not Orthodox, I am an iconographer, and read this excerpt with great interest. I have read books by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom before as well, and he is a wonderful spiritual leader and teacher. Thank you for this post.

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