06 July 2017

The Greeks have a
word for it: (9) icon

Christ the Pantocrator … a 14th century icon from the Church of the Virgin, Gouves, in the Museum of Christian Art in Iraklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

I spent much of yesterday afternoon at the exhibition of Cretan icons in the Museum of Christian Art, housed in the former Church of Saint Catherine of Sinai in the Centre of Iraklion. This museum houses one of the most priceless collection of icons in Greece.

Crete has an important place in the tradition of iconography, that links the tradition of iconography on Mount Sinai and in Byzantium through the great Cretan School of Icons, based in Iraklion, and the works of Theophanes the Cretan (died 1559), Michael Damaskinos (1535-1593), Giorgios Klontzas (ca 1540-1608), and Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541-1614), known worldwide as El Greco, with Western art and painting.

As I watch tourists visiting churches in Rethymnon, Iraklion, Piskopianó, Koutouloufari and other towns and villages in Crete, I notice how easily they are captivated by the beauty of the icons and frescoes, although most are obviously unaware of their significance or their underlying theology.

Two weeks ago [22 June 2017], I was invited to open the summer exhibition of icons by Adrienne Lord in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. Later, someone commented on one of my postings on this exhibition: ‘I can’t differentiate between icon and graven image in my head. Maybe for others it is ok.’

The True Vine … an icon in the parish church in Piskopianó (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The word εἰκών (eikón, image) refers to a religious image or representation of a sacred figure or event. Originally, in Greek, the word eikon denoted a depiction of an object without the necessity of sanctity or veneration. But over time, however, icons became popular religious object, used to evoke veneration and to educate people.

A dominant theme in Orthodox icons is the depiction of faces, particularly of Christ and the Virgin Mary, but also of saints and angels. In the Bible, the Hebrew Old Testament uses several words for face – panim, aph, ayin and anpin – when referring to the face or the presence of God. Of these four words, panim is the most frequently used. In the Greek New Testament, the word προσοπον ( prosopon) is used in most cases, with the exception of one verse that uses οψις (opsis).

Of course, the word ‘face’ has other uses in the Bible, as when the earth’s surface is described as ‘the face of the earth,’ or for body directions or postures, such as to set your face against something as an expression of opposition, or to fall on your face as an expression of worship.

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul speaks of Christ ‘the glory of Christ, who is the image (εικονα, eikona) of God’ (I Corinthians 4: 4). He also says Christ himself is the ‘icon’ (εἰκὼν, eikon) or ‘image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1: 15):

ὅς ἐστιν εἰκὼν τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ἀοράτου, πρωτότοκος πάσης κτίσεως,

He is the image (icon) of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.

In one sense, therefore, Christ is an icon, the perfect icon of God.

The writer of Hebrews says something similar when he says Christ ‘is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint (χαρακτηρ, character) of God’s very being’ (Hebrews 1: 3).

As people, we are also made in God’s images. Saint Paul writes: ‘And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image (εικονα) from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit’ (II Corinthians 3: 18).

In Romans 8: 29, Saint Paul tells how God has predestined us ‘to be conformed to the likeness (εικονος) of his Son.’ In I Corinthians 15: 49, he tells how on the day of resurrection we will ‘bear the likeness (εικονα) of the man from heaven.’

An icon of Christ as the King of Kings and Great High Priest in the village church in Piskopianó (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Where the New International Version (NIV) and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) to a lesser degree tend to use the rather vague ‘into his likeness,’ the KJV had the more vivid ‘into the same image.’ The same image as what? The answer seems to be: the same image as Christ. In other words, the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit within us results in our being made into ‘icons’ of Christ.

Saint Paul writes: ‘Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image (εικονα) of its Creator’ (Colossians 3: 9-10). So, we too are living icons, and it is for this reason that people as well as icons are censed in the Orthodox liturgy and public prayers.

The Biblical motif of the icon is important for understanding the Christian life. God is at work in our lives, conforming us into the image of his Son. We become icons of Christ just as Christ is the icon of God. Orthodox theology described this process of Christian growth as θέωσις theosis – becoming partakers of the divine nature (see II Peter 1: 4).

The NIV is one of the most widely used among Evangelicals. However, a reading of these Greek texts suggests the NIV has an inbuilt bias towards iconoclasm. In the texts I have cited, the NIV is inconsistent in its translation of the Greek word εικων (eikon), using the vague ‘likeness’ when referring to Christ but the more direct ‘image’ in reference to Christians.

There is an Italian saying, traduttore, traditore. If the translations we read allow the translators’ own theology to interpret the text rather than allowing the text to shape the translators’ theology, then it becomes difficult to develop a theology that has a biblical foundation and that is not biased towards reaching one particular conclusion.

God is present although we cannot see him, but the day is coming when we shall see God face to face. Thus, the icon points to the end of the present age and to the coming of the eternal kingdom of Christ. The icon of Christ is a promise that we will one day see God face-to-face.

Two of the icons in the museum in Iraklion show the Apostle Paul and the Apostle Peter holding the Church in balance between them. These are icons of Christian unity. But we could also see the Church itself as an icon of the world to heaven, and the Church as an icon of the world presented to heaven.

The Apostle Peter and the Apostle Paul holding the church in unity … an early 18th century icon in the Museum of Christian Art (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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