When I became Orthodox I didn’t think much about icons. I do remember my first liturgy, and one of the most distinctive things about the whole overwhelming experience for me was the icons – their impact on worship is not merely artistic. Trust me. After that first experience, having already heard the standard array of defenses for their use, I accepted them and incorporated them into my life. I have meant to cultivate my understanding of them and their function in my life, but it hasn’t yet reached the foreground. However the topic keeps surfacing; both here and in my phenomenology class. And, having just completed my midterm for the class, I figured I might attempt a quick glimpse into what pictures are, what they are not, and how icons are a natural and grace-filled medium. Forgive me if this post has limited appeal – it’s a balancing act between subjects.
I have said that icons are natural – this does not mean that they are secular. Though often the Orthodox treatment of icons are striking and strange to people, their function is not “mystically” explainable. The phenomenon of “picturing” or “imaging” is abundant and common. Before asking the specific religious questions surrounding icons, let’s first look into their natural function as images and what that means for the average human being. Unfortunately this is going to take some tedious terminological work first.
Think about your perception of a cube. If you have one handy, pull it out and look at it. How many sides do you see? How many sides does it have? Depending on your perspective you might see anywhere from 1-3 sides of the cube, but a little thought (and a little counting) tells us that the cube has 6 sides. When you see the cube, even in passing, do you (for lack of a better word at the moment) understand that cube has 6 sides? Of course you do, even though you only see about half of that. In your “passive” perception of the object, you have somehow seen-without-seeing the sides of the cube. The term for this seeing-without-seeing is intention, so we would say that you saw 3 sides of the cube that were present to you, but intended 6 sides.
What’s my point here? First of all it is that perception of the things around us is an active, though not necessarily effort-full, participation on our part. St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite wrote a book called A Handbook of Spiritual Council that focuses on each of the senses and how they relate to our spiritual lives. As psycho-somatic wholes, that is as whole people we cannot create a rift between the physical and the spiritual easily. St. Nicodemus (and I have read the same from St. Gregory of Palamas) shows us that thinkable content enters us through the body, or said another way: ideas enter us through the doors of the senses. But the ideas are not merely ideas, for they enter in the form of perceivable objects. And we are participating with them. Continue reading “The Thing as Presentable”