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.
This should revolutionize the way that we think about sin and purity. But I will leave that discussion to St. Nicodemus and return back to this particular example of sensation -namely pictures. The first thing that one is likely to say is that a picture stands for something else, but this is insufficient to the point of being wrong. Symbols and signs stand for something else. A cross at the side of the road stands for a victim of a car crash. In some cultures wearing black stands for sorrowing. These are surrogate means of communication, and they deliver the message in their limited way. They stand in the place of something that is completely absent.
Pictures, or images, function much differently. Pictures bring something present in a way that only they are capable of doing. A picture does not become the thing it depicts, nor does it remove itself from the depiction. It could be said that a picture is a “thing-bearing thing”. In what way then, does a picture make a thing present? Certainly it is not physically, yet without the constraints of the things’ depicted matter, it embodies the identity of the thing depicted and presents it to us. We are, like the sides of the cube that we did not see but understood, experiencing something absent as present. Let me say it again: through the distance created by the medium of imaging we are presented with the identity of the thing presented. Often the distance of the medium is helpful in us “getting at” the identity of a thing. (Note that this implies that a thing is, though not ethereal and “metaphysical”, more than its empirically grasped substance.)
So here we have this remarkable phenomenon of having something presented to us as absent, and us gracefully and effortlessly “getting it”. Note that realism is not very important here, because it is not very important that the picture be “like” the thing it is depicting. A picture of Lincoln is, in a very normal sense, Lincoln. The picture is made of paper and chemicals, and is not much like Lincoln. It doesn’t even look all that much like Lincoln, I’m sure that his son is more like him than the picture and that a look-a-like would also not be able to present Lincoln to us in the way that an image can.
If at this point you don’t believe me, think about the way that we talk about pictures naturally. Observe people looking at art or photos, and here how their language belies how the image depicted is present with them and how they interact with it.
Of course some images are better than others, and by this we mean that they more accurately present the thing to us. Some images are fuller than others, and as such they can merit more inspection. All of these components go into making a good image. Now let’s take a look at Orthodox icons. They exist in order to provide us with a presence of a Saint or event. They may teach us, but they teach us by introducing us to reality, much like watching people in a park may. Great effort goes into making these icons, yet they are cartoonish and not fair representations of the human body, or time for that matter. The care that goes into icons is on the level of what is really going on – on the level of the wonderfully natural ability of a human to see a picture.
May God grant us all eyes to see.