Portals into the divine

We are creatures of the senses. Beyond words, we take in reality though touch, smell, taste and sight. This finds fullest meaning in the Incarnation, when, in becoming man, God himself descended into the sensory world. Ponder not only the countless ways in which Jesus manifested his divinity, but also the ways in which he must have experienced the wonders of his creation through the human senses he created and willingly adopted.

The Christian tradition of prayer, worship and catechesis employs our senses, and our liturgical and sacramental practices are a feast for them. Consider the taste of the wine consecrated into the precious blood of Christ, the smell of incense and sacred chrism or the touch of the sacred minister along with parents and sponsors when tracing the cross on the child awaiting baptism.

In this vein sacred art has had a pivotal role in Christian life and worship from its earliest centuries. Visual sacred art has long been a vital aspect of how our senses absorb the richness of our faith, and it fills many of our churches and homes. As Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his 1999 letter to artists, the Church needs art because it “has a unique capacity to take one or other facet of the message and translate it into colors, shapes and sounds which nourish the intuition of those who look or listen. It does so without emptying the message itself of its transcendent value and its aura of mystery.”

West to East

Latin-rite Catholics are very much accustomed to sacred art presented in a very realistic way. We are comfortable with statuary, paintings or stained-glass windows that appear almost photographic in the detail and accuracy of what they depict. We do not much consider the subtle body positions or the colors used. Western art typically presents an image of a figure, be it, for example, Jesus, Mary or one of the saints. For the most part, what you see is what you get. Saints are often posed with symbols that give away who they are, should we be unsure. But, more often than not, that is the depth of the symbolism. We tend to be drawn to things as “real” as possible.

The Church preserves and celebrates the artistic patrimony of Christendom, among which is the venerable Eastern Christian art form of iconography. Images found in Western sacred art are presented in a more magnified form in icons. The Eastern Christian art form of iconography is more than just a depiction of its subject. Rather, everything in an icon has meaning, from the gestures, to the colors and to the background details. Speaking of their catechetical value, St. Basil the Great said, “With a soundless voice the icons teach those who behold them.”

An icon certainly is not written — the technical term used for the creation of an icon — with realism in mind. Instead, they are symbolic portals to the heavenly realities they present. Orthodox theologian and bishop Kallistos Ware, Metropolitan of Diokleia, says Eastern Christians “do more than just look at icons or talk about them; we pray with them.” Praying with icons, not to them, leads to an encounter with Christ. In this sense, as St. John Paul II said, icons are sacramental. For this reason icons often are accompanied by incense, and candles are lit before them in veneration during an Eastern-rite liturgy or at home. Icons are displayed in front of the church’s sanctuary — a screen called an iconostasis. In the domestic church a family may have an icon corner in their home.

Like any art, Eastern Christian iconography is conditioned by its own cultural and historical context. Icons are the product of prayer, and authentic iconographers of the Eastern tradition receive an ecclesiastical blessing and are fed in their work with prayer and fasting. Their work is an elaborate labor of love.

What follows is an attempt to use icons as a means for catechesis and prayer. These meditations are not exhaustive but are only a primer for those who wish to utilize icons in their life of faith and prayer.

Michael R. Heinlein is editor of OSV’s The Catholic Answer. Follow him on Twitter @HeinleinMichael.

The Holy Trinity

Eastern Christians often refer to this as the icon of “The Old Testament Trinity.” That’s because the icon has a twofold representation — each figure is one of the three heavenly visitors to Abraham in Genesis (see 18:1-15), whom some Christian traditions hold were the Holy Trinity.

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Image courtesy of Monastery Icons – www.monasteryicons.com

This icon expresses a great depth of Trinitarian theology, which greatly complements the Niceo-Constantinopolitan (Nicene) Creed recited at Mass on Sundays. The Christian God is, of course, one in three and three in one. The fact that each person appears identical in the icon at first glance describes the unity of essence in each person of the Trinity — what the Creed refers to with the doctrine on consubstantiality.

Each person of the Trinity is distinguished by their nature — loosely put, their “job description.” The employment of gestures and symbols indicates the identity of the figures, further applying the icon’s robust theology. From left to right, we see depicted the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Christ reveals that the First Person of the Trinity is called the Father. This is because he is the generator — “the maker of heaven and earth” — the one who causes the universe into being out of love. The Father is the initiator of the communion of love that exists within the Trinity, demonstrated by the Father’s hand gesturing out toward the Son.

The Second Person of the Trinity, the Son, is “begotten” out of the love that flows from the Father, “born of the Father before all ages.” The Son, who “was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man” as Jesus Christ, was sent by the Father “for our sake” — to redeem humanity from the bondage of sin and death. The colors worn by the Son relate to the union of humanity and divinity in Christ — the interior red represents his humanity and the outer blue represents his divinity. Blue is on the outside because Jesus Christ the Son manifested his divinity through his words and deeds.

The Son is gesturing toward the Third Person of the Trinity: the Holy Spirit “who proceeds from the Father and the Son,” the love that exists between them. The Holy Spirit is the love that ultimately is the source of creation and its sanctification, “the Lord, the giver of life.” This love is given freely back and forth between the Father and the Son in a constant flow of love, and so the Holy Spirit gestures back toward the Father, completing the symbolism of a circular or repetitive pattern. And so the heads of the Son and the Holy Spirit are inclined toward the Father.

The blue of divinity is interior for the Father and the Holy Spirit, unlike the Son, because their divinity is hidden. No one has seen the Father (see Jn 6:46), yet the earth is filled with his grandeur (Is 6:3). The Holy Spirit’s outer green symbolizes his life-giving sustenance for all creation.

The Nativity of Christ

This icon represents how the full reality of a mystery can be portrayed in one icon, with one dominant image in the foreground and several other scenes in the backdrop. Obviously, all these events did not happen concurrently, but they form part of the whole story surrounding the mystery of Christ’s nativity.

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Image courtesy of Monastery Icons – www.monasteryicons.com

The central figure is Mary and her newborn child, wrapped in swaddling clothes. This detail from Luke’s Gospel (see 2:12) was a subversive way of comparing Christ to the emperor Augustus. Luke intended to depict Christ as the new and everlasting ruler of the world by adopting language that was used in popular myth narratives about the emperor’s birth — a subversive way of indicating this child was like no other, superior even to the most powerful man in the world at that time.

Mary often is depicted with the heavenly blue interior garments and the outer red garments, indicative of humanity’s blood. Blue represents divinity, and thus it is interior for her because the fullness of divinity took his humanity from within her.

Along the minor scenes in the backdrop, there are angelic hosts appearing with their Gloria song, which promises this child is the bringer of peace (see Lk 2:14). The shepherds lead their sheep to him who will later identify himself as the Good Shepherd (Jn 10:11).

The star dwells above the place where the child lays, an unlikely cavern surrounded by animals. And yet the Magi come to do homage to this newborn king, so they bring their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh — the latter of which (a customary aromatic used for Jewish burial preparations) already foreshadows, in the midst of this joyous occasion, that the baby Jesus was born to die.

In the lower portion of the icon, the Christ child is bathed by midwives as St. Joseph ponders the mystery of all that has happened from the Annunciation to the present. The font in which Christ is bathed is reminiscent of both a baptismal font and a Eucharistic chalice, the sacraments he establishes so that we may gain newness of life in him.

The Resurrection

The Resurrection is the central aspect of Christian faith, for by it, Christ destroyed the power that sin and death had over humanity from the time of the Fall. The entire Paschal Mystery is on display in the icon, sometimes called the Descent into Hell. In the Apostles’ Creed, an article of faith is recited that recalls that Christ delivered the righteous who awaited the gates of paradise to be reopened. With Adam and Eve’s sin, they had been closed, and immediately after that God announced his promise to send a redeemer (see Gn 3:15) — the one who would deliver the final blow to Satan who had so cunningly distracted Adam and Eve from doing God’s will.

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Image courtesy of Monastery Icons – www.monasteryicons.com

In the center of the icon we see Christ mounted atop the gates of hell, where Satan lies defeated and imprisoned beneath him. On either side of Satan, Christ pulls Adam and Eve from their tombs. This symbolizes how by accomplishing his passion, death and resurrection, Christ has freed humanity from the bondage of sin and death — which still binds Satan in chains below. With Adam and Eve, humanity raises them to newness of life, and our fallen nature is no longer shackled as it was before.

On either side of Christ we see a representative assortment of vital Old Testament figures who were a pivotal part of salvation history’s unfolding. Each one of them had a unique position in preparing people for Christ. Depicted here, from left to right, are Kings David and Solomon, John the Baptist, Adam and Eve’s righteous son Abel, and the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. Christ had raised them from the dead to now enjoy the freedom of the children of God — what we await in hope with our own resurrection from the dead. In seeing them, we should see a reason for our hope.

Notice how Christ’s clothes flow toward the sky. This shows not only his descent but also the fact that he did so with haste. The obedient and merciful Christ is quick to accomplish his mission of redemption.

Christ’s divinity is expressed in the almond-shaped blue background — a specific device used for that purpose in iconography, called a “mandorla.” Its employment here reminds us that only God can forgive sins and raise from the dead (two of the things Christ accomplished in life that contributed to the accusation of blasphemy that led to his death). A mandorla is used in a few icons that focus on Christ’s divinity, including the Transfiguration, Ascension and his enthronement in glory at God’s right hand. It takes its name from the Italian word for “almond,” which is itself interesting because of the connected ancient Greek myth that almonds symbolize new life. Their blue hues represent the light that is often used to indicate Christ’s divinity, emanating from him as it does in various related Scripture passages.

Our Lady of Perpetual Help

This is just one of the many icons of the Blessed Mother in the Christian tradition. Depicted in it are four figures — each identified by the Greek letters which serve as abbreviations of their names, a common practice in iconography.

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Image courtesy of Monastery Icons – www.monasteryicons.com

Mary and her divine child, Jesus, are at the center of the icon, while the archangels Michael and Gabriel are on either side, at left and right.

Michael and Gabriel hold the instruments of Christ’s passion that await him: a spear, wine-soaked sponge and crown of thorns with St. Michael and the cross and nails with St. Gabriel. The instruments are, of course, a necessary and essential aspect of why the Son of God came to dwell among us in the first place. The Son of God came “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28 and Mk 10:45).

And yet, in his humanity, the Christ Child takes solace in his Mother — his hands in hers, his head inclined toward the comfort of her breast. He glances at the awaiting cross held by Gabriel. Mary upholds him and lends her assistance to him as he gazes with apparent fright. Mary stares straight ahead, knowing what Simeon prophesied about her Son (see Lk 2:22-35), embracing it as God’s will without fear or trembling. Mary is strong in the love she has for her Son, as we see her standing at the foot of the Cross in John’s Gospel (19:25), not flailing about in grief as would have been the norm.

Of course, Mary is our mother, too. Each of us is made a member of Christ’s body at baptism. She is there to offer to us her loving consolation and assistance in the difficulties of our lives, which many of us might gaze upon as the Christ Child did at his. In her maternal love she supports us with her prayer and consoles us with her presence. In the turbulence of life we are, too, in her arms like Christ. And she reminds us in her strength that this is a part of God’s will — that there is resurrection on the other side of the cross.

This icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help is quite popular today. Its origin is the source of much speculation, and many regard it as miraculous. St. Alphonsus Liguori’s Redemptorist order spread devotion to Mary throughout the world under the title of Our Lady of Perpetual Help — making this icon one of the most popular in the Christian West.

St. Joseph

The icon of St. Joseph, like the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, shows the Christ child supported by a parent, this time his foster father. He is guarding his son as he likewise guards us, the Church, members of Christ’s body. St. Joseph’s hand protectively draws Christ closer to him.

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Image courtesy of Monastery Icons – www.monasteryicons.com

St. Joseph carries a lily — a symbol of righteousness and purity, which recalls how St. Joseph became Mary’s spouse. According to tradition, when his staff budded and blossomed, his goodness and virtue became known to Mary, revealing him as the spouse God intended for her. Matthew’s Gospel remembers St. Joseph’s virtuous characteristics by calling him “a just man.”

In St. Joseph we are reminded of the man in the Gospel who spoke not a word but responded to God’s word with action — as the terseness of his mouth indicates. Above Christ’s head is written “I am,” the name God revealed to the Jewish people through Moses. St. Joseph’s finger points to Christ — the one who fulfills the ancient promises of God, shown in his hand that is raised to bless us. Like Mary, St. Joseph is God’s chosen instrument in this plan. He was an attentive and loving father who trained Jesus well in a trade, but, more importantly, in the ways of faith and virtue.

Bethlehem Icon Centre
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Ian Knowles, director of the Bethlehem Icon Center, stands in a studio in Bethlehem, West Bank. CNS photo
Iconography is said to have been invented by St. Luke when he drew the first icon of Mary and Jesus. Tradition aside, iconography in its modern form likely originated in the sixth-century Middle East, possibly at St. Catherine’s Monastery on the Sinai Peninsula. Its rich history in the region is continued by Ian Knowles, the founder of the Bethlehem Icon Centre, the only icon school in the Middle East. There, the 30 students enrolled in its various programs learn how to create icons that mix art, culture and Christian tradition to aid in worship and teaching. Sister Esther, a woman religious originally from France who is studying icons at the center, said, “[I]n the Holy Land Jesus was here incarnate ... so we can represent him in icons painted from the heart of our religion. It is beautiful.”