Icons: Theology in Color

Karl posted some notes from a recent lecture by Fr. John Chryssavgis. Josh took issue with it and critiqued the idea that icons convey theology. Instead of writing a long comment Karl responded on his blog. Something struck me when I read Karl’s notes and I’ll get to that in second, but first I’ve been thinking about what Josh wrote.

From Karl’s notes:

Faces in icons are always frontal—the eyes always look out, look forward toward us, inviting us inward. They are alive and present. Icons show us that we must face the world with our eyes open.

Josh responded:

Of course, the most dangerous possible way of doing theology is proving things from human inventions. Karl will probably retort that the Holy Spirit has inspired and guided EO icon painting, but of course, this is an a priori assumption that has little or no foundation anywhere except the idea that the EO communion is infallible. It bears no material difference from the Roman Catholic doctrine that the Holy Spirit gradually reveals new articles of faith through the papacy. The main difference is that RC’s have a more consistent source of authority—how do you know which sources in the EO tradition are sources of new divine revelation? This is, of course, an argument for sola scriptura, since nothing is more subjective than proving something from your own creation, whether it is writing or icons. I might as well start making theological statements with my own blog as an authoritative source. The fact that Easterns paint icons a certain way doesn’t prove anything about God or heaven.

Josh leans on scripture as an authoritative source and rejects the icons, but I’d say his concerns also apply to the scriptures. The scriptures and the icons developed through the Holy Spirit working in the church. The canon of scripture was decided by the church. It’s not like they dropped out of the sky already intact and created by God.

Josh later writes:

If I want to know about the eternal perspective of reality, I’m not going to look at a painting some guy painted, no matter how holy he may or may not be. He’s not infallible. I’m going to go to the Gospel.

What makes the scripture preferred? Why shouldn’t we say this:

If I want to know about the eternal perspective of reality, I’m not going to read some book some guy wrote, no matter how holy he may or may not be. He’s not infallible. I’m going to go to the icons.

Icons have been called “theology in color” and teach us truth. As with scripture, we must read them with care, and check that we are understanding them in accord with the teaching of the church. They are certainly worthy of study. Saint John of Damascus said if a pagan asks you to show him your faith take him before the holy icons.

And now to the point that struck me when I read Karl’s notes. Faces in icons point outward in direct response to the Old Testament scripture. “No man looks on the face of God and lives.” (Ex 33:20). Moses, hidden under a cleft in the rock, sees only God’s back (Ex. 33: 21-3). In contrast, through the incarnation of Christ, we now know his face. With an open gaze, he invites us to know him. The depiction of the saints in the icons does the same: they invite us to know God as they themselves do.