by fr. Constantine Strategopoulos
The following text is the transcript of the
introductory lesson on the Theology of Orthodox icons by the workshop
for icon-making, delivered on Friday, November 4th, 2005, by father
Konstantinos Stratigopoulos, vicar of the Church of the Dormition of the
Holy Metropolis of Glyfada, Attica, Greece.
the beginning of our lessons and we will start with a twenty minute
session that we will specify as Theology of Icons because Icon Theology
is very essential for us in order to know how to create the holy images.
We do not simply describe the events and impress them in a subjective
manner from our own intellectual and artistic ability and experience.
Every line that is made and drawn here has a Theology because the icon
unfolds all the theology of the Church Fathers.
Church, for the possibility of studying the events that arise from the
experience of the Divine Economy has the Holy Bible that tells us about
the events, has the Church Fathers that interpret the events, has the
Hymns that also interpret the events - the hymns are an interpretation
of the texts of the Bible – and has the icons that are also an
interpretation through graphic art. Therefore in order for us to
interpret, as the Church Fathers do in order to interpret the Holy
Bible, the iconographer must be an illuminated person, participating in
the events of the Church and knowing the holy Bible.
Iconography is a teaching of a specific expression (“language”) that is
the “language” of the Holy Bible. Thus the icon painter must know the
hermeneutics of the Church in all the events in order from him to
reflect in the painting the theology that is reflected in the Bible and
the Church Fathers. Hence no one can take and describe the events with
his own imagination. You will notice this in the course of our lessons
that each line, each expression – many elements are indeed dogmatic -
are unchangeable. You cannot change the doctrine. And here on these
icons we always engrave and impress the doctrine. And in the doctrine
nobody intervenes. You will see this along the way and you will
understand this, and I personally consider this the most important part
of these inaugural courses, because if you simply learn a technique
without knowing the deeper theology, you will do nothing. You will
simply reciprocate on “how to do it”, “this way or that way”, or you
will become imitators and icon copiers and nothing else.
After we begin the theology today for first time, I will tell you some
very basic principles of the icons, to simply remember them, in order to
have them in your mind as a general structural element, and on these
general principles we will build the further foundations for what is
called theology of the icon.
first basic principle of the icon, an essential basic principle is that
the icon, any icon expresses events in two dimensions, never in three
dimensions. In two dimensions. During the early years of the first
Church there were some sculptures and bas-reliefs that were gradually
abandoned and abolished. And this is a theology. On the contrary in the
Roman Catholic Church as you can see, sculptures remained. In our Church
they were completely suppressed for reasons deeply theological and
deeply essential for the event of which the faithful functions
(experiences) in front of the icon. As you see when I say two
dimensions, I have height and width, I do not have depth and perspective
course, in an hagiographical technique one could also make depth, by
drawing what is called a vanishing and reference point anywhere on the
horizon and based on that point, have the events in front of it appear
larger, and events that he has behind of it appear smaller. Even if the
icon has a multiple events expressed theme, and is descriptive of them -
and there are many themes that could be central or background -the
balance of forward-backward, small or large is overthrown. Here as you
see we have the event of the Nativity of Christ, a multiple event
related icon. We are not interested in having perspective in the icon.
We must necessary have only height and width, never depth. Why do we
adopt this irregular parameter since a rational art technique tells me
to have depth so I can see the events better?
The icon of Theotokos “the Milk-Giver” (see here)
three dimensions in the classical sense, so to speak, of the Euclidean
geometrical space, not considering other dimensions like time, but
height, width and depth in the three-dimensional geometry are something
very real and very existent but are self sufficient meaning that
something that has height, width and depth is self sufficient, it does
not need something else. It is definitely an object, visible from any
side. If somebody stands in front of the icon and sees only height and
width and does not see depth the icon invites him to understand that the
icon is incomplete. See carefully. Why is it incomplete? What is absent?
The depth. This happens for the observer to understand that he himself
who stands in front of the icon is the missing depth. The icon is
neither a museum event nor an art event. It is an event that invites me
to participate in the pictured happenings. An event of prayer.
believer who stands in front of the icon and feels the absence of depth,
becomes himself the depth. That is to say, instead the depth being
behind the pictured events, the depth is me or I become the third
dimension by standing in front of the icon. It is a very important
principle, a fundamental principle which cannot be explained with the
means of reasonable interpretation thinking of Western icon studiers,
who say that it is a nice art but it is inadequate, because it is
lacking depth. But we do not make art for art, we make art for the
is a reductive art, interpretive of the text as I mentioned and
simultaneously reductive. This means that Christ will participate in the
events and will fulfill the missing depth by His presence in the front
of the icon. Hence we do not like having icons in the museums, for the
visitors simply to observe them. Icons are for churches where someone
stands in front of and prays to the icon. And someone can become
sanctified in front of the icon. We often say that there are sanctified
icons and one icon gives off myrrh which scents. How did the icon
sanctify? For two reasons.
first reason is that the iconographer that made the icon could have been
a Saint. And the icon itself became sanctified. The second reason is
that in front of the icon many people became sanctified. Tears, sorrow,
repentance and that icon became more sanctified. These are the
sanctified icons. The wood itself has no such properties but people are
the cause of the sanctified properties on objects. As you see we have
the shadow of Peter, the cloth of Christ did healings, the mantle of
prophet Elijah, the chains of St. Peter all did miracles. What were
these? They were objects that receive sanctification from the sanctified
person. Alone an object is not capable of anything. Therefore this was
the first basic principle of the cancellation of the third-dimensional
space and the engagement of the third dimension on the person that
participates into these events.
second principle which appears thunderously enough on this Nativity icon
– soon after I will mention a few more words on the Nativity icon
although its events are multifold, and I will get into more detail next
time – has to do with the description of the events.
you see all events are described here. We have the All Holy mother,
Christ, the angels who are descending, some shepherds who observe the
events, Joseph who is thinking if he should keep the all holy mother or
not, the three wise men who are coming, a lot of events that happened
diachronically in a icon. We do not describe things like the sequence in
cartoons. All the diachronic events gather here at once. Therefore the
icon has as a second principle the principle of the cancellation of time
and the surpassing of time. In the Church time is cancelled and
everything becomes eternity.
do we say during Easter Holy week: «Today is hung upon the cross, He who
suspended the earth amid the waters», or during Christmas: «Today is
born from the Virgin…».
do they mean «Today»? Ιt means elimination and surpassing of time and
they assume that every event is done today, all events are together.
There are a couple of icons that show this. Let me mention one so you
can understand how this happens. It is the icon of Ascension of Christ,
forty days after His resurrection. Here you see the All Holy mother up
front and the Apostles all around. That is how the events took place.
Angels descended. He ascended with the angels to the heavens. Fine up to
here. However this icon could be considered absurd for the events within
it. Up front here is apostle Paul, who apostle Paul at the time of the
Ascension was not even a Christian. If you read the texts of the Acts of
the Apostles where the story of the Ascension is described, it is in the
first chapter of the Acts. Apostle Paul sees the light in Damascus and
repents in the 9th chapter. Hence the icon here is un historical.
Apostle Paul seems not to «have business» in the Ascension. However for
us he has a purpose.
Since he repented he gains the previous time. He is present in time. He
who repents gains the previous time. You see this is an elimination of
time. We have more such icons that describe such events that surpass
time. And this is a very important principle. We do not say «Paul wasn’t
there». He was, since he repented.
Another very basic principle is that the images do not have shadows. On
the ground here we do not have shadows or under shade. No shade. Why
aren’t there any shadows? Shadows exist. Wherever there is a source of
light. Light comes from the source and leaves a shadow on the ceiling, a
shadow on the street, the shadow of the lamp. There is a source of light
from where light comes from. If the light is everywhere, if the light
comes from all quarters, and it comes from everywhere, there can be no
shadow, the shadow is deleted. All is light.
in the icon we express all as light. Simply there are just a few folds
in clothing but in the icon all are light. We never draw shadows or
under shade because it is a condition where it removes the concept of
the kingdom of heaven. The light in which the images are embedded,
especially the icons that are on wood is shown with gold. Gold expresses
this light and of course on the walls and frescoes, because gold cannot
be applied easily, other colors are used, but specifically for its
application on wood it states the existence of no shadow and that light
comes from everywhere. This light is the light of the kingdom of God the
uncreated light. This was another essential principle that concerned the
shadow and the light and how it is outpoured on the icons.
another key principle - although I can not say why.... -I am necessarily
condensing these principles in order for you to have an initial
understanding of these courses of the theology of the icon - is that the
saints, any of the saints described on the icon are viewed in portrait
with facial characteristics visible. The facial view does not always
mean as this, as Christ is here, who sees in the person.
below the Apostles being side portraits. Here there are side portraits
but in all figures both eyes appear visible. We call it side depiction.
The icon never displays a side profile. It can be a slightly side
depiction or front depiction and we always say that we see the icon “in
face is never eliminated and because of its theological meaning that we
will see God «face to face».
or «Prosopon» means pros-opa, that is “Towards-the eyes”. To the Eyes. «Opa»
are the eyes. Prosopon (Person) is the look towards prosopon, that is to
the face and eyes. And the Saints see God person to person at the limits
that they are capable of doing so. We will talk about these facts in
other icons, as St Paul writes about the «face to face» experience, but
certainly there are some exceptions.
would sincerely point some a few exceptions in some elements of certain
pictures. I do not know why, I will always say in some pictures you will
see it and say why is this person drawn profile. Theofanis, the Cretan
the great iconmaker has done some icon representations where some
personalities are drawn profile. I do not know why. I cannot understand
it. But the theology of the icons always requires the face depiction to
be with both eyes visible. «pros-opa» with eyes appearing.. We will
study how this is portrayed on drawings.What we went through today were
some very general principles for the theology of the icons. With these
we will slowly describe all the icons in the following lessons. At least
up to March when during the first twenty minutes of the lesson we will
do theology of the icon you will see many details and very in depth
theology that will motivate you in theological study, if you want to
seriously icon paint correctly.
had discussed that it is the study of the Scripture, the Fathers of
Church and hymns that reflect the theology of the icon. When you listen
to a hymn that is theology. Someone has studied the event and
theologized on the event. Tomorrow’s chant of the Saint. It is not
simply a description of his life. It is the theology of his life. And
here as we said it is a theology which is made through the word of the
Scripture and of painting. Lets examine for a few only minutes the icon
of the Nativity of our Christ. We will look into some elements. Notice
that it is a well known icon to us. Let’s look at some key events in the
picture. In the center there is the cave where Christ was born, and in
the background is darkness.
me remind that never in iconmaking we portray evil, say the devil, we
never do. Even darkness here is a small exception to show what prophet
Isaiah says, that Christ was born where «the region and shadow of death»
existed (Isaiah 9, 2). Never portray darkness. There are a lot of icons
with darkness where icon makers do not know theology. For example St.
Marina with a small demon. We never portray evil. It is completely wrong
because we draw anything created by God that is enhypostasized not the
unhypostasized. The devil is unhypostasized. Be aware that
unhypostasized does not mean that it does not exist. It is another thing
to say that I exist, I am a being and another that I have hypostasis. It
differs much. I do not say “the devil does not exist”. I said that the
devil is unhypostasized. Very substantial difference if you know Greek.
It is the theology of the Fathers of the Church.
Unhypostasized means that God made no such forms. The devil was an
angel. God made the hypostasis of the angel. He did not make hypostasis
of the devil. Because God is author of good only. He does not make bad
things. Exercising free will the devil wanted to become unhypostasized.
He is existent but Unhypostasized. Be cautious and learn the meanings of
the Greek language used. Hence as a creation the devil does not exist.
He was an angel where within his nature and essence he remains an angel
who distorted his angelic nature. This is the Unhypostasis. We therefore
never paint the Unhypostasis. Nor scenes of horror etc. Never...
is very basic in icon making and we never make icons of persons that we
did not see. The saints all appeared. They were revealed. In the icon of
the Holy Trinity we will see that the Father is not portrayed. We have
never seen the father. We have seen the son and we portray him. We have
seen the Holy Spirit as a pigeon or as light and we paint it. We have
not seen the Father and we do not portray him. There is not an icon of
the Holy Trinity where you will see the Father with a beard. It is an
incorrect icon and it is an icon theologically Unhypostasized because
the Father has never been revealed. In this icon we have the darkness,
«the darkness and the shadow of death» is described of which prophet
Isaiah speaks about. Inside the cave there are two animals. A donkey and
an ox. Two animals.
not choose other animals, as Christmas cards choose and in order to be
charming they put bunnies and whatever else a child would like, perhaps
a dinosaur. The Bible stands only on these two animals because these are
the two animals that Prophet Isaiah and prophet Micah referred to, when
they prophesized the event of the Nativity. Both prophets refer to two
animals in between which Christ will be born.
the midst of two animals make known» (Habbak 3, 2) says prophet Micah
and Isaiah and determining the animals they say «The ox knows his owner,
and the donkey his master's crib; but Israel doesn't know, my people
don't consider» (Ιsaiah 1, 3). Notice he says ox and donkey. What does
this mean? With the perspective of the hermeneutics of our Church
fathers initially they mean the irrational animals, the irrational in
humans. There are two kinds of irrationality regarding humans.
There are the Christians of Judaic descent and the Christians of Gentile
descent. Who knelt to Christ? The Jews who had met Christ a little
earlier due to the revelation made to them and after them the Gentile
Christians. They are two categories. The ones from gentiles and the ones
from Jews. Both are irrational however. Both the Jews met him and
crucified him and the gentiles did not know him at the time. They are
always two animals in the cave that will remain two animals.
Nothing else. One who would dare to do something different alters the
Bible. Some minor details may change as sparingly permitted. Some color
clothing. Nothing else. But never the key elements. For example no
changes with Christ who is in this area, in the manger where he is
placed. This you will portray in this certain way. Nothing else. Neither
a bed nor any other clothes.
are theological and dogmatic elements. Christ wears these clothes
because precisely he comes in order to be crucified and die for us. This
feast of Christmas is not a stand-alone feast. The feast of Christmas
has a meaning if what is taking place leads to an event of salvation for
humanity. It is a great event when God becomes man but this isn’t enough
for salvation. Hades, the dominion of death, must be abolished. This is
why in the orthodox world the feast of feasts is Easter. In the West it
is Christmas. Easter there is a feast quite undervalued. In the orthodox
church the great event of the Nativity of Christ functions to serve the
Resurrection, the work of the salvation of man.
this child that is born now prepares to be crucified and die for us. And
he shows the taking of death upon him with the linen burial shroud that
he is wrapped with in the manger. It is the linen burial shroud that
Christ was wrapped with at the time of his deposition when he was taken
to the tomb. It is the burial shroud that the myrrh bearing women found
wrapped in the tomb. In the Nativity icon he is the child destined to
die for us. For this for dogmatic reasons you cannot put on Christ any
other clothes, but the clothes of him who is preparing to die and
resurrect. Simultaneously the bed which he is put is a tomb. It is the
tomb in which Christ entered in order to resurrect. It is not any bed.
That is why when we see any other romantic picture and say what a nice
picture it is theologically wrong.
theology has moved away completely from the methodology of space
depiction in existent iconography in Roman Catholicism. Protestants do
not have Hagiography, they have some icons on stained glass windows. A
need for them to portray something. Examining Christ’s manger as his
future tomb, we have entered events deeply theological. I will analyze
this icon next time. Finishing only with a fact which we will also see
in the next icon picture that we will analyze after the Nativity which
is the Annunciation is in the icon of the All Holy mother.
Whenever the All Holy Mother is portrayed she must always have, always
on her head and two shoulders three small stars. These stars have eight
rays each. This is a dogmatic element and no one can change it. Dogmatic
are the 8 rays and the quantity three. The three determines the dogmatic
perpetual virginity of the All Holy. Perpetual virginity means that she
was virgin before she gave birth, during birth and after birth. Before,
during and afterwards. This expresses perpetual virginity [aeiparthenia].
How is “perpetual”? It is pre, at and after. Perpetuality of virginity
is expressed via the three stars and it is essential that it is declared
to indicate that this is not any woman, it is the woman who is always
perpetual virgin. And simultaneously the stars are with eight beams.
This is not by chance because you cannot draw an asterisk with five or
six rays or with three rays because the All Holy inaugurates the work of
the mystery of the eighth day of creation. God created the world in six
days. There he ended his work. If you take the first chapter of the book
of Genesis, «And the evening and the morning were the first day»… «And
the evening and the morning were the second day»….«And the evening and
the morning were the third day»…and the days close. Finally He creates
man and says «And the evening and the morning were the sixth day». And
creation ends. The seventh day as you all very well know is described in
the second chapter of Genesis which says «And on the seventh day God
ended his work which he had made».
ended on the seventh day. If you search the entire Bible there is no
verse mentioning that the seventh day ends somewhere like saying «And
the evening and the morning were the seventh day». The seventh day is
still present. It is the day we live today. We live in the seventh day
of Creation. This is why this day remain open. But during the seventh
day man failed to become what God prepared him to become.
God forgiving man’s failure inaugurates the eighth day, where the eighth
day is the work of the divine economy and in this work participates the
All Holy mother. Living in this world today we are living in the seventh
day of creation as a failed world and simultaneously if we live in the
Church we experience also the 8th day of creation.
After the second coming we will have only the 8th day of creation.
Whoever has courage he can do in the future reading on these elements.
Saint Maximos the Confessor very early in the 6th - 7th century
describes very deeply the mystery of 8th day. As you see here we have
depiction of theology. But we do not say a lot of things. Here exist
unimaginable secrets as you see. It is much more difficult to «read»
this than to read Maximos the Confessor. Maximos states the theology
clearly. Here you should you know Maximos in order to understand this
brought you to some keys and secrets of the mystery of the theology of
the icon. We will do this for all years’ lessons in order for you to
enter this deep expression of orthodoxy for hagiographers. Without the
theology you cannot make anything.
Orthodox should be theologians and this is not a matter of an academic
diploma. It is a matter of personal involvement in the events and of
course personal cleansing and illumination. It is not a matter of
technique. In the distant past icon makers in order to make icons they
fasted many days, did a lot of prayers, made an appealing and began the
work. If you want to learn something here in this tradition, or anything
you are preparing to draw you will do it with fasting and prayer. You
will do prayer for the events in order for you to participate in an
interbeing manner with the events (αλληλοπεριχώρηση). When icon portray
the Saint, you meet and know the Saint the Saint, and this becomes a
spiritual interbeing experience. Read the life of the Saint. Learn the
chants of the Saint. This is not a technique. It is Church life
expressed in a work or process of art making. For this reason
iconography has the possibility of evolving and increasing. «Increase»
does not mean I make new methods for hagiography. It means the ability
to express this theology in a deeper sense.
In Church nothing remains
static and dormant. «Increase» is achieved by people that are
illuminated and the grace of the Holy Spirit gives the ability to «Ιncrease».
It is not my own idea of making a modern school of iconographical
methods. If you study the diachronic course of hagiography you will see
an increase without noticing difference in the key theological elements.
You will understand though a later from a previous work. Notice for
example the Serbian school of Hagiography that comes after the two basic
Schools of Panselinos and Theophanes. They remain with the tradition but
they introduce another deeper variety without changing the theology, the
icon, the balances, and it is a very deep “increase” of the icon which
is of a later period because the Holy Spirit always gives «increase» to
Question: Who are the gentiles and who are the Jews? With which
animal is each group portrayed?
Answer: With the ox the Christian Jews and the Church Fathers say
that the Gentile Christians are depicted with a donkey… The more
irrational of the two. It does not have much importance.
The Myrrh-Streaming Icons of Hawaii