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Icons: Theology in Color

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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In May 1995, Pope John Paul II released the apostolic letter “Orientale Lumen,” or “Light of the East,” to encourage Catholics to learn more about the Eastern churches, “so as to be nourished” by their tradition and “to encourage the process of unity” between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Beginning with this edition, ONE will regularly highlight the ancient and diverse rites and traditions of the Eastern churches.

In the Eastern Christian tradition — particularly in the Byzantine churches of Eastern Europe and the Middle East — the icon (from the Greek eikon, meaning image) is more than just a devotional image of Jesus, Mary and saints embellishing churches and homes. The icon “is both the way and the means” for communion with Divinity, wrote the Russian theologian Leonid A. Ouspensky — indeed, “it is prayer itself.”

The theology of the icon is complex. It developed during the patristic era of the Eastern churches. It blossomed, however, during the Iconoclastic Controversy in the eighth and ninth centuries, when Byzantine emperors invoked Old Testament prohibitions on the creation and veneration of idols and ordered icons smashed, frescoes whitewashed and mosaics scraped. St. John of Damascus and St. Theodore the Studite wrote eloquent treatises defending the orthodoxy of the icon, connecting its veneration with the belief in the mystery of the Incarnation.

This connection between the Incarnation and the icon was fleshed out fully by the fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787), who restored the creation and veneration of icons throughout the church. The mystery of the Incarnation — God became man in order that man should become God — remains at the heart of contemporary Eastern Christian iconography.

“No one has ever seen God,” Sister Marie-Paul, an Egyptian-born Benedictine sister living in Jerusalem, said in these pages in 1996. “God has no shape, measure, color or volume. But to reveal himself, God gave us an image, an icon that has shape, color, measure and volume. That divine image is the human being. Thus, for the fathers of the church, the icon is the visible of the invisible.”

Looking upon an icon, praying before an icon, she said, brings us into the presence of the one who is resurrected and transfigured, the one who invites us to communion.

The iconographer is instrumental in this complex spiritual process. In the Eastern Christian tradition, the revelation of the divine through the icon is on par with the revealed Word of God. Therefore, the making of an icon is a form of spiritual writing, which must be entered into with fasting and prayer.

“Writing an icon is liturgy,” says Sister Eliseea Papacioc, a Romanian Orthodox nun and world-renowned iconographer. “For the liturgy is the intervention of God through man, and in making an icon, one should transmit to people what God wants.”

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