Icon, Part 4: Veneration and the Incarnation

 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with G-d, and the Word was G-d. He was in the beginning with G-d. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, [1] and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it….  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-5, 14)

Thus far we have examined the first three festal icons of the Orthodox liturgical year, and in them see some of the conventions necessary to understand and interpret them (conventions such as the avoidance of over-realism, use of symbolism, a flattening of time and overlapping of events). The next Great Feast is, of course, the Nativity of Christ (Christmas), but in the interlude, I thought it time to address the icons themselves, their reason for being, why they are venerated, and what veneration even means in their context. And to do that, we should start with the prototype and, in its way, the most important icon of all, that of Jesus Christ Himself, and of one particular form — The Icon Not Made By Hands. All of Orthodox iconography is in vain if it does not point to Christ, and it is from Christ that all iconography stems.

As the Gospel of John says in its opening, “And the Word become flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory…” This is that fundamental claim of Christians, that G-d Himself took on actual and real human form — The Incarnation (which we observe as Christmas). Throughout all of prior history, G-d forbade any attempt to depict Him because you cannot depict the ineffable. Yet He came and took on human form (real flesh and blood), which we depict all the time, so this form we can depict. (I’m greatly oversimplifying this argument, however. It took 800 years, a lot of misuse of Christian imagery, two iconoclasms, and finally the 7th Ecumenical Council to sort this out.)

Icons, particularly of Christ, are thus an affirmation of the Incarnation. Moreover, there is one type that is considered the prototype of all: The Icon Not Made By Hands. The original of this icon is said to have been an actual image of Jesus’s face — proof to the early Christians of his real and corporeal existence. There are two separate accounts of how these came into being, but the depredations of time, war, conquest, and age have obscured them. Some say that the Shroud of Turin is one of these cloths, and was somehow kept safely in the Syrian city of Edessa for centuries after the Muslim conquest, until retrieved by the warrior emperor Nicephorus Phocas, and then taken again during the 4th Crusade. Some say that a cloth kept by the Vatican, or one kept at an Italian monastery, is a cloth used to wipe Jesus’s face while he carried His cross to Golgotha.  

Regardless, over the centuries many copies have been made and have taken on a common form — The Icon Not Made By Hands, or The Holy Napkin. And even if the originals have truly been lost, they and their copies still point back to the actual physical incarnation of Jesus Christ. And if we can thus depict Him, and venerate and honor His image as a sign of his actual existence, then we can also depict others who have followed Him — the saints.

Veneration

What does it mean then, in the context of icons, to venerate them? Veneration is paying respect to, and honoring, in this case not the object per se but who it depicts. When venerating before an icon, one is paying honor and showing love and affection to the person depicted, and doing so because they were a real person. This is why many will kiss an icon, it’s much like kissing the photograph of someone far away or long departed — the kiss is intended for the person depicted, not the photograph itself.

Moreover, such veneration is a means of affirming and honoring their own incarnation too, their own existence. Just as Christ existed, so too did these saints. Further, as any who have died in Christ still yet live in Christ, our veneration is for those who are alive. Such veneration is not for the wood or paper or paint or cloth, but for the person whose image these materials bear. And so when entering a church, or when in private prayer, we may cross ourselves and gently kiss the icons of saints, or of Christ himself, not as a means of drawing out any sort of power, but like we would kiss the photograph of a friend or family member we wished were present. We venerate the person depicted, for who and what they both were and are. And we do so in recognition that they were and are real people, incarnate upon the Earth just as Christ, The Word made flesh, was incarnate upon this Earth.

The Kursk Root Icon.

1 Crossway Bibles. The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (with Cross-References). Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.

This essay is part of the December 2018 Group Writing Series on Veneration

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  1. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Nanda Panjandrum (View Comment):
    I had one of those, too, Skip; and, you’re right…My German Catholic Gram, on the other hand, would cover you in kisses and floury hugs (if you arrived while she was prepping something for baking).

    My German ancestors had converted from Catholicism to Lutheranism — which may involve mass amounts of flour (my grandfather was the baker, even baking professionally for a while, though he died before I could meet him) but not so many kisses.

    Unless you count the way my Lutheran grandma made one of the few cookie recipes she could make: “chocolate chip cookies” — also known as sugar cookies with a single Hershey’s Kiss in the center.

    “Please, less affection now. We’re protestant.”

    • #31
  2. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    SkipSul (View Comment):
    One final thought is, of all things, the illustrated Bibles we give to our kids. If there is a danger in images (and there certainly can be!), why do we use these when teaching our children?

    In some cases, perhaps, to preserve their innocence?

    For years, I thought the following was all the word “orgy” meant, because it was the “orgy” illustration in my book of children’s Bible stories, illustrating the horrible debauchery (also described as “very bad things”) the contemporaries of Enoch apparently indulged in:

    Yes, yes, slopping your drinks around and dangling your sandal from your toe. Very bad things…

    • #32
  3. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake (View Comment):

    SkipSul (View Comment):
    One final thought is, of all things, the illustrated Bibles we give to our kids. If there is a danger in images (and there certainly can be!), why do we use these when teaching our children?

    In some cases, perhaps, to preserve their innocence?

    For years, I thought the following was all the word “orgy” meant, because it was the “orgy” illustration in my book of children’s Bible stories, illustrating the horrible debauchery (also described as “very bad things”) the contemporaries of Enoch apparently indulged in:

    Yes, yes, slopping your drinks around and dangling your sandal from your toe. Very bad things…

    This looks like the Motion Picture Academy’s Governor’s Ball, about 45 minutes after all the Oscar winners have gone on to private parties. 

    • #33
  4. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    Have you read The Benedict Option? I just got it and I’m not reading it beginning to end, but picking areas out – I just read the following on page 223 (in the chapter called Man and The Machine (Internet and Technology): “Both contemplation and action are necessary to human flourishing.  The Middle Ages prized contemplation, which is why medieval societies, including products of their technical knowledge, were ordered to God.  The icon, thought to be a symbolic window into divine reality, is an apt symbol of that age.  Contemplation is alien to the modern mode of life.  The iPhone, a luminous portal promising to show us the world, but really a mirror of the world inside our heads, is the icon of our own age.”

    Rod Dreher goes on to talk about how today’s technology has been proven to re-wire our brains, making concentration difficult, always search for the novel, but makes it difficult for the deep thinking involved to learn.  It’s proving to be an excellent book.

    Your beautiful post by the way, puts the Christ back in Christmas.  Thank you for writing.

    • #34
  5. SkipSul Inactive
    SkipSul
    @skipsul

    Front Seat Cat (View Comment):

    Have you read The Benedict Option? I just got it and I’m not reading it beginning to end, but picking areas out – I just read the following on page 223 (in the chapter called Man and The Machine (Internet and Technology): “Both contemplation and action are necessary to human flourishing. The Middle Ages prized contemplation, which is why medieval societies, including products of their technical knowledge, were ordered to God. The icon, thought to be a symbolic window into divine reality, is an apt symbol of that age. Contemplation is alien to the modern mode of life. The iPhone, a luminous portal promising to show us the world, but really a mirror of the world inside our heads, is the icon of our own age.”

    Rod Dreher goes on to talk about how today’s technology has been proven to re-wire our brains, making concentration difficult, always search for the novel, but makes it difficult for the deep thinking involved to learn. It’s proving to be an excellent book.

    Your beautiful post by the way, puts the Christ back in Christmas. Thank you for writing.

    I’ve got the book and have started it, but I have not finished it yet (I’m reading too many different books at once right now).  I’m just a little ways in, so have not gotten to that particular section yet, but he’s right about the icon.  (FYI for those who do not already know: Rod Dreher, author of the Benedict Option, is himself an Orthodox convert).  And he’s right about these screens distracting us from so very much, and shortening our attention spans.  When I can snatch a few minutes to do any reading, I sometimes have to take my phone and make sure it’s in another room.

    Many icons require study, and are moreover written in such a way as to draw the viewer into them.  The perspective is all wrong – it’s both flattened and inverted, with background characters larger than foreground ones, as though you yourself are standing in the back and looking down and out at the ones in front (this will be especially clear when I cover the Nativity icon tomorrow).  The icon is there not just to teach and illustrate, but also to convey that the people and events depicted are eternal, and eternally ongoing and present.  Quite the contrast to our one-thing-after-another news feeds.

    • #35
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