The Meaning and Importance of the Icon in the Byzantine Tradition
This article is based upon part of the Introduction from Byzantine Daily Worship by Archbishop Joseph Raya & Baron José de Vinck, Alleluia Press, Allendale, NJ, 1969. It has been freely adapted for use here by Father J. Michael Venditti, who has re-worded and added to it in order to make its contents understandable outside of their original context.
"Christ," says St. Paul, "is the icon of the invisible God" (Col. 2:7). An image, says St. Thomas Aquinas, connotes three simultaneous qualities: likeness to prototype, derivation from it, and similarity of species with it. Likeness alone is not enough. A photograph is a likeness; it is not an image in the sense used here. A son is the image of his father, but not vice versa. Christ is the image of the Father because He manifests Him to mankind. The underlying idea of the icon is the manifestation of the hidden. In itself, “an image is not usually equal with what it represents; but, in fact, we know that Christ, as the image or icon of the Father, is identical with the Father in every particular, differing from Him only by the fact of being begotten” (St. John of Damascus).
It is in this sense that one must understand what kind of “image” an icon of the Byzantine Tradition is, even in the context of being an aid to devotion; for the icon is not a representation of people, places or things designed to aid the imagination or simply to bring to mind certain holy ideas, as required by St. Ignatius of Loyola. Yes, the icon is helpful for prayer, but not as a means to put the imagination into motion. Metropolitan Seraphim explains the role of the icon in prayer this way:
“If you stand before the Redeemer’s icon or that of the Mother of God, stand as if you were before the Lord Jesus Christ Himself or before the Blessed Virgin Mary. Keep your intelligence without any representation, for there is a great difference between standing before the Lord in His very presence and representing Him to the imagination. In the latter case, attention is not given to prayer directly, but is held by traditional impressions which only skim the surface of our consciousness.”
The icon, therefore, is not a picture. The icon is not a painted representation meant to teach. The icon is a grace and a life. It is a life that penetrates and purifies and elevates. From the icon emanates a virtue that inspires the faithful with hope and gives him consolation. St. John of Damascus calls it a “channel of divine grace,” seeming to bestow on the icon an almost sacramental character. In another sense, one can say the icon’s relationship to the faithful is similar, though certainly not equal to, that of Holy Scripture. It may be for this reason that, in the vocabulary of the Byzantine Tradition, an icon is not “painted” but “written.”
The icon, then, is not only an aesthetical entity. It is the result of the faith and prayer of the Church. It is the life of the Church lived in Christ. A saving truth is not communicated by the word alone but by the fact of awakening vital forces of life, through the presentation of beauty. Because God loved us, He turned to us a visible face, a human face, in Christ. He turned to us the face of the absolute beauty which is not different from the fullness of God and the fullness of being. The icon carries with it the love of this beauty, and the beauty of this love.