Praying with Icons

The pictures are not there just to be looked at as though the worshipers were in an art museum; they are designed to be doors between this world and another world, between people and the Incarnate God, his Mother, or his friends, the saints.

~ Linette Martin, Iconographer

Gazing Into Heaven

When we speak of icons as a medium for “gazing into heaven”, we refer to their value as much more than ethereal-looking religious art. Instead, icons serve as a very real means for connecting us with God and His love. Icons are beautiful, but without relationship behind it, beauty alone feeds only a portion of the human soul, and ultimately patronizes the deep human need for loving connection with the Transcendent.

With this in mind, we seek to view icons as points of visual and spiritual intersection with eternal things, as living prompts for our prayers, and as reminders of the very real world that exists beyond the limitations of this temporal one. Christ and the saints are alive and well, and they have not forgotten us. We can draw strength from holy people who have gone before us into eternity, who are constantly present within both the form and function of the icon to help us in our prayers. Wells of unchanging stillness in our unstable, post-modern world, icons teach us to contemplate life’s most important matters.

If an icon is to do its job, it must have throughput in two directions. As we move toward an icon, it moves toward us with a warm and precise Christian content if we understand the language that it speaks. The primary purpose of an icon is to enable a face-to-face encounter with a holy person or make present a sacred event. Icons are also “theology in color.”

~ Linette Martin, Iconographer

What Does It Mean to Venerate an Icon?

venerate |ˈvenəˌrāt| : to regard with great respect; reverence

Whatever the language connotations for English speakers with the word veneration, this word is not a synonym for the worship that is due God alone. We worship only God, but may venerate holy people, or even physical objects, that His grace has sanctified, much like the healing handkerchiefs and aprons touched by St. Paul (Acts 19:12), or the brass serpent of the prophet Moses we read about in Numbers 21:9.

“Prayer” to the saints takes the meaning of an older English meaning of the word pray, which once meant to ask or plead. Just as we ask prayer of good friends here on earth whose virtues we respect and admire, and whom we know are committed to us, we may ask those that have gone before us into eternity for the same help.

As they were going to their deaths at the edicts of persecuting Roman emperors, early Christian martyrs promised those they left behind that they would pray for them. Biblical examples of people interceding on behalf of Christ may be found in the story of Christ’s mother at the wedding at Cana in John 2, the Transfiguration of Christ in Luke 9: 28-31, and the “cloud of witnesses” mentioned in Hebrews 12:1, who are souls in heaven in some way involved in prayerfully advancing the sanctification of Christians still on earth. Christians intercede on behalf of Christ every time His name is invoked in prayer: “In Jesus” name (or, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”) we pray. . .

At its simplest, acts of veneration refer to the way believing people respectfully interact with and honor the subjects depicted in icons – the prototypes, not the painted boards themselves. This veneration is a kinesthetic language that involves the senses; it is the physical part of prayer. We are reminded through physical acts of veneration that not only the mind prays, but the whole person – body, mind, and spirit. Our physical selves are as much a part of His much-loved creation as our cerebral and spiritual selves.

Deference and Honor

Bowing and making prostrations before icons are common gestures many people use to express respect. Bows are still used as signs of friendship or honor toward other people in many Middle-eastern and Asian cultures. Another act of veneration, that of forming the sign of the cross on one’s body before an icon, reflects several important beliefs: recognition of the holiness of the icon as a sacred object in itself, conviction regarding the subject’s sanctity, and a general acknowledgement of Christian faith.

Healthy Affection

God loves spontaneous acts of worship and love; we are free to kiss the icons, just as we might kiss the photo of someone we love. Candles can also be placed before icons. These candles serve as visual markers for peoples’ prayers, and remind them of the warmth and light that Christ brings to human experience. But the most important component of any act of veneration is an open, trusting heart toward God, and faith in His love for us. Without the right attitude, the rest means little.

Learning to Gaze into Heaven

Icons can seem complicated or strange at first. Take time to come present to the icon, to simply gaze, allowing both your sense of sight as well as the longings of your heart to interact with what the icon presents to you in a particular moment. Icons have a way of teaching the heart spiritual truths the mind cannot. This is part of what is meant by icons being “theology in color.” And keep these elements in mind:

A Different Perspective

Icons are painted in reverse, or Byzantine, perspective, in which the further away objects in the icon are, the larger they are drawn, diverging against the horizon, rather than converging as in linear perspective. This technique is meant to bring the subject matter in the icon perpetually into the present, into the immediate experience of the viewer. Reverse perspective serves as a reminder that since God is omnipresent and outside earthly time and place, his view converges from everywhere simultaneously. We are to put ourselves in relationship to the world within the icon, not expect that world to adapt to us.

Another Kind of Landscape

Like other features, iconic landscapes are not meant to be realistic, but symbolic. Mountains in icons are not peaked, but flat, symbolizing all creation bowing down to Christ (Luke 3:5). Even iconographic depictions of events from Christ’s earthly life are meant to remind us that those events are ultimately of an eternal, transcendent nature, and not merely historical.

Not Exactly Look-Alikes

Unlike much of western religious art, human subjects in icons are not meant to look precisely like the people portrayed did in real life. Icons are spiritual portraits, meant to emphasize the stillness of the subjects’ souls, as well as their “passionlessness” (freedom from sin and struggle) in the presence of God.

The Lamp of the Body

Eyes tend to dominate the faces of iconic subjects, acting as reflections of the serene selves within. We are naturally attracted to a person’s eyes, so this helps our focus in prayer and our heart’s connection with Christ or the saint within the icon. Fr. Henri Nouwen says of the eyes in the icon of the Vladimir Mother of God: “Her eyes gaze upon the infinite spaces of the heart where joy and sorrow are no longer contrasting emotions, but are transcended in spiritual unity.”

An Inward Smile

Smiles are of this world, while, as philosopher Pavel Florensky explains it, “these holy persons. . . are . . . not conformed to this world, for they have transformed their bodies and resurrected their minds.” Through a “holy countenance”, a saint bears witness to God?s presence within him or her.

Of More Value Than Gold

Halos and gold backgrounds remind us that the people depicted there live in the presence of God’s unearthly and uncreated light. The figures in some icons appear to be floating in a veritable sea of gold. We are reminded again of another world and of another reality beyond the one we know.

Details, Details

Certain pictorial features within an icon, such as the small axe in the foreground of the icon of St. John the Baptist, remind us of pivotal events or ministries from that person’s earthly life. A cross held in a saint’s hand tells us that this person was martyred for his or her faith.

Humanity simultaneously moves towards self-destruction while yearning for restoration or more specifically, salvation. While evil still remains a reality infecting man’s way of living, the icon points to a new mode of existence. “Behold, I make all things new” (2Cor. 5:17).

For Further Exploration:

1. Sacred Doorways: A Beginner’s Guide to Icons by Linette Martin (Paraclete Press)
2. Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons by Henri J. M. Nouwen
(Ave Maria Press)
3. The Open Door: Entering the Sanctuary of Icons by Frederica Mathewes-Green (Paraclete Press)
4. Praying with Icons by Jim Forest (Orbis Books)

Online Icon Tour: Next Best Thing to Being There

God has no limitations; He is as present within the technological advances of the computer age as He is anywhere else. May God bless you as you take this icon tour, as you enter into kairos, “God’s time”, experiencing His love through the icons present in the sanctuary of St. Spyridon Orthodox Church. Remember to run your cursor over the icons for interesting details. :::Icon Tour Under Construction: Stay Tuned!::::