Royal Academy of Arts Byzantium Lecture 'Icons and the Practice of Prayer

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Friday 16th January 2009 In a lecture given at the Royal Academy of Arts, Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury explores aspects of how icons are, amongst other things, practical aids to meditative prayer. Obviously, one of the first things that any visitor to an orthodox church will notice is the devotion paid to icons. People make ritual prostration before them. They kiss them. They light candles in front of them. And, as I'll explain a little further on in my remarks, they have a role in certain sacramental actions as well. This devotion is not a modern thing. So far as we can discern, it goes well back before the 6th century. And when the great controversy first arises over the use of icons in the Byzantine Empire, it is in terms not simply of the theory of icon painting but the practice of devotion. Forms of honour paid to holy images – burning lights or incense in front of them, bowing to them – were associated by the iconoclasts with idolatry. The argument over iconoclasm versus the veneration of icons was about the cultus of icons not just the rationale of icon painting. But that in turn meant that the response to the anti-icon movement had to be elaborated in terms of the rationale of the cultus. In other words, the iconoclast controversy prompted the first really systematic treatment of what was supposed to be going on, in both the painting and the veneration of icons. That controversy is located in the context of icons as connected with the prayer of Christian people. At the time, devotion to icons was seen by some as a sin inviting divine retribution. Why were the Arabs winning all the battles? Well, the Arabs, of course, did not venerate images and the Byzantines did. There seemed to be a prima facie case that the wrath of God rested on the Byzantine armies because of their idolatry. But the price of all this was seen very rapidly to be the dismantling of a very complex theological synthesis achieved in the two centuries immediately before the controversy over the use of icons. And while some of the popularity in some areas of the anti-icon movement doubtless owed a bit to the military successes of the Emperor Leo, the deeply ingrained cultus won, it seems, over more narrowly political considerations. I want to explore a little bit why the attack on icons was seen as the dissolution of a historic theological synthesis, and how the restoration and elaboration of that synthesis laid some of the foundations for the devotional use of icons in later centuries - and indeed the elaborations that continue to the present-day in the use of icons as a means of prayer. The argument of those opposed to veneration of icons, apart from the bald accusation of idolatry, boiled down to something like this: Jesus Christ is God incarnate. God is not capable of being represented. Either then you represent the humanity of Jesus alone, which is heretical because his humanity is never divorced from his divinity, or you purport to display his divinity which is impossible - and heretical also because any claim to portray his divinity suggests a diminished and trivialised view of God. Therefore, inexorably, you cannot represent Christ truthfully.

whether in Jesus Christ or more generally. It was the relationship of an active. by the work of grace and the Holy Spirit. a physique. "They are in communion with him" (that is. and the icon. And that's a very significant concept as we unpick the history and the practice of devotion to icons and their role in prayer across the centuries. as well as appealing to the indivisibility of the human and the divine in Jesus. you might say. and supremely intensified in Jesus Christ. interweaving forms.That argument in itself takes a good deal for granted about the already current rhetoric of God being beyond all representation and God's essence or substance being beyond all concept. self-diffusing God whose action. Maximus of Scythopolis. Solrunn Nes. which pronounced in favour of the legitimacy of the cultus of icons. and. before his transfigured glory. James and John. who in her book on the iconography of the transfiguration in orthodox art has this to say about one particular image. particularly in the work of the great theologian of the 7th century. a divine-human reality going on there. a body. soaked through uniquely with divine energy. as you might say. Maximus (and you can look up his Centuries on Love in the translation of The Philokalia published by Faber some years ago) argued that while we could not see or understand or apprehend the essence of God. when painting an icon. Maximus the Confessor. gazing upwards towards a cross in heaven. In other words. So it's quite true that you can't represent God. with God). in its plural. There is what Maximus and others called a 'theandric'. Apollinaris is standing in the same field as the cross and the lambs. outpouring. soaked through the material so that there was indeed a 'real presence' – and I use the words advisedly – of God within creation. You're representing. infinitely distant from all material reality. But you're not trying to. was what percolated through the entire material universe just in virtue of creation. Peter. two on one side. And so in the human material reality of Jesus of Nazareth human activity is interwoven with divine activity. But the response of those who defended the cultus of icons was to draw on some of the theories elaborated. one on the other. Represent the humanity of Jesus and you represent a face. She's writing about the depiction of the patron saint in Sant Apollinare in Classe in Ravenna where the saint stands in a middle of a field full of lambs. and was raised to an almost immeasurably higher power in the lives of holy people and to its supreme state of intensity in the incarnate humanity of Jesus Christ. before which are three lambs. unknowable God to the material world. the relationship of the invisible. the way in which the divine energy is present in a material body. the effect of God on and in the material world. the humanity of Jesus alone. Solrunn Nes points out that St. The image is in communion with what it represents. said of holy images in a very interesting phrase. You're representing. his 'energy'. was not simply the relationship of a self-enclosed divinity. generally held to be a symbolic representation of the transfigured Christ with the three apostles. we did encounter his action. The Seventh General Council. an intensified presence of God in baptized people . the image of Jesus Christ represents that theandric reality the interweaving (not fusion or confusion) of the endless.even more intensified in those who took their baptism seriously and became saints. It's put rather neatly by a contemporary iconographer and writer. Nor are you therefore trying to represent a humanity divorced from divinity. manifest. He's part of the same landscape . divine resourcefulness of agency and love with the particularities of a human life. That.

icons that depict a scene or a sequence of scenes. in their different relations to the central figure of the Virgin and her child. This is not any old observer's snapshot of what certain people are getting up to. as you see. the full-face representation of Christ. reverence short of what is due to God but appropriate to a human life or context in which the action of God is so (in every sense) materially present and at work: a reverence directed to the tangible effect of God. 8th and 9th centuries. And that means that even in narrative icons. And. but of other humans in contact or communion with Christ. This is a collection of people whose action together in this event is given its meaning by its relation to the action of God. as you might put it. And although that icon is not a full-faced depiction of the Baptist. So an icon shows you a relationship and also begins to enable a relationship. given to icons is not what in Greek is called latreia. the icon itself thus becomes a kind of . once again. It is a depiction of someone open to divine action and. Something of what I'm talking about is illustrated by the icon of John the Baptist on my right here. As some modern iconographers and commentators on iconography have observed. It's a very typical representation of John the Baptist looking heavenwards. And in the clarification of the legitimacy of venerating icons it was made very clear that what is venerated in the icon is not God as such and therefore the 'worship'. she says. Apollinaris 'is what he is through his relationship with Christ'. what you see is John the Baptist in relation to and communion with Christ and therefore opening himself to the communication of Christ through him to the beholder. So the holy image in this context is not only the depiction of Christ's 'saturated' humanity. And some of the most powerful. sharing some measure of that saturation with divine energy. to whom he points.as the transfigured Christ. Which is why an orthodox icon of the Nativity is rather strikingly different from the way you see it depicted in the West. the figures you see represented are not acting or operating in. divine light. to use a rather unhelpful word. And that means that the iconic representation of a saint is itself a representation of a person in prayer whether literally or not. in fact. as you might say. in the sense of depicting someone in the act of praying. whose identity is finally provided in and through that relationship. best-known and most ancient iconic forms and styles are. It's not a depiction of a scene 2000 years ago in the Middle East but a depiction of a whole series of figures who. as I said earlier. as you will sometimes see in iconography. also capable of transmitting divine action. service. to the heavenly Lamb of God. in union or communion with Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit. Just as when you depict Christ you depict a humanity soaked through with a divine action. of communion. That's some of the theology that was elaborated during and after the controversy over icons in the 7th. in terms of that representation. is likewise carrying. so with the holy person you depict someone who. It is doulia. divine activity. the incarnate Christ. of Mary or of the saints where the exaggeration of the size of the eyes – rooted of course in Coptic tomb painting – the intensity of gaze becomes a means. transmitting divine agency. as such. it is always a depiction of someone whose prayerfulness relates them to God and whose meaning. are relating to God and moving towards the fullness of their relation to him. a neutral field. the devotion or submission given to God alone. some of the thinking about the broad themes of theology and spirituality which informed the way the use of icons in public and private prayer came to be justified.

a very elaborate and sophisticated defence was mounted by a number of theologians. the language of seeing your own light in the light of God. attention to the use of . Again. but you get the general idea. Controversies began among the monks of Mount Athos over the possibility of beholding God's light. the language about perceiving the radiance of God with something analogous to physical sight. When the orthodox believer begins morning prayer in front of the icon of Christ. The icon declares that it is possible for human beings in communion with Christ to be bearers of divine action and divine light." You'll see there the trace of the kind of theological vision that I mentioned earlier. more sophisticated. who said: uncreated light is uncreated light and that means you can't see it. and increasingly it comes to be interwoven with both the thinking and the practice of icon painting. Contemplatives on Mount Athos claimed that in advanced states of contemplation they beheld what they described as the uncreated light. 'uncreated' in the sense that it sprang directly from the act of God and nothing else and so that it was not a claim to see the essence or the nature of God or the face of God in a literalist. he or she says this: "Christ the true light. I mention divine light specifically because this is a recurrent theme in eastern Christian spirituality in the Middle Ages and afterwards.and that this was a quasi-physical thing. in Greek – a hard word to translate. including Gregory Palamas who became Archbishop of Thessalonica in the 14th century. "The unapproachable light of God in himself" is 'refracted' through the human face of Christ upon us. you'll find a number of very interesting precursors of that language in some spiritual writing as early as the 4th Christian century.that of course the light perceived by the contemplatives in an advanced stage of prayer was the effect of God's action. But it occasioned a great deal of controversy at the time. the effect of God's presence. enlighten all who come into this world. to the nous. you might say. in the Balkans and in Russia apparently giving far greater. that is the eternal light of God's own presence. materialist way. And the claims of the mystics of Mount Athos were dismissed rather rudely by calling them 'omphalopsychoi' people who see their souls in their navels . oriented God-wards. exposed to the light of God. However. one example of how the divine energy communicated to the human self. who argued .very much along the lines that we've already noted . Lift up the light of your face on us that in it we may behold the unapproachable light. their eyes focused on the lower chest.theological statement about what the grace of contemplative prayer and holy living entails.referring to the practice of these contemplatives of saying their prayers bent almost double. a very embittered and complex subject in the Byzantine Empire. "Heart" or "mind" might do. I don't think it's entirely an accident that in the second half of the 14th century and in the 15th century there are many instances of iconographers in Greece. But the discussion of the divine light became. in the14th century. "Spirit" gives slightly the wrong impression. especially on the part of some in the Byzantine empire rather influenced by Latin scholastic thought. and that the purpose of contemplation was precisely to rise to that stage where they could see the light of their own minds in the light of God . "Intellect" is not very helpful. Guide our footsteps in the path of your commandments through the prayers of your most pure Mother and of all the Saints. It is the subject.

in this framework. Which perhaps makes some sense of why people may sometimes use language about icons as themselves 'interceding'. If you look at some of the late 14th and 15th century icons from the whole of the Byzantine world. Such a person is being seen. divine energy. is not a passive bit of decoration but an active presence. an active mediator. because it is a presence that draws you into a shared prayer. being acted upon. The icon. a dark face with lightning streaks of light across it. noses and so forth. You'll sometimes see what you might call 'neutral' figures depicted in profile. the presence of holy people. The effect is to present you with almost an indistinguishably dark face. in other words. Feofan was in contact with the Athonite monks who were speculating about the divine light in contemplation and I think you can see some carrying over into the practice of iconography at this point of something of e theological and spiritual dispute. therefore. But profiles are rare.as if part of the function of the icon now becomes much more obviously to depict something like the divine light. you'll quite often see a stray shepherd chatting to Joseph in the corner and the stray shepherd is frequently shown in profile. There's always been in the tradition of icon production an interest in the source of light and the transmission of light in the composition. Demons appear in profile for the obvious reason that they have the strongest vested interest in preventing communion with anybody at all. you'll see a quite remarkable intensity in some devoted to this depiction of highlighting. Their prayer is associated with the prayer of all those depicted around them. The person depicted is someone receptive to. In the icon of the nativity. not because he's diabolical but because he . The person praying exposes themselves to an action. The person. Corporately it means that the congregation meeting in a church decorated with icons is meeting in the presence of transfigured lives. saturated with divine light. the Greek iconographer who settled in Russia. almost as if with the effect of a photographic negative. Profile means a lack of communion or communication. You will have endless examples of three-quarter portrayals as with John the Baptist there. It means the individual person praying. And that means that both corporately and individually the icon depicts what the life of the baptized is about. The icon is an 'intercessor'. even allowing for the ravages of the centuries. The point of all this is that it reinforces the sense already there in the controversies of the 7th and 8th centuries that there is a connection between the state of the figure depicted in the icon and the potential state of someone praying in the presence of the icon. to the possibility of transfiguration of the same kind. who stands in front of the icon is not the only one doing the looking. The work of Theophanes or Feofan. But the central significance in all of this of what I've called 'being acted upon' and being looked at is consistently associated with the significance of the face and the eyes in the icon and the extreme rarity of any depiction of anyone in profile. The praying individual associates himself or herself with the prayer of the figure depicted. that you'll see still in Novgorod is exceptional for the intensity of this portrayal. The figure depicted in profile in the icon is not relating either to God or the beholder and is therefore someone you ought to look at rather suspiciously.highlighting in icons . by which I mean figures who don't have a very marked role in the story. meditating in front of the icon is similarly experiencing a share in the prayer of the person depicted. cheekbones. shining.

represented then by the symbolic presence of holy people in the icons. And we're once again back to the 'hierarchy' of intense presence of divine action . and then. they're honoured with incense at various points but they don't seem to figure very much in how the actual shape of the liturgy unfolds. This is true.a divine presence in the entire world symbolised by the very shape of the classical Byzantine church." In that liturgical move. divine action. Now while icons are omnipresent in an orthodox church it may seem at first as though they do not have very much immediate and direct liturgical use during. for example. as a deacon. as being brought into a presence so as oneself to become a kind of presence. the universal totality of the world. And indeed. a Eucharistic liturgy. I want to refer initially to .doesn't actually matter very much in this event. or rather the harrowing of Hell where Christ descends to the Realm of the dead and takes Adam in one hand and Eve in the other to draw them out of darkness. hands are laid on him and. I'm talking here of the two icons of Our Lady and Our Lord flanking the Royal doors. an entire perspective on liturgy in the Eastern Church as an exposure to divine energy. the priest steps back to bring the penitent into communion with the Christ depicted in the holy image. And his growth into the bearing of Christ and the service that Christ gives to the world is signalled by those moves in the liturgy of ordination. of course. let's say. Adam is responsible for the first great decisive breach between Heaven and Earth and therefore he has a journey to undertake . the candidate for the diaconate moves to stand motionless in front of one of the icons on the screen until a much later stage in the liturgy where he's summoned back. of course. "His holy image is before us and I am only a witness. the baptised life.his face has to be turned around. which represents the Earth. Because. supremely in the sacramental gift where the divine energy of the incarnate Christ is made directly available in the sanctified bread and wine. In the ordination of a deacon. the cross-in-square shape. In the last part what I want to say. you'll see Adam depicted in profile. bearing testimony of these things which you speak to me. but to understand the potential of their role you have to turn to one or two other sacramental rites in the Orthodox Church. That fits into an entire vision. quite literally. when the first examinations of the candidate for ordination have been concluded. Interestingly in some icons of the resurrection. A lot has been written in the last few decades about icons by orthodox theologians and practitioners of iconography. You find this expressed more explicitly in the Slavonic form of confession to a priest. So that the liturgical use and presence of icons is part of an entire understanding of the life of prayer. And what happens in confession is first and foremost the searching of the heart by Christ rather than the examination by a priest. represented by the reality of the presence of Christ and the Spirit in the baptised. They're greeted. they don't. he goes to stand in front of the other icon. The deacon in his ordination is being conformed to Mary and Jesus. But to speak of that dimension of communion is also to be reminded of some of the liturgical functions of the icon. where the rubric directs the priest to take the penitent before the icon of Christ on the doors of the icon screen with a prayer inviting the penitent to make confession including the phrase.

who spent most of his working career in Paris. But he also left a legacy of theological reflection on what he was essentially doing as a painter of icons. But they don't set out to be realistic depictions. . You're looking at the harmonics of the new creation portrayed in visible form. What Ouspensky underlines there. Because what you're looking at is not a person in a neutral field. I spoke earlier about the importance of Maximus the Confessor in the background to the history of thinking about icons. all the visible world represented in the icon changes. He points to one Novgorod icon of the annunciation of. mobile. Icons are not meant to be portraits in any sense. the 15th century. and left an extraordinary legacy of very impressive and sophisticated work in a number of churches in France and elsewhere. Hence the rhythm of its lines.the writings of one of the very great 20th century iconographers. Maximus not only speaks about the divine energies penetrating the physical. though there are some very interesting questions indeed of how in an age of photography. Passion is very much a technical term in this literature. It shows what it sets out to achieve.that's another story. And the connection of all that with the spiritual synthesis out of which the defence of icons originally came is again worth noting briefly. Therefore. writes Ouspensky. he also speaks about the right and wrong use of images. Leonid Ouspensky. It is a complex of utter geometric impossibility. ego-directed. It's the whole world of mutable. either of the person or of the person's environment. unreliable instinct and reaction. Hence its hieratic quality. It aims to communicate that light to the beholder and make that light real in the beholder. And by this he means primarily images of the mind . as part of the whole system of exposure to the work of the Holy Spirit in the church. you paint adequate or appropriate icons of people whose actual historical appearance you know all too well . self-directed. And Maximus says very forcefully at one point in the 'Centuries on Love' that the purpose of self-denial and contemplation and prayer is not to get rid of beings and of images but to arrive at a state where the mind perceives images without passion. observing how the background of buildings is actually worthy of a sort of Escher drawing. The icon is the way and the means. the whole ordinary activity of the mind. is the point of what some people would call the 'nonrealist' dimension of icon painting. its majestic simplicity and calmness of movement. It shows a transformed humanity radiant with a light not of this world. the kingdom of the Holy Spirit. I think. in a very interesting way. A person's transfiguration communicates itself to all the surroundings for an attribute of holiness is a sanctification of all the surrounding world with which a saint comes into contact. it's quite deliberately conceived as such. It's a reflection informed by a formidable theological learning. "is both the way and the means. the rhythm and joyfulness of its colours which spring from perfection of inner high." That powerful and poetic evocation of what a great iconographer thought he was doing draws together a great deal of what I've been trying to speak about in this lecture. obviously.concepts. "The icon". Sanctity has not only a personal but also a general human as well as a cosmic significance. It is prayer itself. mental pictures. And Ouspensky goes on to talk about the extraordinary things that some iconographers do with buildings in icons. becomes the image of the future unity of the whole creation. The world in which figures are set in iconography is not a landscape in the ordinary sense as you'll see again from John the Baptist there.

I'll pass over that. self-defence . but I will note with a rather puzzled interest one other particular phrase from an early Christian writer in the same collection of spiritual texts . modernist artists in Russia were so fascinated by the icon and so often reverted to its conventions. although Maximus is not (so far as we know) writing specifically about visual images. its colour patterns and its linearity as a way of exploring their own agenda. he's drawing attention to that dimension of the icon which pushes beyond the emotional level. disciplining of the passions . to the depiction of emotion and to a view of religious art as primarily about evoking appropriate emotions. and particularly in the last century or two. It's one reason of course. The icon in its classical form is meant not to address the emotion but to show passion transfigured or held in relation to God in such a way that it doesn't interfere with freedom.reactivity as we might say these days. so to speak. It's a very instructive journey to take and slightly bears out some of what our Eastern commentators have said. I mentioned very briefly there the question of colour.yields. comes to control religious representation. The icon. And one of the things which in the 20th century Eastern Christian commentators on aesthetics have often said is that there comes a point in Western religious art where it. So when Ouspensky writes about our projection into the kingdom of the spirit. In such a way it's part of the whole dispensation by which grace is transmitted to the praying person so as to generate the same kind of transfiguration of the passions that holy people experience on the way to that final condition of contemplative liberty where the world of instinct and reaction is. have willingly taken up. sets out to be the depiction of what Maximus and his generation would have called the apathos person. The figure depicted in the icon is not a figure designed to evoke emotion in us of the ordinary kind. throws down the brush and yields on this particular front . the person free from passion or instinct. So. why in the early 20th century.The person praying or contemplating is on a journey of excavation of the passions. and there would be several more lectures needed to unscramble some of the symbolic importance of the balance of colours in the history of icons (very much developed in a particular kind of Russian aesthetic at the end of the 19th century but not wholly absent in earlier centuries). in other words. He is again giving a kind of theological clue which later generations. or at the very least. It's perfectly clear that the priority of evoking appropriate emotion. for all practical purposes.not to the exclusion or death of the emotions. which takes us outside an aesthetic whose concern is primarily to show accurately how people are feeling so you may feel the same thing. And both the depiction and the effect are meant to take us beyond purely instinctual or reactive response. done away with. but the rational inhabiting and understanding of the instinctual life in such a way that it doesn't take over and dictate your relations with God or with one another. depicting and evoking appropriate emotion. The holy person is the person 'free from passion' because he or she is the person free from having their relations totally dictated by instinct. that is. spiritual freedom. Those of you who know the Accademia in Venice will perhaps recall the strange experience of going from the 14th and 15th century rooms through to the 18th century and watching what happens to religious art in Venice during that period. he is writing in a period where such images were available.

Again. in making that defence. He speaks of how the work of redemption is rather like the work of an artist. That's the outline into which you are going to move and live. representing what it is meant to effect. I have no idea whether Diadochos of Photiki was thinking specifically of the Christian artist or how many iconic depictions or iconographers he was familiar with. developed the theme still further. and how they can be understood within the same overall framework. In short. that world of Christology and reflection on the contemplative task is a deeply enriching element in our response. early and contemporary. one of the means of spiritual transformation. you sketch in the outline in pencil and then you put in the colours. And the work of the spirit as you grow in your discipleship fills in the colours. Outside the context of that understanding. One may or may not approach them with an awareness of that theological and spiritual world in mind.where you find Maximus: Diadochos of Photiki. what I've been trying to do in these remarks is to locate the devotional practice around icons. is conceived as one of the means of grace. And I've hinted at some of the ways in which the presence of the icon in the liturgy is both an illustration of and an intensification of what the liturgy itself as a whole is meant to be about. To sum up what I've been saying in the most general terms. First. © Rowan Williams 2009 . very early stage of all this. But to see the fullness and the richness of the thought that has nurtured them. So first. But it's one of those curious little sparkles of tradition which somehow seem to echo deeper themes around in the overall evolution of devotion and practice here. and. in the theological context in which it first developed and flourished and to try and show how the defence of icons in the context of the iconoclast controversy itself drew upon an immensely complex and sophisticated theological background. the icon as a means of spiritual transformation . the Holy Spirit in baptism sketches out the outline of Christ. the icon from very early on. When he writes in the 6th century we're still at a very. that purpose.holy images in the Eastern Christian tradition will make very much less sense. I've suggested some of the ways in which the spiritual controversies of the 14th century are echoed again in the practice of iconography.