Paul AzkoulTraditional Byzantine Ikonography
The Alliance Between the Deconstruction of Orthodox Iconology and Modernized Orthodox Theology
“We do not change the boundaries marked out by our fathers; we keep the traditions we have received. We beseech you therefore the people of God, the faithful flock, to hold fast the traditions of the church. Unless by the gradual taking away of what has been handed down to us, we should undermine the foundation stones, and would in no short time overthrow the whole structure” Saint John of Damascus, On the Divine Images.
To begin, I will define what I mean by the word “Deconstruction”. Simply put something that already exists and works properly, then taking it and breaking down its components and restructuring it. One may state, “It is not being taken apart and reassembled or restructured at all, we are simply using it in a different way that will be more accessible to everyone and not just a few.”, but then, we are not speaking of something made by a human being, are we, such as a building or car, which can have its imperfections since they are made by an imperfect being, or can be improved upon in order for the convenience of all who wish to use it to benefit their particular need, but that of which we are speaking is Gods divine, omniscient, absolute and infallible truth which He did not create to be made accessible to all, but only for His family, His people . His Divine Economy can not be made better because He is perfect, so all that God does can only be perfect.
Some, however, are still trying, whether they are willing to admit it or not, to rearrange or recondition Gods doctrines to accommodate the spirit of our times. How does the created now instruct the creator? The fact is Gods truth can never be compromised or changed to appease the discontent for it is absolute and no matter what attempts are made to God’s word a proud heart will never be satisfied. Orthodox Doctrine has never been able to be changed since it comes from the Omniscient. In essence one can not believe that the Church is a divine institution if indeed one also believes its precepts are in need of correction. Alas, for the sake of iniquitous ecumenism they must continue to try, cloaked under the false guise of “Christian Love”; a “love” that can not exist outside the Church. It is no more possible to change Gods absolute truth, and it is absolute, anymore than it is possible to change a fish into a bicycle.
One can do as they wish for themselves. Free will is a gift of God, but Divine truth remains. When the Orthodox theology of the Holy Fathers is reinterpreted or regularly ignored and asserted to be “out-dated”, “harsh”, “unrealistic” “Pharisaical” and so forth a new theology must be introduced to fill the void to appease the faithful and to rationalize themselves from Gods judgment, but regardless, Gods judgment is inevitable. Once a new theology or rather a reinvention of the teachings of the God inspired Holy Fathers is compromised, Sacred Tradition, the Ecumenical Councils, Canons and Scriptures, iconography, in a word, Church Doctrine is then, along with the infallible truths each possess, is slandered, and up for disputation and doubt for many, which spread contradiction and confusion; thus schism, apostasy and heresy is inevitable.
An example of Gods Omniscient truth is iconography. It is not another art among arts. It is not to be treated as a genre of artistic expressions. It is unique; an elite art for the elite, blessed by God who belong to Holy Orthodoxy. We can not simply “choose” to become an iconographer in the same way we desire or choose to become a nurse, or doctor or a professional athlete, or a teacher, etc. as our profession. In these earthly professions, we choose them, albeit God has given us a talent, a potential, for the most part, but we are not specifically called by God to these professions, and they are tools of the Church designed to save us, but God does choose us directly by His Grace to follow a sacramental calling to serve His Church and His people.
Many people, Orthodox included, believe they can paint icons, because they have artistic ability, because they are attracted to its beauty, or “spirituality” or “mysticism” or “other worldliness”. Perhaps because they believe it is a reflection of who they are as Christians, a physical and tangible expression of their faith, a way to spread the gospel, or they believe they will be in-touch with antiquity somehow, or simply because they love art and love God, so they want to bring these two together through iconography or since they are Christian and iconography is Christian art, they think this automatically makes them eligible. These are secular and personal conceptions and attitudes, Protestant you might say, towards sacramental gifts, since Protestantism is based on subjectivity and does not rely on objectivity, that is to say basing what is right by how they feel about it instead of divine truth and instruction. Do not misunderstand; all of these ideas are noble, but not enough in themselves to permit one to be an iconographer. We must be obedient to God our Father and the Church who is our Mother who lays down the formula for correct approach to this sacred task. When something is holy it must not be approached so arbitrarily, but within proper guidelines and guidance by Orthodox tradition which is itself holy.
Perhaps they believe sincerely, and with honorable intent, that because they are Orthodox or of a certain denomination that because they belong to the whole “Christian family”, they may assume to take what they are attracted to from Orthodoxy, believing the way they want to believe about that which they have arrogated from it. Whatever their intent and sincerity, unfortunately, it is all irrelevant and foreign to the Orthodox ethos and its divinely revealed theology and precepts.
Specifically for those separated from traditional Orthodoxy, the neo-Orthodox, their division prohibits them from painting icons and obtaining any other sacrament and the spiritual relationship that makes all faithful Orthodox Christians here on earth and those in heaven brothers and sisters in Christ.
The attachment to “world orthodoxy” and world orthodoxy’s connection to “world Christianity” and the detachment of both to the historical lineage and historical doctrine is what keeps the new-Orthodox and the non-Orthodox from the privilege and deeper and mystical sense of knowing and the mystery behind Gods appointed chosen to paint icons, the mystery of the power of the Orthodox iconographer and celestial aspect of the icon, the theological Grace and the communion with the Saints.
The Council of Constantinople held in 869-870, passed the following Canon 7 concerning the iconographer:
“The painting of holy and precious icons, as well as teaching the precepts of divine and human wisdom, is of great usefulness. It is not good therefore that these things be done by unworthy persons. This is why, under no circumstances, do we authorize excommunicated persons to paint icons in the holy churches; for the same reason, they cannot teach until they have turned from their error. After this decision which we have made, if any such person attempts to paint holy icons in the church, let him be deposed if he is a cleric and deprived of the holy Mysteries if he is a layman.”
Only Orthodox Christians can paint icons. Icons are images of members of the Church, by the Church and for the Church. Icons are an expression of the human and divine unity of the faithful, expressing the communion of the Saints on earth and heaven. So therefore, not being a part of that communion those outside her unity may not paint icons. Icon painting is for those under the state of Grace which non-members can not have. If a member of the Church who was excommunicated can not paint icons the same is true for those who have never been a part of the Church to begin with. “He can not have God for his Father who does not have the Church for his Mother.” (Saint Cyprian of Carthage).
For those denominations and even pagan religions to believe that they may appropriate from the Orthodox Church anything they wish and receive benefit from it is impossible. They are no more simply free to take from God and His Church any more than one is free to walk into another’s house that is not theirs and assume adoption into that family, and take those possessions that belong to that family, saying, “What is yours is mine!” and collect possession, on the alleged conclusion that we are all human, so therefore all one family. The one major difference between denominations and traditional Orthodox Christians is that denominations consider each other to be of the same Christian family, but we the Orthodox who hold unbroken Sacred Canonical Tradition and historical ties to the faith of Christ, do not.
Calling oneself a Christian is not license to call claim to something that does not belong to you, regardless of that common name, “Christian”. Just because we have a common name does not mean we have a common faith; therefore no common Lord. Non-Orthodox, generally speaking, and even some Orthodox, have their own personal ideas of God, although they deny it, but indeed believe that one denominations creed causes no impediment for their chances of salvation than any other. Ostensibly, the only essential confession of faith necessary to qualify oneself or a religion as a member of the Church and gain redemption is to confess Jesus Christ as your Lord God and Savior and to have a personal relationship with Him. The new-Orthodox or rather, ecumenical Orthodox must accept this theory on the basis that for them, the new-Orthodox, all Christian denominations are recognized as simply that; Christian and posses Grace unto Salvation. If these denominations do not possess saving Grace and are not members of the Church, why are they painting icons?
The heterodoxies’ ideas of the Orthodox Church’s edicts are misconceived by them, but this is irrelevant to the neo-Orthodox. We as Orthodox teach that we are saved by the Church; Protestants believe that their personal relationship with Jesus Christ alone saves them. Believing all that is needed to be a Christian is to confess Jesus Christ their personal Savior puts Christ’s entire lesson of what is good and evil, right and wrong, righteousness and sin, salvation and damnation, true theology and false theology, into major contradiction of Gods principal purpose and means of redemption and the real meaning of gaining the heavens; not to mention Church doctrine which all of this involves. In a word, Gods divine economy becomes pot luck or a multi theological smorgasbord.
To most Protestants and Roman Catholics, Scripture is simply an “expression” of the aforementioned confession (i.e., having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as personal Lord, God and Savior), regardless how much they protest this assertion. This unscriptural recitation, as such, is nowhere to be found in the Bible, but is the totality of their faith and the only doctrine that is necessary. Ironically, this sort of reckless approach to Scripture is what has brought such wreckage and chaos for them, unable to agree and uncertain on theological interpretation and application, they lack steadfast faith, denying that there is any one true creed. To this end, and to assure their place among the saved they do not accept any doctrine as essential for redemption and drawn a bottom line and that only one absolute is necessary for salvation, the man made contrivance of their personal confession of Jesus Christ.
Saint Basil, in his 1st Canon states, the essential difference between the church and heresy is “our faith in God”. Not only what we are to believe by God, but what we are to believe concerning Him. In fact these two ideas go hand in hand. The Trinitarian and Unitarian are not talking about the same God, for example. Our faith in God conditions whatever else we believe regarding Him. The word “God” does not mean the same to everyone; why else would there be 23,000 different so-called Christian denominations, aside from any pagan religions. The word “God” does not always express the truth. It does not always give the reality but disguises a falsehood. Reciting the formula, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, does not necessarily confess a saving truth at all. To recite a theological phrase is not the same as believing in what God demands of us. As Saint Hilary of Poitier put it, “Heresy lies not in the words, but in the sense assigned to it”.
Even if there is a deeper meaning for some, the word “Christian” does not mean the same to a Lutheran, as to a Roman Catholic, as to a Baptist, as it does to an Orthodox Christian, and so on. Hence the difference of doctrine and theology and the many different forms of “Christianity”; there is a difference between faith and “the faith”. To many, it really does not matter what we believe concerning Christ and His Church, only “that” we believe, but believe what? Simply, going to Church, doing some good deeds, not hurting anyone, whatever that means, and believing that accepting Jesus Christ as ones personal Lord and savior is enough to be a confessing Christian, is folly. Even the demons confess Jesus Christ as God and Savior.
For many, organized religions for many is simply a choice, some do not accept an organized religion at all. Our God is not a God of confusion but with this sort of medley of differentiating beliefs, this is exactly what He becomes! Does an Orthodox Christian claim a “Personal relationship” with Jesus Christ? Of course, how can a Christian have a non-personal relationship with him? But that does not allow nor excuse personal interpretation of Scripture, nor the many denominations to exist, nor does it forgive the insufficient responsibility to find theological truth. This very pronouncement, that is, “accepting Jesus Christ as my personal savior…” for even some of the most devout people is why being a Christian is safe, and without consequence, because “truth” even Divine truth becomes relative for them.
Now even the words out of God’s own mouth are up for personal translation. There ends up being no one truth. For these people, as mentioned earlier, outside of this pronouncement (accepting Jesus Christ as personal Savior, etc. is all that is required for salvation), everything else they believe or do is simply non-essential for salvation, right doctrine, sacraments, and so forth.
For Protestants, the rest of the Bible is merely a moral of the story, so to speak, or an aphorism and of course, for ecumenist Orthodox, the Fathers of the Church are simply opinionated but irrelevant, antiquated, unless their “ideas” are in sync with “World Orthodoxy”.
The Fathers must be dismissed if World Orthodoxy is going to coexist with World Christianity. To hold the assumption that the Orthodox faith is essentially the same as any other professed Christian religion (denomination) in its Christian mindset and theology or that it is not any more or less salvific is insulting and comes from spiritual delusion; not Apostolic truth and is a denial that Christ came to establish one faith, one baptism and one Church. The acquiescence of certain Orthodox to such a mindset is for the sake of placation out of a desperate desire to be considered part of the “Christian” world. Ecumenism adds theology gathered from heretical denominations to Orthodox theology creating a new religion that I call “neo-Orthodox”.
From this premise the Orthodox iconographer does not have the right or privilege, nor the authority to simply bestow upon those outside the Church (or within) those things which belong solely to God’s elect within the Orthodox Church. Orthodox iconographers believing they may teach others from outside the Church or even an Orthodox Christian who approaches them, because they see nothing wrong with it, or they personally believe anything from God can be given to just about anyone, because he believes they are sincere, which they may well be, or under the vapidity of “God loves everyone”, or “all who are willing are worthy” or “We are all brothers and sisters in Christ” or maybe they believe they might bring them to the Orthodox faith, is all conjecture and personal, and an opinion alien to our faith, which breeds impertinence and pride which gives breath to modern theology, never mind the fact that nowhere within Orthodoxy does it teach that our Sacraments or Canons can be used to evangelize. Also, the world’s idea of compassion is often not the same as Scripture. Compassion can be a tool for demons if it opposes the will of God. The Church dictates true benevolence, not secular society and not subjective opinion. This is why once we depart from sacred tradition and the Holy Fathers “we are thrown to and fro by every wind of doctrine”. Confusion and debate prevail.
Only Orthodox Christians devoted and abiding to true doctrine, Orthodox ideology, lifestyle, and correct confession of faith can possess the grace that allows the painting of holy icons, and of course, being baptized and belonging to the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Orthodox Church. The operative word here is “Apostolic”. Apostolic succession does not simply mean the uninterrupted transmission of spiritual authority from the Apostles through successive Bishops. It also includes the uninterrupted succession of Biblical and patristic theology to the present day. If the original theology from Christ to the Apostles, to the Holy Fathers[or Apostolic succession] is altered, then is not One, nor Apostolic, nor Catholic, nor Orthodox, nor part of the Church. These elements make one eligible to be instructed in the Sacred art of iconography, nothing else. Even then, one must be clearly chosen of God. Those outside the Orthodox Church are outside the grasp of anything within its boundaries and especially without Sacramental grace and therefore can not paint icons. They would be pseudo-iconographers painting only religious pictures, which may look like icons in every external way, but uncanonical, and inwardly they are lifeless; hollow.
An Orthodox iconographer that has the misguided thinking that he or she may offer tutelage to the uninitiated, must come to the understanding that this is not their right nor privilege if they are to acknowledge that those outside Orthodoxy’s parameters do not have liberty to access that which theologically speaking is uncommon and forbidden to them. For an Orthodox iconographer to offer the heterodox or non-Orthodox tutelage betrays his or her alliance and charge between themselves and their sacred trust made between themselves and God Himself as iconographers and as Orthodox Christians.
In this age of ecumenism and relativism the offspring of liberalism, it is no wonder this mindset has developed “iconography workshops”, allowing just about anyone to endeavor to paint icons, although to no spiritual avail. Any therapeutic or Spiritual benefit claimed by the uninitiated attempting to paint “icons” is at least psychological and deceptive and at most, a demonic snare for both the tutor and the student. The efforts of some iconographers, of whom I am sure are genuine in their sincerity and heartfelt desire to help others experience the spiritual beauty and connection with God, His saints and His Church, through iconography, are only watering down the sacred vocation of the iconographer, and meaning of icons in the eyes of the rest of the world and especially before Orthodox people. This will be their only achievement, other than the spiritual harm they cause their fellow Orthodox Christians and themselves. There is no favorable blessing gained from this only a blessing that causes spiritual sickness which will affect their work and ultimately their Church. All sacraments of the Church are intertwined, they are connected, one affecting the other, spreading and perpetuating either spiritual corruption or edification. Now, before anyone says, “Well, how do you explain the miracle working icons we have?” The answer is this, not all miracle working icons are a demonstration of Gods pleasure, but often a warning and quite possibly demonic intervention. For if the icon is painted by such unworthiness, either by one who betrays Orthodoxy, or his vocation, or the false doctrine of their episcopacy of which those faithful are a part, then as much as the Holy Spirit can be present in his work, the Holy Spirit can withdraw as well leaving it opened for the demons. There are other examples as well, but I will not discuss them here for the sake of brevity.
The art of iconography is a divine mystery of spiritual growth or decline, an effect of Grace that through the use of materiality possesses a power that is impossible to describe accurately in mere words, or understood amply even by Gods own people, generally, but for those outside the Church this mystery of Grace is hidden and its understanding incomprehensible. This is why they and those not called to the sacrament of iconography within the Church are not aware of the flaws in their own work. They can not “see”.
Again, where Grace does not abide neither can spiritual knowledge, gnosis. Those outside the precincts of Gods Church can not grasp these spiritual truths for the very simple reason that that which does not belong to them they may not possess it, because of their separation from the Church, therefore are without sanctification to comprehend. In addition, the iconographer who reprehensibly and spuriously instructs these students, fills their desires with an illusion, and to himself he acquires sin and teaches the lesson that there is nothing special or exclusive about our Holy Orthodox faith. True faith, heresy or Schism, are inconsequential, affects the whole of their work; not just their appearance, although often they can not see the weakness in their technique; for as mentioned earlier they may paint icons that are accurate in every technical manner, mimicking the ancients to the last stroke of the brush but they will gain no benefit from Grace.
The iconographer possesses a power that brings God and the spirit of the Saints literally to dwell within the icon. With ecumenist Orthodox, or neo-Orthodox, this is lost or perhaps I should say; sacrificed. By allowing most anyone to presume privilege of that which is forbidden to them, these certain Orthodox perpetuate the ongoing belief that the iconographer is nothing exceptional, nothing exclusive and even helping make Orthodoxy itself appear no better or worse than any other art form, not to mention religion, or denomination; making our faith and sacraments seem pedestrian and impotent to the world; one belief among many, but not absolute in truth. The true Orthodox iconographer can no more loose his or her Grace to paint as long as they are true and faithful to Christ’s doctrine and are humbly obedient to the Church Fathers; anymore than those attempting to change the faith of Orthodoxy acting contrary to its precepts and displaying an ideology adverse to our Holy traditions and creed, could ever do by their own will, which includes attempting to freely give away that which they have no authority to do. They simply separate themselves from her.
By allowing persons not connected to our holy heritage to act as iconographers these certain Orthodox surrender the faith once more and confirm their belief that they can not accept Orthodoxy as the one true faith. It is a continuing effort to alter or dismiss the Fathers of the Church, they put themselves in place of the Fathers in the desperation to be accepted by the rest of Christendom and willing to trade truth and sacred custody entrusted to us by God. This neo-theology proceeds under the pretext of sharing the truth of Orthodoxy under the guise of “brotherly love”, with a yearning to be a part of something foreign to Orthodox Christianity without understanding our Sacred Traditions. Particular Orthodox who create these iconography workshops have many students and continuous classes, treating iconography obliviously as bourgeois, believing they can produce iconographers like colleges produce graduates but in fact create naive alumna that render symbols without substance.
This casual attitude towards iconography comes from the same problem as to why they have lost gnosis to discern spiritual truth. False ideas about theology will lead to false ideas about iconology, or iconography, because one presupposes the other. Compromising the faith through ecumenism, compromises ability to grow in spiritual knowledge and piety, affecting their work, therefore the inability to “see” what they lack in their work, either towards sacred insight to discern the divine message brought through and by the icons, or noetic ability to understand the theology and doctrine of the icon, which includes the absence of Grace to perform this sacrament, involving the incapability to identify and recognize mistakes within a drawing or painting verses God inspired ingenuity. The onslaught of ecumenism and duplicity towards Orthodoxy’s Sacred tradition is the most grievous and lamentable cause.
Iconology is not simply the theological study of symbols in iconography or the capability of creating an exact copy of one of the ancient masters and following in their footsteps in regards to blessed iconographic ability. To paint aesthetically beautiful icons and following to the letter those ancient iconographers as guides for well executed technique is not the sign that one is now an iconographer. This is not how we define good and faithful ambassadors to this very holy responsibility. This is not evidence of Gods approval. One must be Orthodox, having unswerving fidelity to sacred tradition, most importantly doctrine; this is our main objective and sign of good and true stewardship. This is what creates an icon, bringing life to it, without which the painters work will be nothing more than wood and paint.
In the eyes of the secularist, iconology is the branch of art history that studies visual images and their symbolic meaning within the icon, but without a theological and mystical connection, without the grace to spiritually discern the deeper spiritual meaning of these images, it is incomplete and the understanding of the images within the icon is deficient to them. The iconographer has been given the power, or grace rather, which without, there could be no icon, but simply a religious picture, no more valuable to the Orthodox Church than the Christian based paintings of Fra_Angelico, Giovanni_Santi, or, Jacques Daret. .
Now, it is completely unnecessary to have an icon blessed by a priest or have placed in the alter for forty days. This conception was contrived in the West in the early to middle 20th century, and is contrary to the 7th Ecumenical Councils, hence:
The argument of the iconoclast read by Saint Gregory, Bishop of Neocesarea: “..icons are submitted to no prayer of consecration that may make it sacred. So it remains as the artist did it: unsacred and deserving no honor.”
Answer by the 7the Ecumenical Council, read by Epiphane, Deacon of Catania in Sicily: “Let them hear the truth. Many things that we regard as sacred do not receive a prayer for consecration because, per se, and due to the name they bear, they are full of blessings and grace. That’s why we honor and venerate them as holy things. So, the representation of the life-giving Cross is venerable, without a prayer or consecration being necessary; and we only have to receive a blessing by this representation. And we believe that the devils are defeated by the veneration we owe to it [the cross] and by the sign we make on our forehead or in the air. And when we honor and venerate it piously, we take part to its blessings. It is the same thing for the icon due to the One which name it’s bearing” (session 6, Mansi 13, 269 D,E).
And to this I shall add the Canon from the Iconoclastic Council of Hieria, 754 a.d #19: “If anyone does not accept this, our holy Seventh Ecumenical council, but criticizes it in any way, and does not endorse without reserve what it has decreed in accordance with the teachings of divinely inspired Scripture, Anathema from the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and the Seven Ecumenical Councils.”
The latter does not just apply to what the Councils say about the icon but all of the Orthodox Churches precepts. Defiance of this or any Ecumenical Council is rebellion towards God Himself and simply one of many examples of the indifference to many Orthodox dogma and Sacred Traditions by so many. If icons are not blessed, and not holy, within themselves by the gift of Grace given to and only to the iconographer, but instead a priests blessing or setting them in the altar for forty days is necessary to sanctify them, then what was the “icon” previously? Obviously it is not blessed through the iconographer or the act of “blessing” or rather “re-blessing” the icon would be pointless and redundant. Instead, by believing that the priest or setting it in the altar gives it that state of sanctification; and not the iconographer, the iconographer becomes independent from God’s Grace, irrelevant and disposable; a middle man, if you will, in essence just another secular artist.
Icons are still mere religious pictures after the iconographer paints them, are they not? They would have to be. Empty of grace? Yes, becoming one of many forms of art, take your pick. Who then could not paint icons? No one. This is the goal of those who would abandon Canonical Tradition, take away the Grace from the iconographer and eliminate his tie with the mystagogy of iconography and loose him from the synthesis between he and the icon so that there would be no reason to not allow the non-Orthodox to participate; an inventive means for permission for the non-Orthodox or heretics to paint icons without the necessity of them having to come to Orthodoxy. What a tragedy!
Grace, the iconographer and the icon work as one, the Holy Spirit works through the iconographer, the iconographer gives to the icon which God has given him and the honor and glory we give to the icon goes back to God. It is a circle. You may ask; what do you mean, back to God? Well, as you know when we recognize the Saintliness within a human person, we are not giving glory to the man or woman, not his or her body or matter; we are not worshiping them or adoring them in themselves. What we are worshiping, and adoring is God the Holy Spirit that dwells within them and giving thanks to God, that is to say, the Grace that is within the Saint represented in the icon is God’s presence. So in fact when we glorify the Saint it is more accurate to say we are glorifying God and His habitation within these holy men and women, so the mystery that is between God, the iconographer and the painting is therefore a mystagogical alliance, i.e., back to God, but with today’s “state of the art theology”, the iconographer is not part of this union of cooperation. In today’s new theology the iconographer possesses no special Grace and the icon in itself is not Holy by means of the iconographer.
Hence a denial of iconography and the iconographer as a sacrament because if it is indeed only the priest or the alter which grants Grace to the icon in order to make a mere painting an icon, then it is the Sacrament of the priesthood or alter that transforms it into a venerable work of art, not the so-called iconographer. When we eliminate the iconographer as the only means by which an icon can have Grace, the priest and the Sanctuary [or alter table] become the only tools that can make an icon an icon. This allows whoever paints an “icon” and how well it is painted, insignificant, and finely we are then free to ostensibly allow anyone to paint them. There is nothing in Orthodox ancient history or tradition that teaches that the priest or setting the icon in the altar for forty days is the means to sanctify the icon. This idea is the antithesis and in complete disregard, of the 7th Ecumenical Council.
I believe there is a neglect to appreciate and understand the place of the iconographer himself. Grace is not merely an end result, but an occurrence simultaneously taking place between the Holy Spirit and the iconographer as he works during the process of his icon, and during the entire formation of painting the icon this Grace flows through the iconographer and is bestowed to the wood and the paint to give it life and metamorphosis invisibly into the celestial. The transference of Grace flows through the hands of the icon painter, in unity with God the moment he begins his work. Not for a single instant is the icon ever a portrait; for Grace is ever with the one who is called iconographer. It is not something that is turned on and off.
Mere paint and wood have an unseen conversion from a single nature that now consists of two, just as Christ Himself did, physical and Spiritual. This occurrence does not happen after completion but from the moment the icon painter begins his work, throughout. The brushes are blessed, the paint, the panel or canvas become blessed; the iconographer himself is blessed continuously and always.
The physical side any human with artistic talent can create, but to imbue that incomprehensible, appearance or aura, that life bestowing sanctity, that is inexplicable within the icon, is something that only the iconographer can capture by that peculiar and distinct gift from God, unique to the iconographer, that even a priest or setting in the altar are not intended nor capable of doing, and would simply be redundant regardless, and would be an abuse brought by human rationalizing, and a direct defiance of the Canons and Divine Councils. All aspects of iconography make it a mystery of the Church, including the iconographers themselves that God has endowed to him or her alone, an effect of Grace apart from any other sacrament in the Church, including the priesthood.
Byzantine or Cretan, Macedonian, or Stroganov, or Kiev, etc., are canonical styles of iconography, that is all. To paint in a particular style is not what glorifies the icon. It is that inexplicable expression in the face, it is choosing the right hue, the shape of the body and its individual features, even the color of the background that only through the iconographer by the power and guidance granted to him by the Holy Spirit that these things divinely emerge and the icon is able to reach its fulfillment in achieving a transcendent, celestial, and communal connection between God, His Saints, the iconographer and the faithful. The iconographer has a mystical connection with God and with the Saints; a podvig, an ascetical feat, or charism. Its reflection of the iconographers’ life is a power of a spiritual nature mirrored through his iconography. This is true also for the observer. Just as the priesthood, or any of the sacraments, are mysteries and inexplicable in their own power, and special Grace, so to, is it with the iconographer, the icon and all their aspects. The sacrament of iconography does not just refer to the icon itself but to the iconographer. They are inseparable.
This charism, or divine influence, is what sanctifies the iconographer to bring forth the apotheosis of these Holy personages, a spiritual beauty. Those alien to Orthodoxy, can not in all their ability or efforts ever transcend beyond the physical, the single nature of their work, if you will, in their attempts to paint our icons, and those within the Orthodox Church who are not “called” to paint Holy icons will never move forward. So, even though those outside the Orthodox Church attempt to paint icons all that will be achieved is a secular religious painting. No matter what our unaware but sincere Orthodox acquaintances insist, it is simply their capitulation to religious pluralism that has brought on another compromise of Orthodoxy. This time it is through iconography.
There are levels of spiritual knowledge within the Church and levels of knowledge of a different nature outside of it. Those within have the means to ascend to higher levels of spiritual knowledge, and grow in piety and even in knowledge of God, acquiring more and more of the Holy Spirit, obtaining mystical gifts from God. This allows the iconographer, for example, to grow in his work. For those outside her borders, knowledge is limited to reason or intellectual instruction where there is no perception of the heart, no spiritual growth and no sacramental privileges.
We understand the teachings of Scripture through icons painted according to the Canons of traditional Church art which have been given to us by the God inspired Church Fathers. They guide and confine our mental images of the sacred giving us that which is necessary to understand the truth, to protect us from falling into false doctrine and heresy that could otherwise be painted in icons. To paint false icons is not limited to false images seen with the physical eye, but there is an alliance between what we believe rightly and wrongly concerning doctrine, and our repentant or unrepentant personal condition and the ultimate condition of our icons. Hence the phrase, “Show me the icons you venerate, that I may be able to understand your faith”, by Saint John of Damascus.
Just as false interpretation of Scripture and the Church Fathers can breed heresy through writings in books on theology or in hymnography, etc., which stem from what we believe concerning the Church, Church art, which is the visible theological side of the invisible theology of Scripture, the Fathers and the Canons, it can also do the same through iconography. Just as there are the two natures of Christ, the visible and the invisible, there are two natures of theology, that which is unseen but only described and that which is manifested through iconography, which is both, seen and described. We read the teachings of the Church in written expression but we see those same teachings through the icon in painted form. Iconography is just another media through which theology, doctrine, and canonicity are conveyed. False theology also leads to false iconography [pictorial theology] generating heresy. A heresy can be painted into an icon, even if all physical, historical and theological forms in an icon are correct. Simply to imitate correctly the technical and doctrinal aspects into an icon does not mean that the icon is there is an invisible False theology concerning Scripture including detachment and infidelity to the Fathers can be written and read (and preached), or painted. True theology is not only read, but “seen” through the icons, for example, that teaches us by visual theology, as does what we see or do not see or hear during the liturgy and all the divine services and what we hear or do not hear in Orthodox hymnography. Everywhere the Orthodox faith is enveloped in theology and typology, such as the typology in the icon of the Hospitality of Abraham which has been distorted. This typological distortion can not help but effect the theology of the Church from the time of Abraham until today. The To understand the icons by correct theology we must conform to the limitations of Church doctrine for true faith when painting icons keeping us harmonious with our written dogmatic theology inspired by the Holy Spirit. This keeps icons from becoming idols. Once we adapt, as Orthodox Christians, false theology, and assimilate into foreign doctrinal influences it has a direct affect on what we believe overall concerning the Orthodox Church and all other religious bodies, contaminating our personal spiritual condition.
If we step away from this imperative, that is to say, this indispensable Orthodox praxis, we lose contact with Christ and His Saints which includes our relationship with Christ, and the Theotokos and the Saints through the icon, by creating a different faith in our own image, because once we paint an “icon” with a faith or understanding of a faith contrary to the Orthodox Church, then sacred tradition and the doctrine of the Fathers, along with a different mindset of the same, we create a different theology, not with words this time, but with images; hence the reason for so many denominations. One of the mysteries within iconography is that the words of Scripture are mirrored in the icon, and so is what we believe, to wit, our faith; not just believing is necessary, for there are many beliefs, but having the right belief [ergo, the meaning of the word, Orthodox, that is to say, “right belief” ] is, the faith once delivered to the Saints, the Orthodox faith.
Wrong faith or belief simply creates an idol; for as I have said, we can not separate theology from doctrine or words from images. We can not separate what we believe doctrinally from our idea of God the Holy Trinity, the Saints, the mysteries, salvation, eschatology, Maryolatry, Christology, and so forth. Again, our faith is in congruence with the theology that we accept and thus is given mystigogically through the icon. False interpretation of Scripture begets false faith, and therefore a false icon, or to be precise, heretical art; false icon, false Christ, consequently a false God, Ergo, an idol.