Our Stories

On The Problem of Icons

As a child I was exposed to Western images of the virgin, the baby Jesus, the crucifixion, and the saints as colorful naturalistic paintings and sculpted larger-than-life statues. I never thought much about how they fit into the theological framework of the church but assumed that they were the proper way to depict God and the saints.

As I began to learn about Orthodoxy, icons presented two problems. The first was that they were simply foreign. They were stilted and unrealistic. They brought no pleasant memories of Christmas stables and evergreens. They weren’t Western. The second problem was that we were supposed to kiss them. That practice seemed to be close to, if not actually, idolatry. I became Orthodox in spite of icons, not because of them and my transformation to an ‘iconodule’, a lover of icons, took two or three years.

Learning the symbolism and role of icons in the church was the first step in overcoming my dislike. They began to make sense in the overall context of Orthodox theology and worship and I could appreciate what they were meant to communicate. I found I could venerate them by kissing them without feeling like an idolater. But in experiencing one particular icon, the Sinai icon of the Pantocrator, I turned the corner. That icon was less stylized than most others I had seen and it bridged the gap between the sentimental Western images and the passionless Byzantine icons. The eyes of Christ seemed to follow me, sometimes approving, sometimes saddened, and sometimes showing knowledge of my sinfulness. I was hooked. Not long afterwards, on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, when we celebrate the victory of icons over those who would remove them from the churches, I wept with sorrow at the thought that icons might not have survived, and with joy that we are surrounded by such a ‘great cloud of witnesses’.