Just What Do Catholics Believe About Icons?

Are icons really superior to other forms of sacred art?

The growth of interest of icons, identified with the Eastern Church, has helped to ignite a greater movement towards the re-establishment of authentic Christian art in our churches. This is good. Very good.

However, the same process that has lead to a greater appreciation of the importance of icons has created as well, it seems, a misplaced mystique about icons to the detriment of a genuine appreciation of our own traditions. Whenever I write about icons I get responses from people who are very often Roman Rite Catholics who tell me that Catholics can’t paint icons, only Russians or Greeks can do it (even though the fact is that it is as much part of the Western tradition as the Eastern). Some tell me that only religious can paint them despite the fact that I know accepted and thriving icon painters who are not monks or nuns. I am told that I should not say that an artist ‘paints’ icons, rather that he ‘writes’ them; even though my teacher, who is as Orthodox as they come and a respected authority in the Orthodox world, refers to this pedantic insistence on the word 'write' as ‘a bit precious’. (I am told that this happens because the word for write and paint is the same in Greek.) And, perhaps most importantly, people speak of icons as though the saint depicted is really present in the icon. So what does the Church really believe about icons? I have done my best to find out.

As I understand it, the orthodox view was articulated in the 7th Ecumenical Council and with a later clarification by the Synod of Constantinople, which finally closed the iconoclastic period in AD843. This is celebrated today in the Eastern Church as the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. The Church Father who expresses this is St Theodore the Studite. Theodore was abbot of the Studios Monastery in Constantinople and he is revered in the Eastern Church as well as Western. (He is probably more known in the Eastern Church.) What is ironic is that the error of attributing to the icon a presence of the saint by iconophiles (those who were in favour of them) is one of the things that the iconoclasts objected to so strongly that it provoked them into seeking to eliminate the use of sacred images altogether. Theodore, like the iconoclasts, opposed this view; but he provided an alternative theology that justified the use of sacred images.

 According to Theodore:

1. The essence of the saint is not present in the icon. It is just wood, gold, paint etc. The connection to the saint is made in our minds, especially through the imagination, when we see the characteristic likeness portrayed. So if the icon is covered up, for example, by metal cladding, it has no sacramental value (unless the cladding has been panelbeaten into a likeness, in which case it is the cladding that evokes the saint for us). Theodore illustrates with the point that once the icon becomes damaged so that the likeness is destroyed, it is just thrown away.

2. Icons, when worthy of veneration, are  like sacramentals.  Their value is that they predispose us to grace, they are not themselves channels of grace. This distinguishes them from sacraments.

3. Theodore’s theology applies as much to any form of art in which the characteristic likeness appears. Therefore the view that what we now consider to be the iconographic style is a higher form than the other traditions of the Western church, such as the gothic and the baroque, cannot be justified. Theodore spoke of 'icons', but only in the broad sense of the meaning of the  in Greek, meaning ‘image’. He did not refer to specific styles or traditions beyond that. Accordingly, his theology, applies as much to gothic and baroque art (the other two traditions cited by Pope Benedict XVI as authentically liturgical in his book the Spirit of the Liturgy) as it does to the iconographic style; it can also be applied to statues as it does two-dimensional images.

Furthermore, it should be pointed out that there is no canonical or dogmatic statement or account by any Church Father, Eastern or Western that I know of that that says that the iconographic style, as we now refer to it, is inherently superior to any other. Like the discussion of Theodore, the debate in the early Church was about the validity of images in general.

It may be a surprise for some to discover the theology of the iconographic style is it is generally articulated today (and which does distinguish the iconographic style from other forms of sacred art) is a modern development and did not exist until the 20th century. This doesn't make it wrong, but it does make it new. We should be aware however, that it was developed by very anti-Catholic Russian Orthodox thinkers based in Paris (such as Ouspensky and Lossky). So while they did some great work in their assessment of their own tradition, they spoke in ignorance of other traditions. While their dismissal of other liturgical traditions may be fair from an Orthodox point of view (that is for the Orthodox to say) but has no basis in the teaching of the Catholic Church.

Eastern Rite Catholics might legitimately and reasonably say that the only form of sacred art that is appropriate for the Eastern Rite is the icon, and this might affect their choice of image for an icon corner in their homes. But it is just as legitimate for Roman Catholics look to their authentic liturgical traditions (which includes the iconographic) and consider them appropriate for the Roman Rite, and for use their own home.

To read an account of the theology of icons of Theodore the Studite, his works are still available. For an excellent summary of the whole debate regarding sacred art which includes an account of the theology of images develope by both Theodore and St John of Damascus, I recommend God's Human Face by Cardinal Cristophe Schoenborn, published by Ignatius Press.

The icon at the top is the Triumph of Orthodoxy.