The Gaze of Holiness

Edmund Ryder

Compared to a photograph or painting, visual memory is very tenuous. The beloved features of an absent parent, child, or longed-for friend become increasingly vague. Given the current ubiquity of the selfie and other types of photography, it is difficult to imagine what it was like living in an age before forms of mechanical representation.

Portraiture created before the advent of photography must have had a special visceral impact, due to its comparative rarity, and particularly when the subject matter was sacred personages, in other words, icons. Icons continue to evoke in us many questions. What is their function? Why do they look the way they do? What justifies their use?

Visual Theology

In the Orthodox Church, icons (the Greek word can simply mean an “image”) are not decorative objects: They are essential aspects of religious experience. Icons have liturgical functions. They are used for corporate and private prayer and serve didactic purposes. Precise definitions guide the manner in which icons are created or “written.” For icons are read: They are visual “texts” permeated with the essentials of Christian theology. These factors have much to do with an icon’s seemingly alien appearance.

Icons purport to exhibit the true effigy of the figure portrayed. Therefore the artist’s personal creativity and innovations are of little import. This accounts for their repetitive quality; they are supposed to duplicate earlier, canonical examples. The Renaissance artist Filippo Lippi’s practice of using his beloved mistress Lucrezia as the model for the Madonna would not be acceptable practice for an icon, as the resulting work would bear no relationship to its subject and hence could never be a “true” icon.Although it is a form of portraiture, an icon’s function is not simply to bear a mere physical consonance with its subject, but also to evoke “his eternal glorified face.”2 Nevertheless, some visual correspondence between the figure represented and the icon was necessary in order to be deemed legitimate, together with an identifying inscription – even when the subject is obviously Christ or his Mother, the Theotokos.

Folk Art?

Even today, for both aesthetic and theological reasons, the acceptance of icons is not universal. Icons display a severe visual otherness that disturbs some viewers. To eyes accustomed to the tender and swooning saints of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, an icon’s lack of verisimilitude, narrative, and perspectivally articulated space relegate them to a type of dour folk art. Nevertheless, the paring away of unnecessary elements contributes to an icon’s unique beauty and hypnotic power.

The solemnity of an iconic representation gives it a meditative stillness, compelling the viewer to enter into a different space, a contemplative silence. The encounter with an icon conjures the words of Psalm 30: “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; when shall I come and appear before God?” Although the viewer is seemingly the only active participant, the one “looking,” it is also the viewer’s duty to become a reflection of the sacred individual represented, to actively become a participant in the process of theosis, or divinization, to become an image of the divine, to also be “seen” as the sacred reflection or counterpart of the icon.

Brilliant With Light

The close connection between viewer and the viewed is demonstrated in the encounter between Saint Seraphim of Sarov, the noted 19th-century exemplar of the Hesychastic tradition of prayer in Russia, and his interviewer Nikolai Motovilov. At one point in their conversation, Motovilov declares his inability to gaze at the saint’s face, because it is brilliant with light. To which Father Seraphim replies: “Don’t be alarmed, your Excellence! Now you yourself have become as bright as I am. You are now in the fullness of the Spirit of God yourself; otherwise you would not be able to see me as I am.”3 Icons are material reminders that we too are called to be participants in this divine light. They encourage us to imitate those exemplars who have succeeded in the spiritual struggle to attain it.

The principles for the veneration of icons were outlined by the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787), although controversy continued until 843. The theological justifications focused on lofty intellectual ideas, emphasizing the differences between the worship due to God alone and the veneration offered to the image of God, or his saints, and arguing that the veneration given to the icon reverts to the prototype represented.

Passions animated the discourse too. The council noted that seeing the icon evokes the memory and love for the person portrayed, and urged to approach an icon with epipothesis, a word that describes the lover’s “longing” for the beloved.

Newspaper Encounters

Recently in The New York Times there appeared a photo of a weeping woman clutching the photograph of two young men shown side-by-side, who died during the current war in Iraq. The photograph was decked with flowers and was being kissed by another female figure, perhaps their mother. What was that woman attempting to do? Honor paper and chemical residues? No, she sought to preserve the connection between herself and those loved ones, severed by death. This powerful motivation for connection, for regaining lost presence, is a strong aspect of icon veneration.

The icon (also the photograph) is created out of material things: wood, pigment, plaster. Yet an icon displays how matter can transcend its own limitations and achieve sanctity. The supreme example of this transformation takes place in church, where the worshiper faces a wall of icons, the iconostasis. Through this wall the priest emerges to share the Eucharist with the worshiper. At that moment, it is as though an icon of Christ is liberated from its material limitations, and the communicant and Christ merge and become one.

How, though, was it possible to justify the representation of Christ? In the centuries when the church was grappling with who Christ was – God, man, a man adopted by God – a question emerged. Who exactly is represented in an icon of Christ? Can the divinity of Christ be shown in an icon, or do icons merely display a likeness of Christ’s human, physical body?

The church had decreed at the Council of Chalcedon (451) that Christ was fully human and fully divine simultaneously in every atom of his being. Therefore, to represent the historical Christ meant that both sides of his nature were always present, and were reflected in the image. In later discourse, iconophile authors often used the term “perigraphein”– to “encircle” or “circumscribe”– to explain the incarnation of Christ as God housed or encircled in a human body.

“Behold a Miracle”

If it was acceptable to represent Christ, then it was deemed legitimate to represent his mother as well, for she was the container of the uncontainable God. By representing Mary with Christ, incarnational theology was reaffirmed, and such metaphors as Christ taking his flesh from his mother could be subtly taught. The obscuring of sacred matter behind veils is a metaphor that alludes to the incarnation of Christ. Pope Leo I wrote that Christ’s divinity was hidden by a “veil” of human flesh.4

Ultimately, when one looks at an icon, it is one’s sacred family that one beholds. One knows their history from the Bible, liturgy, and sermons. These recollections add immeasurably to an encounter with an icon. An icon serves as a meditation on material reality, which can be transformed and sanctified. An epigram by Byzantine poet Manuel Philes (c. 1275-1350), describing an icon of the Archangel Michael, captures the great paradox of mere matter representing something spiritually immaterial: 

When art paints an imitation of bodies, the painting and the thing represented have the same nature. For it is nothing new to paint matter with matter. But whenever it represents the mind and burning fire, and encompasses both spirit and light with brief outline, behold a miracle, oh stranger, and marvel at the art!”5

Edmund C. Ryder, Lecturer in Christian Art and Architecture at Yale Divinity School, focuses his research on the late Byzantine period. He received his doctorate from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts in 2007.


1 G. Vasari, Lives of the Artists, vo1. 1 (Penguin Classics, 1987), p. 218.

2 L. Ouspensky & V. Lossky, The Meaning of Icons (Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press), p. 39.

3 N. Motovilov, On Acquisition of the Holy Spirit, posted as “Saint Seraphim of Sarov’s Conversation with Nicholas Motovilov” at

4 J. D. Sieger, “Visual Metaphor as Theology: Leo the Great’s Sermons on the Incarnation and the Arch Mosaics at S. Maria Maggiore,” Gesta, vol. 26, no. 2 (1987), p. 85.

5 E. Miller, ed. Manuelis Philae Carmina. Ex codicibus Escurialensibus, Florentinis, Parisinis, et Vaticanis, vol. 1 (Paris, 1855-57), p. 36.