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Favorite Ikons?

Let’s just be honest: ikons are cool again.  We don’t know when it happened that non-Eastern Orthodox Christians began to be fascinated with the tradition of Christian iconography, but we can certainly see that it is legion today amongst Christians from nearly every sub-tradition of the faith.  Whether we are evangelicals, Catholics, emergent types, or neo-monastics, the lure of the ikon as a tool of spiritual formation is ubiquitous in the church today.

In light of this I am wonder how and to what degree ikons shape the theology and spirituality of people.  Are they used in your attempts to pray?  To write?  To contemplate?  To teach?  How is the resurgence of ikons in the global church significant to us and what are we doing with it? 

Personally, I have devoted almost no time to the pious use of ikons, and honestly I don’t really understand it and am not actually sure I agree with it.  Certainly I enjoy Rublev’s depiction of the hospitality of Abraham or the imposing visions of Christ Pantocrator (even if I’m not sure this ikon makes the right sort of Christological statements) and sometimes I even gain theological insight from them (or think I do).  However I am, at heart, something of an iconoclast, both theologically and spiritually.  Certainly this has its own share of problems, but I think there is something central to the apocalyptic gospel of Jesus that lends itself to an iconoclastic style (if you will) of theology and spirituality.

But, I digress.  The crucial question I have is how ikons are actually being used by non-Eastern Orthodox Christians.  What role are they coming to play in the life of the church and what sort of significance should we ascribe to that?


  1. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Yeah man, I totally pray using images of Orthodox icons bouncing on the screen of my iPhone. This is what I get from much of the popular use of icons among the emergent types. I think this is what Zizioulas has in mind when he expresses fears that Orthodoxy has become an “exotic” religion.

    Monday, June 16, 2008 at 1:44 pm | Permalink
  2. I have found my own personal fascination with icons to really be nothing more than a form of commodity fetishism. Unfortunately, iconography is often used by ex-fundies like myself as a form of reifying our new-found acceptance of Christian tradition via an exotic medium.

    Monday, June 16, 2008 at 2:03 pm | Permalink
  3. Hill wrote:

    The comments above are the reason why, even though I have several reproductions of icons and am drawn to them in a profound way, I don’t really talk about it or claim to be engaging in anything like their intended spiritual use. I am on board with all of the EO theology of icons of which I am aware, but I am far outside of my element when it comes to a real embodied, historically embedded, ecclesial spirituality of icons.

    Monday, June 16, 2008 at 2:10 pm | Permalink
  4. Jon wrote:

    My favorite icon is probably the icon of the Anastasis: Christ in hell with the gates toppled down, both the Old Testament saints and New on either side, Adam being pulled by the wrist out of his sarcophagus with Satan and Death broken, defeated and cowering in fear beneath the feet of Christ.

    This is the Gospel.

    Monday, June 16, 2008 at 2:18 pm | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    Personally the major sort of real enjoyment I get from ikons involves their qualities as art – which of course may be contrary to the intentions of ikon writers. I may have to write more on my own ideas about an iconclastic theology, as I think our whole “style” is pretty key to how we think about whether or not these kind of objects of religous devotion can just be “used” by us.

    Monday, June 16, 2008 at 3:54 pm | Permalink
  6. dan wrote:

    Mostly, it strikes me as little more than a form of self-branding. I can increase my own brand status by showing appreciation for an ‘exotic’ form of Christian expression, or I can increase my own brand status by demonstrating my appreciation for an oft neglected art form — in most (but not all) cases it amounts to the same thing.

    Tuesday, June 17, 2008 at 12:19 am | Permalink
  7. matthew wrote:

    St. John of Damascus who wrote a treatise on icons thought that those who opposed icons were “the enemy of Christ, the Holy Mother of God and the saints, and is the defender of the Devil and his demons.”

    I pray with icons, not because I am some sort of fashion conscious emergent, it is because I am orthodox. If the emergents have started using icons or admiring the art, then good for them, they accidentally stumbled on some sort of orthodoxy. It was bound to happen sometime. As for icons being “cool again”, they’ve always been cool, as have the Eucharist, Baptism, Marriage, Holy Orders, Confession, Reconciliation, Anointing of the sick, incense, prayer, and the sign of the cross. Perhaps for protestants it seems that orthodoxy (including the icon) is back in style, but for those in the orthodox and catholic church, it never went out.

    I think icons are important for spirituality, theology, worship. I believe this, not because it is en vogue or du jour, but because I believe that Christ who “For us and for our salvation…came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” I venerate icons because I believe in sanctam ecclesiam catholicam; sanctorum communionem; remissionem peccatorum; carnis resurrectionem; vitam oeternam.

    Tuesday, June 17, 2008 at 7:39 am | Permalink
  8. Dave Belcher wrote:

    To riff on Marion: an idol is that which we fix with our gaze, while an icon peers through at us.

    Tuesday, June 17, 2008 at 9:02 am | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    Dave, I considered briging Marion into this post — but then had to run, so I just posted it as is. I think that the distinction he makes between the iconic and idolatrous gaze is important. And think its much harder for us to distinguish between the two in any act of perception than we might like to think. What we imagine to be the peering of the ikon can easily become the fixing gaze of the idol. I don’t think we consider this enough when considering the spirituality of ikons.

    Tuesday, June 17, 2008 at 10:18 am | Permalink
  10. matthew wrote:

    I thank you for your clarification.

    I was wondering if you could elaborate on this statement: “The objectification and fetishization of ikons in the contemporary protestant church is certainly not honoring to the tradition of the church which situates the the theology of ikons in a particular way.”

    In what ways would you say the contemporary protestant church fetishizes or objectifies icons?

    Tuesday, June 17, 2008 at 7:38 pm | Permalink
  11. Andrew wrote:

    this has yielded some fruitful discussion.
    thanks for this one.

    Tuesday, June 17, 2008 at 9:59 pm | Permalink
  12. Ben George wrote:

    Being Catholic, I adhere to the Catholic view of icons, which seems to be a middle position between iconoclasm and iconodulia. I often find the “strong” Orthodox position to be a bit much: that the icons ARE what they represent, that they are a real window into heaven.

    The Catholic position on icons seems to me to be a step back from that, accepting them as important and perhaps even inspired art.

    All of this is somewhat hard to talk about, seeing as how it’s not ever certain how much theory actually aligns with practice. When a devout and ethnic EO looks at an icon, how do they see it? Does he really see it as a “window to heaven”? When a devout ethnic Catholic parades a statue around on a bier, what does that mean? (By “ethnic” I mean someone who lives in a Catholic/Orthodox country or who is formed by that country’s traditions. Though I am Catholic I’m probably not ethnic, my basic spiritual/mental formation has been in bourgeois USA.)

    Wednesday, June 18, 2008 at 11:26 am | Permalink
  13. jake wrote:

    from madeline l’engles book penguins and golden calves
    “There’s the rub; an icon can far too easily become an idol. Idols always bring disaster to the idolater. An icon is an open door to the Creator; when it becomes an idol, the door slams in your face.”
    (Penguins and Golden Calves, 39)

    Wednesday, June 18, 2008 at 12:11 pm | Permalink
  14. Hill wrote:

    To actually answer the question:

    the Black Madonna of Częstochowa

    According to legend, it was written on a table top from the household of the Holy Family by St. Luke. Likewise according to legend, the two scars on Mary’s face were inflicted by a Hussite robber who dropped dead upon attempting to inflict a third. The scars are said to reappear despite many attempts to remove them.

    Also, if you are interested in acquiring some very nice and modestly prices icon reproductions, take a look at the following site:

    It’s an EO monastery in Wisconsin that produces them. I have several and have been delighted with their quality and service. You can also purchase actual hand painted icons and even commission icons from the monks of the monastery.

    Wednesday, June 18, 2008 at 5:34 pm | Permalink
  15. ben lindwall wrote:

    I grew up with a buddy named Ben George in Chaska, MN, and he was Catholic…

    Thursday, June 19, 2008 at 7:08 am | Permalink
  16. Macrina wrote:

    John de Gruchy, the South African Reformed theologian and Bonhoeffer scholar, has recently published a book entitled Icons as a means of grace, part of which is structured around a reflection on the creed. As an Orthodox-leaning Catholic I’d be more inclined to recommend Ouspensky and Evdomikov, but de Gruchy’s book, which is accessibly written for a general audience, may be helpful to some Protestants.

    Thursday, June 19, 2008 at 7:41 am | Permalink
  17. Halden wrote:

    Matthew, in response to your question “In what ways would you say the contemporary protestant church fetishizes or objectifies icons?” I would point to some of the comments made above, such as RO Flyer’s comment about people praying with ikons on their iPhone.

    For many I think that Ikons have become a sort of exotic relic that is interesting simply for the sake of its novelty. It has become just another spiritual commodity that is bought and sold just like the infinite varieites of study Bibles have become consumer objects tailored to complete the self-image of any sort of person (i.e. Father’s Bibles, Mother’s Bibles, The Marine’s Bible, the Teenagers Bible to make sure you don’t have sex, etc.).

    Hope that helps.

    Thursday, June 19, 2008 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

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