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Royal Academy of Arts Byzantium Lecture 'Icons and the Practice of Prayer'

Friday 16th January 2009

In a lecture given at the Royal Academy of Arts, Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury explores aspects of how icons are, amongst other things, practical aids to meditative prayer.

Obviously, one of the first things that any visitor to an orthodox church will notice is the devotion paid to icons. People make ritual prostration before them. They kiss them. They light candles in front of them. And, as I'll explain a little further on in my remarks, they have a role in certain sacramental actions as well. This devotion is not a modern thing. So far as we can discern, it goes well back before the 6th century. And when the great controversy first arises over the use of icons in the Byzantine Empire, it is in terms not simply of the theory of icon painting but the practice of devotion. Forms of honour paid to holy images – burning lights or incense in front of them, bowing to them – were associated by the iconoclasts with idolatry. The argument over iconoclasm versus the veneration of icons was about the cultus of icons not just the rationale of icon painting. But that in turn meant that the response to the anti-icon movement had to be elaborated in terms of the rationale of the cultus. In other words, the iconoclast controversy prompted the first really systematic treatment of what was supposed to be going on, in both the painting and the veneration of icons. That controversy is located in the context of icons as connected with the prayer of Christian people.

At the time, devotion to icons was seen by some as a sin inviting divine retribution. Why were the Arabs winning all the battles? Well, the Arabs, of course, did not venerate images and the Byzantines did. There seemed to be a prima facie case that the wrath of God rested on the Byzantine armies because of their idolatry. But the price of all this was seen very rapidly to be the dismantling of a very complex theological synthesis achieved in the two centuries immediately before the controversy over the use of icons. And while some of the popularity in some areas of the anti-icon movement doubtless owed a bit to the military successes of the Emperor Leo, the deeply ingrained cultus won, it seems, over more narrowly political considerations.

I want to explore a little bit why the attack on icons was seen as the dissolution of a historic theological synthesis, and how the restoration and elaboration of that synthesis laid some of the foundations for the devotional use of icons in later centuries - and indeed the elaborations that continue to the present-day in the use of icons as a means of prayer. The argument of those opposed to veneration of icons, apart from the bald accusation of idolatry, boiled down to something like this: Jesus Christ is God incarnate. God is not capable of being represented. Either then you represent the humanity of Jesus alone, which is heretical because his humanity is never divorced from his divinity, or you purport to display his divinity which is impossible - and heretical also because any claim to portray his divinity suggests a diminished and trivialised view of God. Therefore, inexorably, you cannot represent Christ truthfully.

That argument in itself takes a good deal for granted about the already current rhetoric of God being beyond all representation and God's essence or substance being beyond all concept, as well as appealing to the indivisibility of the human and the divine in Jesus. But the response of those who defended the cultus of icons was to draw on some of the theories elaborated, particularly in the work of the great theologian of the 7th century, Maximus the Confessor, Maximus of Scythopolis. Maximus (and you can look up his Centuries on Love in the translation of The Philokalia published by Faber some years ago) argued that while we could not see or understand or apprehend the essence of God, we did encounter his action, his 'energy'. That, in its plural, manifest, interweaving forms, was what percolated through the entire material universe just in virtue of creation, and was raised to an almost immeasurably higher power in the lives of holy people and to its supreme state of intensity in the incarnate humanity of Jesus Christ. In other words, the relationship of the invisible, unknowable God to the material world, whether in Jesus Christ or more generally, was not simply the relationship of a self-enclosed divinity, infinitely distant from all material reality. It was the relationship of an active, outpouring, self-diffusing God whose action, as you might say, soaked through the material so that there was indeed a 'real presence' – and I use the words advisedly – of God within creation, and, by the work of grace and the Holy Spirit, an intensified presence of God in baptized people - even more intensified in those who took their baptism seriously and became saints; and supremely intensified in Jesus Christ.

So it's quite true that you can't represent God. But you're not trying to. You're representing, when painting an icon, the way in which the divine energy is present in a material body. You're representing, you might say, the effect of God on and in the material world. Nor are you therefore trying to represent a humanity divorced from divinity, the humanity of Jesus alone. Represent the humanity of Jesus and you represent a face, a body, a physique, soaked through uniquely with divine energy. And so in the human material reality of Jesus of Nazareth human activity is interwoven with divine activity. There is what Maximus and others called a 'theandric', a divine-human reality going on there, and the icon, the image of Jesus Christ represents that theandric reality - the interweaving (not fusion or confusion) of the endless, divine resourcefulness of agency and love with the particularities of a human life.

The Seventh General Council, which pronounced in favour of the legitimacy of the cultus of icons, said of holy images in a very interesting phrase. "They are in communion with him" (that is, with God). The image is in communion with what it represents. And that's a very significant concept as we unpick the history and the practice of devotion to icons and their role in prayer across the centuries. It's put rather neatly by a contemporary iconographer and writer, Solrunn Nes, who in her book on the iconography of the transfiguration in orthodox art has this to say about one particular image. She's writing about the depiction of the patron saint in Sant Apollinare in Classe in Ravenna where the saint stands in a middle of a field full of lambs, gazing upwards towards a cross in heaven, before which are three lambs, two on one side, one on the other, generally held to be a symbolic representation of the transfigured Christ with the three apostles, Peter, James and John, before his transfigured glory. Solrunn Nes points out that St. Apollinaris is standing in the same field as the cross and the lambs. He's part of the same landscape as the transfigured Christ. And, in terms of that representation, she says, Apollinaris 'is what he is through his relationship with Christ'. So the holy image in this context is not only the depiction of Christ's 'saturated' humanity, as you might put it, but of other humans in contact or communion with Christ, sharing some measure of that saturation with divine energy, divine activity. Just as when you depict Christ you depict a humanity soaked through with a divine action, so with the holy person you depict someone who, in union or communion with Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit, is likewise carrying, transmitting divine agency, divine light. And that means that even in narrative icons, icons that depict a scene or a sequence of scenes, the figures you see represented are not acting or operating in, as you might say, a neutral field. This is not any old observer's snapshot of what certain people are getting up to. This is a collection of people whose action together in this event is given its meaning by its relation to the action of God. Which is why an orthodox icon of the Nativity is rather strikingly different from the way you see it depicted in the West. It's not a depiction of a scene 2000 years ago in the Middle East but a depiction of a whole series of figures who, in their different relations to the central figure of the Virgin and her child, are relating to God and moving towards the fullness of their relation to him.

That's some of the theology that was elaborated during and after the controversy over icons in the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries, some of the thinking about the broad themes of theology and spirituality which informed the way the use of icons in public and private prayer came to be justified. And in the clarification of the legitimacy of venerating icons it was made very clear that what is venerated in the icon is not God as such and therefore the 'worship', to use a rather unhelpful word, given to icons is not what in Greek is called latreia, the devotion or submission given to God alone. It is doulia, service, reverence - short of what is due to God but appropriate to a human life or context in which the action of God is so (in every sense) materially present and at work: a reverence directed to the tangible effect of God, as I said earlier. And that means that the iconic representation of a saint is itself a representation of a person in prayer whether literally or not, in the sense of depicting someone in the act of praying, it is always a depiction of someone whose prayerfulness relates them to God and whose meaning, whose identity is finally provided in and through that relationship. It is a depiction of someone open to divine action and, as such, also capable of transmitting divine action. Something of what I'm talking about is illustrated by the icon of John the Baptist on my right here. It's a very typical representation of John the Baptist looking heavenwards, as you see, to the heavenly Lamb of God, the incarnate Christ, to whom he points. And although that icon is not a full-faced depiction of the Baptist, as you will sometimes see in iconography, what you see is John the Baptist in relation to and communion with Christ and therefore opening himself to the communication of Christ through him to the beholder.

So an icon shows you a relationship and also begins to enable a relationship. And some of the most powerful, best-known and most ancient iconic forms and styles are, in fact, the full-face representation of Christ, of Mary or of the saints where the exaggeration of the size of the eyes – rooted of course in Coptic tomb painting – the intensity of gaze becomes a means, once again, of communion. As some modern iconographers and commentators on iconography have observed, the icon itself thus becomes a kind of theological statement about what the grace of contemplative prayer and holy living entails. The icon declares that it is possible for human beings in communion with Christ to be bearers of divine action and divine light. I mention divine light specifically because this is a recurrent theme in eastern Christian spirituality in the Middle Ages and afterwards; and increasingly it comes to be interwoven with both the thinking and the practice of icon painting. When the orthodox believer begins morning prayer in front of the icon of Christ, he or she says this: "Christ the true light, enlighten all who come into this world. Lift up the light of your face on us that in it we may behold the unapproachable light. Guide our footsteps in the path of your commandments through the prayers of your most pure Mother and of all the Saints." You'll see there the trace of the kind of theological vision that I mentioned earlier. "The unapproachable light of God in himself" is 'refracted' through the human face of Christ upon us.

But the discussion of the divine light became, in the14th century, a very embittered and complex subject in the Byzantine Empire. Controversies began among the monks of Mount Athos over the possibility of beholding God's light. Contemplatives on Mount Athos claimed that in advanced states of contemplation they beheld what they described as the uncreated light, that is the eternal light of God's own presence, and that the purpose of contemplation was precisely to rise to that stage where they could see the light of their own minds in the light of God - and that this was a quasi-physical thing. Again, you'll find a number of very interesting precursors of that language in some spiritual writing as early as the 4th Christian century, the language of seeing your own light in the light of God, the language about perceiving the radiance of God with something analogous to physical sight. But it occasioned a great deal of controversy at the time, especially on the part of some in the Byzantine empire rather influenced by Latin scholastic thought, who said: uncreated light is uncreated light and that means you can't see it. And the claims of the mystics of Mount Athos were dismissed rather rudely by calling them 'omphalopsychoi' people who see their souls in their navels - referring to the practice of these contemplatives of saying their prayers bent almost double, their eyes focused on the lower chest.

However, a very elaborate and sophisticated defence was mounted by a number of theologians, including Gregory Palamas who became Archbishop of Thessalonica in the 14th century, who argued - very much along the lines that we've already noted - that of course the light perceived by the contemplatives in an advanced stage of prayer was the effect of God's action, 'uncreated' in the sense that it sprang directly from the act of God and nothing else and so that it was not a claim to see the essence or the nature of God or the face of God in a literalist, materialist way, one example of how the divine energy communicated to the human self, to the nous, in Greek – a hard word to translate. "Intellect" is not very helpful. "Spirit" gives slightly the wrong impression. "Heart" or "mind" might do; but you get the general idea. It is the subject, you might say, oriented God-wards, exposed to the light of God, the effect of God's presence.

I don't think it's entirely an accident that in the second half of the 14th century and in the 15th century there are many instances of iconographers in Greece, in the Balkans and in Russia apparently giving far greater, more sophisticated, attention to the use of highlighting in icons - as if part of the function of the icon now becomes much more obviously to depict something like the divine light. There's always been in the tradition of icon production an interest in the source of light and the transmission of light in the composition. If you look at some of the late 14th and 15th century icons from the whole of the Byzantine world, you'll see a quite remarkable intensity in some devoted to this depiction of highlighting. The work of Theophanes or Feofan, the Greek iconographer who settled in Russia, that you'll see still in Novgorod is exceptional for the intensity of this portrayal. The effect is to present you with almost an indistinguishably dark face, even allowing for the ravages of the centuries, a dark face with lightning streaks of light across it, cheekbones, noses and so forth, shining, almost as if with the effect of a photographic negative. Feofan was in contact with the Athonite monks who were speculating about the divine light in contemplation and I think you can see some carrying over into the practice of iconography at this point of something of e theological and spiritual dispute.

The point of all this is that it reinforces the sense already there in the controversies of the 7th and 8th centuries that there is a connection between the state of the figure depicted in the icon and the potential state of someone praying in the presence of the icon. The person depicted is someone receptive to, saturated with divine light, divine energy. The person praying exposes themselves to an action, to the possibility of transfiguration of the same kind. The person, in other words, who stands in front of the icon is not the only one doing the looking. Such a person is being seen, being acted upon, in this framework. The icon, therefore, is not a passive bit of decoration but an active presence. And that means that both corporately and individually the icon depicts what the life of the baptized is about. Corporately it means that the congregation meeting in a church decorated with icons is meeting in the presence of transfigured lives, the presence of holy people. Their prayer is associated with the prayer of all those depicted around them. It means the individual person praying, meditating in front of the icon is similarly experiencing a share in the prayer of the person depicted. Which perhaps makes some sense of why people may sometimes use language about icons as themselves 'interceding'. The icon is an 'intercessor', an active mediator, because it is a presence that draws you into a shared prayer. The praying individual associates himself or herself with the prayer of the figure depicted.

But the central significance in all of this of what I've called 'being acted upon' and being looked at is consistently associated with the significance of the face and the eyes in the icon and the extreme rarity of any depiction of anyone in profile. Profile means a lack of communion or communication. The figure depicted in profile in the icon is not relating either to God or the beholder and is therefore someone you ought to look at rather suspiciously. You will have endless examples of three-quarter portrayals as with John the Baptist there. But profiles are rare. Demons appear in profile for the obvious reason that they have the strongest vested interest in preventing communion with anybody at all. You'll sometimes see what you might call 'neutral' figures depicted in profile, by which I mean figures who don't have a very marked role in the story. In the icon of the nativity, you'll quite often see a stray shepherd chatting to Joseph in the corner and the stray shepherd is frequently shown in profile, not because he's diabolical but because he doesn't actually matter very much in this event. Interestingly in some icons of the resurrection, or rather the harrowing of Hell where Christ descends to the Realm of the dead and takes Adam in one hand and Eve in the other to draw them out of darkness, you'll see Adam depicted in profile. Because, of course, Adam is responsible for the first great decisive breach between Heaven and Earth and therefore he has a journey to undertake - his face has to be turned around, quite literally.

But to speak of that dimension of communion is also to be reminded of some of the liturgical functions of the icon. Now while icons are omnipresent in an orthodox church it may seem at first as though they do not have very much immediate and direct liturgical use during, let's say, a Eucharistic liturgy. And indeed, they don't. They're greeted, they're honoured with incense at various points but they don't seem to figure very much in how the actual shape of the liturgy unfolds. This is true; but to understand the potential of their role you have to turn to one or two other sacramental rites in the Orthodox Church. In the ordination of a deacon, for example, when the first examinations of the candidate for ordination have been concluded, the candidate for the diaconate moves to stand motionless in front of one of the icons on the screen until a much later stage in the liturgy where he's summoned back, hands are laid on him and, as a deacon, he goes to stand in front of the other icon. I'm talking here of the two icons of Our Lady and Our Lord flanking the Royal doors. The deacon in his ordination is being conformed to Mary and Jesus. And his growth into the bearing of Christ and the service that Christ gives to the world is signalled by those moves in the liturgy of ordination.

You find this expressed more explicitly in the Slavonic form of confession to a priest, where the rubric directs the priest to take the penitent before the icon of Christ on the doors of the icon screen with a prayer inviting the penitent to make confession including the phrase, "His holy image is before us and I am only a witness, bearing testimony of these things which you speak to me." In that liturgical move, the priest steps back to bring the penitent into communion with the Christ depicted in the holy image. And what happens in confession is first and foremost the searching of the heart by Christ rather than the examination by a priest.

That fits into an entire vision, an entire perspective on liturgy in the Eastern Church as an exposure to divine energy, divine action. And we're once again back to the 'hierarchy' of intense presence of divine action - a divine presence in the entire world symbolised by the very shape of the classical Byzantine church, the cross-in-square shape, which represents the Earth, the universal totality of the world; represented then by the symbolic presence of holy people in the icons; represented by the reality of the presence of Christ and the Spirit in the baptised, and then, of course, supremely in the sacramental gift where the divine energy of the incarnate Christ is made directly available in the sanctified bread and wine. So that the liturgical use and presence of icons is part of an entire understanding of the life of prayer, the baptised life, as being brought into a presence so as oneself to become a kind of presence.

A lot has been written in the last few decades about icons by orthodox theologians and practitioners of iconography. In the last part what I want to say, I want to refer initially to the writings of one of the very great 20th century iconographers, Leonid Ouspensky, who spent most of his working career in Paris, and left an extraordinary legacy of very impressive and sophisticated work in a number of churches in France and elsewhere. But he also left a legacy of theological reflection on what he was essentially doing as a painter of icons. It's a reflection informed by a formidable theological learning. "The icon", writes Ouspensky, "is both the way and the means. It is prayer itself. Hence its hieratic quality, its majestic simplicity and calmness of movement. Hence the rhythm of its lines, the rhythm and joyfulness of its colours which spring from perfection of inner high. A person's transfiguration communicates itself to all the surroundings for an attribute of holiness is a sanctification of all the surrounding world with which a saint comes into contact. Sanctity has not only a personal but also a general human as well as a cosmic significance. Therefore, all the visible world represented in the icon changes, becomes the image of the future unity of the whole creation, the kingdom of the Holy Spirit."

That powerful and poetic evocation of what a great iconographer thought he was doing draws together a great deal of what I've been trying to speak about in this lecture. The icon is the way and the means. It shows what it sets out to achieve. It shows a transformed humanity radiant with a light not of this world. It aims to communicate that light to the beholder and make that light real in the beholder, as part of the whole system of exposure to the work of the Holy Spirit in the church. What Ouspensky underlines there, in a very interesting way, is the point of what some people would call the 'non-realist' dimension of icon painting. Icons are not meant to be portraits in any sense, though there are some very interesting questions indeed of how in an age of photography, you paint adequate or appropriate icons of people whose actual historical appearance you know all too well - that's another story. But they don't set out to be realistic depictions, either of the person or of the person's environment. The world in which figures are set in iconography is not a landscape in the ordinary sense as you'll see again from John the Baptist there. And Ouspensky goes on to talk about the extraordinary things that some iconographers do with buildings in icons. He points to one Novgorod icon of the annunciation of, I think, the 15th century, observing how the background of buildings is actually worthy of a sort of Escher drawing. It is a complex of utter geometric impossibility; it's quite deliberately conceived as such, obviously. Because what you're looking at is not a person in a neutral field. You're looking at the harmonics of the new creation portrayed in visible form. And the connection of all that with the spiritual synthesis out of which the defence of icons originally came is again worth noting briefly.

I spoke earlier about the importance of Maximus the Confessor in the background to the history of thinking about icons. Maximus not only speaks about the divine energies penetrating the physical, he also speaks about the right and wrong use of images. And by this he means primarily images of the mind - concepts, mental pictures, the whole ordinary activity of the mind. And Maximus says very forcefully at one point in the 'Centuries on Love' that the purpose of self-denial and contemplation and prayer is not to get rid of beings and of images but to arrive at a state where the mind perceives images without passion. Passion is very much a technical term in this literature. It's the whole world of mutable, mobile, unreliable instinct and reaction, self-directed, ego-directed. The person praying or contemplating is on a journey of excavation of the passions, or at the very least, disciplining of the passions - not to the exclusion or death of the emotions, but the rational inhabiting and understanding of the instinctual life in such a way that it doesn't take over and dictate your relations with God or with one another. The holy person is the person 'free from passion' because he or she is the person free from having their relations totally dictated by instinct, self-defence - reactivity as we might say these days.

So, although Maximus is not (so far as we know) writing specifically about visual images, he is writing in a period where such images were available. He is again giving a kind of theological clue which later generations, and particularly in the last century or two, have willingly taken up. The figure depicted in the icon is not a figure designed to evoke emotion in us of the ordinary kind. And both the depiction and the effect are meant to take us beyond purely instinctual or reactive response. The icon, in other words, sets out to be the depiction of what Maximus and his generation would have called the apathos person, the person free from passion or instinct. And one of the things which in the 20th century Eastern Christian commentators on aesthetics have often said is that there comes a point in Western religious art where it, so to speak, throws down the brush and yields on this particular front - yields, that is, to the depiction of emotion and to a view of religious art as primarily about evoking appropriate emotions.

Those of you who know the Accademia in Venice will perhaps recall the strange experience of going from the 14th and 15th century rooms through to the 18th century and watching what happens to religious art in Venice during that period. It's a very instructive journey to take and slightly bears out some of what our Eastern commentators have said. It's perfectly clear that the priority of evoking appropriate emotion, depicting and evoking appropriate emotion, comes to control religious representation. The icon in its classical form is meant not to address the emotion but to show passion transfigured or held in relation to God in such a way that it doesn't interfere with freedom, spiritual freedom. In such a way it's part of the whole dispensation by which grace is transmitted to the praying person so as to generate the same kind of transfiguration of the passions that holy people experience on the way to that final condition of contemplative liberty where the world of instinct and reaction is, for all practical purposes, done away with.

So when Ouspensky writes about our projection into the kingdom of the spirit, he's drawing attention to that dimension of the icon which pushes beyond the emotional level, which takes us outside an aesthetic whose concern is primarily to show accurately how people are feeling so you may feel the same thing. It's one reason of course, why in the early 20th century, modernist artists in Russia were so fascinated by the icon and so often reverted to its conventions, its colour patterns and its linearity as a way of exploring their own agenda. I mentioned very briefly there the question of colour, and there would be several more lectures needed to unscramble some of the symbolic importance of the balance of colours in the history of icons (very much developed in a particular kind of Russian aesthetic at the end of the 19th century but not wholly absent in earlier centuries). I'll pass over that, but I will note with a rather puzzled interest one other particular phrase from an early Christian writer in the same collection of spiritual texts where you find Maximus: Diadochos of Photiki. He speaks of how the work of redemption is rather like the work of an artist. First, you sketch in the outline in pencil and then you put in the colours. So first, the Holy Spirit in baptism sketches out the outline of Christ. That's the outline into which you are going to move and live. And the work of the spirit as you grow in your discipleship fills in the colours. Again, I have no idea whether Diadochos of Photiki was thinking specifically of the Christian artist or how many iconic depictions or iconographers he was familiar with. When he writes in the 6th century we're still at a very, very early stage of all this. But it's one of those curious little sparkles of tradition which somehow seem to echo deeper themes around in the overall evolution of devotion and practice here.

In short, what I've been trying to do in these remarks is to locate the devotional practice around icons, early and contemporary, in the theological context in which it first developed and flourished and to try and show how the defence of icons in the context of the iconoclast controversy itself drew upon an immensely complex and sophisticated theological background, and, in making that defence, developed the theme still further. I've suggested some of the ways in which the spiritual controversies of the 14th century are echoed again in the practice of iconography; and how they can be understood within the same overall framework. And I've hinted at some of the ways in which the presence of the icon in the liturgy is both an illustration of and an intensification of what the liturgy itself as a whole is meant to be about. To sum up what I've been saying in the most general terms, the icon from very early on, is conceived as one of the means of grace, one of the means of spiritual transformation, representing what it is meant to effect. Outside the context of that understanding, that purpose, the icon as a means of spiritual transformation - holy images in the Eastern Christian tradition will make very much less sense. One may or may not approach them with an awareness of that theological and spiritual world in mind. But to see the fullness and the richness of the thought that has nurtured them, that world of Christology and reflection on the contemplative task is a deeply enriching element in our response.

© Rowan Williams 2009

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