"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

Monday, 26 June 2017

IMAGE AND ICON - 1 An Introduction by Dom Alex Echeandia O.S.B., Prior of the Monastery of the Incarnation, Pachacamac, Peru.

Father Alex Echeandia is a native of Chiclayo in northern Peru and is a monk of "The Monastery of the Incarnation", founded from Belmont Abbey (UK) in 1981.   While he was studying Theology at Blackfriars, Oxford, he also studied iconography under Aidan Hart, an Orthodox iconographer.
Thr original icon of the Theotokos
"Our Lady of the Incarnation"

The above photograph is our monastic chapel in Pachacamac, not  as it is, but as we hope it will be.   In fact, only the left hand icon is up and painted.  Fr Alex hopes to paint the right hand icon of the child Jesus among the archangels towards the end of the year, and the much larger Christ Pantocrator, perhaps as a fresco, next year.

Fr Alex gives a retreat on spirituality of icons and a course on icon painting every year in England at Belmont Abbey and in Peru in our monastery here

Theotokos of Tenderness
"Our Lady of Belmont"



How to participate in the mystery of faith?
       a)    Why does Christian art exist? – Incarnation –                II Council of Nicea
       b)   Meaning of Icons
       c)    Roots of Iconography

      A work of art is a new creation. It manifests an organic unity. The artist strives to so unite the different elements that a new reality comes into being, something greater than its parts, something that bestows richness and purpose on all the elements that make it up. This is true of icons as  well as all other kinds of art.  So, what is the difference between Christian works of art and other works of art? It introduces another transcendent dimension to the image which is seen in the light of Christ. It gives people a new way of seeing things, in faith and meditation within Christian spirituality.

Christian art requires first the use of the most advanced artistic techniques and artistic talent in the execution of the work. Together with the skills of the craftsman, Christian art also receives from Tradition its Christian content. Christian Tradition is the interior life of the Church, born out of the harmonious cooperation between the Holy Spirit and the faith experience of the Church, and is itself the extension of God’s incarnation.  Thus, Christian art first began during the centuries of persecution at the very beginning of Christianity.   In the same Tradition, Christian art received new life from the dogmatic deliberations of the great ecumenical councils. Tradition combines with Sacred Scripture that it interprets to provide material for sacred art., Thus it is rooted in the very heart of our faith.

Images of God, as you know, were prohibited in Deuteronomy. Many believe that they are still against God’s Law and that using them in prayer is a form of idolatry. How can one make an image of the Invisible God? How can one represent the One who has no quantity, height or limits? In fact, not all figurative representation was prohibited in the Old Testament. There was the bronze serpent[1] and the ordinances concerning the cherubim in the ark[2]: “For the two ends of this throne of mercy you are to take two golden cherubs, you are to make them of beaten gold”.  So, the Jewish world, showed a certain tolerance towards images.[3] 

Mosaic Floor (517-528 AD) Beth Alpha Synagogue,   discovered  in 1922 in the Northern District of Israel. 
Scene of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his bound son Isaac

In fact, for a Christian the Incarnation of God in Mary, brought about a new situation,  a new reality, a New Creation. As St Paul says, Christ is the image of the invisible God.[4] Thus, for us Christians there should be no problem using images of God as signs of our faith because God has provided us with the Image of all images. John Damascene against iconoclasm declared: “I don’t adore the matter, but the Creator of the matter who became matter for me, and through this matter I was saved.” The incorporeal one became man for you. So, it is possible to make his human image. By Christ becoming man, one may see the image of the one who was seen by the Apostles in human features.

Damascene was a very important figure in the difficult time of iconoclasm, when there was a misunderstanding related to images. Iconoclasm means rejection or destruction of religious images seen as heretical. It involved religious icons, symbols or monuments.  Iconoclasm was motivated by people who adopted a literal interpretation of Scriptures texts which forbids the making and worshipping of "graven images or any likeness of anything"[5] 

  Fresco destroyed in Cappadocia

Iconoclasm appeared in the Byzantine Empire during the 8th and 9th centuries. Since Constantine was converted and declare Christianity the religion of the Empire, images were allowed to represent Jesus Christ or other important figures of Christianity. The iconoclasts viewed the use of icons as pagan idolatry and therefore wanted to remove them from Christian worship. They also believed that the icons might be Nestorian.   According to their view, art can only depict the human nature of Jesus, leaving undepicted his divine nature, thus separating these two natures which, in fact, are united in One Person.[6] If the icons portrayed only the human side of Jesus, they could not help but promote a Nestorian Christianity as opposed to the true Christianity.

From a manuscript Psalter 68, Constantinople 843

The II Council of Nicaea in 878, the seventh of the ecumenical councils, restored the use and veneration of images.[7] This council used texts from Scriptures and the Fathers and proved that the veneration of images was legitimate. The central truth of the Council was focused on the honour given to images. They receive veneration (proskinesis), and not worship (latria), which is reserved for God alone. What is more, images are not the ultimate object of veneration because the image only has a reality in relation to the object represented. The image is the reflection of the prototype, Christ; the veneration is transformed into worship. Thus iconoclasm was condemned as heresy and liturgical veneration of images was re-established. Monks in the East played an important role in its restoration.

Now, when we talk on the subject of images, we need to refer to icons, frescoes, mosaics, oil paintings as well minor arts. Here let us concentrate in what an icon means. What is the essence of an icon? What are its roots? 

The word icon comes from Greek εἰκών eikōn "image" It also means likeness, reflection. When you look at your mirror and look at yourself it is also an icon.  Thus this word has different meanings.[8] However, when we refer to images of Christ and the Saints we can call them the “holy icons”.[9]  This image or reflection we find in the icons. St Steven the New[10] in the 8th century call the icon a “door”. It is a way to enter, to access the age to come; it is a way to encounter, to meet with the communion of Saints. As a door, the icon fulfills a mediating function. It makes person and events present to us: Christ, Our Lady, the Saints. Through the icon we participate in the mystery that is depicted. So icon means presence. 

Some people call it a window, from which one can see. A door is something through which we pass and we can become part of what is on the other side of the door. The door can also permit someone on the other side to come to us; and, in an icon, Christ can come to us from the heavenly kingdom in order to meet us face to face.  The icon makes the person present to us. 

The icon is seen from three aspects:  artistic, theological and liturgical   An icon is a work of art, with human and natural qualities. At a higher level, the icon has a theological meaning that teaches the people of God. Finally it is used in a liturgical context because the icon exists in an atmosphere of prayer and worship. Out of this context of prayer it loses its meaning, because, principally, it is sacramental, a sign that makes what is holy present. The Eucharist makes Christ present in the bread and wine after the consecration. At a different level, paint and board make Christ and saints present to us. By itself the icon does not become Christ as in the Eucharist, but it reveals the presence of Christ and His Saints in a special way. Icons reflect the reality of the incarnation. The iconographer uses wood and paint from God’s creation by which God’s glory is presented in a new way: thus is the world offered back to God. 

In addition, the icon is a product of Tradition that is formed within different cultures and styles. The icon, as well as the Early Christian art, did not develop in a vacuum. It is a result of a concrete evolution, and different cultures have contributed to its historical evolution. So, we can mention three main roots that have made the icon what it is today. 

From the ancient culture of Egypt icons received a profound sense of presence. Egyptian art normally shows calm men and women acting from an inner calm to express piety, family affection and social harmony. This is exemplified in the Elousia icon, which takes the ‘family affection’ prized by the Egyptians into a new dimension. Egyptian art is based on the hieroglyph, which like Chinese writing expresses primarily an idea that the writer intended to convey. The icon expresses specific information and is immediately recognizable by its form. In the icon the child is a miniature adult, and it is noteworthy that the reason given here is to draw attention to the fully human quality of the child.  

This can be contrasted with a modern attitude that justifies abortion on the grounds that the unborn child is not fully human. (An example of this type that came to Christian art and iconography is the example of “Mother & child” 1470 BC).[11] 


Egyptian canon to depict an image was very influential in iconography. A Egyptian figure found in the tomb of a priest shows how they measure out the dimensions of the body which had not changed since 1900 BC. The image of the body remained.[12] 

In practice, icons received a lot from the Egyptian art. Gesso was used for the mask to cover bodies from the earliest period (c. 2,000 B.C.). The gesso was made from glue and whiting, as today, and often polished to a very smooth finish. The surface was pointed in dense colours from a limited palette, or covered with gold leaf. Flat colour and simple natural tones were characteristic; the emphasis was on pure simple unmixed colour. Low relief carving as with icons was an important form of art. Workshops were under the direction of an educated supervisor, familiar with several crafts, able to recognise an inferior standard of work and to correct errors. Many similarities can be seen between this approach to sacred art and the later approach of the Christian icon. 

From the pagan Greeks the image possessed a mystical character. Statues of Athena and Artemis of Ephesus were said to be not made by human hands and to have fallen from heaven. These images were decorated with flowers and were venerated through a rite of unction.[13] We may say that the head of Medusa was a pagan model that Christians may have used to depict the person and the effectiveness that its holds.  Artistic inspiration came from different sources that for us can be difficult to make understand, but for the first Christians it was a new way of looking at things.  

In the Roman world images played a special role. They were also influenced by the Greek culture. The portrait of the ruler was worshipped as cult objects. They were honored as gods. Under special circumstances, the image of the emperor became a legal substitute; it was a vicarious presence of the emperor himself.  If the portrait of the emperor was present in court, the judge could decide a case as if it were the Caesar himself. It was also seen when the cities offered the keys to the emperor as a sign of submission.

 The keys were given to another person but in the presence of the emperor’s image. It was considered legal. The theory behind icons still remains as it was from the time of the Romans. Another element we find in icons is the halo. It is argued that Mithras was the origin of the halo around the head of Christ and the Saints.

 The Roman god Mithras was always shown with a halo, and this symbol was adopted by the Christian Church to signify the concept of divinity in sacred images.


Thus, the development of iconography and other Christian art was rooted in different cultures and traditions and took from them what can express the faith of the believers.

[1] Cf. Numbers 21:4-9
[2] Cf. Exodus 25:18
[3] A good example is found in the discovering of Synagogues in Israel.
[4] Cor.1:15
[5] "You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them." (Exodus 20:4-5a)
[6] Shown in the Pantocrator  icon
[7] It had been suppressed by imperial edict inside the Byzantine Empire during the reign of Leo III (717–741)
[8] Narcisus saw his face on reflected on the water; he saw his icon.
[9] Kallistos Ware refers to it in his lecture given at an Orientale Lumine session. See:  http://www.oltvweb.com
[10] From Constantinople, he died under torture and beatings. Finally, Emperor Leo gave orders to lock up the saint in prison, and to destroy his monastery. Iconoclast bishops were sent to St Stephen in prison, trying to persuade him of the dogmatic correctness of the Iconoclast position, but the saint easily refuted all the arguments.
[11] Cf.  ‘Egyptian Art’ by Cyril Aldred. It depicts Senemut nursing princess Nofrure.
[12] In the unfinished tomb of a priest called Ramose, his brother was the Pharaoh’s chief artist.  It shows exact squares in red lines. The figure was 19squares tall. The feet were 2 ½ squares long. The pupil was 1 square of the centre line. This is why the style remained unchanged for so long. Egyptian society did not want to change. The society was driven by stability and order reflecting the cultural values.
[13] Egon Sendler, The Icon, p. 9.

We shall have two of this series each week.

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