img_3550The most significant impression will be made by visits to Orthodox households and Churches, where icons play a very important role. In Orthodox homes, the eastern corner of a centrally located room is always dedicated to the display of icons. There are usually many such icons on display (twenty-five to thirty icons would constitute a conservative average), and this “icon corner” always features at least one vigil lamp hanging before it, religiously and perpetually kept burning by the members of the household or, in the event of their absence, by someone hired or appointed for this task. Quite often, the icons are placed around a proskynema, or small stand. All of the remaining rooms of a traditional Orthodox home will be similarly decorated, with the exception of the latrine (for obvious reasons), though usually with one icon on a wall (usually an Eastern wall, again). This icon is also at times adorned with a vigil lamp. At other times, the main “icon corner” of the house described above, which is used for household or family prayers and services (as well as blessings by the parish Priest—such as the Lesser Blessing of Waters, which is traditionally done each month in pious Orthodox homes), is duplicated on a smaller scale in all of the major rooms of the house, especially the bedrooms, and is used for private prayers. We should also note that it is not unusual for some very pious Orthodox believers to have a full chapel in their homes, fully adorned, in the traditional manner, with the same icons that one might find in a parish Church. A Priest will often visit the family on a significant Feast Day or on the Name Day of a family member (the day on which the Saint after whom a person is named is commemorated—celebrated by traditional Orthodox believers instead of birth days) to celebrate the Divine Liturgy and to commune the family.

The Iconic and Symbolic in Orthodox Iconography by Hieromonk [now Bishop] Auxentios.

The following essay is taken from a presentation by the author to a graduate seminar in advanced iconography at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, in the spring semester 1987. Bishop Auxentios holds a Doctorate in Orthodox liturgical theology from G.T.U.

The task of the present essay is to provide the general reader with theoretical definitions of the terms “icon” and, though with lesser attention and precision, “symbol” as they are used in the Patristic defenses of Orthodox eikonographia. As modest and unambitious as this task may at first seem to be, the reader will promptly come to understand that an exhaustive treatment of these terms would, in fact, entail the writing of volumes of material. The expansive subject surrounding these terms rises out of a peculiar aspect of the Eastern Orthodox ethos—and Byzantine iconography can only be properly and authentically understood within the context of that ethos and of the civilization that gave it birth and its unique “identity”—, namely, that no element of Orthodoxy, even one limited to such a seemingly peripheral area as iconography, can be treated in and of itself, outside the mosaic Gestalt which Orthodoxy rightly is. Like the items on the “menu bar” of the iconic computer screen, with their multiple files and sub-files, any aspect of the study of iconography unavoidably presents to us endless ramifications in complex areas of Orthodox history and theology, in the vortex of which we will be led to the very axis of Christianity. The author asks of his reader, therefore, patience with and careful attention to the several ostensible digressions involved in approaching the terms under consideration—patience and attention that will, it is hoped, be rewarded with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the subject of iconography in general.

Icons and Orthodox Spiritual Life. It is not difficult to demonstrate that icons are important in the Orthodox spiritual life, if not the daily secular world of those living in Orthodox cultures. One has only to visit an Orthodox country, such as Greece, and seek out more remote and traditional villages, where life continues at a pace unchanged, often, from Byzantine times and free from the outside influences of tourism, Western materialism, and the affluence which results from both of these factors. (These untouched villages are quite prevalent among Greece’s two million “traditionalist” or Old Calendar Christians, who reject the adoption of the Western calendar by the Church of Greece in 1924 and who, while severely persecuted and even scorned by the State, or New Calendar, Church of Greece, have remarkably enough preserved many ancient Orthodox traditions to this very day.) If one were to attempt to catalogue the locations and frequency of occurrence of icons in such places, he would soon realize that their presence is ubiquitous. Public buildings, cars, buses, taxis, trains, restaurants, markets, shops, squares, the roadsides, gardens, and fields—all of these things and places, and many more, too, are adorned by icons. These icons are usually mounted in a prominent place, often  with an oil lamp or candle burning perpetually before them.

The most significant impression will be made, however, by visits to Orthodox households and Churches, where icons play a very important role. In Orthodox homes, the eastern corner of a centrally located room is always dedicated to the display of icons. There are usually many such icons on display (twenty-five to thirty icons would constitute a conservative average), and this “icon corner” always features at least one vigil lamp hanging before it, religiously and perpetually kept burning by the members of the household or, in the event of their absence, by someone hired or appointed for this task. Quite often, the icons are placed around a proskynema, or small stand. All of the remaining rooms of a traditional Orthodox home will be similarly decorated, with the exception of the latrine (for obvious reasons), though usually with one icon on a wall (usually an Eastern wall, again). This icon is also at times adorned with a vigil lamp. At other times, the main “icon corner” of the house described above, which is used for household or family prayers and services (as well as blessings by the parish Priest—such as the Lesser Blessing of Waters, which is traditionally done each month in pious Orthodox homes), is duplicated on a smaller scale in all of the major rooms of the house, especially the bedrooms, and is used for private prayers. We should also note that it is not unusual for some very pious Orthodox believers to have a full chapel in their homes, fully adorned, in the traditional manner, with the same icons that one might find in a parish Church. A Priest will often visit the family on a significant Feast Day or on the Name Day of a family member (the day on which the Saint after whom a person is named is commemorated—celebrated by traditional Orthodox believers instead of birth days) to celebrate the Divine Liturgy and to commune the family.

On entering a village Church, one has only to open his eyes to locate the icons. If the Church has been standing for any length of time, chances are that it will be more difficult to find small patches of empty wall space than it will be to find multiple frescoes of Christ, the Theotokos, the Saints, or events from their lives. Careful examination will reveal that the arrangement of the many icons adorning the Church—including those of Christ, the Theotokos, St. John the Baptist, the Patron Saint of the Church, and, less frequently, the twelve Apostles and the twelve Great Feasts on the templon [or, less accurately, the eikonostasion], the altar screen that separates the naïve from the altar of the Church—is not haphazard. There is a hierarchic scheme along two axes of the Church that essentially holds in all forms of Church buildings. The first axis rises vertically from the nave, populated round about on its walls with the community of Saints, who pray for the people enclosed by the Church building, to the dome, which almost always bears the classical depiction of Christ the Pantocrator (Pantokrator, or “Ruler over All”), who looks down from Heaven onto His creation. The second axis runs from the narthex (traditionally occupied by the catechumens and penitents [those under Church censure]) to the sanctuary, the Eastern apse of the latter being decorated with icons of the Liturgists (e.g., Sts. Basil the Great and John Chrysostomos), the communion of the Apostles, the Virgin (who holds the leading position among the Saints of Heaven and who also personifies the Church, having contained, like the Church, Christ Himself —”Whom the world cannot contain,” in the image of ancient Orthodox hymnography—in her womb, and whose figure in this location is thus called Platytera ton Ouranon, or “Wider than the Heavens”), and, of course, Christ.

The Icon in Orthodox Church History. Aside from the presence of iconography in traditional Orthodox societies and Churches, a presence which survives, though precariously, to this very day, as we have demonstrated, a glance at one very important period in the history of the Orthodox Church also attests to the importance of the iconographic tradition. The subject of iconography precipitated the longest-running (approximately 120 years) and most violent of the theological debates to shake the internal life of the Orthodox Church: the so-called iconoclastic controversy. This controversy produced many new martyrs and confessors (those suffering deprivation, exile, etc.) for the holy icons, especially during the brutal reigns of the iconoclastic emperors Constantine V (called “Copronymos”) (741-755) and Leo V (“the Armenian) (813-820). Icons, as a consequence of the great iconoclastic upheaval, were the subject of the Seventh Œcumenical Council (or, more properly, “Synod”), the last catholic synod recognized by the Eastern Orthodox Church, held in 787 in Nicaea. The final victory of the iconodules over the iconoclasts, sealed in this synod, was marked by the restoration (re-hanging) of sacred images in the “Great Church” of Hagia Sophia on March 11, 843, an event commemorated each year on the Sunday of the “Triumph of Orthodoxy,” or the first Sunday of the Great Fast (Lent), by Orthodox Churches throughout the world even in contemporary times. The Orthodox writers who came to the defense of the veneration of sacred images, along with the proceedings of the Seventh Œcumenical Synod itself, came to form the principal sources from which all subsequent generations of Orthodox theologians drew in their understanding and explication of the Church’s iconographic tradition. It is, therefore, in terms of the history of this controversy, as well as the specific exchanges between the Orthodox and iconoclast parties which participated in it, that we will set the stage for our understanding of the icon and the particular theoretical definitions cited at the beginning of our discussion.

Before we begin our actual treatment of the literature and theological ideas deriving from the iconoclastic controversy, however, we should make some introductory remarks about the nature of Orthodox theology itself. In his now classical treatment of the subject, the Russian theologian Vladimir Lossky (1) makes a Patristic distinction between two ways of theologizing, these, in turn, based on corresponding approaches to knowing  and experiencing of God. This distinction is so significant, that Lossky uses it as a focal point in every subdivision of his theological inquiry (e.g., Trinitarian theology, Christology, cosmology, anthropology, etc.). The first of these ways is the cataphatic or “positive” way, and corresponds to man’s normal way of relating to his world. It involves, above all, affirmation. From this perspective, we would speak of God in normal cognitive categories, attributing to him such characteristics as supreme good, truth, justice, mercy, love, beauty, compassion, and so on. This first way, this “natural” way, Lossky argues, must rest on constant qualifications and is strongly limited by comparison to a second apophatic, or “negative,” way. This second way is ultimately more appropriate to the objective of knowing God or of theologizing. From this more accurate perspective, the human language can only be used to deny or to express negation. Human cognition becomes a method of negation, rather than affirmation, and truth rises above (simply because it lies beyond) cognitive knowledge. Here, one who truly loves, experiences, and knows God (to the extent that such is humanly possible) is compelled to speak as follows: “God is not good, truth, justice, etc. It is not, of course, that God is the opposite of these things (evil, falsehood, injustice…); rather, these characteristics must be refuted, since they are the products of human experience of the created universe. God, being uncreated and, in His divine essence, wholly transcendent, cannot, in the depths of His being, in the internal life of the Trinity, be known in any cognitive manner whatever. Consequently, He can in no way be described or encompassed by a vocabulary springing from and appropriate to the created realm or created beings. In this sense, we cannot ultimately affirm His existence as such:

…In regard to the doctrine of theology, so far from inventing some kind of circumscription or comprehension (perish the idea! for this was an invention of pagan thought), we do not even know that the Godhead exists at all, or what sort of thing it is, as it alone understands about itself. (2)

We have, then, a profound division that separates the uncreated (the Divine) from the created (spiritual and material) realms. Note that the spiritual (which, along with man’s higher or “noetic” faculties, includes the Angels) finds itself on the same side of this division as the material. This is but one of two such divisions (the other being that between good and evil) which Orthodox Patristic literature recognizes as enduring and genuine. This is not, however, to admit to the neo-Platonic dualism that some rather polemical Western theologians—thinking clearly neither about Orthodox theology nor neo-Platonic thought—are wont to find in Orthodox Patristic thought. The division between the uncreated and created does not deny to man a knowledge of God. Orthodox theology notes a further distinction (though not a division) between the Essence and Energies within the Uncreated (God) Itself, the former being, as we noted above, profoundly and eternally transcendent and beyond man’s experience or comprehension.  The energies of God, on the other hand, may be mysteriously imparted to the human being in the course of spiritual life, providing him, here on earth, with a certain knowledge of God that will be more fully revealed in the afterlife. These divine energies renew, transform, and sanctify humans, making them gods by Grace, “partakers of the divine nature” [“theias koinonoi physeos”] (II Peter 1:4). The consequences of this participation in the divine energies are radical in the extreme: men becomes gods, the created and limited taking part in the uncreated and divine, the finite and temporal participating in the infinite and eternal. Thus, in effect, the chasm between the Divine and the created is bridged, this bridge rising out of the Incarnation.

In understanding divine energies which bring man into union with God, we should note that the divine energies are fully God uncreated; they should not be thought of as emanations or steps down on some heavenly hierarchy. They are at once distinguishable from the divine essence and uncircumscript, infinite, and undefinable.They are unique solely in the sense that the created realm may participate in them. Otherwise, they remain beyond description. Also, beyond the fact that the divine energies can be communicated to creatures, human language here, too, must confine itself to negative statements about these energies. The only things that can be said about them in a positive mode relate to their effects upon those whom they touch. And finally, as we have suggested above, these effects must be understood in a dynamic way. Communion with the divine energies purifies (from sin and corruption), transforms (both our physical and spiritual natures), and sanctifies (leading us into ever greater virtue and glory).This dynamic process has no limit or end, even in the life to come. The “perfection” of Saints in paradise, in  this sense, is defined patristically as perpetual growth and progress in virtue and knowledge (“from glory to glory,” in Pauline terms).

Because Orthodoxy gives precedence to apophatic theology, her doctrine as whole is characterized by a certain laconic tone, if not outright reticence in approaching certain matters. This is especially true with regard to the Mysteries (Sacraments) of the Church, wherein the individual takes part in the divine energies. (In proper Orthodox treatments of the Mysteries, incidentally, they are not limited to the seven Sacraments held in common with the Western Church, but include all spiritual acts and rituals in the spiritual life.) Contrary to fashionable modern accusations, based more on ignorance and a lack of depth in spiritual experience than anything else, the Eastern Fathers were not given to undue “curiosity” and a penchant for philosophical “speculation.” Their theological expositions were inevitably formulated as a response to the curiosity and speculation of the heretics. It was in an effort to limit fruitless probings and presumptuous definitions of the unfathomable and inexpressible that the Fathers drew up the cautious definitions ratified by the Synods. And these definitions were more often than not apophatic and negative in character, avoiding definition by affirmation. (Thus at Chalcedon: “One Person in two natures, which are united without confusion, change, division, or separation.”)

Our understanding of icons will rest on these foregoing observations regarding Orthodox theology. Indeed, before the iconoclastic controversy, almost nothing was written by the Fathers about icons, except that they existed. It was not until iconoclasm, a heresy, surfaced that the Fathers of the Church devoted any extended attention to the veneration of sacred images. And when they did speak, what they wrote was typical of the Orthodox way of theologizing: laconic and reticent. Thus, while the Fathers teach that the honor which an icon is shown is transmitted to its prototype (to the holy person or event which it represents), they do not tell us how this is done. And how it is that an icon conveys Grace, sanctifying those who venerate it—this also is not explained. These mysterious processes are defined in response to heretical challenges to their validity or salutary worth, but a healthy respect for the limitations of human logic and language—indeed, of the human mind—prevents any probing in great depth.

In formulating a theology of icons, the Fathers addressed two distinct periods of iconoclastic misbelief: the first extending from the outbreak of officially supported iconoclasm to the Seventh Œcumenical Synod (730-787); the second period beginning about 815 and ending with the restoration of the images under the empress St. Theodora (843). During the first period, the main spokesman for the iconodules, though by no means the only one, was St. John of Damascus (ca. 675-ca. 749).  In the second period, the same can be said about St. Theodore the Studite (759-826).

The First Iconoclastic Period. St. John Damaskinos, in his apologetic discourses, concerns himself mainly with the accusation of idolatry leveled against the Orthodox by the iconoclasts, who, of course, had in mind the Old Testamental prohibitions against the making and worship of graven images. Examining the relevant   passages from the Old Testament, St. John sees these Scriptural prohibitions as providentially anticipating their own abrogation. The prohibition in Deuteronomy against the fabrication and deification of images of creatures, be they beasts, birds, creeping things, fish, or astronomical bodies—all of which are simply creatures, or created things—, is immediately preceded by an explanatory passage which justifies the prohibition and, at the same time, intimates its undoing: “The Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice…. Therefore, take good heed to yourselves. Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire” (Dt. 4: 12,15). “What is mysteriously indicated in these passages of Scripture,”

St. John asks:

It is clearly a prohibition of representing the invisible God. But when you see Him who has no body become man for you, then you will make representations of His human aspect. When the Invisible, having clothed Himself in the flesh, becomes visible, then represent the likeness of Him who has appeared…. When He who, having been the consubstantial Image of the Father, emptied Himself by taking the form of a servant (Phil. 2: 6-7), thus becoming bound in quantity and quality, having taken on the carnal image, then paint  and make visible to everyone Him who desired to become visible. Paint His birth from the Virgin, His Baptism in the Jordan, His Transfigura tion on Mt. Tabor…. Paint everything with words and colors, in books and on boards. (3)  Thus, if God is directly revealed in the Old Testament only by word (“you heard the sound of words, but saw no form” [Dt. 4: 12]), for St. John He is made manifest in the New Testament by both word and image, and so must be depicted and conveyed (“Paint everything with words and with colors, in books and on boards”).

St. John of Damascus and, of course, Orthodox in general thus see a quantum distinction between the Old and New Testaments. Quoting St. John, who in turn cites the Apostle Paul, Leonid Ouspensky, the great Russian commentator on iconographic theory and theology, puts this very succinctly:

[The Israelites had] …a mission consisting in preparing and prefigur ing that which was to be revealed in the New Testament. This is why there could be only symbolic prefigurations, revelations of the future. ‘The law was not an image,’ says St. John of Damascus, ‘but it was like a wall which hid the image. The Apostle Paul also says: “The law was but a shadow [skian gar echon o nomos] of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” (Hebrews 10:1).’ In other words, it is the New Testament which is the true image of reality…. That which David and Solomon saw and heard was only prophetic prefigurations of that which was realized in the New Testa ment. Now, in the New Testament, man receives the revelation of the Kingdom of God to come and this revelation is given to him by the word and the image of the incarnate Son of God. The apostles saw with their carnal eyes that which was, in the Old Testament, only foreshadowed by symbols. (4) Hence there are three stages in God’s post-lapsarian relations to man. The first is depicted in the Old Testament and is characterized by symbol and shadow—symbolic prefigurations of the “good things to come.” The second stage is embodied in the New Testament, which is characterized by the iconic (by image). Here we have the “true form [eikon, or icon] of these realities.” The third stage of this relationship will, of course, be the Kingdom of God to come, in which man will see reality itself, “face to face.” Clearly, with regard to iconography, the “symbolic” can occupy only a secondary position, since the significant quality of an icon par excellence is the fact that it constitutes a real image of that which it depicts. The image is in some way a “true” form of the prototype, participating in it and integrally bound to it. In the second stage of the iconographic controversy, as we shall subsequently see, St. Theodore the Studite elucidated this profound relationship between image and prototype. But before examining this relationship, let us look at yet another aspect of the icon as St. John of Damascus understands it, that of iconic function.

It is readily apparent from his writings that the depiction and veneration of icons is not, for St. John, something casual and optional. Both he and the iconodules in general envision the attack on sacred images as a veritable denial of Christ’s Incarnation itself. For them, the iconoclastic controversy focuses on Christological issues, and those who reject the sacred images are but counterparts of the earlier Christian heretics who distorted or misrepresented the true nature of Christ and His Incarnation. Such a rejection is tantamount to a denial of man’s salvation, for, the iconodules reasoned, in keeping with the tenets of Orthodox soteriology, salvation is possible only if man can partake of the Divine. If Christ was not fully God and man (Theanthropos), then man (a created being) can never come to partake of the Divine (of the uncreated). The fact that “the Word became flesh” is the very meaning of the icon, and to deny the use of the Church’s icons, the iconodules further argued, is comparable to a denial of Sacred Scripture itself. The icon functions to reveal, embody, and express the Incarnation of Christ and the soteriological consequences thereof. The Scriptural message of the Incarnation and the icon are analogous, as two forms of Christian revelation, both acting to convey the salvific message to mankind:

…We who do not see Him [Christ] directly nor hear His words nevertheless listen to these words which are written in books and thus sanctify our hearing and, thereby, our soul. We consider ourselves fortunate and we venerate the books through which we hear these sacred works and are sanctified. Similarly, through His image we contemplate the physical appearance of Christ, His miracles, and His passion. This contemplation sanctifies our sight and, thereby, our soul. We consider ourselves fortunate and we venerate this image by lifting ourselves, as far as possible, beyond the physical appearance to the contemplation of divine glory. [Emphasis added.] (5)  Whatever the particular faculty of perception (hearing or seeing), the net result is the same, the sanctification of the soul. Scripture and sacred images are both part of the redemptive plan. And this sanctification is precisely, again, the result of participation in the divine energies, so that “contemplation,” in the passage above, might better read “participation.” Thus, the iconoclastic challenge against the painting and veneration of icons does nothing other than jeopardize the Church’s very teachings about the nature of Christ and, at the same time, the sanctification of the faithful, which are both accomplished and established through the function if the icon.

The didactic and sacramental function of the icon is further developed by St. John as he continues the foregoing argument with specific reference to Orthodox anthropology:

Since we are fashioned of soul and body, and our souls are not naked spirits, but are covered, as it were, with a fleshly veil, it is impossible for us to think without using physical images. Just as we physically listen to perceptible words in order to understand spiritual things, so also by using bodily sight we reach spiritual contemplation. For this reason Christ assumed both soul and body, since man is fashioned from both. (6)  The visible image, then, is just as inescapable and, in fact, as necessary as the audible word in spiritual life. This is because human beings are not “naked spirits,” but are comprised of both immaterial and material components. These components, we should note, are ideally reconciled in the restored human being. Indeed, Orthodox thought arduously avoids any sort of dualism or the notion of an intrinsic or enduring opposition between spirit and matter or soul and body. Both the material and the immaterial find themselves on the same side of the chasm which separated the created and uncreated, this chasm being the only line of demarcation between qualitatively different realms.The material and the spiritual ideally exist in a harmonious (and in fact eternal), albeit hierarchic, relationship. They exist in a relationship which the icon reifies. We can see the link between the spiritual and material especially in the Orthodox view of death. Death, the separation of the body from the soul, is not for the Orthodox thinker—as it is in ancient Greek thought and much modern religious philosophy—a release or escape from the imprisonment of the spirit within the body, and thus something positive. Rather, as it was for the Jews, death is a tragedy linked to a violation, a tearing apart of man’s proper nature, and it is transformed only in mystical imagery, when it is envisioned as the completion of one’s baptism into the death of Christ. The full restoration of man in Paradise is realized ultimately by the proper restoration of the relationship between the material and spiritual in the linking of the soul once again with the body (though now a new and spiritual body—a body of spiritualized matter, as it were).

The permanent harmonious relationship between the body and the soul, embodied in the material and spiritual bond which is the icon, accounts for the fact that man  must always relate to the spiritual through the physical, be it the visible image or the audible word, through which each of us is led to “spiritual contemplation,” or any other Mystery of the Church. These two components will always necessarily be present. Let us cite the words of St. John of Damascus: “Likewise baptism is both of water and of Spirit. It is the same with communion, prayer, psalmody, candles, or incense; they all have a double significance, physical and spiritual.” (7)  As we have noted, the spiritual and the physical exist in a hierarchical relationship in man’s restored state, the spiritual enjoying the ascendancy. Ideally, then, the body serves, and does not hinder, the spirit, as the latter worships, prays, psalmodizes, and performs good works or acts of asceticism and self-denial. If matter plays an important, or even essential, role in man’s salvation, and if, to the extent that it rightly fulfills its role, it is to be esteemed, at the same time matter must not be equally esteemed with the spiritual. Otherwise, the proper hierarchical relationship between the spiritual and the physical would be broken down, if not reversed. It is an acknowledgement of such natural hierarchical structures that underlies St. John of Damascus’ classical distinction between worship (or adoration), which is appropriate to God alone, and veneration (or honor), which is proper to the Saints, the Cross, icons, relics, etc.:

Let us understand that there are different degrees of worship. First of all, there is adoration, which we offer to God, who alone by nature is worthy to be worshipped…. But now when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take His abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter…. I honor it, but not as God. (8) The veneration that is proper to everything instrumental in our salvation, other than God Himself, among which St. John also sees an hierarchical order of sorts, must be understood as a veneration rendered not to a thing (or person), in and of itself, but through the thing to that which sanctifies it—ultimately, of course, to God. We honor the Cross, therefore, because of the One crucified on it. We honor a Saint because of Him whose friend the Saint is. As for icons,

We venerate images; [but] it is not veneration offered to matter, but to those who are portrayed through the matter in the images. Any honor given to an image is transferred to its prototype, as St. Basil says. (9)  The Second Iconoclastic Period. With the foregoing selection from St John Damascene, we come to the heart of the Orthodox apologetic argument in the first iconoclastic period. The words of St. Basil, as quoted by St. John, became the triumphant and much-repeated motto of the first victory over iconoclasm in 787. The matter of the relationship of the image to its prototype had been definitely treated in detail and with theological justification drawing on the most basic Christian precepts. Though the real dynamics of how this veneration is “transferred” are never explained by St. John, this silence is only logical, if we remember that the apophatic, pious, non-inquisitive and reticent nature of Orthodox theologizing. What is, however, open to discussion—and thus the subject of some debate in the second period of iconoclasm—is the question of why this transference takes place. Many of the Orthodox responses to this question simply reiterate the arguments which dominated the first iconoclastic period. What is important in the renewed debate is that a new and formidable apologist, St. Theodore the Studite, moves to the forefront, clarifying the relationship between the image and its prototype in such a way as to enhance our understanding of the symbolic and iconic with particular  precision.

It was in their own synod, held in 754 under Constantine Copronymos, that the iconoclasts set the stage for the debate undertaken by St. Theodore. They accused the Orthodox of falling to two separate heresies in painting an icon of Christ. On the one hand they were accused of trying to portray both the human and the divine natures of Christ, thus running the risk of confusing these two and resulting in the heresy of Monophysitism. Only the Divine Will could so ineffably and without confusion unite the divine and human in Christ, the iconoclasts warned. If, on the other hand, the Orthodox were to agree with the view that the divine nature cannot be depicted, as the iconoclasts rightly maintained, then that would leave them only the human nature of Christ to represent. And if that were all that they depicted, they would be separating the divine and the human, which would constitute the heresy of Nestorianism.

The Orthodox response to this seeming dilemma was formulated in the exhaustive treatment of this and all iconoclastic arguments during the sessions of the Seventh Œcumenical Synod in 787. And their response formed an integral part of the apologetics of the second iconoclastic period. The Fathers gathered in the synod evoked the ancient Patristic distinction between person (hypostasis) and nature (essence), a distinction first systematically put forth in the thinking of the Cappadocian Fathers. The specific focus of the Cappadocians was Trinitarian theology, and they determined that, with regard to the Holy Trinity, we must speak of three hypostases and one essence. This is the same terminology was then employed in the Christological definitions at a later time in the early Church. In particular, at Chalcedon the Orthodox posited a union of two natures, the human and the divine, in the one divine person of Christ. Outside the members of the Holy Trinity, it is usual to speak of any individual (or object) as being distinguished by a hypostasis (person, form) and a nature (essence). On the basis of this Patristic witness, the iconodules were able to state that the error of the iconoclasts, then, was their constant tendency to conceive of the icon as being of the same nature as its prototype. In fact, the only icon to which they could give their approval was the Eucharist, a view which the Fathers of the Seventh Synod flatly rejected. The Eucharist, they argued, is not an image, but is, rather, identical to its prototype, noting that “neither the Lord, nor the Apostles, nor the Fathers, ever used the term ‘images’ to speak of the unbloody sacrifice offered by the priest, but always called it the very Body and Blood.” (10) As for a possible essential relationship between the icon and its prototype, St. Theodore the Studite comments that, “…no one could be so foolish as to think that reality and its shadow, …the prototype and its representation, the cause and the consequence are by nature [according to essence] identical.” (11) Yet this was precisely the argument of the iconoclasts with regard to the sacred image. Thus their failure to understand why the veneration of the image reaches up to the prototype, if simply because they failed to understand the nature of the hypostasis of the icon, which disallows the stark distinction established by the iconoclasts between the image and its prototype according to essence alone.

St. Theodore summarized the arguments of the iconodules during the second iconoclastic period in a particularly brilliant passage which establishes the similarity or commonality of image and prototype qua hypostasis. In this summation, we find a clear and compelling understanding of the natural relationship between image and prototype which also accounts for the natural process by which veneration of the image lifts up to its prototype—why the veneration accrues to the prototype:

[In an icon] the prototype is in the image by similarity of hypostasis, which does not have a different principle of definition for the prototype and for the image. Therefore, we do not understand that the image lacks equality with the prototype and has an inferior glory in respect to similarity, but in respect to its different essence. The essence of the image is not of a nature to be venerated, although the one who is portrayed appears in it for veneration. Therefore, there is no introduction of a different kind of veneration, but the image has one and the same veneration with the prototype, in accordance with the identity of likeness. (12)  Some Summary Remarks. As we have seen in our overview of the icon in Orthodox society and worship and in its historical context, the terms “symbol” and “icon” have very specific applications in Orthodox thought. During the first period of the iconoclastic era, we saw the first systematic attempt to distinguish between the symbolic and iconic. St. John of Damascus, seeing this distinction in the Old Testamental understanding of God in symbolic terms and the New Testamental encounter with God in image, in iconic form, centers his defense of the veneration of icons on a very vivid distinction between symbol and icon. In keeping with the apophatic principles of Orthodox theology, his argument is that symbolic representations of God in the Old Testament (for example, as a voice or as the burning bush) are not God as such, the symbol expressing a negative statement about the reality of God in symbols which He cannot be (God cannot, of course, be a burning bush or a voice, since He is absolutely transcendent and ineffable, constantly expressing this unknowable nature in Old Testamental affirmations of man’s inability to “see” God—”no man has seen God and lived,” or, that is, no man can maintain personal existence within the vision of the essence of Being itself). It is essential that we understand this point, for it brings us to a more precise definition of what symbol means in iconographic nomenclature. We should not imagine, here, that apophatic language expresses mere negative analogical theological concepts. Not at all. It is not as though God were “like” some symbol, in apophatic thinking, yet beyond it, but simply that God is not that symbol. Our negative statement about what God cannot be embodies within itself a statement about the existence of God, affirmation of that existence lying within our apophatic statements about God themselves. Thus symbol, as understood by St. John of Damascus, for example, was a device by which God’s affirmation might be approached through negation, the symbol having no integral relationship with any aspect of God. Negation, used as affirmation, remains negation, separated absolutely from affirmative acknowledgement of that which it negates.

In the New Testamental encounter with God, St. John and the iconodules argued, God appears in icon, in a human image which is knowable, joined, at the same time, with a divine nature that is unknowable. And herein lies the initial key to an exact and precise grasp of what the iconic is in Orthodox theology. Whereas symbol, in an apophatic way, speaks of God referentially (albeit negatively and without affirmative intent in the negative symbol itself), the icon touches on the reality of God. St. John characterizes this iconic reality by the Incarnation, in which the uncontainable God was brought to dwell in flesh, being thereby contained, combining in the God-Man the true materiality of man and the true divinity of God. Indeed, the veneration of an icon, like the veneration of Christ, somehow, for St. John, brings man into contact with what is genuinely divine through that which is also genuinely physical. (This contact, of course, obviates the accusation of idolatry put forth by the iconoclasts.) Unlike a symbol, an icon brings one to participation in the reality which the icon “represents.” The image and its prototype, “symbol” and “reality,” as it were, are brought together.

During the second iconclastic period, we have observed, the relationship between the icon and its prototype, between God and image, is further clarified. While there is no attempt in this period to penetrate the mystery of how the mundane and holy are joined together in iconic veneration (such hows are left to the mysterious in classical Orthodox studies), the theology of this period pinpoints precisely why this fusion must be. St. Theodore the Studite, arguing from the precepts set forth in the Christological synods, posits that Christ, in his hypostatic participation in the Trinity, remains perfectly divine, while, at the same time, being perfectly human. He can be seen and known as a man, whereas he remains also wholly within the unknowability and transcendence of the Godhead. In a comparable way, an icon, while material and while a mere image in some sense, nonetheless also exists in objective hypostasis, the image being joined to its prototype, participating in the holiness of that which it depicts (again in answer to the iconoclastic charge of idolatry and the worship of wood and paint). Again here, one must not be presumptuous and find neo-Platonic parallels in this iconic theory. It stems from pure Christological theology. St. Theodore clearly argues that an icon cannot participate in the very essence of its prototype. There is thus no emanationism to be found in this argument. He simply points out that the hypostatic nature of an object allows for the material icon to participate in the holiness of its prototype, since this is the natural intention of an icon (intentionality, as we have pointed out, being foreign to the symbol), part of its very identity (an objective analog of “person” in the human being). In essence, we can address the question of why the veneration of an icon reaches up to its prototype by responding that it is in the intrinsic character, in the hypostatic identity of an icon, that veneration of the image reaches up to the prototype.

There is a special quality to the iconic in Orthodox theology that further distinguishes it from the symbolic. In the classical use of symbols, as the apologists for the Holy Images understood them, the transcendence of God is forever protected. In iconic knowledge of God, however, there is a sense in which one genuinely touches the transcendent without violating its unknowability and transcendent essence. We have noted that St. Theodore the Studite turned to the hypostatic nature of Christ within the Trinity to explain how, in the same way that hypostatically Christ was human, He also participated beyond hypostasis consubstantially in the transcendence of the Godhead, thus showing that icons can hypostatically remain images and yet participate in the holiness of their prototypes. Especially in later writers, such as St. Gregory Palamas, the fourteenth-century Archbishop of Thessalonica, we see this distinction in more elaborate and complex apophatic terms. He posits that, though the essence of God is wholly inviolable, yet His divine energies are knowable, to some extent, in the spiritual or noetic mind and (contrary to gross distortions of this Father’s writings by some scholars), by integration into that spiritual mind, to the discursive intellect. (We will but note parenthetically that Palamas’ thought, equally misrepresented by some contemporary scholars as “innovative” and novel, is actually wholly Patristic and reflective of an essence-energies distinction that is as old as St. Gregory Nyssa, if not older. It can, indeed, be derived by Christological theology itself.) Since, as we explained in our discussion of apophatic theology, the divine energies are not separate from and inferior to the divine essence, in some sense—and we must be cautious in what we say, according to the Church Fathers—we approach the transcendent itself. Couched in Palamite terms, we can say that the iconic has a true (though limited) relationship to the essence of the prototype, if simply because the hypostatic union of image and prototype also participates in the reality or essence of the prototype, just as divine energies derive from and contain within them characteristics of the divine essence. Again, this must be approached with great caution, as St. Theodore the Studite himself warns in his proscription against mistaking shadow for reality, but the concept is one implicit and present in every use of the iconic in Orthodox theological thought.

We must make a final rejoinder, here, related to language as it is used in contemporary Orthodox theology. We have presented a distinction between symbol and icon in classical Orthodox terminology deriving from the iconclastic period. Some modern writers, such as L. Ouspenky, have spoken of a notion of “symbolic realism” (13) or, to use the words of the famous Greek iconographer, Fotis (Photios) Kontoglou, “anagogic” symbol, or symbol leading upward and away from itself.   (14) A careful reading of these experts in iconographic history and philosophy clearly shows that they are using these special definitions of symbol in the way that it might be understood in contemporary art history, liturgics, or phenomenological circles. They are simply attempting to address the unique Orthodox concept of the iconic in less specific historical terms than we have used. At any rate, their use of language certainly points to the iconic, not to symbol as the iconodules understood it, and focuses itself on the iconic as it is inextricably tied to the Incarnation. Their references, then, should all be understood in terms of the theoretical definitions that we have set forth in these summary comments.


1. Lossky, Vladimir, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church. London, 1973.

2. St. Theodore the Studite, On the Holy Icons. Crestwood, N.Y., 1981. P. 21.

3. Ibid., cap. 8, PG, 94: 1237D-1240A and cap. 8, PG, 94: 1328 D. See the English translation of L. Ouspensky, The Theology of the Icon. Crestwood, N.Y., 1978.

4. Ouspensky, op. cit., pp. 52, 55.

5. Ibid., p. 56. We have used here Ouspensky’s translation of St. John’s text because it vividly emphasizes our point.

6. St. John of Damascus, On The Divine Images. Trans. David Anderson. Crestwood, N.Y., 1980. P. 72.

7. St. John of Damascus, op. cit., pp. 72-73.

8. Ibid., pp. 21, 23.

9. Ibid., p. 89.

10. Mansi, 13:264.

11. Cited in Ouspensky, op. cit., p. 150.

12. St. Theodore the Studite, op. cit., p. 103.

13. Op. cit., p. 121.

14. Cavarnos, Constantine, Byzantine Sacred Art, Belmont, MA, 1983. P. 89.

Selected Bibliography for Further Reading

Cavarnos, Constantine, Byzantine Sacred Art, Belmont, MA, 1983.

Idem, Orthodox Iconography, Belmont, MA, 1977.

Kalokyris, Constantine D., The Essence of Orthodox Iconography, Brookline, MA, 1971.

Ladner, Gebhart B., “The Concept of the Image in the Greek Fathers and the Byzantine Iconoclastic Controversy.” In Dumbarton Oaks Papers, No. 7 (1953).

Lossky, Vladimir, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, London, 1973.

Ouspensky, Leonid, The Theology of Icons, Crestwood, N.Y., 1978.

From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. IV, No. 3, pp. 49-64.

Mosaics & Iconography

• Prologue

• About the Program

• The Program

• List of Icons

• Bibliography

The Program

Saint Sophia [1] Cathedral is located at the intersection of 36th Street and Massachusetts Avenue in Northwest Washington, D.C. From a distance the church is unimposing, with very little exterior visual activity other than the broad stairway that leads to the west facade and portal. There are three sets of doors on the west facade. On either side of the central doorway are two supporting elements that, from a frontal view, seem to be columns without capitals or bases. A closer examination reveals that each rounded facade of the two “columns” merges with a wall surface that extends to the right and left of the central portal separating it from the left and right doorways. Upon these two supporting elements rests a single massive lintel that in turn supports four equidistantly placed columns that frame three windows, a large one in the center that corresponds vertically with the central doorway and the two lesser windows that correspond with the left and right doorways underneath them. The triad of windows is repeated on the north and the south facades. The framing columns possess Byzantine capitals that are an interesting combination of Byzantine intricacy and 20th century practicality. They are carved in a way that suggests the splendor of the Byzantine capitals of the past; yet they are not carved out enough to hide their function as supportive elements.

A single archivolt decorated with a design of Greek crosses, four-petalled flowers, and plant ornaments frames the described entrance program. At the summit of the archivolt is a carved emblem of the Byzantine Empire, the two-headed eagle, its two crowned heads signifying the two foundations upon which Byzantium rested for the eleven centuries of its existence-the religion and the state. The two heads share a single body; a unity of design and purpose despite a duality in the power structure. This arch, upon which the eagle rests, is repeated in the form of the three windows it encloses. The middle and largest of those windows has a stained-glass representation of a dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit. The columns, the pseudocolumns, as well as the lintel are brown marble while the archivolt is cut into the same stone that characterizes the remaining exterior of the church. It is plain, off-white, and offers no other real visual activity except in the lines crested where mortar binds the blocks of stone together. Indeed, the exterior of Saint Sophia does little to excite the senses.

One exterior structural element, the dome, does offer relief from the basically linear mode. Two towers frame the dome when viewed from the west, which are not particularly Byzantine. They are a concession to the eclectic process, but, as if to have the final word, the two are topped with domes, giving them a home in the structural unity of the exterior.

The Narthex

Upon entering the Cathedral, you find yourself in the narthex or vestibule. The narthex (undecorated as of this writing) acts as a transition from the outside unredeemed world to the timelessness and completeness of the nave and the sanctuary, which deny the existence of any world but their own. The sequence — narthex, nave, sanctuary — is a metaphor for man’s evolution toward God.

In the narthex are found two proskinitaria, icon stands, before which the believer prays. After entering the narthex, the faithful customarily make the sign of the cross and bow before and/or kiss the painted icon presented on the proskinitarion. Each icon is sheltered by a small wooden ribbed vault with a cross as the intersection of the ribbing. The proskinitarion is about seven feet high and the icon is the size of a large book. Three doors lead from the narthex to the nave.

The Nave

An understanding of the proportions of the cross-in-square church is necessary to visualize the interior of Saint Sophia. The west arm includes the narthex and the west arm of the nave. To the east is the sanctuary, the apse and the east arm of the nave. The north and south arms are of equal lengths as are the east and west arms, if we disregard the narthex and the sanctuary. Simply stated, the nave of the church is symmetrical; it is a Greek cross upon which is mounted the dome. Importantly, the cupola of the dome is not only the highest point in the church, but also the center of the church. The symmetrical structure has created four equi-sized vaults upon which much of the mosaic work is displayed. The apse is of singular symbolic importance and essential to the overall decorative scheme of the interior.

Entering the nave through the central doorway, you find that you are under the scrutiny of a heavenly pageant of saints, angels, the Theotokos or Mother of God, and, seated on His throne in the cupola of the dome, Christ. The viewer’s first impulse is to gaze up at Christ, the grandest figure depicted, surrounded as he is by concentric circles of blue, green, gold, and deep pink that draw the viewer’s gaze away from the medallion to a rich blue expanse upon which is depicted a host of Seraphim that also encircle Christ. Tongues of fire surround the blue; each and everyone points to the Pantocrator, or Omnipotent God. The flames act as a transition from the cupola to the barrel of the dome. Here again the circular theme is repeated in the dome windows. If you concentrate on the medallion of Christ, the windows fade into a circle of unbroken natural light and the dome is no longer supported by the structural elements underneath it. From the dome one’s gaze settles on the pendentives momentarily, but the eyes are not yet ready to accept the units of the pendentives and adjoining vault mosaics. Instead they drop to the apse, upon which the Mother of God, or Theotokos, is depicted standing on a footstool with her arms partially extended. Her arms frame the figure of an infant Christ, not static but as an emanation from the Mother of God. Around Her are nine medallions of Her heavenly attendants, the angelic hosts.

Turning to the pendentives, the viewer sees that each of the four Evangelists has been reserved a location on one of the four pendentives. They are depicted in sitting positions, in the act of writing their gospels. On the books before them has been inscribed the first word or phrase that begins their respective Gospels.

Each of the transept vaults has depicted on it the images of four prophets and four Apostles. The east vault over the Bema is decorated with the icons of the archangels, Michael and Gabriel, holding a transparent globe representing the world, and in the center of the vault is the Etimasia, the heavenly throne prepared for Christ before all time.

But a second look (and perhaps a third) must be taken at Saint Sophia to gain a real understanding of Her interior. The real significance of the art in the cathedral goes much deeper than its two-dimensional representatives of holy personages. The spectator will see only an art form that has been deemed inferior due to its apparent inability to realistically depict these personalities from the past in terms of what might be called “beautiful.” Instead the spectator is dealt out a number of figures that resemble face cards in uniformity and angularity. The spectator searches in vain for beauty while the beholder encounters the sublime.

Panayiotis A. Michalis in his book An Aesthetic Approach to Byzantine Art examines the desired goals of Byzantine religious art.[2] He suggests that a distinction must be drawn between the goal of beauty, that characterizes Classical Greek art and the desired (and achieved) goal of sublimity in Byzantine art. Beauty evokes a feeling of calm, serenity, and appeals to the viewer intellectually. It is sensual and therefore draws the viewer out toward the world of senses. Conversely, the sublime evokes a feeling of exaltation and appeals to the emotional side of the viewer’s consciousness. The sublime draws the viewer inward rather than outward, toward introspection rather than extrospection. If Michalis’s explanation is accepted, then one must also accept Byzantine religious art as a highly sophisticated art form created through an ingenious merging of artistic ability and Orthodox dogma.

The icons of Saint Sophia are considered “manifestations of heavenly archetypes.”[3] If we imagine the icon to be a glass surface possessing the properties of a window as well as those of a mirror, then we can better understand their religious and artistic nature. Through the icon the beholder experiences the person depicted in his eternal state; a window through which the beholder views the celestial world. The gold background of the icon represents the heavenly aura that surrounds the “saint or holy person.”[4] The icon is also a mirror reflection of the personality depicted and is, therefore, two-dimensional. To understand this significant nature of the icon in Orthodox worship is to grasp the essence of Orthodox anthropology. The icon depicts man in his spiritualized, transfigured state. It is a reflection of a being who in turn is a reflection of Christ. Therefore the icons are a reflection of God. No lesser icon detracts from the glory of the Pantocrator in the dome of Saint Sophia because the lesser icon is an allusionary depiction, a Christ figure. so to speak.[5] This aspect of the iconographic program is but one of the unifying elements that bring the individual icons into spiritual interplay.

The interior of Saint Sophia is “an image of the Cosmos” representing an orderly hierarchy with its symbolism in verticality.[6] Unlike the heathen temple that was a marble dwelling for a particular god from a pantheon of gods, Saint Sophia “had to be a miniature of the universe because in it dwells the one and only God.”[7] It is on this level of awareness that the beholder (and participant) is exposed to the dogma of the Church. The cathedral is secondly a representation of the Holy Land; “the places sanctified by Christ’s earthly life.”[8] In this sense the Cathedral sets the stage for the Divine Liturgy, a presentation of the Life of Christ. On this level the beholder is taught ecclesiastical history. A third interpretation of the interior is based on “an image of the Church festival cycle as laid down by the liturgy, and the icons are arranged in accordance with the liturgical sequence of Ecclesiastical festivals.”[9] So the church teaches liturgy.

However, concessions have been made in the decorative scheme in Saint Sophia due to its limited size. The late Dr. Paul Underwood of Dumbarton Oaks, the consulting Byzantinologist, discussed the problem in an early letter to the Reverend John Tavlarides, Dean of the Cathedral:

…the existing surfaces of the vaults are subdivided in such a way that is would be nearly impossible without extensive structural alterations to introduce scenes that require much greater widths of uninterrupted surfaces than are available in the eastern, northern or southern arms…

Dr. Underwood went on to say that the existing surfaces would fit an alternate scheme very neatly. Although all the events in the life of Christ that have come to comprise the festival calendar are not depicted, the Christian pageant of Saints and Martyrs are displayed in groups roughly according to the dates of their festival in the liturgical calendar.

The Dome

In the heavenly zones of the church, comprising the dome and the apse, the narrative is suppressed to allow for the beholder’s contemplation of the timeless dogma.[10] The cupola icon is, of course, Christ the Pantocrator seated on his jeweled throne. The Christ icon found in Saint Sophia, as in most Eastern Orthodox churches, is modeled after a description found in a document from the early Church, the Epistle of Lentulus, a Roman official who acted as the eyes of the Emperor when Christ made his appearance in Palestine. A warrant for Christ’s arrest was included in the official’s report to the Emperor. The stranger was described at “a man of erect stature… temperate and estimable with a manner inspiring of respect …blue-grey eyes that are uncommonly varied in expressiveness, fearsome when he scolds and gentle and affectionate when he admonishes. He is gravely cheerful, weeps often, but has never been seen to laugh.”[11] The maturing Byzantine style drew from this description of Christ stressing His various natures. Saint Sophia’s Pantocrator is not the terrible-eyed Ruler and Judge of the world, but rather Christ, Lord of the universe, the benevolent, the serene, the Lover of Mankind.

Around the barrel of the vault is an inscription of portions of the vision of Isaiah (Isaiah 6: 1-3): “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. And around him stood seraphim… and one cried unto another and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts ” The dome is completely devoted to this arrangement of the celestial hierarchy described by Isaiah in the Old Testament.

The Apse

The apse ranks second in the vertical hierarchy; it does the Theotokos, or Mother of God, justice as the highest of purely human nature. There it no scriptural basis from which the Mariological imagery of Eastern Orthodoxy has evolved. Rather, the image of Mary was, according to legend, revealed to man in icons “not made by hands,” gifts from the Heavenly Mother in response to an artistic need to depict her in the scheme of Orthodox theology.[12] The ninth-century theologians, with vivid recollections of Iconoclasm, depicted Mary as a standing figure to avoid charges of idolatry.[13] A throned, or even seated, Virgin would imply that the Heavenly Mother was divine in Herself rather than in her association with the Son, as Orthodox theology dictates.

The depiction of Mary in Saint Sophia is called the Platytera, a term taken from a hymn of the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil: “… He made Thy womb His throne, and formed it to be broader than (Platytera) the heavens…” Mary spans the expanse between earth and Heaven and is, therefore, broader than the heavens to contain the uncontainable. Mary is the heavenly ladder by which God descended and she is the eternal bridge leading from earth to Heaven.

Angels surround divine persons in the iconographic program of the Eastern Orthodox Churches as Mary is surrounded by nine medallions of angels in the apse. The icons of the Archangels Gabriel and Michael have their fixed liturgical place in or above the sanctuary. In Saint Sophia they are shown on the bema vault above the sanctuary; guardians of the Etimasia, or heavenly throne of Christ prepared before all time. At a particularly auspicious point in the Divine Liturgy angels are supposed to enter the cathedral and sing, “Holy, holy, holy. Lord of Hosts (Isaiah 6:3).[14]

The Sanctuary

The sanctuary, or area between the bema vault and the apse on the floor of the cathedral, is also representative of Heaven and is decorated accordingly. The iconostasis, or icon screen, separates the nave of the Cathedral from the sanctuary. Upon it are depicted in paint the images of Christ, the Virgin Mary with the infant Christ, John the Baptist, and the Archangels Gabriel and Michael. The first three icons are found there in every Orthodox Church. The paintings are two-dimensional and stylized. Across the face of the iconostasis that is visible from the nave, and above the painted icons mentioned, are medallions of the disciples. In the center of the iconostasis, between the icons of Mary and Christ, is the Royal or Beautiful Gate, representing its heavenly prototype. Originally above the Royal Gate was an icon depicting the last Supper and, above that, a pediment leading the beholder’s gaze to the Gate and dividing the iconostasis into halves at its peak. However, the icon and the pediment partially obstructed the view of the icon of the Virgin Mary in the apse and were removed for that reason.

Along the back wall of the sanctuary are depicted in mosaic four Church Fathers. St. Gregory, St. Athanasius, St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom, the last two being responsible for arranging the Eucharistic liturgy.

Between Heaven and Earth

In the middle zone of the pendentives and transept vaults the timeless and historical are combined through a scheme of abbreviated symbolism. The images of the Old Testament Prophets, Greater Saints, and the Evangelists are depicted in this intermediary zone between Heaven, represented by the dome and apse, and the floor of the nave, which is occupied by earthly inhabitants. The Saints are venerated as “the hands of God” by the Orthodox Church.[15] Their lives represent the acting out of God’s Will on Earth and function as landmarks in the Church history; the evolution of Orthodox dogma and the transition from its mystic cult origin to a Faith with foundations in literary tradition. In afterlife, these Saints intercede “to smooth the road to salvation” for their fellowmen.[16] The four Evangelists are located on the pendentives to symbolize their contributions as the foundations of the Orthodox Church. In this instance the structural function of the pendentives as the supporting elements of the dome enriches their significance as surfaces for mosaic iconography.

The Saints, Prophets, and Evangelists are artistically depicted in such a stylized manner that to identify them by sight is impossible. For this reason their Greek names have been added to the mosaic program to the right or left of the respective personage’s head. If these images are viewed as reflections of Christ, then their position between man and God becomes even more significant. The Saints direct man toward God during his earthly existence. Artistically, the Holy Men do not receive readily distinguished qualities, because they are important only insofar as they are reflections of Christ. Their earthly appearance being unknown, no attempt was made to reproduce them, and human models were never used. In the absence of authentic portraits of the sanctified persons, types were created, which became part of the Living Tradition of the Church. Referring to the Transcendental, the icon themes cannot be changed and their mode of depiction must lead the viewer to the world of Divine Reality.

The third zone of the cathedral, the ceiling of the west arm, pays homage to 16 of the militant saints and acknowledges their communion in the Church.[17] They include St. Constantine, who stopped the persecution of Christians and fostered the growth of the Church; St. Helen, Constantine’s mother, who found the Holy Cross; St. Stephen, the first male martyr; St. Thekla, the first female martyr; Sts. Cosmas and Damian, physicians who healed without remuneration.

The west wall of the balcony contains three stained glass windows (77,78,79), which were installed before the master plan was drawn up. Their nonconforming style does not allow an unambiguous interpretation of their scriptural basis, thus excluding them from the realm of the traditional, highly stylized Orthodox iconography authentically represented in Saint Sophia. Moreover, church

windows in the East were without figures, but consisted of variegated glass panes randomly arranged, as you see in all other windows at Saint Sophia. The windows were referred to as “lights” in the early literature, a term which reinforces the conclusion that they were not figured.


There is a feeling of “purity and single-mindedness”[18] that accompanies the. iconographic program in Saint Sophia. The cathedral is decorated in a scheme that emerged in the 9th century at the outset of an era called the Macedonian Renaissance. The 9th-century Macedonian art reflects stability after 230 years of military, economic, administrative, and religious struggle. The Iconoclastic Controversy had struck at the very core of the Byzantine culture, its religion. In 843 A.D. Empress Theodora, acting regent for the infant Michael III, attempted to unify the Empire’s religion, and with the help of the Patriarch Ignatius, Romilly Jenkins’s choice as “the greatest of Byzantine Patriarchs, re-established the reverence of images in the Orthodox Church.[19] The subsequent revitalization of Byzantine religious art was drawn upon to adorn the interior of Saint Sophia. It represents the rebirth of an art form, and the unquestionable religiosity of Macedonian art that was lost in the art of the waning centuries of the Empire’s existence. In its concept and purpose, Byzantine act transforms the media it employs into a sacramental offering to God.


1. Each of the Greek words which make up the name “Haghia” and “Sophia,” has two meanings: the former (like the Latin “sancta”) means “holy” and “saint,” while the latter means “wisdom” and is also a female name. Probably through the Germanized Latin rendering of the name of the Cathedral in Constantinople, sankta Sophia, Saint Sophia came to be accepted. However, the translation of the Greek name is Holy Wisdom, for the Cathedral is dedicated to Jesus Christ (I Cor 1:24) and not to a saint named Sophia.

2. As taken from Constantine Cavarnos, Byzantine Thought and Art, (Mass; The Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 1968), p. 62.

3. Ernst Benz. The Greek Orthodox Church, (New York: Doubleday and Co.. 1963). p. 6.

4. Ibid. p. 6.

5. Ibid. pp. 18-19.

6. Otto Demus, Byzantine Mosaic Decoration. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1953), p. 15.

7. Cavarnos, p. 63.

8. Demus, p. 15.

9. Ibid. pp. 15-16.

10. Ibid. p. 30.

11. Benz, p. 12-13.

12. Ibid. pp. 14-15.

13.Demus, p. 21.

14. Benz, p. 16.

15. Ibid. p. 15.

16. Ibid. p. 15.

17. Demus, p. 30.

18. Ibid. Pp 54-55

19. Romilly Jenkins, Byzantine- The Imperial Centuries, (England: City Press, 1966), p. 160.

Iconographic Decoration in the Orthodox Church

Constantine Cavarnos, The Orthodox Ethos, Studies in Orthodoxy, ed. A. J. Philippou, Holywell Press, Oxford 1964, se?. 169-185.

One of the most distinctive features of Eastern Orthodoxy is the extensive and systematic use of holy icons in churches. Every Orthodox church has an iconostasis, a wooden or marble screen supporting panel icons and separating the bema or sanctuary from the main body of the church, the nave. Also, there are proskynetarla or icon stands, on which special icons are placed for veneration. Except in very small chapels, there is at least one proskynetarion , with the icon of the sacred person, persons, or event to which the church is dedicated. The faithful cross themselves before this icon and kiss it upon entering the church. Panel icons are often attached to the walls. In addition to panels, an Orthodox church generally has a certain number of murals depicting sacred persons and incidents, executed either by brush or by inlaying small pieces of coloured glass or stone, the latter being known as mosaics. Sculptured representations are rare, and are limited to bas-reliefs: statues are not employed. Indeed, since the reliefs themselves have the character of paintings, in essence even bas-reliefs are not used.

In a typical Greek Orthodox church there are two tiers of icons on the iconostasis, a lower tier of large icons and an upper tier of considerably smaller ones. (In Russian churches the number of tiers has been increased to three.) The lower series always includes at least the following three icons: that of Christ, that of the Holy Virgin and Child, and that of the sacred person, persons, or event celebrated by the particular church. The icon of Christ is invariably placed immediately to the south of the door which is at the middle of the iconostasis and is known as the Beautiful Gate ( Oraia Pyli ), while that of the Holy Virgin is always placed immediately to the north of the Beautiful Gate. These icons are known as Despotism, ‘Sovereign’. The icon depicting the person or event to which the church is dedicated is customarily set next to that of the Virgin, but sometimes beside that of Christ, especially in small churches which have only three large icons on the iconostasis. In larger churches, the first row of icons almost always includes the icon of St. John the Forerunner or Baptist, placed immediately next to Christ’s. Except in very small chapels, the lower tier comprises other icons, their number depending on the length of the iconostasis. The latter invariably has a side doorway on the north side, and in larger churches one on the south, too. When there are doors here, these are mounted with the icons of the archangels Michael and Gabriel. The tier of small icons on the upper part of the iconostasis comprises either representations of the ‘Twelve Great Festivals’ (the Dodekaorton ), or of the twelve apostles, each festival or apostle being depicted separately. The ‘Twelve Great Festivals’ are: the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, the Baptism, the Transfiguration, the Raising of Lazarus, the Entrance into Jerusalem, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Ascension, Pentecost, and the Dormition of the Virgin.

Above the Beautiful Gate, at the top of the iconostasis, is placed a cross with the figure of Christ crucified. To the right of the crucifix stands the figure of the Holy Virgin, and to the left that of St. John the Theologian, depicted on panels. On the hinged doors ( bemothyra ), which form the lower part of the Beautiful Gate, there is usually a representation of the Annunciation.

The special importance given to the icons of the Virgin Mary and the Baptist, in placing them on the iconostasis to the right and to the left of Christ, has its justification in statements made in the gospels. Mary is said to have ‘found favour with God’ (Luke i, 30), to have been ‘overshadowed’ by the Holy Spirit, to have miraculously conceived and given birth to the Son of the Highest, Jesus Christ ( i, 32, 35); while John the Baptist is characterized by Jesus as ‘more than a prophet, for this is he of whom it is written, “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee” (Matthew xi, 9-11).

In the decoration of a church with wall paintings or mosaics, certain areas are set apart for particular representations. Thus, the top part of the dome is used for the representation of Christ as Pantocrator , ‘Ruler of All’, ‘Almighty’; the spaces between the windows of the drum of the dome, for the prophets; the pendentives below, for the evangelists; the vaults and upper walls in the nave, for the Twelve Great Festivals; the lower parts, for the miracles and parables of Christ; the lowest areas of all, for isolated saints; the conch of the main eastern apse, for the Holy Virgin as Platytera . This is, in part, the general scheme that has prevailed in Orthodox churches during the last thousand years. The scheme varies somewhat from church to church, according to the shape and size of the building, the period when it was decorated, and the region where it is built. Thus, the scheme indicated above applies, so far as the dome is concerned, to the domed church; in a basilica there cannot very well be a central Pantocrator, and the prophets and evangelists have to be painted elsewhere. Also, in a small church, even when the representations are considerably reduced in scale, they must necessarily be fewer in number.

The domed church, rather than the domeless basilica, is typical of Eastern Orthodoxy, and expresses more successfully its distinctive spirit. In such a church, the figure of Christ as Pantocrator, depicted in the central dome, which dominates the whole edifice, is the largest and most impressive of all the icons. This representation consists of a large bust of Christ enclosed in a multicolored circle. The God-man holds the book of the Gospels in His left hand and blesses with His right. His head, which is encircled with a large halo inscribed with a cross, His face, His neck and shoulders all suggest great power and magnificence. His facial expression is that of an all-seeing and austere, yet merciful, lawgiver and judge. This icon reminds the faithful of the words of the Apostle Paul: And God the Father ‘raised Him from the dead, and set Him at His own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come; and hath put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be the head over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fullness of His that filleth all in all’ (Ephesians i, 20-23). It also reminds the faithful of the hymn: ‘Know and behold that I am God, Who searches the hearts and chastises thoughts, scrutinizes acts, and sets sin on fire’ ( Triodion, Venice, 1876, p. 261).

It may be noted that the term ‘ Pantocrator ‘ and the idea behind it appear in the book of Revelation. Thus in i, 8 it is said: ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, saith the Lord Who is, and Who was, and Who is to come, the Pantocrator ‘. Also, the use of the multicoloured band around Him is based on Revelation iv, 3, where the iris or rainbow is said to surround the throne of God.

In churches where the size of the dome permits, the Pantocrator is often surrounded by the Theotokos and St. John the Forerunner, in an attitude of prayer and escorted by angels. The Theotokos is painted on the eastern side of the strip; the Forerunner, on the west. Here is expressed in line and colour what the closing part of the Divine Liturgy says in words: ‘May Christ our true God have mercy upon us, through the intercessions of His most pure and most blessed holy Mother; . . . through the protection of the precious, incorporeal Spiritual Powers in heaven; through the supplications of the Precious, glorious Prophet and Forerunner John the Baptist…? The representation of the Theotokos so close to Christ Pantocrator and surrounded by a choir of angels is also in keeping with another part of the Liturgy, which says: ‘It is truly proper to bless the Theotokos, the very-blessed and most pure Virgin and Mother of our God. Thee who art more honourable than the Cherubim and incomparably more glorious than the Seraphim, who, while chaste, didst bear God, the Logos; thee, who verily gave birth to God, we magnify.’ The proximity of John the Baptist to Christ is justified by Christ’s own characterization of the Baptist which has already been mentioned in connexion with his icon on the iconostasis. Sometimes he is depicted with wings, according to this passage in Scripture: ‘Behold, I send my messenger before thy face’ (Matthew x, u). The word ‘messenger’ is a translation of the Greek angelos , which means both messenger and angel.

Further down the dome, on the drum, are depicted Old Testament prophets: Moses, David, Solomon, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, Elijah, Isaiah, and others, with one or two between the windows. Their number varies considerably, depending on the size of the dome. The presence of the prophets here reminds the faithful who turn their gaze upward to the dome of the troparion, ‘Thou hast been seen by the prophets, O Master, as far as they had the capacity of beholding Thy splendour ; through their prayers, render us capable of receiving Thy rays of illumination, having cleansed our souls of sinful thoughts and feelings’ ( Parakletiki, Venice, 1851, p. 46).

Below the prophets, on the four pendentives (the spherical triangles between the adjoining arches that support the dome) are depicted the evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Matthew and John are always depicted in the northeast and southeast pendentives respectively, while Mark and Luke are usually painted in the northwest and southwest. They are represented seated, engaged in the writing of the gospels. John is depicted with his head turned back, according to the statement in the book of Revelation ?I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and heard behind me a great voice. . . . And I turned to see the voice that spake with me’ ( i, 10-12). Sometimes they are shown with their symbols: Matthew, with an angel; Mark, with a lion; Luke, with a calf; and John, with an eagle. This is in accordance with the statement in the book of Revelation that around the throne of God ?went four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had the face as of a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle’ (iv, 6-7).

Second in importance only to the central dome in mural decoration is the main eastern apse. The dominant figure here, that of the Holy Virgin Mary, appears in the conch or semidome . This icon is known as the Platytera . The representation consists either of the upper half of her body, with arms outstretched in prayer, and the Child Christ against her chest, or of the entire figure, usually with the Child in her lap. In the latter case she is generally enthroned. The Child blesses with His right hand and holds a scroll in His left, or blesses with both hands. Often the Virgin is flanked on either side by the archangels Michael and Gabriel (to her right and left, respectively).

The representation of the Virgin in this part of the church is in line with a very old tradition, and consonant with the gospel assertion that Jesus Christ, Saviour of mankind, was born of the Virgin Mary; it also accords well with the architectural and hymnographic symbolism of the Eastern Church. Professor George A. Soteriou, the eminent Byzantinist, has this to say about the significance of depicting the Virgin here: ?During the Byzantine period, the allegorical meaning of the apse as a point uniting the roof of the church with the floor, and symbolically heaven with the earth, contributed to the placing of the icon of the Theotokos as Platytera . The Theotokos hovers as it were between heaven and earth, as “the heavenly Ladder, whereby God has descended’, as ?the Bridge leading those on the earth to heaven’. (The symbolism is taken from the Akathistos Hymn.) She is chiefly represented as praying before the Pantocrator in the dome, but also as holding the Child’ ( Nea Estia, Athens, 1955, Christmas issue, pp. 408-409).

The full name of this icon of the Virgin is ‘She who is wider than the heavens’ ( Platytera ton our anon). She is so called because she gave birth to Christ, God, Who is the Creator of all things, present in them and transcendent of them. This appellation appears in various hymns to the Virgin, for example in the one which says: ‘Thou who art a holy tabernacle, and wider than the heavens, as having received in thee the Logos of God, Who cannot be contained in the whole of creation, thou alone hast been shown to be an eternal virgin’ ( Parakletiki, p. 97).

On the area of the apse immediately below the Platytera is depicted the Divine Liturgy. In the middle of this composition there is a ciborium with the Holy Table under it, on which rests the book of the Gospels. Christ, clad in episcopal vestments, and assisted by angels who are dressed as deacons, officiates. Sometimes the Divine Liturgy is depicted instead in the prothesis .

Below the Divine Liturgy is represented the Holy Communion. In the centre there is a ciborium, with the Holy Table having a paten and chalice on it, containing the Eucharistic bread and wine. Christ, usually garbed in a tunic and mantle and assisted by two angels dressed as deacons, offers the sacred elements to His disciples. This composition bears the inscription: ‘Take, eat’ (Matthew xxvi, 26) and ‘Drink of it, all of you’ (Matthew xxvi, 27).

On the lowest part of the apse are depicted, in episcopal robes, the great hierarchs: St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. John Chrysostom, St. Athanasius the Great, and others, as space permits. They are represented as taking part in the Liturgy.

The narthex, too, which runs across the west end of the church, has traditionally been decorated with wall paintings or mosaics. The most important area for iconographic decoration here is that over the main entrance which leads to the nave. Usually a bust of Christ as teacher is painted here, the Lord blessing with His right hand and holding in His left the book of the Gospels, open at the statement: ?I am the door: if any man enter in, he shall be saved’ (John x, 9); or, ?I am the light of the world; he that follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life’ (viii, 12). On either side of Him are the Holy Virgin and John the Forerunner, turned towards Him in an attitude of prayer.

The other parts of the narthex?the vaults, walls, etc.?are decorated with events from the life of the Theotokos and of the martyrs, or with visions from Daniel and the book of Revelation, as well as with isolated saints, both full length figures and busts.

A definite pattern of church decoration was gradually developed, and this became more definitely established after the victory of the Church over Iconoclasm in 842. The system of arrangement is set forth in the Interpretation of the Art of Painting ( Ermeneia tis Zographikis Technis ) by the Athonite monk Dionysius of Fourna . Although this work was published little over a century ago (1853), it was probably written between 1728 and 1733, and is based on several anonymous earlier writings. In it Dionysius explains how panel icons and frescoes are executed, how each saint or scene is to be depicted, and how the icons are to be arranged in domed churches and basilicas. Dionysius’s book has recently been superseded by the Explanation of Orthodox Iconography { Ekphrasis tis Orthodoxou Eikonographias, Athens, 1960), written by Fotis Kontoglous, the foremost modern Greek icon painter. Kontoglous’s work is based on writings older than those which were employed by Dionysius of Fourna, as well as on his own extraordinarily rich experience as an iconographer and restorer of Byzantine paintings. It is free from certain misinterpretations and marks of western influence that are to be found here and there in the book of Dionysius.

The use of icons by Christians goes back to the first century. A rudimentary symbolic art existed among the Christians of the first two centuries, employing such symbols as the Dove (symbol of the peace of Christ), the Fish and the Shepherd (symbols of Christ), and the Peacock (symbol of the resurrection). Further, it seems that as early as the first century Christians used representations of events in Holy Scripture to decorate their tombs; and pictorial representations of events from the life of Christ, probably dating from the early part of the second century, have been found in catacombs at Rome and Alexandria . Pictorial representations increase with each century, until the outbreak of Iconoclasm in 726.

Christian writers of the first few centuries testify to the existence of sacred icons in their time, and stress the value which icons have for the Christian. Thus St. Basil the Great (c. 330-379), in his homily on the martyrdom of Barlaam, says: ?Arise now before me, you iconographers of the merits of the saints. . . . Let me be overwhelmed by your icons depicting the brave acts of the martyr! Let me look at the fighter most vividly depicted in your icon. . . . Let also Christ, Who instituted the contest, be depicted in your icon’ Migne, P.G . xxxi, 489 a-c). In a fragment of a Life of St. John Chrysostom (c. 347-407), preserved in a work by St. John Damascene (c. 675-749), we are told that Chrysostom had an icon of the Apostle Paul before himself as he studied Paul’s Epistles. When he looked up from the text, the icon seemed to come to life and speak to him ( Migne, P.G . xciv, 1277 a ). Damascene also tells us that Chrysostom was fond of another icon, too, which was marked by its holiness. ?In it’, he says, ?I saw depicted an angel putting the hosts of the barbarians to flight, and David prophesying truly: Lord, thou shalt cause their image to vanish out of the city’ (ibid., 1313 b, 1400 c). And St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330 -c. 395) tells us how deeply he was moved by an icon of the sacrifice of Isaac: ?I have often beheld a painted representation of the Passion, and have never passed by this sight without shedding tears, for art brings the story vividly to the eyes’ ( P.G . xciv, 1269 c).

With each succeeding century the number and variety of pictorial representations increases, and iconography becomes more and more mature and stylized. The style of painting known as Byzantine may be said to date from the sixth century. Various influences contributed to its formation. The three most important were: the Hellenic, the Oriental (mainly Syrian), and the Christian. To Greece this art owes its idealism, its clarity, elegance, and balance. From Syria it received a vigorous expressionism, achieved through the use of frontal poses, the markedly disproportionate enlargement of the eyes and head, and a similar enlargement of the principal personages in relation to those about them. These elements of idealism and vigorous expression were fused together, the one sometimes predominating over the other, by the Christian faith. The doctrines of the Christian Church set the limits within which iconography should operate, while the inner living faith of the icon painter, expressing itself through material media, utilized these and other elements to convey the facts, truths, and values of the Christian religion. It is this third factor, more than anything else, that has given Byzantine iconography its distinctive character as an art of the highest spirituality.

The fusion of these three factors?the Hellenic, the Oriental, and the Christian?which gave rise to the Byzantine style, took place primarily in the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople . From here this style spread to Asia Minor, the whole Balkan Peninsula (present day Greece, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Roumania ), Italy, Russia, and more distant countries.

The iconoclastic ban on icons interrupted the development of iconography in Byzantium for more than a century (726 – 843) and caused a large-scale destruction of icons in the Empire. In Constantinople, where the ban was most sternly enforced, panels were entirely forbidden, while mosaics and wall paintings were restricted to ornamental works and symbols like the cross. Representation of the human form in churches was forbidden by the rulers. There resulted from this a great loss in the churches’ unlifting power and mystical charm. Speaking about the great church of Aghia Sophia at Constantinople some years after the end of Iconoclasm, the Ecumenical Patriarch Photius (c. 810-895) remarked that ‘this celebrated and sacred church looked sad with its visual mysteries scraped off, as it were. . . .’ (Cyril Mango, The Homilies of Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople, 1958, p. 292).

With the downfall of Iconoclasm towards the middle of the ninth century, iconography began to develop with great vigour and system. Mainly from the following century, a definite order for the arrangement of icons in the church became established in the Christian East, and has continued, with certain variations from period to period, down to the present. The arrangement was dictated by functional aims, as we have noted earlier.

The first important iconographic decorations of churches were mosaics. Christians borrowed the art of mosaics from the Greeks and Romans, who had used it chiefly for pavements. Use was now made of this technique for decorating the walls, vaults, apses and domes of churches with sacred figures and events.

Among the oldest surviving churches with mural mosaics are Osios David and St. George at Thessaloniki, which both have mosaics done in the fifth century; and the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia and the Baptistery of the Orthodox at Ravenna, whose mosaics also date from the fifth century. Of those next in antiquity are the mosaics of Sant ‘ Apollinare Nuovo, Sant ‘ Apollinare in Classe and San Vitale at Ravenna, and Sts. Cosmas and Damian at Rome (sixth century); and St. Demetrius and Aghia Sophia at Thessaloniki (seventh, and eighth and ninth centuries respectively); Aghia Sophia at Constantinople (latter part of the ninth century and later), Nea Moni in Chios, Osios Lukas in Boeotia, and Daphni near Athens (eleventh century), and the Holy Apostles at Thessaloniki and the Monastery of Chora ( Kahrie Djami ) at Constantinople (fourteenth century).

Mosaics were extensively used in the Byzantine Empire from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries. During this period they were of primary importance in church decoration. Iconoclasm interrupted iconographic decoration, as we have said, for more than a century. The first major mosaic decoration after the defeat of Iconoclasm was completed in 867. It was a representation of the Virgin and Child in the Church of Aghia Sophia at Constantinople . After the fourteenth century, the impoverished condition of the Empire, resulting from the Crusades from the West on the one hand, and the repeated attacks of the Ottoman Turks from the East on the other, made mosaic decoration of churches virtually impossible. Less costly means had to be employed. The Byzantines made use of frescoes?murals executed with water- colours on moist plaster. In recent years, the employment of mosaics for iconographic decoration has been revived, though on a small scale.

The use of mosaics has not been restricted to wall decoration, although this has been their primary use. They have also been employed on panels, sometimes of extremely small dimensions. A certain number of miniature mosaics on panels, as well as some larger ones, of the same size as the icons which are mounted upon the lower part of the iconostasis, have survived in some of the monasteries on Mount Athos and in a few other places. Their dates vary from the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries.

The methods of iconographic decoration by mosaics and by frescoes have not been regarded as mutually exclusive: often we see both kinds of decoration in the same church. But mosaics have been considered the superior mode of iconography.

We have already noted that wall paintings were used at a very early date in the catacombs. The earliest examples which survive are in the catacombs of Rome . Among the oldest surviving frescoes in churches are those at Dura, Syria, done shortly before 250. Important mural paintings of an early date also survive at Baouit, Saqqara, and elsewhere in Egypt (fifth century); in the church of Santa Maria Antiqua, at Rome (eighth and ninth centuries); and elsewhere. Not as old, but of considerable importance, are the monastic mural paintings of Cappadocia (between the ninth and the eleventh centuries).Countless wall paintings of high merit survive in the Orthodox countries: Greece, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Roumania, Russia . Greece and Yugoslavia have the largest number of such icons. In Greece, the most numerous frescoes and some of the best are to be seen in churches in Attica (tenth to eighteenth centuries), at Thessaloniki (eleventh to fourteenth centuries), Mystra (fourteenth and fifteenth centuries), Mount Athos and Kastoria (fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries), and Meteora (sixteenth and seventeenth centuries). In Yugoslavia, remarkable frescoes are to be seen in the cathedral of St. Sophia at Ochrida (eleventh century) and in the churches of Nerezi (1164), Milesevo (1235), Sopocani (1265-1270), Gracanica (c. 1320), and elsewhere.

Important frescoes survive also in Bulgaria, for instance in the churches of Boiana (1259) and St. George at Sophia (fourteenth century), and at Kalotino (late fifteenth century), Dragalevici (1476), and Arnabassi (1681). In Roumania, the finest wall paintings are in two churches at Curtea de Arges (fourteenth century). In Russia, which was never part of the Byzantine Empire, except for the Crimea, decoration by means of mural paintings was not extensively used. The most notable examples of frescoes in Russia are in the cathedrals of St. Demetrius at Vladimir (1198) and of the Transfiguration at Novgorod (1378).

The technique of the other major form of iconography, executed on panels, goes back to the Egyptian tomb paintings of the Greco-Roman period. This technique is known as tempera. It employs an albuminous or colloidal medium, such as egg, and executes the icon on gesso-covered panels. As a rule, the gesso is painted on a canvas that has been attached to the panel.

Few panel icons of the pre-iconoclast period survive. Some of them date from as far back as the fifth or sixth century. Prior to the thirteenth century, single figures were usually depicted on panels. From the thirteenth century onwards, there is a noticeable increase in the number of icons depicting sacred events.

The art of panel iconography, like that of iconography in mosaic and fresco, was brought to the Slavic countries by Greek artists of the Byzantine period. Thus, Theophanes the Greek (fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries) is well known both in connexion with frescoes in Novgorod and Moscow, and for a number of panels that are preserved in the Tretiakov Gallery at Moscow . Russia ‘s greatest iconographer, Andrew Rublev (c. 1370 -c. 1430) was among Theophanes’s pupils. Panel iconography flourished in Russia, unlike mural decoration, the development of which, as we have noted above, was restricted.

Innumerable panel icons done in the Byzantine style are to be found in the older churches of the Orthodox countries. Such panels may also be seen in museums and private collections. The Byzantine Museum at Athens is devoted exclusively to the preservation of works of art of the Byzantine tradition, and has a very large collection of panel icons.

Orthodox art did not decline with the political and military decline of the Byzantine Empire, the beginning of which has been assigned by historians to the end of the twelfth century, and more particularly to the Fourth Crusade in 1204. In the fourteenth century we find two remarkable schools of iconography, the Macedonian and the Cretan. These terms are largely conventional, as the styles did not originate in the regions denoted by them, and the works which bear their names are not confined to Macedonia and Crete . The names have, however, been very widely adopted, and now can hardly be dispensed with. Moreover, the choice of these names, as we shall see, is not without some justification.

The Macedonian School appears in the thirteenth century, but is rooted in Byzantine iconography of the preceding period. It differs from it in stressing the idealistic element, derived from Greek art. Its conception of form, landscape and colour is Hellenistic. The forms it employs are broad, the colours light, with no sharp contrast between light and shade, the folds of the garments relatively simple. In the representation of the body there is a tendency to approach nature, without ever faithfully copying it, but rather transforming it by injecting into it an element of idealism and by thoroughly spiritualizing it. This school grew up at Constantinople . It developed here and at Thessaloniki, second city of Byzantium . At Constantinople it tended towards greater idealism; at Thessaloniki, towards greater expressiveness. Thessaloniki served as the centre of the school in that region. From this city the Macedonian School spread, through Greek artists, to Greek and Serbian Macedonia, and more generally to the Balkans. It reached Mystra early in the fourteenth century, probably directly from Constantinople . From the thirteenth century to the fourteenth, the Macedonian School was at its height. By the end of the fourteenth century it had lost is original vigour, and was becoming eclectic, borrowing elements from the folk tradition. After the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks (1453), the popular element became more and more prominent, until by the end of the sixteenth century the Macedonian School no longer existed.

Because of its characteristic breadth of conception, this style is more suited to the decoration of large surfaces than panels; and indeed little use was made of it in panel iconography. Few panels in which this style is used have survived. Mural decorations, on the other hand, are numerous. Examples are the mosaics in the church of the monastery of Chora (beginning of the fourteenth century), the frescoes in the side chapel of St. Euthymios in the church of St. Demetrius at Thessaloniki (1303), the mosaics in the church of the Holy Apostles at the same city (1312-1315), the frescoes in the church of the Protaton at Karyes on Mount Athos (first quarter of the fourteenth century), those in the churches of St. Demetrius and Aphentiko or Brontocheiou at Mystra (c. 1310), and of Pantanassa, also at Mystra (1428), and those in the churches of Nagoricino (1316) and St. Nikitas (1309 -1320) in Yugoslavia.

The greatest master of this school is Manuel Panselinos of Thessaloniki, who did the magnificent frescoes in the church of the Protaton on the Holy Mountain of Athos .

What has been termed the Cretan School is characterized by a closer attachment to the style of Byzantine painting prior to the thirteenth century. It employs tall and narrow forms, closely repeated folds of garments, darker colours, and sharp contrasts of light and shade. The place of origin of this school has not been definitely established. It was not Crete . In all probability it began, like the Macedonian School, at Constantinople and spread from there to Greece and elsewhere in the Balkans. Mystra soon became an important centre of this school, which appears to have reached the city directly from Constantinople . Most probably it was from Mystra that it was transmitted to Crete, during the second half of the fourteenth century. From Crete the style spread to Meteora, Mount Athos, and other parts of Greece .

The Cretan School made its appearance in Constantinople early in the fourteenth century. It reached its highest point, both in wall and panel painting, in the sixteenth century, through Cretan iconographers on Mount Athos, who gave the style its definitive form. Theophanes the Cretan, who frescoed the main church and the refectory of the monastery of Lavra on Mount Athos, is the greatest representative of this school. He gave the ‘Cretan’ fresco its classical form.

The Cretan School of iconography rivaled the Macedonian during the closing period of the Byzantine Empire . After the fall of Constantinople (1453), it became the dominant school of painting in the Orthodox Church.

Orthodox iconography remained faithful to the Byzantine tradition down to the eighteenth century and even later. The westernizing reforms of Peter the Great early in the eighteenth century brought about a gradual disappearance of traditional iconography in Russia . In Greece, on the other hand, iconographers continued for the most part to paint in the Byzantine style until the early part of the nineteenth century. Following the Greek War of Independence (1821-1828), however, the strong influx of western ideas into Greece, which resulted from the closer contact of Greece with Europe, led Greek iconographers to break with their tradition and adopt western, particularly Italian, prototypes and techniques. The spirituality characteristic of Byzantine painting was abandoned in favour of naturalism, and the tempera technique was replaced by the use of oil colours . Typical of icon painters of this period is the attempt to ‘correct’ or ‘improve’ the austere, ascetic, unworldly forms of Byzantine iconography by means of perspective, faithfulness to anatomical detail, and physical beauty.

During the last two decades, there has been a significant revival of traditional Orthodox iconography in Greece, thanks to Fotis Kontoglous . This revival has spread to the United States and other countries. It is bound to gain momentum from the increasing understanding and appreciation of Byzantine art throughout the world.

Although we speak of the ‘decoration’ of churches by means of icons, the basis underlying the use of icons is far from being merely an aesthetic one. As a ‘house of God’ and a ‘house of prayer’, the church should be rendered as beautiful as possible, especially in the interior, where the faithful gather for worship. But the beauty of the church must bear the impress of holiness; and the pleasure evoked by it must transcend that of mere aesthetic experience: it must be spiritual. This premise of true iconography, clearly recognized by the icon painters of Byzantium, was lost sight of by modern naturalist painters of religious themes. The latter shifted their attention from the spiritual to the physical, from the beauty that is inner and imperishable to that which is outer and perishable. Hence in their works they failed to express spiritual beauty, the beauty of humility, meekness, self-mastery, purity, peace, love, and the other Christian virtues. They sought instead to depict physical beauty or to reduplicate nature, and thought they had achieved their goal if they had impressed the beholder by their skill and gratified his aesthetic sense.

The character which an Orthodox icon should have is dictated by the theological, metaphysical, and psychological principles underlying its use and veneration. These principles have been indicated by the early as well as by the later Fathers of the Church, and received their classical expression in the eighth century in St. John Damascene’s three treatises Against those who Decry the Holy Icons ( Migne, P.G . xciv ), a chapter in his An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (ibid.), and in the decrees of the seventh Ecumenical Synod ( Mansi, Sacrorum Conciliorum Nova et Amplissima Collectio, xiii). The practice of having and venerating icons, we are taught, is based on sacred tradition going back to the apostles and even earlier Iconoclasm, which began in 726 with an edict against icons by the Eastern Emperor Leo III, asserted that the making and veneration of icons is idolatry and contrary to the second commandment. Damascene points out that actually God Himself gave instructions as to how the tabernacle should be made (Exodus xxv, 40). The tabernacle ‘bore an image ( eikon ) and pattern of heavenly things’, and was venerated by the Mosaic people ( Migne, P.G . xciv, 1169 a ). Damascene also points out that Cherubim were depicted over the ark of the tabernacle (Exodus xxv, 18). Further, he remarks that the second commandment was valid for the Israelites, because spiritually they were still in a childish condition and tended towards idolatry; whereas Christians, as the Apostle Paul stresses, are no longer under the Jewish law, but under grace. This Father also observes that while it was impossible for the Jews to depict God at all, it is not so for Christians, for the incarnation has made it possible for them to depict the second Person of the Trinity, Christ. As Christ became in truth man, and acquired a visible body, and lived upon the earth, and associated with men, it became possible to portray Him. To reject Christ’s icon is virtually to deny His incarnation; to accept and venerate His icon is to affirm and recall the incarnation.

The symbolic nature of the true icon is stressed by Damascene and the seventh Ecumenical Synod. The icon is not, like the naturalistic painting, an end in itself, an aesthetic object to be enjoyed for whatever merits it possesses, but is essentially a symbol, carrying us beyond itself. The icon stands for something other than itself. It is designed to lead us from the physical to the spiritual realm. The icon is an image or representation of a real sacred person or event, and is designed to lead us to it. An idol, on the other hand, lacks this authentic symbolic character, its prototype being either fictitious or the opposite of what it purports to be an evil being instead of God. (It may be observed, incidentally, that a naturalistic ‘Christian’ painting, inasmuch as it fails to uplift us and take us beyond the sensory realm to the spiritual, is hardly distinct from an idol).

The nature of the icon being essentially symbolic, the veneration of it is a veneration of the prototype or original which it represents. In the words of St. Basil the Great, quoted by Damascene and other defenders of icons, ‘the honour which is given to the icon passes over to the prototype’. The prototype honoured is in the last analysis God, as God created man in His own image.

Such honourable veneration ( timetiki proskynesis ) is sharply distinguished from worship latreia ). Proskynesis in the narrower sense of worship pertains only to God. Honourable veneration of an icon consists of such acts as bowing before it and crossing oneself, saying a prayer, kissing it, and censing it. In the writings of Damascene and the decrees of the seventh Ecumenical Synod, it is pointed out that the practice of according proskynesis in the broader sense to sacred objects is deeply rooted in the sacred tradition of Christianity, including the Holy Scriptures. For instance, the Mosaic people venerated the tabernacle, which bore an image and pattern of heavenly things.

The Orthodox honour in this way ‘the icon of the incarnation of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, and of our immaculate Lady and all-holy Theotokos, of whom He was pleased to become incarnate . . .; also [the icons] of the incorporeal angels?since they appeared to the righteous in the form of men. Also the forms and icons of the divine and most famed apostles, of the prophets, who speak of God, of the prize-bearing martyrs, and of other saints’ (Decree of the seventh Ecumenical Synod, Mansi, op. cit., xiii, 132). As a symbol, the icon provides a means not only of honouring sacred personages, but also of lifting up the soul to them, instructing, reminding, and arousing emulation. We are raised by icons to a greater or lesser experience of spiritual reality, depending on our inner disposition and level of spiritual development. St. John Damascene remarks: ?According to our own state, we are led up by perceptible icons to the contemplation ( theoria ) of the divine and immaterial? ( Migne, P.G . xciv, 1261 a ).

Being concise memorials of things written in the Scriptures and in sacred history, icons not only teach these things in a vivid manner, but also remind the faithful of them. As to the efficacy of icons as a means of instruction, St. Basil the Great, St. John Damascene, St. Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople, and other Fathers assert that icons show us by means of representations what history tells us by means of words. Photius remarks that if a man hates the teaching of icons, then he must reject and hate the message of the Gospels. And he asserts that, ‘Just as speech is transmitted by hearing, so a form through sight is imprinted upon the tablets of the soul, giving to those whose apprehension is not soiled by wicked doctrines a representation of knowledge concordant with piety’ (op. cit., p. 294). Going further, he holds that there are instances where icons are more vivid than written accounts, and hence superior to the latter as a means of instruction. As examples he gives the representations of the deeds of martyrs and the depiction of the Holy Virgin holding the Creator in her arms as an infant.

In connexion with the icon’s function of reminding us, it is hardly necessary to point out that it does not suffice for a Christian to learn about sacred persons, events, and truths; he must also recall them as often as possible. This keeps him alive to their vital significance for him, and reinforces his determination and efforts to imitate the character and life of the sacred persons whose images he beholds. St. John Damascene says: ‘I enter the common place-of-therapy of souls, the church, choked as it were by the thorns of worldly thoughts. The bloom of painting attracts me, it delights my sight like a meadow, and secretly evokes in my soul the desire to glorify God. I behold the fortitude of the martyr, the crowns awarded, and my zeal is aroused like fire; I fall down and worship God through the martyr, and receive salvation’ ( Migne, P.G . xciv, 1268 a-b). Similarly, one of the decrees of the seventh Ecumenical Synod states: ‘The more continually the icons of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady the Theotokos, of the venerable angels, and of all saints and holy men are seen, the more are the beholders lifted up to the memory of the prototypes and to an aspiration after them ( Mansi, op. cii ., xiii, 337).

Thus, iconography is a concrete theology, employing mystical colours and forms, with a view to instructing the faithful, lifting them up to the experience of spiritual reality, arousing them morally and spiritually, transforming them, sanctifying them.

The efficacy of true icons in elevating the faithful to a spiritual level of experience and being does not issue from their essentially symbolic nature alone, but also from the grace and power of God which dwells in them. Damascene remarks: ?In their lifetime, the saints were filled with the Holy Spirit; and after their death, too, the grace of the Holy Spirit abides always in their souls, and in their bodies in the tombs, and also in their forms and holy icons, not in essence, but as grace and energy’ ( Migne, P.G . xciv, 1249 c-d). Similar statements are made by another of the greatest defenders of icons, St. Theodore the Studite (759-826). Theodore draws attention to the Christian belief that God is present everywhere, ?both in rational and irrational creatures, both in the animate and the inanimate’. However, the Deity is not present in them equally, ?but according as their natures are susceptible of receiving it more or less’. ( Migne, P.G . xcix, 344 b-c). The Deity, then, is present in the icon. It is not present in it, however, ‘by way of natural union, but by way of relative participation, the icon partaking of honour and grace’ (ibid.; cf. 961).

From the indwelling divine grace and energy springs the miraculous power that has been manifested by many icons. Potentially, every true icon is miracle-working; the potentiality, however, is actualized only when certain conditions, such as the presence of deep religious faith, are fulfilled.

The divine element enters the icon from the time it is painted, inasmuch as the making of the icon involves God’s active participation. ‘Divine grace illumines the mind of the iconographer and guides his hand’, remarks Fotis Kontoglous . ?That is why the ancient iconographers seldom signed their works, and those who did wrote: Through the hand of the sinful servant of God S-.’ (C. Cavarnos, Byzantine Sacred Art, 1957, p. 69). The true iconographer prepares himself for his work by fasting, prayer and other spiritual practices, and has the feeling that he is but an instrument through which the Holy Spirit expresses itself.

The approach of the true iconographer is totally opposed to the modern ideas that art should faithfully copy nature, or should express the imagination or personality of the artist, or the spirit of his time. His goal, which he consciously and steadfastly pursues, is to give the most effective expression to the universal spiritual truths and values of Christian religion, and thereby to instruct, uplift, transform and sanctify the faithful. To this end he adheres faithfully to his great tradition of sacred painting, employing its consecrated archetypes and techniques, avoiding arbitrariness and improvisation as well as everything vague, superfluous, subjective, individual, sensual, in general everything which tends to keep man chained to a lower level of being. This art is eminently deliberate, clear, precise, simple, objective, universal, spiritual. It speaks in its own unique, vivid way of God and of new, transfigured men.