Step into the Nave
Then you walk into the main worship space. Look around. You will see icons.
Lots and lots of icons.
You will have come into the “nave,” the place where the congregation gathers, through a door on the West wall. Ahead of you, toward the East you will see a wall, or screen of icons. It is called the “iconostasis” and behind it is the “sanctuary” where the altar table is located.
(Catholics call it an “altar,” where Christ’s sacrifice is re-presented. Protestants call it a “table,” where the Lord’s Supper is served. Orthodox call it by both terms and keep both meanings.)
You are probably surrounded by icons.
For instance, in the Orthodox church I attend most regularly you would see
- Twenty-three icons painted on the North wall (name-saints of members), plus three in stained glass.
- Twenty-three more on the South wall (more name-saints), plus three more in stained glass.
- Twenty-four on the West wall (two for each of the twelve major feasts), plus three more in tapestries.
- Eight major figures in the bottom row of the iconostasis.
- Twelve apostles plus three major feasts in the second row of the iconostasis.
- The crucifixion in three icons on the top of the iconostasis.
- Two huge icons of the Last Supper high on the left and right of the East wall, one of six apostles receiving the cup, and the other of six apostles receiving the bread.
- Mary high in the center of the East wall, above the altar table.
- And of course Christ, the Ruler of All, looking down from the very top of the dome.
- Plus over a dozen more here and there.
A lot of Protestants seeing over a hundred icons in a church will quickly think “It’s so … Catholic!”
But there are big differences between Orthodox and Catholic church art. For one, the Orthodox won’t have any statues. Paint, glass, and tapestry but it is always two dimensional.
And if the iconography is traditional they will look very different from Catholic paintings.
- Icons can look simplistic, with the perspective all “wrong” in portrayals of biblical scenes. But they aren’t trying for the realism of the Western Renaissance.
- Faces can look emotionless or stern — but they aren’t striving for the heartrending feeling of so much Catholic devotional art.
There is a whole language of Orthodox iconography — which is why they call the making of icons “writing” rather than “painting.” It is a language of biblical interpretation and theology in a vocabulary of light, lines, colors and proportions.
The specifics of that language are a subject far too large and complex for this post. I’ll just mention one aspect:
You may notice a particular quality of the light in the church. It isn’t accounted for by stained glass windows. When it is dark outside and the church lights are barely lit there can still be a mysterious warm glow in the room.
That glow? It is from the icons. Really.
In traditional icons the halos (and sometimes whole backgrounds) are a layer of genuine gold leaf. That real gold captures whatever light is in the room and reflects it back — it can seems to amplify it.
And that light is part of the language of icons. The people they portray are saints because the light of Christ shone through them.
The light shines even in the darkness of our world and our lives. But the darkness does not overcome it.
Now when many Protestants see all those images we have one or two reactions.
- We think it is idolatry.
- We think it is gaudy.
Let me say something about the objections, then about what the Orthodox see in the same images.
The Protestant world has a longstanding, deep-rooted objection to idolatry. And with good reason. The commandment against idolatry is one of the Big Ten.
Back in the sixteenth century, the first Protestants were converts from medieval Catholicism (which, by the way, is very different from the Catholicism you find today).
- Those first converts knew from their own experience that ill-informed Christians could give worship to statues and paintings — worship that belonged only to God.
- They knew from their own experience that devotion to the saints depicted in church art could displace people’s devotion to Jesus, and to the God who created heaven and earth.
When church buildings that had previously been Catholic were transferred to Protestant use, frescos of the saints were sometimes painted over. Images of the saints were sometimes replaced with quotations from Scripture.
Even now, centuries later, those old issues rattle around in our corporate sensibilities. We see a painted image of Mary or another saint, and we can hardly help condemning it as an idol.
But the Orthodox are quite clear about what they are doing with their icons — and the Orthodox are all about theology. They are never worshipping in image, and they are never worshipping a saint. Read on, dear reader, read on and you will see.
Protestant opposition to idolatry led to a very different sense of what a church ought to look like.
In North America, when Protestant colonists built churches from scratch, they made them very plain inside.
- Walls were painted white, rather than full of images.
- Windows were ordinary glass, not stained glass.
- Furnishings were simple — like an ordinary dining table for the Lord’s Supper.
- And everything was focused on the pulpit.
Small surprise, then, that Protestants see colorful icons with rich golden halos on every wall plus the ceiling and think it’s a bit problematic. The churches we were raised in just didn’t look like that. At all.
Eyes vs Ears
What lies behind the difference is not a failure to understand idolatry. The difference is in how two vast cultural traditions think people receive the gospel and worship the invisible God who created all things.
It is a difference of eyes vs ears.
I’ve heard it said that the Puritans liked plain glass windows so that “the clear light of reason” could shine through — instead of, I suppose, superstition and idolatry.
That Puritan emphasis on “reason” is actually a big deal in the general Protestant sensibility.
We Protestants, especially back in our sixteenth-century beginnings, came to church to hear the gospel. Our leaders were convinced that what we needed to break free of medieval superstition and ignorance was a fully-informed, well-educated biblical faith. As Paul put it,
… how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? … So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:14-17 NRSV)
Worship, for Protestants, became primarily a matter of what you hear with your ears and what you think about and decide about in your mind.
Our churches are built for hearing and learning through the preached Word. We tend to be suspicious of forms of worship that don’t appeal to our ears and our minds, or that call for us to engage other parts of ourselves in worship.
But for the Orthodox, hearing is only one way the gospel reaches you. They give more credence to the Psalmist who said
O taste and see that the Lord is good… (Psalm 34:8 NRSV)
The Communion of Saints
So what do the Orthodox see when they enter that room full of images? They see something many Protestants affirm when they say the Apostles’ Creed:
I believe in … the communion of saints.
And the Orthodox think of this as a present reality and as something very biblical indeed.
Take a look at Hebrews 11: The letter lists a whole bunch of Old Testament figures as models of faith.
Then check out chapter 12: These long-dead figures are considered alive, a “great cloud of witnesses.”
Finally flip forward to Revelation 4 and 5: The saints and martyrs, kings and creatures, all surround God’s throne in worship.
When you enter the church, the icons remind you of all the other people who are, right now, worshipping God. Remember, the idea of Orthodox worship is that you are stepping into the throne room of heaven itself.
Of course you are surrounded by saints of ages past. How could you worship without them?
But somehow you still can’t help but object: Don’t the Ten Commandments forbid this kind of thing? Aren’t we told not to make images of God and worship them?
It is a good question. But the Orthodox are living well within the law.
Images of God? Jesus Christ yes, but not the Father. And you won’t find icons of the invisible essence of God.
Remember what happened in the incarnation? According to John,
… the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory…. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (John 1:14-18 NRSV)
And as Paul put it Jesus is
the image of the invisible God… (Colossians 1:15)
God himself chose to make his image visible. The Orthodox understand it as permission to portray Jesus, who is fully God, in images.
But what about all those other images of mere humans?
In an important way, they too are images of Jesus — because a saint is someone whose life shines forth Christ, transformed into his image (2 Corinthians 3:18).
When you look at an icon, you don’t look at the paint on the board. You don’t even focus on the mere human person who is portrayed. You first see the person, but the point is to look through him or her to Jesus who’s glory that person helped reveal.
Icons are essentially windows, not picture portraits.
So both Protestant and Orthodox churches have windows. And what passes through the windows is important to both traditions.
- The Protestant wants reason to come in, to develop a well-informed faith with a rich understanding of the Word.
- The Orthodox wants to see through the icon, as a window into mystery.
I hope as you worship you will take the time to look at the icons.
Spot the ones that show scenes rather than portraits. See if you can tell what story is being told, and what is being emphasized about the text.
Then look at an icon of Jesus. Think about the wonder of Christ, fully God and fully human. Remember how he brings salvation by who he is, by what he teaches, by the gift of his death and resurrection.
Take a look at an icon of Mary. Who’s that on her lap? Think about the wonder of her place in salvation history, and the transforming intimacy of bearing and raising God’s own Son.
See if you can recognize other figures. You might be able to tell who some are by clues in the picture or by inscriptions — or you might not. But think of saints that you have known — people whose intimacy with Jesus and whose obedience to his way and his will have made them shine with the glorious light of Christ.
And give thanks.
That’s the beginning of letting the gospel come to you through your eyes as well as your ears.
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