THE ORTHODOX ICON AS A PLACE AND WAY OF MULTIPLE ENCOUNTERS
Efstathios K. Giannis, Theologian - Iconographer
The quaternary number of encounters
a. The icon of the Lord
The orthodox icon, as a theological language, "speaks" for multiple encounters and, at the same time, calls for encounters.
The Icon of Christ, our Lord is, first of all, the revelation and visual attestation of the truth of our faith that "God was manifested in flesh"; that the Divine nature that cannot be comprehended and it is uncircumscribed and infinite is emptied ( kenosised) and meets the finite human nature; that the uncreated meets the created and exists in the form of the created. This is why the Quinisext Synod (691) with its 82 nd Canon in order to stress the truth of the Divine Incarnation, which is of major importance, forbids henceforth the symbolic representation of Christ as a lamb and decrees: "Christ our God be henceforth exhibited in images". In this way the faithful will be able to understand " the depths of the humiliation of the Word of God " and will be guided to " recall to memory his conversation in the flesh, his passion and salutary death, and his redemption which was wrought for the world."
According, then, to the synodic decree, the Icon of Christ becomes the place where this merciful encounter of God with man is revealed. It shows the faith of the Church that Christ is the incarnated God, the Truth in its entire total having taken flesh, which the Christian community ought to present to every one; in this way, the denial of every abstract and supernatural conception of religion is stressed. The Truth, henceforth, is not only an idea or an abstract form, but a specific person that can be presented as an image. Not only can the Church talk about the truth but also present it: It is the Icon of Christ. It presents the person or the hypostasis of the incarnated Logos in which the Divine and human natures are met and united without "confusion" or "division". "It is not the nature but the hypostasis which is depicted; the very hypostasis of Christ is describable while his divinity indescribable", are the characteristic words of Saint Theodore the Studite. With this clear patristic distinction between nature and person or hypostasis the problem of monophysiticism is overcome as well as the one of Nestorianism and the orthodox idea is promoted; the face of the Lord in its human form is visible in the Icon of Christ, as it was historically visible during its incarnation.
The Icon of Christ does not only reveal the encounter of God with man but it is also a call for man to encounter God. Revelations of this second encounter are the Icons of the Theotokos and the Saints, the friends of God.
The icons of Theotokos and the Saints
The Icons of Theotokos, first of all, either presented as holding baby Jesus (vrefokratousa), or as kissing Jesus affectionately (glykofilousa), or praying and "reclining" at the Birth of Christ, reveal, through the deepest "semantics" of the Orthodox iconography, Virgin Mary as the " heaven" and " kind earth" and " uncut mountain " and "" virginal womb" - as the mother of God. That is as the daughter who" identified in her existence the life of the created with the life of the uncreated, identified the created with the creator in her own life". As " the created one who- only she within the creation of God, material and spiritual- reached the fullness of the purpose for which the creation exists: the fullest possible unity with God, the fullest possible realization of the possibilities of life". When the iconoclasts questioned the Icon of Theotokos, they questioned the possibility of man, united with Christ, to become divine by grace, since the word "Theotokos" is understood and used " not only for the nature of Logos, but also so that man can experience the presence of God."
Secondly, this experience of the presence of God, by grace, is revealed by the Icons of the Saints. The Saints of orthodox iconography are the ones who ontologically encountered Christ and were infinitely united with Him. And through this union they were subjected to the "blessed transfiguration" and restored within them the fallen image of God, reinstating it to the primordial beauty; thus, they were transfigured into temples of the Holy Spirit and residences of God -for the glory of God. According to the faith of the Church, man is the glory of God. In the face of the transfigured members of the Church who have experienced the presence of God, God is glorified. This is the Divine doxology expressed by the Saints' Icons. They reveal to us the path they followed in order to encounter Christ and become the glory of God. And the Orthodox Church in the iconography of its Saints, reminds us of" the personal identity of its glorified members; it states, that is, the special characteristic of the portrayed persons in their new hypostases according to Christ which verifies the participation of the portrayed in the Divine glory and grace of God." Consequently, the Icons of the Saints "reveal the ontological- ethical consequences of the Christological doctrine on the portrayed persons through Christ", that is, experiencing the presence of God. They are, in other words, a visual expression and formulation of the known words of Athanasios the Great: " He indeed (=the God) assumed humanity so that we might become God."
The light in the Orthodox icon
This visual formulation of the transfiguration and experiencing of God by man is of course achieved through other visual treatment but mainly through what the modern theologian calls " illumination" or "light structure" of the Orthodox Icon. The Orthodox iconographer, in contrast to the Renaissance painter whose work is based on shadows, structures the Icon and literally moulds it with light. In the art of the Icon the colour palette is seen as a palette of light. The iconographer mixes the colours with light as the saint " mixes with the light" as Symeon the New Theologian said
This light in Byzantine painting plays a very characteristic role, refers to the essence of the images and, thus, assumes an ontological character. " God is light" and His incarnation is the light that comes to the world: " It came, the unreachable light became visible." This light, according to Saint Gregory Palamas is the uncreated actions of God. And the light that incenses the holy Icons is exactly "this divine energy and, thus, the essence in the content of the Icon."
The light that illuminates the Orthodox Icon is not the natural light emanating from a specific external source and so, obeying to the hard and impersonal laws of the linear propagation of light -with all the consequences of these laws, as we see in the western art. It is, contrarily, a light" descending from above" and illuminating the representations from within, simultaneously shed everywhere, without a specific source or angle of lighting which would break the revelation of its omnipresence. It is as if " fire were descending from Heaven to the earth and lighting the total of man from within". For the Orthodox iconographic tradition it is the uncreated light of Thabor which illuminated the Lord on the mountain of the Transfiguration. The participation in this uncreated transfiguration light provides hypostasis for the representations, gives them hypostasis and identity; makes them what they are. Such a quality of light illuminates the holy existence of the ones painted and is a foretaste and betrothal of the eschatological eighth day -" the final advent".
The light of the Icon, thus, has a " theophanic" character as an expression of the divine actions over the creation and the people t transfigures. We could possibly say, therefore, that the Orthodox Icon makes the beautiful description of Saint Symeon the New Theologian, our Father, aesthetically visible; this description refers to the transfiguration of the bodies of the saints through the divine fire, that is, the uncreated grace: "the bodies of the saints partake of the divine fire, and are sanctified, and burn incandescent, and become themselves translucent, and are restored as more excellent, more precious by far, than other bodies."
The primordial beauty
In the framework of this Orthodox iconographical illumination, we could summarise saying that the Icon does not represent the natural world of corruption and death. On the contrary, it reveals to us the transfigured through the Divine grace paradisiacal space-time of the Kingdom of God . The world of the Icon is the " kingdom of God that has come with power", the world communicating with eternity. The Orthodox Icon presents how what was created «in the image of God» and became mortal with the fall can be restored to the " primordial beauty" . It reveals the " possibility existing in the humble material of the world, the flesh of the earth and man, to unite with the Divine life and the possibility of the mortal to put on immortality". This truth is " articulated " by the iconographer with the paint - bru s h " not schematically and allegorically" but by recording on the image and colour the indestructibility and glory of the human and cosmic flesh.