It may seem a bit curious that an article written about icons, for a museum of art, would begin by asserting that icons are not art. That is to say, that from the perspective of the ancient Church and Eastern Orthodox Christianity, icons are artistic, but are far more than art. The word “icon” comes from the Greek word EIKONA meaning image. In Orthodox Christian tradition, they are representations of sacred images and are inextricably bound up with worship, piety, and devotion. Icons have been a part of Christian life since the earliest days of the Christian Church. Saint Luke the Evangelist, author of the Gospel that bears his name, painted icons of the Virgin Mary, the Apostles Peter and Paul, as well as many others.
Throughout the history of the Church, these sacred images served a didactic purpose. In times past when very few people were literate, the icons became sermons in color. Through the medium of paint on wood, the icons of Christ, the saints, the parables, and the great feasts of the Church, the Faith was taught to those who could not read.
For Eastern Christians, there are many other levels of significance and meaning attached to religious icons. There is a difference between signs and symbols. The function of a sign is to communicate and point to something beyond itself, while a symbol participates in the reality that it represents. Icons have a sacramental character. While icons are signs, even more are they symbols of the Mystery of the Incarnation of God. Jesus said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” By this he means that he is the icon or image of God the Father. In the Incarnation, the birth of Jesus Christ, heaven and earth are joined together. The eternal and the temporal are united. The spiritual and the material are connected. The holy icons have always been aids to worship, through which the faithful pray not to the icons but through the icons to the spiritual reality beyond. In churches and in the homes of Christians, icons are windows into heaven.
As we now come to that time of year when we celebrate the Nativity of Christ – Christmas – the icon of this feast comes into focus. The little helpless figure of the Christ Child in swaddling clothes represents the complete submission of God to the physical conditions governing the human race. Yet, he remains Lord of Creation. The angels sing praises. The Magi and the shepherds bring their gifts. The sky salutes Him with a star. The earth provides Him with a cave, a stable in which to be born. The animals watch over Him in silent wonder. The scene depicts the washing of the infant by the midwives. It reveals that Christ was born like any other child. The elder Joseph, who, having observed the washing of the infant, is once again assailed by doubts as to the virginity of his spouse. He is tempted by the devil, who suggests that if the infant were truly divine He would not have been born in the human way. The Mother Mary is in the center, and from her reclining position looks at Joseph, dispelling his every doubt. As with all holy icons, this icon teaches; it tells a story. The icon also draws us mystically into the scene, as both observers and participants.
Archpriest Justin McFeeters
Holy Ascension Orthodox Christian Church
Attributed to Theodore Poulakis (Greece)
Christ and the Magi, 1640-74
Tempera on panel, 13 x 10 1/8 in.
Gift of Ambassador George Crews and Cecilia DeGoyler McGhee, 1998