Why do you Orthodox have all those weird pictures –


. . .
Particularly when it says not to have images.

These are called Icons – which is Greek for image.

Deep sigh. Ok, here goes.

That’s Exodus 20:4. The quote is somewhat iffy. There are all kinds of contradictory translations. There is also contradictory scripture in the same book. Consider Exodus 26:1 where God instructs Moses to make the tabernacle with the sculptures of Cherubim at the sides. Beware of “proving” anything with a single chapter-verse quote. Take the whole of Scripture into account.

Let us also point out that those Cherubim are graven images and Icons (paintings) are not. Status are, but we don’t have them. Nice little point, that.

Besides all of which, we live in the New Testament, not the Old. I don’t know of any sane Christian who thinks that we live under the 618 laws of the Old Testament. See Acts where James pins Peter’s ears back on the whole Judaizing business. The Incarnation of Christ changed (and broke) all kinds of rules.

First Icon is painted – actually the correct term is written – by St. Luke. Remember that Luke was a physician and a very educated and well-traveled man. That Icon has been copied many times, so we know what it looked like. The style is from the Egyptian burial paintings of the time. Remember that the whole of Middle Eastern culture was radically transformed by Greek culture. Why Greek and not Roman? Glad you asked. The conquests of Alexander were the greatest ever achieved by a single individual. He conquered all of the eastern Mediterranean basin, all of Asia Minor, and most of Asia Major all the way to and into India. Upon his death (323 BC) the empire was split into pieces by his generals. These were called the Diadochoi (Διάδοχοι in Greek). The major survivors were: Ptolemy – all of Egyptian Africa, Cassander – most of Greece, Lysimachus – the major lands around the Bosporus, Seleucus – most of what we call the Middle East today – Iran and the like over to and including Israel. These were held by the Greeks and their descendants until the Romans came calling. Remember Cleopatra? She was the last of Ptolemy’s line. Yeah, the one that carried on with Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony. She died in 30BC, so the Roman influence was not nearly as long and strong as the Greek. Besides, the Roman’s were a little on the weak side culturally and borrowed heavily from the Greeks.

Anyway, the culture of the entire Middle East became an amalgam of the local native culture, an overlay of Persian (Iranian), with a top layer of Greek culture. The Ptolemaic Egyptians had developed a very stylized form of funeral portraiture by the time of the Apostles, and Luke was quite familiar with the style and proficient at executing it.

I dare say that even the most virulent Bible pounder should think before criticizing the beliefs and practices of the Apostles. Do they really know better than Luke?

Next, it is indeed impossible (and improper) to attempt to portray the Father. He is unseen. However, there is a different slant on Christ. Christ is God Incarnate, the Second Person of the Trinity. He is fully human as well as fully Divine. He has a human body. We humans have seen Him. A three dimensional living body that may indeed be represented. The Saints – more properly the Holy Ones – a better translation of Hagia – are human beings who have lived among us. And still do – remember that when Paul talked about the Saints he was talking about specific living people that he knew, loved, and ADMIRED. He thought that they were worthy of praise and emulation. There was no formal court, no Devil’s advocate or any such. The people could and did recognize the Holy Ones in their midst. And still can.

Tell me something – does anyone out there have a problem with asking a fellow Christian to pray for him? Have you never asked anyone in your Church to pray for you? Have you never prayed for someone else? Have you never listened to anyone else in your church with respect or tried to emulate someone you admire?

I find it of interest that the most fundamentally protestant people I have ever met in my life, those that do not even want a Cross or any kind of art in their church almost always have portraits of their families all over their homes, especially in the hall. I almost always see a picture of mother somewhere handy. If a son is in the military there is usually a portrait – in uniform – on the mantelpiece or an end table. Or both. Do you have a problem with that?

I have seen women whose husband or a child has died cradle a picture and hug it and address the person who has died. It this improper?

Now then, the early Church definitely had Icons from the beginning. The Catacombs that protestants are so fond of are full of Icons painted on the walls. So, 2000 years later we know more than the early Church?

Further, let me point out that the last council of the unbroken Church (before Rome left the East) – the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 or Seventh Ecumenical Council – firmly ended any controversy and firmly supported the use of Icons.

Let me also point out that the word iconoclast that is so popular today is not a term of admiration. It means those who destroy images and is a term of derision when used properly.

Well, maybe you have a point, maybe pictures are ok. But I see people bowing to them and kissing them. Ahem, let us pay attention here. The Orthodox don’t change anything in a hurry. After all the last real Liturgical Reform for the Eastern Orthodox Church was in the fourth century, and that was pretty minor by what people mean by liturgical reform nowadays. And we haven’t changed much since. There were two main type of bows performed in the Byzantine era. The first was touching the floor with the right hand, this was pretty much the equivalent of the modern court bow that you would use in England on formal presentation to the ruling monarch (Queen right now). The other was the full Eastern bow, or prostration, where the knees, palms of the hands, and forehead were placed to the floor. The bow of the slave to the master, as it were.

Now then, you will see the first kind of bow a lot before Icons. You will also see it at many places during the services. You don’t see the full prostration at all on Sundays (unless the people don’t know any better). The thing is that, although we are not even fit to be God’s slaves (as the Moslems think), He has raised us to the status of Sons and Daughters, higher than the angels even. It is not proper to give the bow of a slave on the day of joy and resurrection. There are some other occasions where it is indeed proper, but that’s another whole discussion.

Anyway, why do it in front of a painting. Let’s go back to the woman hugging the portrait of someone who is not there for comfort. We know full well, even as does that woman, that the portrait is not the person. But, since the person is dead and not present, we can derive human warmth and comfort from showing respect to the portrait of that person.

What! What! You would ask someone who is dead to pray for you. Little minds, little minds – here we go. Looky here, we know full well that from our point of view, that of earthbound carnal creature, that the Day of Judgment has not yet come. We know that this is a future event. However – the Kingdom of Heaven is completely outside time. All that has ever been or ever will be is encapsulated within the Kingdom of Heaven. To the Saints in Heaven, all time is available, even as it is to Our Lord.

These portraits of the Saints have been called Windows into Heaven. They generally show us someone or some event worthy of emulation. Don’t you sometimes use stories of someone’s conduct in adversity to inspire yourself and others? Don’t you love and admire people who live the life that is patterned after Christ? So do we. It is immaterial whether this person lives now, or 2 years ago, or 20, or 200, or 2000. They are all our beloved family in Christ, some are brothers, some sisters, some mothers, some fathers. We have a large, loving, and complete family. We do not ignore someone just because they are no longer physically here.

One of the fundamental differences between Orthodoxy and Western Christianity is that we don’t buy that “Christ died for you” business. That is only a limited and partial truth. The entire mighty act of Birth, Life, Death, Resurrection is not a solo adventure. Christ died for us. Plural. Furthermore, His Mighty act fully redeemed and restored the fallen world. From the viewpoint of the Orthodox, we can live daily in the Kingdom of Heaven by participating in the Life of Christ. It is our choice whether we perceive things from the standpoint of the fallen and broken world, or from the Healed and Restored World.

In terms of the fallen world, a bit of paint on some wood is foolish. And while we are here, let me point out that not all Icons are very good art. Some are pretty bad, as art.

However, if we shift our perception to that of the Recreated World of the Resurrection of Our Lord, we can see through these Icons into the Kingdom of Our Beloved Lord.

If you don’t think that God can work His will through material objects like painted boards maybe you had better revisit the Scripture that talks of the woman healed from merely touching the robe of Christ. The Great God Who is Creator and Master of the Universe can (and does) work any way He pleases. Who are you to place limits on His Power and Goodness and Love?

And that works for us.

Oh yeah, that First Icon I was talking about. Well, this is what it looks like:

The Sweet Kissing

Icons sometimes tell a story. This Icon of the Nativity has a lot in it. There is the Kingdom of Heaven and the Holy Spirit in the top center. There are the Angelic Hosts in the upper left. The Wise Men coming in the center left. The Angelic Midwife in the upper right. Manger and animals in the center. Shepherd in the center right. John the Baptist and family in the lower right. Joseph being tempted by Satan in the lower left. A very concerned Mary watches the temptation. This is one of the very few icons where the focus of Mary is not on Christ.

The Nativity

This one also tells a story. It is the Icon of the Resurrection. That’s Satan that is bound and Christ stands atop him on the broken gates of hell. Adam and Eve are being lifted from their tombs. See if you can figure out who the others looking on are.

The Resurrection

Herself sez: The Ol’ Curmudgeon put it all in a nutshell, as usual! For those who are interested in a more technical discussion of this same topic, I posted an article about Icons by St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco on Turtle Rock the other day. The Icon FAQ by Fr. John Whiteford is another source of solid information about Iconography and how it is used in Orthodox worship. A list of additional very solid articles may be found here.


2 Responses to “Why do you Orthodox have all those weird pictures –”

  1. Cushings syndrome Says:

    Cushings syndrome…




  2. becky Says:

    This was a very informative and enjoyable rant…er, article. It would have been more enjoyable without the supercilious attitude of the author. It must be wonderful to have such holiness that allows one to look down upon fellow believers. Are you the curmudgeon part of the Body? Or do you not believe that others who believe in Christ, God the Father, the Holy Spirit; take communion; and follow His teachings are Christians?

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