Liturgical icons have been a part of the Church’s tradition from early on and in 787 the Second Council of Nicaea defined dogmatically that the making and veneration of icons, along with the pictorial representation of what the Gospels narrate, is a holy practice. This practice is founded upon the mystery of the Incarnation. Consequently, “all the signs in the liturgical celebrations are related to Christ: as are sacred images of the holy Mother of God and of the saints as well. They truly signify Christ, who is glorified in them.” Catechism of the Catholic Church 1161.
The Second Council of Nicaea encouraged the making and veneration of icons. As St. Basil taught, “the honour rendered to the image passes on to the original”. Furthermore, contemplating icons of Christ, Mary, the angels, and the saints, moves us to contemplate and honour them. In this interview, Aidan Hart will explain his recommended books on icons.
Aidan Hart has been a professional icon painter and carver for forty years, with works in over twenty-five countries of the world, including with the Pope and other Patriarchs. An ordained Reader of the Orthodox Church, he is a frequent speaker at conferences and churches and has been on numerous TV and radio programmes. He teaches a three-year part-time course in icon painting for The Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Art. He has published Festal Icons (2022), Icons in the Modern World: Beauty Spirit Matter (2014), and Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting (2011), all published by Gracewing.
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Icon just means image, and the Second Council of Nicaea’s teaching on sacred images does not refer to a specific technique of painting and engraving. When you speak of icons, are you referring to liturgical images in general, or to a specific form and tradition of iconography? Liturgical images in general. We tend to think of icons these days as panel icons. The Second Council of Nicaea did not limit icons to this medium. I would for example include embroidered and carved works, and manuscripts. Icon means image, and so an icon can be described as an image of Christ or the saints, in whatever medium. That is what defines an icon.
"Going into churches full of icons, particularly frescoes, you immediately realise that you are entering into the communion of the saints. You are entering a living relationship with Christ."
Some believe that we live increasingly in a world that is so centred on visual media that it leaves little space for reasoned discourse. If so, are icons more likely to draw people to the Gospel than preaching? The Christian faith is, above all, a living relationship with the living Christ. Without images, Christianity can too easily descend into a system: a philosophy, moralism, or whatever. The beauty of liturgical art—not just the imagery, but the way churches are lit, the ceremony, the chanting, and so on—is like the fragrance of Christ, attracting us to adore and follow Him. This is why word and image must go hand in hand.
I have this picture in my mind of someone walking along a footpath. There is a high wall running along one side of the footpath, a bit like those that surround the estates of great houses in England. This person is walking along and smells an amazing fragrance.
“Where does that come from? I want to find the source of this wonderful fragrance. But I don't know how to get to it.” It is a very high wall that goes for miles and miles. So, the person needs to ask a local how to get into the garden. They look for and find someone, who then leads them to the gate. The seeker enters the garden and discovers the source of the fragrance.
To me, liturgical art has many functions, but one of them is to offer people the fragrance of Christ. The word, written or spoken, is then necessary to fill out that experience of beauty by to directing people to Christ as the source of that beauty, into an ongoing relationship. In this way, the experience of beauty doesn’t remain just a temporary aesthetic feeling.
Icons are above all else to do with faces. It is interesting that in Latin and Greek the word ‘face’ is the same as person (persona, prosopon). The face exists for relationship. Going into churches full of icons, particularly frescoes, you immediately realise that you are entering into the communion of the saints. You are entering a living relationship with Christ. Our worship on earth is this participation in heavenly worship.
"The act of kissing an icon is a means of venerating the person depicted. In my own experience, this veneration consequently helps me to venerate all people as living icons of God."
Icons are a form of sacred art. Fittingly, therefore, the first book you have chosen is not by an art scholar but a Father of the Church. It is St John Damascene’s Three Treatises on the Divine Images. He wrote these tracts amid Emperor Leo III’s attempt to outlaw sacred images from 726 on. What are the salient points of St. John Damascene’s classic defence of icons. I chose this book as the first one because it lays out all the main arguments ratified by the Seventh Ecumenical Council.
First, there is the Incarnation. That is the fundamental thing. St John writes, “I do not draw an image of the immortal Godhead, but I paint the image of God, who became visible in the flesh. For it is impossible to make a representation of a spirit.” If we say that we cannot have icons of Christ, then we are saying that the Incarnation was not real. Icons of Christ are a profound theological statement. The point is not to have pretty pictures in our churches to give us nice feelings. They are there to strengthen our relationship with God.
The second thing is veneration. Famously, St John wrote, “I worship God alone, but I will not cease to venerate all those things though which God comes to me.” The act of kissing an icon is a means of venerating the person depicted. In my own experience, this veneration consequently helps me to venerate all people as living icons of God.
To have images of one form or the other is natural to the human person, and to honour things through them is natural. Everyone uses images of one sort or the other. St. John Damascene said that even the iconoclasts used them, that they were inconsistent since they permitted images of the cross. They allowed crosses, which are icons, and yet they would not allow images of the one who was crucified upon the cross.
So, the icon traditionaffirms the Incarnation and veneration. Thirdly, St John wrote that it also affirms the goodness of matter. He said that while he worshipped God alone, he would not cease to venerate the matter —Christ’s flesh and the whole material world—by which our salvation is effected. In saying this, he was also asserting the bi-partite nature of the human person, as a union of body and spirit not just a spirit rattling around in a temporary body. Our bodies are a part of our humanity. We are created a unity of spirit and flesh. So St. John Damascene is not just making a statement about the Incarnation. In defending icons, he is making a statement about the nature of humanity: that God can enter us through all our senses, not just our hearing, but also our seeing.
Fourthly, he makes an interesting point that not only the whole of creation, but even the Holy Trinity, is underpinned by image.
He defines seven types of image. There is Christ. He is the perfect image of the Father. So the principle of image exists within the Holy Trinity even before the whole world was created. The second type of image he describes are the ideas in the mind of God. St. Paul talks about the eternal plan of God (Ephesians 1:11). God creates like an artist. We have an idea in our mind, then we fashion it into an artwork. The idea exists before the artwork. Thirdly, there is the human person who is an image by imitation of the creator. He says, for example, that we reflect the trinitarian nature of God by being a union of mind and word and spirit. Fourthly, the whole the material world is an icon of invisible things. The sun and the moon, a rock even, all declare something of God's presence. Fifthly, St John talks about types, which are material images of things to come. The Old Testament temple is a type of many things. The Ark of the Covenant for example is a type of Christ. It is wood and gold, just as Christ is human and divine. Sixth, he said that there are objects that recall past sacred events, like the jar of manna, which was there to remind the Israelites of God's provision for them in the wilderness. Finally, he says that images can be made of anything that can be seen, anything that has form, shape and colour.
Icons affirm the communion of saints. In his first book, St John says, “First of all, there is adoration, which we offer to God alone. He alone is by nature worthy to be worshipped. But then, for the sake of God, who is by nature to be worshipped, we honour his friends and companions.” Again, he insists that we worship God alone, but because of Christ, we honour his friends and companions. The iconoclasts failed to make this distinction between worship and veneration. It is interesting that Protestants who might oppose figurative icons will nevertheless honour the Bible. They treat the Bible just like an icon, as they ought to, but they will not transfer this veneration of the printed word to the veneration of those who wrote the Bible. The Bible is just an image. It is an icon of God's word.
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