Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Ikon of the Holy Triad

The Russian Orthodox Church at the Great Synod of Moscow in 1667 finally forbade depictions of the Father in human form. The canon is quoted in full here because it explains the Russian Orthodox theology on the subject.

Chapter 2, §44: It is most absurd and improper to depict in icons the Lord Sabaoth (that is to say, God the Father) with a grey beard and the Only-Begotten Son in His bosom with a dove between them, because no-one has seen the Father according to His Divinity, and the Father has no flesh, nor was the Son born in the flesh from the Father before the ages.

And though David the prophet says, "From the womb before the morning star have I begotten Thee" [Psalm 109:3], that birth was not fleshly, but unspeakable and incomprehensible.

For Christ Himself says in the holy Gospel, "No man hath seen the Father, save the Son" [John 6:46].

And Isaiah the prophet says in his fortieth chapter: "To whom have ye likened the Lord? and with what likeness have ye made a similitude of Him? Has not the artificier of wood made an image, or the goldsmiths, having melted gold, gilt it over, and made it a similitude?" [Isaiah 40:18-19]

In like manner the Apostle Paul says in Acts [Acts 17:29] "Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold or silver or stone, graven by art of man's imagination."

And John Damascene says: "But furthermore, who can make a similitude of the invisible, incorporeal, uncircumscribed and undepictable God? It is, then, uttermost insanity and impiety to give a form to the Godhead" (Orthodox Faith, 4:16).

In like manner St. Gregory the Dialogist prohibits this. For this reason we should only form an understanding in the mind of Sabaoth, which is the Godhead, and of that birth before the ages of the Only-Begotten-Son from the Father, but we should never, in any wise depict these in icons, for this, indeed, is impossible.

And the Holy Spirit is not in essence a dove, but in essence he is God, and "No man hath seen God", as John the Theologian and Evangelist bears witness [John 1:18] and this is so even though, at the Jordan at Christ's holy Baptism the Holy Spirit appeared in the likeness of a dove. For this reason, it is fitting on this occasion only to depict the Holy Spirit in the likeness of a dove. But in any other place those who have intelligence will not depict the Holy Spirit in the likeness of a dove.

For on Mount Tabor, He appeared as a cloud and, at another time, in other ways. Furthermore, Sabaoth is the name not only of the Father, but of the Holy Trinity. According to Dionysios the Areopagite, Lord Sabaoth, translated from the Jewish tongue, means "Lord of Hosts". This Lord of Hosts is the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And although Daniel the prophet says that he beheld the Ancient of Days sitting on a throne, this should not be understood to refer to the Father, but to the Son, Who at His second coming will judge every nation at the dreadful Judgment.

Sunday, March 7, 2010


Click any image to zoom.

Sorting through some family archives, I ran across a small group of old ikons—that is, what we used as ikons in the 1960's and 70's. In those days, it wasn't possible to find authentic Byzantine ikons anywhere that we knew of, though the revival had already begun. When we went to visit an old granny living in her tiny farm house, or an old uncle in a nursing home, it was ikons like these that we saw pasted to the walls above their beds, interspersed with family photographs and other mementos. The simple, down-to-earth homey religion of these elders made everything around them shine and seem real. We prayed with them in front of these tinseled images as devoutly as we do standing in front of any Byzantine ikon. You'd think the spirituality was different then, molded by these gaudy pictures, but honestly, it wasn't. Their religion was the faith of the fathers, the faith of the apostles, the holy faith, then, now and always, regardless of what we had or have as ikons.

I just thought I'd bring them all together here in one place. The last three are prayer cards that we used in our bibles as book marks. It's pretty obvious what is shown in each ikon, so I'll leave it to you to see them for yourself, and download any you wish.

Just a note…

Dear Visitors!

I have been very lazy about finishing the upload of the 800+ ikons that I describe in the introduction as having prepared. The images have been scanned and edited since last year when I started this blog, but I stopped about 3/4 of the way and only today have gone back and uploaded a few more.

I am somewhat disappointed in this project because it has not turned out as well (as user-friendly) as I wanted it to be, and the blogger interface (which has never worked that well for me) has changed, making it harder to post and get the right distribution of image thumbnails.

If I am able, I will republish this blog in a different format. Meanwhile, forgive my ineptness at doing this project.

By the way, our Dutch brethren working on The Passions Project ikon are probably finished. Here's a link to the latest installment of their journal that I have seen.

May the Lord help us all to make it to the finish line, the resurrection of Jesus.
Kaló Pascha!

Ikonostasis - Eικονοστάσις

Click an ikon to zoom full size.

This blog, Ikonostasis, is simply another repository of Orthodox ikons on the web, which I hope will be used by my Christian brethren in their online or printed publications.

The core of the collection is the more than 700 ikons that I have collected from the weekly bulletins of Aghía Triás church over the course of over twenty years that I have been worshipping there. I saved them for personal use and to give away as part of my personal witness, but I've always wanted to scan them, edit them, and make them available on line. Now, finally, here they are! Most of the images are from that collection of bulletin covers, but I have also added other ikons that I either personally own or have access to.

The best book on ikons and ikonography is not, as many would think, a beautifully produced picture book of ikons in color. The best book on ikons is the Holy Bible, as that is where a great many ikons originate and, in fact, ikons are the Word of God in visual form, and their writing is under extremely tight discipline. The ikon cannot depict anything that is not written in the Bible, except of course, for those ikons which depict events and persons after the Bible was written.

The next best book on ikons is The Painter's Manual of Dionysius of Fourna. Anyone who is serious about ikons should get a copy of this book. It not only gives you technical instructions on the materials, but also explicitly teaches you what to put in the ikons, what can be depicted, and how. It also instructs on how the ikons are to be configured in a house of worship, and many other things.

The ikons are organized in groups by subjects, and the blog is searchable using the little search window in the upper left of the screen. Each ikon is shown in small format. To download an ikon, first left-click on the small format in order to expand it to full size. Then, when the full size opens, right-click on it and choose "Save Picture As", and specify where you want to save it. Once downloaded, you can edit it and use it in your own publications.

Some of the images are actually non-ikons because, though they are religious pictures, they are not technically ikons, as defined by Photios Kontoglou, the modern proponent of authentic ikonography.

Ikons are the heritage of all Christians, all followers of Jesus. They are, or can be, something more than mere art—in fact, within the Orthodox Church it is explicitly denied that they are primarily an art form, but affirmed to be a work of prayer—but they are never to be considered objects of worship. When the Orthodox venerate an ikon by any bodily gesture, it is not the wood and paint of the image, but the event or person depicted in the image that we are venerating.

In the case of an ikon of Christ or of the Holy Trinity, we attest our worship the One True God by venerating the ikon. In the case of an ikon of any saint (Mary, the Birthgiver of God is rarely shown alone in an ikon) we attest our belief in the living presence of the saints who in the flesh have fallen asleep (reposed, died) and are now with the Lord. In the case of an ikon of an event, we attest our belief in the reality and historical validity of what is depicted, and especially our belief that it manifests an act of God.

Many have been converted to true faith in the living Christ by contemplating an ikon—I am speaking now of both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, as well as non-Christians. I do not understand the operation, but I do know from experience that ikons can have this effect on people. They have this effect on me. Through their supernatural beauty they can draw our souls away from the transient and illusory beauties of this world, and place us before the One whose Beauty is without end and the Source of all true Beauty, the Lord.

What else can I say? Well, forgive me, brethren, for the poverty and incompleteness of my efforts, but still I hope that you will find this small work of mine useful in your life and witness. And please be patient, as I upload and create this ikon library: it won't be built in a day.

To God be the glory! Δόξα τω Θεώ!

Jesus Christ - Extreme Humility - Η Άκρα Ταπείνωσις

Click an ikon to zoom full size.

Jesus Christ - The Vine - Εγὼ εἰμι ἡ ἄμπελος

I am the vine; you are the branches.
If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit;
apart from me you can do nothing.
John 15:5 NIV

Click an ikon to zoom full size.

Jesus Christ - The Bridegroom - Ο Νυμφίος

Click an ikon to zoom full size.

Jesus Christ - The Good Shepherd - Ο Ποιμήν ο καλός

Click an ikon to zoom full size.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Photios Kontoglou

The current and universal availability of true Orthodox Christian ikons is probably due to the call and work of one man, Photios Kontoglou, who resurrected, as it were, Byzantine ikonography in the 20th century, so that our houses of worship and our homes could once again be illuminated by these true portals of the Eternal.

As recently as the 1970's, many if not most churches and homes were still filled with religious pictures standing in place of true ikons. By this I mean that reproductions of Western religious paintings, with an ornate border and sometimes a halo and Greek or Slavonic letters in gold added (examples shown above, click images to zoom), were what we called "ikons". Mostly these were Roman Catholic devotional pictures, often painted in pastel colors or even displaying Roman cult imagery, but there were some paintings by Protestant artists that found their way into an ikonic form as well.
Visiting the original stone temple that was built by my congregation of Aghía Triás in Portland, Oregon, in 1906, I noticed that such Roman Catholic images, even the sacred heart, were part of the motif in the stained glasswork.
(The temple is currently in use by the congregation of the Vietnamese Christian Community Church, and they have lovingly restored it as their house of worship.)

This blog is dedicated in some sense to Photios Kontoglou, a saint of modern times, who brought back to us the light of Christ as revealed in true Orthodox ikonography. Herewith follows an account of his life.

Photios Kontoglou (1895-1965), was the foremost ikonographer in Greece in the 20th century. The revival of Byzantine ikonography began in 1930 mostly due to this man. Byzantine ikonography has spread to Europe, America and elsewhere. This revival has also taken place in Romania and among the Russians of the diaspora. This form of ikonography is in demand everywhere. Photios Kontoglou's ikonography has been misunderstood by many. He had grown in his work from being somewhat rustic to his more stylized pieces. Often he diverged from his usual way of painting the ikon, in order to enhance his talent, gaining an appreciation for other techniques. Consequently, it is a mistake to stereotype his ikonography.

In 1943 he began to write about this sacred art in an extensive and authoritative way, wishing to explain its features and to show its enormous value. In 1960 he wrote Ekphrasis - the explanation of Orthodox Iconography. This book is a valuable guide for the ikonographer to learn the technique of painting the ikon according to Byzantine tradition. Also, for the general reader "to penetrate to the deeper, spiritual essence of the icons done according to this great tradition" (C. Cavarnos).

"Byzantine art," Kontoglou says, "is for me the art of arts. I believe in it as I believe in [the Orthodox] religion. Only this art nourishes my soul, through its deep and mysterious powers; it alone quenches the thirst that I feel in the midst of the arid desert that surrounds us. In comparison with Byzantine art, all the others appear to me trivial, 'troubling themselves about many things, when but one thing is needed'."

Byzantine ikonographers bring the spiritual world into time and space for which reasons the ikon is not "naturalistic" and "realistic." It's purpose has a religious function. It wants to express sanctified things to help man see with spiritual eyes the Holy Mysteries of the Christian revelation.

Ikonography offers a vision of time and eternity. Using sacred and symbolic forms and colors, Kontoglou represents that vision in a dramatic fashion. To demonstrate his purpose he employed sober colors, simple shapes and bold lines.

Photios Kontoglou never held the elitist position that painting ikons was restricted to intellectuals, or professional artists. Even the illiterate have painted them. Like the Holy Scriptures, the ikon is the work of the Holy Spirit.

His relics are incorrupt, a validation of his works.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Read and understand

No need for me to reinvent the wheel in the publication of this blog. Not only are there far better blogs and web pages than my humble blog at which to find wonderful ikons, but there are also far better explanations about ikons themselves. I will leave it to you to find the better ikon blogs (hint: there's a link to a very excellent one in the sidebar of my main blog, Cost of Discipleship, under the heading Christian Graphic Art), but here are some links to articles on Fr Stephen's blog Glory to God for All Things, where he gives those better explanations. So, if you want to learn about ikons from an Orthodox Christian perspective, try these links:

The Face of God

Bad Icons

The Role of Icons