Tag Archives: iconography

Praying with Icons

Praying with IconsPraying with Icons by Jim Forest

Sometimes arguments are not won by logic or reason or even by words. Sometimes the best case for certain beliefs is made by a story, an experience, or the testimony of beauty. How many people have chosen to create a marriage by following a logical argument to its conclusion, for instance? With our evangelical theological heritage though, we often tend to think our religious beliefs play out almost exclusively in the realm of logic and reason. Or at least we act like we do. (This is where you get the modern ugliness of young earth creationism and strict Biblical literalism.) Theology though—or at least the religious life—is the testimony of beauty played out through history. One of the ways this is most apparent in Orthodox Christianity is in the heritage of icons.

As Jim Forest’s book illustrates, the concept of the icon itself is in some ways an icon of the Church itself. Theologically, icons are a symbol of the Incarnation—that what before was ineffable has now become flesh. They are also a representation of sanctity: saints whose lives have been transfigured by holiness into Christ-likeness remain not simply as a concept or memory but as an abiding spiritual presence. And again: they are windows into the historical life and testimony of the Church— who these people were, how they lived, how they have been cherished. This historic testimony is alive in all its forms and hymns, in its music and liturgy, but it is perhaps most present in the vivid, luminous faces of its icons (both on wood and in flesh).

Because of all these reasons, though Forest does not lay them out systematically, his work, Praying with Icons, is not as much a manual of praxis or a straightforward study in iconography (though there are introductory chapters on these topics as well as on the creation of icons). Instead it becomes in some sense a primer on the Church itself. The bulk of the book is a series of meditations on several important icons. Though to me the selection seemed a bit haphazard and heavily Russian-influenced, these chapters introduce a wide array of Church tradition, history, and belief through the lenses of icons. The feeling of an introductory primer to Orthodoxy in general was also born out by the selection of prayers included at the conclusion of the volume.

Praying with Icons was published as part of an ecumenical series of texts aimed at all believers, so the feeling of a presentation of Orthodox spiritual practice through icons is apt and accessible. My primary complaint with the book is the low quality of images throughout. Though the book is built on the concept of their great beauty, the images reproduced (including the image chosen for the cover of the volume) are poor quality and do little to communicate visually their richness. Though Forest has seen many of these famous icons in person, some images seemed simply too low quality for high-resolution reproduction. Having seen other books where the icons were reproduced with great clarity and color, this was disappointing.

This is a book I would pass along to others curious about Orthodox practices or even to fellow parishioners looking for a simple, accessible adjunct to their own spiritual practice. The meditations Forest writes on each icons are lovely and concise and would be useful to those looking for basic “devotionals” built around these silent but somehow expectant witnesses in color and light to the life of the Church.

The Open Door

The Open Door: Entering the Sactuary of Icons and PrayerThe Open Door: Entering the Sactuary of Icons and Prayer by Frederica Mathewes-Green

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Icons are strange. To an outsider, they are certainly among the most foreign aspects of Orthodox spirituality and praxis. The strangeness is only magnified by their centrality: these aren’t simply decorations or “devotional aids.” They get at something central to Orthodoxy: the intersection of the physical with the divine. The Orthodox Church devotes an entire feast to their celebration, and every other feastday, indeed every Sunday, they figure prominently. Understanding icons and why they play such a central role (especially when prayers before them touch at a fundamental divide between Orthodox Christianity and American evangelicalism) is thus key to gaining insights into Orthodoxy itself. In The Open Door: Entering the Sanctuary of Icons and Prayer, Frederica Mathewes-Green offers an accessible, engaging, and conciliatory glimpse into this world.

This is not a scholarly, historical, or theological treatise about icons, though those books have been written and Mathewes-Green offers references to some in a succinct list at the book’s conclusion. Instead, her work is much more a short devotional guide. Indeed, there is no introductory essay explaining or setting the context for icons in Church worship. She begins by inviting us into a church, and the book is the process of her introducing and reflecting on various famous icons (four of which are illustrated in color plates at the book’s center, whereas the rest are unfortunately black and white). The subtitle well illustrates her approach. She’s introducing the physical and spiritual space of Orthodox worship. Indeed, the book begins with a diagram of an Orthodox church, showing where the various icons are usually displayed. We’re given both a tour of the church’s interior architecture as well as the cycle of the church year itself, as some icons are fixed in space whereas others make their appearance at specific times throughout the church calendar.

The book is light reading in one sense. The chapters are short, and the book itself quite thin. But it’s not meant to be read straight through. Instead, it might function best as a devotional primer, with the reader reading and then reflecting on each individual chapter. These are images that have been vital to the life of the church for hundreds of years, in some cases over a thousand years. Each chapter is a response to an icon, accompanied by scripture, hymnology, and prayers. Certain chapters are used as vehicles for explaining church doctrine, as for instance the second chapter on the Virgin of Vladimir in which Mathewes-Green addresses and explains the Orthodox view of prayers before icons as well as to the Theotokos herself. Throughout, the tone is inclusive: she’s not writing for an Orthodox audience alone.

Icons are certainly mystical– as mystical as any truly physical thing is, a wonder of pigment and surface and reality. If you’ve ever been in an Orthodox church (or the home of an Orthodox friend) and been curious about these images and their use– not simply the theology or history behind them but looking for more of a glimpse of what may go on in the mind of the person standing before them– this book is indeed an open door.