The Church’s iconology


The Charismatic presence of the Prototype in the Icon that represents it according to the Church’s Iconology.

by Demetrios Tselengidis, Professor of the Theological School of the Aristotelian University of Thessalonica

The charismatic presence of the prototype in the icon that represents it is a truth of the Church that is clearly formulated in the patristic texts dealing with iconology during the iconoclastic period. This truth, which is an integral part of the whole theology of the Church concerning the icon, was reinforced by the authority of the 7th Oecumenical Council, thus ensuring the corresponding spiritual experience of her members, an experience that the charismatic body of the Church lived and always lives.

For the charismatic presence of the prototype in the icon representing it to be interpreted, it is necessary to distinguish how the Church understands the icon and furthermore, what the relation is between the icon and its prototype. The clarification of this relationship is necessary as it is the foundation for the understanding of the charismatic presence of the iconographically painted prototype in its icon. Furthermore, this relation is also the foundation for the understanding of the whole dogmatic teaching of the Church regarding the icon.

The icon, according to St. John of Damascus, is the, «ομοίωμα και εκτύπωμά τινός εν ευατώ δεικνύον το εικονιζόμενον»1. «image and expression of the same person who is being represented». From this definition we can conclude that the resemblance of the icon to its prototype establishes its existence, and also that the icon doesn’t have its own autonomous hypostasis, but depends on the reality of that which has been depicted, from which it receives its worth. Icon and prototype, according to St. Nicephoros, Patriarch of Constantinople, are one reality according to hypostatic similarity and at the same time two realities according to their nature2, because the material nature of the icon is one thing, while the nature of the prototype represented is quite another. In any case, that which is represented in the icon is not the nature, but the hypostasis (the person) of the prototype3.

Icon and prototype are realities that are so tightly interrelated that the one cannot be comprehended without the other. The prototype presupposes that its icon exists, of which it is its prototype and the icon presupposes that it belongs to some prototype. When the one is referred to, its charismatic relation to the other is understood4. In this way it is understood why the whole meaning of the icon is based on its relation to its prototype. St. Theodore the Studite observes the relationship: «κατά το είναι εν τω πρωτότυπο το παράγωγον είρηται»5, «it has been said that the icon is called ‘icon’ because it is found in its prototype». Thus, the icon is related to its prototype, for its existence is dependent on it. In particular, the relation of the icon to its prototype has as its foundation the similarity of the icon to its prototype. In this way, «o Χριστός έχει τεχνητήν εικόνα, ως καθ’ ημάς γεγονώς, αναφερομένην προς αυτόν δια της ομοιωτικής εμφερείας»6, «then Christ, since He became like us, has an artificial image, which refers to Him by a relation of likeness». This passage is particularly important, as it provides the foundation for the significance the Orthodox Church puts on the prototypes of its icons. These prototype must be the same historical persons who are iconographical1y represented and not some unrelated persons of the painter’s generation. This is so because it is these persons that the iconographically represented figures are supposed to represent. This is also the reason for which icons, within the framework of the Orthodox Church, are not imaginative creations of the hypostasis of the prototype, but an expression of the Church’s historical experience7. Christ and the saints who are iconographical1y represented in the Church are not imaginary types, idealistic and abstract people, but the historical persons with their particular personal characteristics, as they have been preserved in the memory of the Church. The fathers of the 7th Oecumenical Council, basing themselves on this memory and at the same time expressing the spiritual experience of this memory, synodical1y decreed that, «o προς την εικόνα θεωρών … προς θεωρίαν του πρωτοτύπου ανάγεται»8, «He who beholds the icon… is raised to the vision of the prototype». The vision of the icon guides one toward the vision of the iconographical1y represented person. For this reason the Church regarded it as obvious that the subject painted not be of a person other than that which is said to be represented (the prototype).


After these necessary clarifications we must look at the theological presuppositions that will enable us to understand the Church’s living and experiential truth regarding the charismatic presence of the prototype in its icon.

In studying the texts of the iconophile fathers of the 8th and 9th centuries, as well as the records of the 7th Oecumenical Council, we confirm that the dogmatic teaching of the Church regarding the icons (within the bounds of theology according to its strict definition) unquestionably presupposes the ontological distinction between the essence and energy of God. Only in this way can it be understood how the Church’s icons may be considered to be bearers of divinity, bearers of the very uncreated divinizing energy and grace that is borne by the iconographically depicted prototypes. Theologizing using the aforementioned presuppositions, St. Theodore the Studite succinctly notes that, «και εν εικόνι είναι την θεότητα ειπών τις ουκ αν αμάρτη του δέοντος … αλλ’ ου φυσική ενώσει», «if someone says that the divinity is present in the icon he will not be wrong … but not with a physical union»9. The presence of divinity in the icons of their prototypes is not «κατ’ ουσίαν» «according to essence» but, as St. John of Damascus had already clarified, charismatic, «χάριτι και ενέργεια»10, «according to divine grace and energy». The distinction between the essence and energy of God is clearly suggested. The Church indirectly expresses here the continuation of her theology concerning the distinction between the unapproachable and unable-to-be-participated-in (αμέθεκτη) divine essence and the approachable and able-to-be-participated-in (μεθεκτή) (by creation) divine energy and grace, which when partaken of sanctifies creation and divinizes man, as the Church teaches more extensively in the theology of St. Gregory Palamas. Orthodox iconography, reflecting the theology of the Church, uses its unique form to attempt to make felt the presence of the uncreated divine grace and energy in the icons of her divinized members. In this way, the Orthodox icon reflects the truth of the persons of the “new creation” which it represents, as it attempts to confirm both the historicity of the persons represented as well as the inseparable divine grace that resides in them. It is clear, then, that iconography is not simply a sacred art, but is also a language of theology expressed not only with words and letters but also with forms and colors. More specifically, Orthodox iconography presents through its unique form the persons of the icons not dematerialized but transformed and divinized, confirming in this way the experience of the personal participation of the represented persons in the divinizing grace of the Trinitarian God. This confirms, furthermore, another teaching of the Church (concerning the christological dogma): the material and tangible are not only not disparaged but, once they have been freed from sin and corruption, are renewed, transformed and divinized. It is precisely this transformed condition, which is a condition of incorruptibility11 and of freedom in Christ, that the Orthodox icon expresses. For this reason, it is not at all by chance that during the same period (14th century) that the Church synodically confirmed St. Gregory Palamas and his theology, icons of the transfiguration of Christ appeared particularly often. The transfiguration of Christ attests to the certainty of the transfiguration of each of the faithful within the new reality in Christ12.

Furthermore, the new reality in Christ makes up an eschatological reality and in particular a reality where the things of the eschaton (the uncreated glory and kingdom of God) are lived in the form of a promise in the process of fulfilment. These things of the eschaton – which have been introduced to the world through the salvific work of Christ in history and which have lived within the mystery of the Church as the charismatic unity and transformation of the created by the uncreated – are successfully expressed through the iconographic technique of the Orthodox Church. Thus, the saints are represented together with the created historical rea1ity in which they lived, alongside the new element of the kingdom of God that entered and was experienced during that particular moment in time. This transfigured rea1ity which the Church represents is not simply used for the eschatologica1 orientation of the faithful, but expresses the rea1ity of this experience of the exchaton by the worshipping community, as a promise being fulfilled and a foretaste of the future life and kingdom. Furthermore, not only the iconographic representations of the theophanies13 of the Old and New Testaments are interpreted in this way, but also those events that refer to the end of the world and the second glorious coming of Christ. All these events are lived during the condensed, liturgical time of divine worship and in particular of the holy Eucharistl4. So we may justifiably argue that Orthodox iconography has an eschatologica1 characterl5, as it expresses, to the extent possible, the most significant eschatologica1 event, the union without confusion of the created and uncreated, which is lived in the Eucharistic synaxis and community. In particular we can say that the Orthodox icon presents the eschatologica1 existence of the one being represented, whose body even became spiritual after its enrichening through the uncreated divinizing energies of God. It is precisely this divinizing energy of the Trinitarian God (that is revealed as uncreated light according to the experience of the Church16) which Orthodox iconographers attempt to express, not simply with the ha1o, but a1so with their unique use of light. This light which lightens the icon from within is free from the restrictions of the physica1 world which would dictate a direct (“natural”) rendering. In this way, Orthodox iconographers minimize, as much as possible, the use of shading (which would lend itself to a natural rendering) and instead emphasize the eschatological dimension of the represented person. While the icons of the Orthodox Church present the historical characteristics of the iconographically represented prototype, with their unique use of light they attempt to express the represented person also as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven17. Therefore, it becomes clear that the theology of light is reflected in Orthodox iconography18.

In contrast, a very different situation developed and continues to exist in Western Christianity regarding iconography. The Western Church, even though it agreed to the decisions of the 7th Oecumenical Council during its participation there, in practice emphasized the pedagogic meaning of iconography19 and disregarded the charismatic presence of God in the icon. The Orthodox belief, that the icon is a bearer of the charismatic presence of God due to the uncreated grace of the Holy Spirit that it bears and that the faithful participate in (and in this way come into personal communion with God), does not find theological backing in Roman Catholicism. This is due to the fact that it rejects the distinction between the uncreated essence and the uncreated energy and grace of God. And precisely because Roman Catholicism does not accept the existence of uncreated divine grace, and as a result the theosis of the person participating in this grace, it doesn’t have the theological presuppositions to develop an iconography that expresses the theosis of man.

Man, according to the Roman Catholic view, has communion with God through created grace. According to this view, when man is given grace and is saved, his nature is not charismatically surpassed, for the grace that saves him is also found within the framework of createdness. It is natural, then, that religious painting in the West is bound by the limitations of natural laws, which accounts for the naturalistic character of its artistic approach.

The preceding theological presuppositions, we believe, are among the most basic factors that explain why Roman Catholicism introduced the use of lighting from only one side – resulting in shadow – into the icon, which expresses the created light of this world. And even more, why Roman Catholicism accepted, or in any case tolerated, religious representations in the churches based on prototypes unrelated to the supposed persons represented (and in some cases that were ethically degenerate). All of these things show that religious representations in the West remain caged within the framework of the present fallen, though not transfigured, world. For this reason we would be justified in arguing that the religious painting of Western Christianity does not represent a decline caused by the increased initiative of the painter, but as the iconologist L. Uspensky notes, a decline caused by the deviation of Western Teology20, which is, in turn, an expression of their mistaken ecclesiastical life.

In contrast to Western iconography, Orthodox iconography presupposes the theology and the spiritual experience of the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox East underlined particularly strongly the distinction between essence and energy in God as a mark of her theology and as a foundation of her spiritual experience while at the same time Orthodox iconography, using her unique technique and lighting, expressed this theology and spiritual experience in the divinized persons of her saints, making easier the comprehension of the charismatic presence of the iconographically represented prototypes in the icons representing them.


In what way, however, is the charismatic presence of Christ and of the saints in their icons to be understood? Το begin with, we must note that the icon of Christ has its dogmatic foundation in the incarnation of the Divine Word, which in turn makes self-evident the iconographic representation of the saints, as the saints make up the glorified members of the charismatic body of Christ. Because the charismatic body of Christ, that is to say, his Church, is composed of and is revealed in the eucharistic synaxis, the temple as the place of this eucharistic synaxis is the most appropriate place for the iconographic representation of the glorified members of the eucharistic body of Christ. The iconographic representation of Christ – according to the decision of the 7th Oecumenical Council- does not confuse or identify the natures of Christ as did the Monophysites21, nor does it separate the natures as did Nestorius22. Furthermore, as St. Theodore the Studite notes, «παντός εικονιζομένου ουχ η φύσις αλλ’ ή υπόστασις εικονίζεται»23, «in every iconographically represented person it is not the nature but the hypostasis that is represented». Neither the divine nor the human nature is represented in and of itself, but rather the hypostasis of Christ with the particular characteristics that make up his human nature. That which these particular characteristics of the icons of Christ present or, better, that they express and reveal, is the person of the God-man, the person who is fully God and fully man, who is understood through and exists in his two natures. In the icon of Christ the person of Christ becomes visible according to his human nature, just as he became visible historically in his incarnation. With the representation of the characteristics of the human nature of Christ, Christ becomes tangibly present as both perfect God and perfect man. Just as in the iconographic representation of Christ, the human nature is not divided from God the Word, in the same way the representation of the body of Christ is not separated from the divinizing grace and energy, which has as its source God the Word. In the icon of Christ we have a description of his divinized human nature. The divinized human nature of Christ, however, which is expressed in his icon, cannot be understood without the presence of the Divinity that divinizes the icon. Human nature, as is well known, never divinizes itself. In the case of Christ, the human nature was divinized through the hypostatic union and was anointed with the divinity of God the Word and thus became, «ομόθεος, όπερ το χρίσαν αμεταβλήτως»24, «God as well, just as the divinity that anointed it, without changing its nature», it became the unconfused and unchangeable part of the hypostasis of God the Word25. The human nature of Christ was divinized without losing its natural characteristics. It is precisely upon this point that the iconophile fathers, and the 7th Oecumenical Council itself, lay the foundation for the iconographic representation of Christ. The body of Christ, despite the fact of its divinization, never stops being a real body with all of its physical (created) attributes, one of which is its ability to be graphically portrayed26. The iconographic representation of Christ, as much before as after his resurrection, attests to the fact that the human nature of Christ – and consequently of every person who is united to and remains within the mystical body of Christ – never becomes uncreated, but remains forever within the framework of creation. The resurrected body of Christ is the same body that he had prior to the crucifixion, with the difference that it now includes the eschatological dimension of the liberation of creation from the corruption and limitations of this world, which are dictated by the necessity of the laws of nature. In spite of all of this, the body of Christ has not become immaterial, just as the bodies of the faithful after the general resurrection will not become immaterial, but rather spiritual.

The witness of the 7th Oecumenical Council is particularly characteristic concerning the Orthodox understanding of the icon of Christ, «την εικόνα του Κυρίου ποιούντες, τεθεωμένην την σάρκα του Κυρίου ομολογούμεν, και την εικόνα ουδέν έτερον ίσμεν η εικόνα, δηλούσαν την του πρωτοτύπου μίμησιν»27, «painting the icon of the Lord, we confess His body to be divinized and regard His icon as an imitation of the prototype». The icon of Christ is not a random artistic expression but a way of expressing the theology of the Church. Because the human nature of Christ is divinized, his icon – as the imitation of the prototype – must suggest this reality. The iconography of the Orthodox Church moves and must always move within the vision that the 7th Oecumenical Council presented, if she wants to preserve her identity; iconography, in other words, must express the dogmatic teaching and spiritual experience of the Orthodox Church. The unique technique of Byzantine iconography, as it was cultivated and developed in the Orthodox East, expressed perfectly – to the extent that this is humanly possible – the Orthodox truth and experience. Thus the icon of Christ expresses, to a certain extent, the reality of the unchangeable and unconfused union of the two natures in the one person of God the Word. Naturally this does not mean that the Orthodox Byzantine icon represents and reveals the divine nature. Rather, it attempts to express through its unique technique the participation of the human nature in the divine life and thus to give witness to the experience of holiness within the human body. Thus it may be argued that the art of painting in the Orthodox East represents Christ as God-man. As the 7th Oecumenical Council notes characteristically, «η Εκκλησία ει και αναζωγραφεί τον Χριστόν τη ανθρώπινη μορφή, αλλ’ ου διαιρεί ταύτην εκ της ενωθείσης αυτή θεότητος»28, «although the Church represents Christ according to His human nature, it does not divide it from the divinity, which is united to it», which, as we already noted, is found in the icon, «χάριτι και ενεργεία», «according to divine grace and energy».

On this point we believe that the charismatic presence of Christ in his icons may be founded. By the charismatic presence of Christ we don’t mean that he is present according to his nature, but only according to the natural energy and grace of his divinity. In this way the presence of the prototype is charismatically met in the icon of Christ.

If, however, Christ is charismaticalIy present in his icons due to his indivisible divinity, how does this work in relation to the icons of the saints? Is it possible for the saints to be charismatically present in their icons? If so, doesn’t a problem arise regarding the superceding of their createdness? We will attempt to answer this question through an ecclesiological approach, following once again the theological thought of the iconophile fathers and the dogmatic decisions of the Council.

Το begin with, if the iconographic representation of Christ and the Theotokos29 attest to and announce the incarnation of God the Word, the iconographic representation of the saints reveals the glorified members of the mystical and theanthropic body of Christ. While the icons of Christ and of the Theotokos are the foremost iconographic expression of the christological dogma, the icons of the saints reveal the ontological consequences of the christological dogma by the presence, in Christ, of the iconographically represented persons. In other words, within the framework of Orthodoxy, the icons of the saints reveal the experiential living of the uncreated life of Christ by the represented prototypes. With the representations of the saints, the Church provides the faithful with the personal identity of her glorified members; in this way she expresses the uniqueness of the represented persons in their eschatological and renewed hypostasis in Christ. This, according to St. John of Damascus, confirms the unconfused participation of those iconographically represented in the divine glory and grace of Christ30. At the same time, the iconographic representation of the saints together with Christ reveals, according to St. Theodore the Studite, the indivisible unity that the represented prototypes share31. Just as the Church does not err christologically when it represents Christ (in not dividing his divine from his human nature), so it doesn’t err ecclesiologically when it represents her saints (in not dividing Christ from his glorified members). And just as Christ is represented as Godman, his human nature divinized, the saints are represented as divinized humans, their iconographic representation based on the new anthropo-logical realities that pertain to members of the charismatic body of Christ. These new anthropological realities are eschatological and are summarized in the transfiguration of the created existence of those iconographically represented through their participation in the uncreated divine energies and the divine glory. Without these realities the icons of the Church lose their uniqueness, which differentiates them from the naturalistic religious representations of the Christian West (which presents a humanity that has not participated in the divinizing grace and glory). In particular, western religious painting does not express the consequences that the christological dogma has for the members of the mystical body of Christ, with the result that they remain iconographically on the biological and experiential plane, which, at best, deals with their ethical dimension. Just such an ethical person, however, would be the natural result of the christological teaching of Nestorius as well as of Arius. This is because, as much for Nestorius as for Arius, the perfection of man has an ethical and not an ontological character. In saying this we do not accuse Roman Catholicism of Arianism or Nestorianism. We simply want to emphasize that its basic error in the field of theology – the absence of the distinction between essence and energy in God – results in a series of problems in the area of the consequences of Christology. These problems, furthermore, are directly related to Soteriology and are reflected in the field of religious painting.

In what way, though, can we understand the charismatic presence of the saints in their icons? The icon, as with every artistic representation of a person or thing, makes felt the existence of that which is represented, it enables our senses to approach the basically absent existence of the person or thing represented. That which takes place, however, with the Church’s icons is something far greater and more substantial. In the Church’s icons the absent person is not simply felt. According to the testimony of St. John of Damascus, «τα των αγίων εικονίσματα … Πνεύματος αγίου εισί πεπληρωμένα»32, «the icons of the saints … are filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit». He continues, interpreting how this takes place, and notes that, «αν χάριτος είη ο εικονιζόμενος, μέτοχοι χάριτος γίνονται και αι εικόνες»33, «if the iconographically represented person is filled with the grace of God, then the icons representing him also partake of this grace». Based on the above we can speak about the charismatic presence of the represented saint in his icon, which is understood with the idea of the presence in the icon of uncreated divine grace that is also the source of the holiness of the represented saint. The presence of divine grace and energy in the icon is continuous as it depends directly on the charismatic presence of the Holy Spirit within the iconographically represented persons themselves. Furthermore, it is founded dogmatically on the relationship between the icon and its prototype, «οι άγιοι και ζώντες πεπληρωμένοι ήσαν Πνεύματος αγίου», St. John of Damascus notes, «και τελευτησάντων αυτών, η χάρις του Αγίου Πνεύματος ανεκφοιτήτως ένεστι και ταις ψυχαίς και τοις σώμασιν εν τοις τάφοις, και τοις χαρακτήρσι, και ταις αγίαις εικόσιν αυτών»34.«The saints during their earthly lives were filled with the Holy Spirit, and when they (finish) their course, the grace of the Holy Spirit remains in their souls, in their bodies in the tombs, in their likenesses and holy images without ever leaving». As the saints are ontologically bound to the divinizing energy of the Holy Spirit, so are the icons of the Church bearers of the grace of the Holy Spirit and are consequently, «θείας ενεργείας δοχεία»35, «Vessels of divine energy». A1though it is impossible for the iconographically represented saint to be present in all of his icons (according to his createdness), the uncreated divine grace and energy abiding in him are always present in his icons. The saints, through the uncreated divine grace, are present in all their icons at the same time and through this grace the eucharistic community and each of the faithful comes into real communion and relationship with the saints. While the saints, as creatures, remain within the bounds of createdness – and particularly within the limitations of time and space – as divinized persons they charismatically surpass these limitations through the uncreated divine grace by which they are present and active in their icons. It is clear that the icons of the Church do not objectivize nor limit their prototypes, caging them in a particular space, but are rather visible signs of the invisible and glorified reality that they represent. For this reason the rejection of icons by the Iconoclasts was interpreted by the fathers of the 7th Oecumenical Council as the rejection of the presence of the prototypes in their icons36. In fact, according to the 7th Oecumenical Council, it is possible for the faithful, under certain conditions, to have a spiritual vision of the iconographically represented prototype37. The prototype that is represented, St. John of Damascus notes, becomes visible by the faithful through their spiritual and transfigured senses, with which, furthermore, the faithful participate more generally in the future reality while still in this life. The faithful, using their spiritual senses, see in the icons of the Church the invisible prototype who becomes sensibly present in the icon, “εν αΰλο δράσει”38, «with spiritual vision». Emphasizing this spiritual experience of the Church, St. John of Damascus argues that the faithful, «ορώντες τον αόρατον δια της ορωμένης γραφής ως παρόντα δοξάζομεν»39, «seeing the iconographically represented person in the icon, which is invisible to physical eyes, we glorify him as being present». For this reason, when the faithful approach the icons of the saints they are not concerned with the artistic composition of colors in the icon, but rather express their living communion with those represented. Inside the Orthodox temple the faithful do not only commune with the saints sacramentally through the holy Eucharist, but also see the saints present in their icons. It is in this way that the honor shown them by the Church must be interpreted, honor that does not differ at all from that shown their holy relics or the saints themselves.

In addition, the charismatic presence of the prototype in the icon that represents it also interprets the role of sanctification the icon plays in the Church. The Church’s icon bears, as we have seen, the grace and holiness of the prototype of the one represented. This grace, according to the 7th Oecumenical Council may be partaken of by the faithful and sanctifies them. The sanctification that the icons bear becomes able-to-be-participated-in (μεθεκτή) through the sense of vision that takes place during the vision of the iconographically represented persons40. Thus the veneration of icons is not simply a way of honoring the prototypes represented, but at the same time is a way of sanctification, «και ασποισώμεθα και περιπτυξώμεθα τας σεπτάς εικόνας», note the fathers of the 7th Oecumenical Council, «ως ελπίδα έχοντες αγιασμού μεταλαμβάνειν παρ’ αυτών»41, «and we venerate and embrace the holy icons … for we hope to receive sanctification from them». Certain senses of the faithful become receivers of the grace of the icons, which sanctifies not only these senses, but the whole being of the faithful. The sanctification, however, of the faithful does not become able-to-be-participated-in (μεθεκτή) according to a mechanical manner. Not all the faithful, that is to say, participate in the grace of the icons, nor does each one who venerates them. Divine grace is partaken of only given certain presuppositions. The presuppositions for this participation are faith and spiritual purity42, with which the faithful must approach the icons of the Church. Thus it is clear that the Iconoclasts, in their rejection of the icons, also reject the charismatic presence of the Holy Spirit in them and consequently the ability of the faithful to be sanctified through them.

The charismatic presence of the saints in the icons that represent them is inseparably bound up with the miracle-working dimension of icons. The miracles that take place through the icons testify to the relation between the icons and their prototypes, for, as the fathers of the 7th Oecumenical Council note, «δια των αγίων εικόνων φαίνονται οι άγιοι θαυματουργούντες»43. «The saints appear, working miracles, through their holy icons», while at the same time they witness to the immediate and personal communion of the faithful with the prototypes represented. St. John of Damascus presents the theological interpretation of the miracles appearing through the Church’s icons in the following way. The miracle is God’s answer to a request of the faithful who approach the icons with faith. It is always God who performs the miracle, regardless of whether the request was made directly or indirectly to him. God accepts the requests of the faithful even when they direct them to him through his saints44. The miracles of the icons are never viewed in isolation from the rest of the Church, but are bound directly to the prototypes represented who, however, attest to the power of the miracles being dependent on the grace of God, «μη εκ ταυτομάτου υπονοείν τας ιάσεις συμβαίνειν», notes the 7th Oecumenical Council, «αλλ’ εκ μόνης της του Θεού ημών χάριτος» 45, «let us not imagine that healings take place on their own … but only by the grace of our God». And because all icons are bearers of the charismatic presence of the iconographically represented prototypes, the distinction between miracle-working and non-miracle-working icons is not theologically valid46. This is due to the fact that the presence of the uncreated divine grace of the prototypes represented in their icons make all icons of the Church miracle-working, even though this grace does not always reveal itself in visible ways.

In closing, we may state that the charismatic presence of the prototype in the icon which represents it: finds its fortification in the whole dogmatic teaching of the 7th Oecumenical Council, confirms the theology of the Orthodox Church regarding the ontological distinction between essence and energy in God, finds its foundation in the incarnation and the salvific work of God the Word, serves the immediate and living communion between the militant and the glorified members of the charismatic body of Christ and, finally, interprets the sanctification and miraculous dimension of icons. From all of the above it becomes clear that the charismatic presence of the prototype in the icon that represents it is not a truth of secondary importance, but is rather a fact crucial to the theology and spiritual experience of the Church.


* Translated from the Greek by Α. Middleton.

** This paper was presented at the Conference of the Theological School of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki ίn commemoration of the 1200th anniversary of the convocation of the 7th Oecumenical Council (November, 1987). The present paper has been revised to include later publications since its original writing.


1. Προς τούς διαβάλλοvτας τας αγίας εικόνας, Λόγοι τρεις, 3, 16, PG 94, 1337 ΑΒ.

1368D. Already, much earlier, St. Gregory the Theologian defined the icon as imitation that is, as likeness to its Prototype. «Αuτη γαρ εικόνος φύσις», he notes characteristically, «μίμημα είναι του αρχετύπου». «For this is the nature of the icon, it

is the copy of the prototype». Λόγος 30, 20 PG 36, 129Β. See also the entry for «εικών» in Η. Liddell and R. Scott, Greek-English Lexicon, Oxford University Press, 1891 and in J.B. Hofmann, Etymologisches Worterbuch des Griechischen, Munchen, 1971, p. 71.

2. See Αντίρρησις και ανατροπή των παρά τoυ δυσσεβούς Μαμωνά κατά της σωτηρίου του Θεού Λόγου σαρκώσεως αμαθώς και αθέως κενολογηθέντων ληρημάτων Λόγοι τρεις, 1,28, PG 100, 277Α. cf. Theodore the Studite, ‘Επιστολή προς Πλάτωνα, PG 99, 500501Α. Αντιρρητικός κατά Εικονομάχων, Λόγοι τρεις, 2, 11, PG 99, 357C.

3. See Theodore the Studite, Αντιρρητικός κατά Εικονομάχων, Λόγοι τρεις, 3, 1, PG 99, 405Α.

4. See Nicephoros, ibid. 1, 30, PG 100, 277D.

5. Ibid. 3, 3, PG 99, 424D.

6. Ibid 3, 2, PG 99, 417D. For more regarding the relationship between the icon and its prototype, see D. Tselengidis, Ή θεολογία της εικόνας και η ανθρωπολογική σημασία της (Doctoral dissertation), Thessalonίki, 1984, pp. 37-60.

7. Thus we see in the records of the 7th Oecumenical Council that the fathers insist that the faithful, «ιδόντες τον Κύριον, καθώς είδον, ιστορήσαντες εζωγράφησαν … και

κατ’ έπος, ιδόντες τα πρόσωπα των μαρτύρων των εκχυσάντων το αίμα υπέρ Χριστού, εζωγράφησαν», «As they had seen Christ, as they saw Him they painted Him … and we wonld san, as they saw the Faces of the martyrs who had shed blood for Christ, so they painted [them]». Mansi 12, 963C.

8. Mansi 12, 1066 BC. The honor that is given by the Faithful to the icon is based on the anagogic character of the icon. The characteristic passage of BasiI the Great, «η της εικόνος τιμή επί το πρωτότυπον διαβαίνει», «The honor given to the image is transferred to its prototype». (Περί Αγίου Πνεύματος 18,45, PG 32, 149C), to which the 7th Oecumenical Council referred (see Mansi 12, 1146Α; 13, 69D; 337Ε), presupposes the relation of the icon to its prototype. In this relationship is also found the key to understanding the whole function of the icon within the framework of the Church. The icon transmits the honor, which one shows to it, to its prototype. The passage and transmission towards the prototype takes place. And because the icon has this function of transmission, the honor and veneration shown it are one and the same as that which is shown towards its prototype, just as the person represented on the icon is one and the same as its prototype (see Mansi 13, 377Ε). On the contrary, when the veneration shown the icon is separated from the veneration shown its prototype, the icon is venerated as a, «ιδοϋπόστατόν τι» (Theodore the Studite, Επιστολή προς Πλάτωνα, PG 99, 504Α), by which we are guided logically to idolatry.

9. Ibid. 1, 12, PG 99, 344Β. The Latin Church directly and clearly opposed the spirit of this passage of St. Theodore the Studite – which is the spirit of the Orthodox East – with the Council of Trent (1545-1565). For more on the above, see Ρ.

Stockmeier, “Die Entscheidungen des 7. Okumenischen Konzils und die Stellung der Romisch – Κatholischen Κirche Ζυ den Bildern”, in Orthodoxes Forum, Zeitschrift des Insututs fiir Orthodoxe Theologie der Universitiit Munchen, 2 (1987), pp. 235-236). The aforementioned position of Roman Catholocism is a direct result of its mistaken theological presuppositions.

10. Ibid. 1, 19, PG 94, 1249D.

11. The abbot of lviron Monastery, Father Vasilios Gontikakis, is correct in noting that, “Orthodox iconography is a witness to the victory over death won by the Author of life… its power, the power oft he Resurrection”. See his book Hymn of Entry, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998, p. 89.

12. In iconographically representing her saints, the Orthodox Church presents the particular historical persons at the same time as the persons glorified «κατ’ εικόνα», the «κατ’ εικόνα» being that which was renewed and filled with light within the Church through the beauty and the glory of their prototype, Christ. Thus, Christ is not only the, «εικών του Θεού του αοράτου» (Col. 1,15) but also the prototype of the renewed and divinized persons made «κατ’ εικόνα».

13. See Συνοδικόν της ‘Ορθοδοξίας, in the work of Ioannis Karmiris, Τα δογματικά και συμβολικά μνημεία της Ορθοδόξου Καθολικής Εκκλησίας, vol. 1, Athens, 1960, pp. 245-246.

14. See the Prayer of Anaphora: «Μεμνημένοι τοίνυν της σωτηρίου ταύτης εντολής, και πάντων των όπερ ημών γεγενημένων, του Σταυρού, του τάφου, της τριημέρου αναστάσεως, της εις ουρανούς αναβάσεως, της εκ δεξιών καθέδρας, της δευτέρας και ενδόξου πάλιν παρουσίας». «Remembering this saving commandment and all those things which have come to pass for us: the Cross, the Tomb, the Resurrection on the third day, the Ascension into heaven, the Sitting at the right hand, and the second and glorious coming».

15. See also Petros Vasiliadis, «Εικόνα και Εκκλησία στην Αποκάλυψη» in the work Βιβλικές Ερμηνευτικές Μελέτες, Thessaloniki, 1988, p. 417.

16. See Gregory Palamas, Υπέρ των ιερώς ησυχαζόντων, 3, 3, 9, Ρ. Christou Edition, νοΙ 1, Thessaloniki, 1962, p. 867.

17. For more regarding the unique use of light in Byzantine icons and the function of this light, see Protopresbyter Stamatis Skliris, «Από την προσωπογραφία στην εικόνα», inthe periodical Σύναξη 24, Athens 1987, pp. 20-21, 30-34.

18. See also the Introduction of Ν. Matsoukas, in St. John of Damascus, Ι. Κατά Μανιχαίων Διάλογος Π. Προς τους διαβάλλovτας τας αγίας εικόνας Λόγοι τρεις, Κείμενο Μετάφραση, Εισαγωγή – Σχόλια, Thessaloniki 1988, p. 31: “According to Orthodox theology God is light and all things live, move, develop and are perfected according to their receptiveness, with light. It is precisely this theology that Orthodox iconography convincingly and movingly expresses… In the Byzantine icon one does not see shadows, perspective, things cut in half, and no tension between darkness and light. The light softly illuminates all of that which has been proven worthy. In this particular situation, Orthodox iconographers, who experience live dogma in the life of the Church, successfully render the marriage between the physical and the metaphysical” .

19. See, characteristically, the study done by the Roman Catholic G. Lange, Bild und Wort. Die katechetischen Funktionen des Bildes in der griechischen Theologie des sechsten bis neunten Jahrhunderts, Wurzbung 1969. In particular, the Council of Trent lessened the theological meaning of icons and emphasized their didactic and decorative function. Vatican ΙΙ (1962-1965), however, in theory reaffirmed the teaching of the united and undivided Church regarding the icons [see Sacrosanctum Consilium ΙΙΙ, 1; 125; 128. cf. Η. Jedin, “Das Tridentinum und die bildenden Kunste”, ZΚG 74 (1963) pp. 321-339]. Within the framework of the celebration of the 1200 years since the 7th Oecumenical Council, the present pope of Rome, in a letter to the bishops of his jurisdiction, once he had noted, “a certain renewed interest in theology for the spirituality of the icons of the East”, he made a number of observations worth noting. “The tradition of the icon”, he writes, “requires that the artist realize that he is fulfilling a mission in the service of the Church. Authentic Christian art is that which, through the tangible senses, enables the faithful to sense that the Lord is present in his Church… and that the glory that God promised us, already transfigures our existence… The liturgical icon is that which throws upon us the gaze of some invisible Other and allows us to approach the reality of the Spiritual and escha1ological world”. See Apostolic Epistle Duodecimum Saeculum of the pope of Rome John-Paul ΙΙ, Το the bishops of the Catholic Church on the 1200 years since the Second Council of Nicea, 1987, pp. 14-15. However, the realization of those things that the “Apos1olic Epistle” of the pope states regarding the “glory that God promised us” and the approach to the “spiritual and escha1ological world” that the icon reveals to us, requires proper theology (in particular, the distinction between essence and energy in God) and an analogous spiritual life (as participation in the uncreated energy and grace of God). Furthermore, without these two presuppositions the realization of the artist that he, “is fulfilling a mission in the service of the Church”, has no meaning. In order to properly express the faith and piety of the Church it is sufficient that the painter have the proper ecclesiastical orientation and that he participates in the spiritual experience of the Church.

20. See The Theology oft he Icon, New York, 1978, p. 213.

21. See Mansi 13, 252 CD.

22. See Mansi 13, 344 DE.

23. Ibid. 3, 1, PG 99, 405Α.

24. See Nicephoros, : Αντίρρησις 1,20, PG 100, 233C.

25. See Ν. Matsoukas, “Φιλοσοφία και δογματική διδασκαλία του Ιωάννου Δαμασκηνού», in Επιστημονική Επετηρίς της Θεολογικής Σχολής του Πανεπιστημίου Θεσσαλονίκης 14 (1969), p. 283.

26. See Nicephoros, ibid. 1, 20, PG 100, 240CD.

27. Mansi 13, 344Β. From the spirit of this passage one may also understand why the Orthodox icon is for the faithful, “the reading of the archetypes and vision of the prototypes”. See Ρ. Evdokimov, The Art of the Icon, Α Theology of Beauty (translation: Fr. Steven Bigham), Torrance, CA, 1996, p. 219.

28. Mansi 13, 344Α. Christ and his icon are not divided in two but are bound together charismatically. The icon of Christ does not simply testify to the historical fact of the incarnation of God the Word, but gives the witness to his charismatic presence within the historical reality of the Church.

29. Concerning the dogmatic meaning of the icon of the Theotokos according to the iconophile fathers, see D. Tselengidis, H Θεολογία της εικόνας και η ανθρωπολογική σημασία της, Thessaloniki, 1984, pp.111-114.

30. Ibid. 21, PG 94, 1252BC; 2, 15, PG 94, 1301Α.

31. See ibid. 3, 1, PG 99, 416C.

32. Ibid. 1, 20, PG 94, 1252ΑΒ.

33. See ibid. 1, PG 94, 1264Β.

34. Ibid. 1, 19 PG 94, 1249CD.

35. Ibid. 3, 34, PG 94, 1353Β. cf. 1, 16, PG 94, 1245Β.

36. See Mansi 13, 273C.

37. See Mansi 12,1066 BC.

38. See ibid. 3, 25, PG 94, 1345Α.

39. Ibid. 3, PG 94, 1412Α.

40. See Mansi 13, 149DE: «Δια της ορατικής αισθήσεως βλέποντες την σεπτήν εικόνα του Χριστού, και της κυρίως και αληθώς δεσποίνης ημών της Αγίας Θεοτόκου, αγίων αγγέλων τε και πάντων αγίων αγιάζονται». «They are sanctified when, with the sense of Sight, they behold the holy icon of Christ and of our precisely and truly holy Lady Theotokos, and of the holy angels and of all the Saints». Saint. John of Damascus, ibid. 1,17, PG 94, 1248C. Theodore the Studite, ibid. 15, PG 99, 336Α.

41. Mansi 13, 309D. Today, despite increased interest in the icons of the Orthodox Church, a general decline may be noted in their liturgical and sanctifying character. This arises as much from their position as objects of commerce as from their use as decoration in non-liturgical spaces. The Oecumenical Patriarchate did well to condemn all of the contemporary misuses of the holy icons. See «Εγκύκλιος περί της Αγίας Ζ’ Οικουμενικής Συνόδου», from the Holy and Sacred Synod of the Great Church of Christ, in the periodical Γρηγόριος ο Παλαμάς 720, Thessaloniki, 1987, p. 728: «Αλλ’ οπωσδήποτε τούτο δεν σημαίνει ότι και επιτρέπεται οιαδήτις υποβάθμισις της ιεράς λειτουργικότητος της εικόνος και η μετατροπή αυτής εις στοιχείον διακοσμητικόν κοσμικών χώρων των ιδιωτικών οίκων ή των εκθετηρίων συλλεκτών και άλλων επί το κοσμικώτερον φιλούντων και θεραπευόντων τας εικόνας, ως επίσης ήκιστα επιτρεπτόν είναι το καθιστάν αυτάς είδος εμπορεύσιμον ή αντικείμενον πολλαπλασιασμού του είδους επί χάρτου ή άλλων ευτελών υλών κατά τας συγχρόνους δυνατότητας της τεχνικής εμποροβιομηχανικής αποτυπώσεως, επί σκοπώ κερδοφόρου εκμεταλλεύσεως ή ανεπίτρεπτου αυξήσεως της κυκλοφορίας αυτών εν τη εκκοσμικευομένη κοινωνία της σήμερον.

Πάσας ταύτας τας ανιέρους έξεις θεωρούντες ως βαρυτάτην προσβολήν και ύβριν της ιερότητος της εικόνος, της μέγιστης ταύτης πνευματικής κατακτήσεως της αγίας ημών Ορθοδόξου Εκκλησίας, και ως ανεπιτρέπτους καταχρήσεις καταδικάζοντες ταύτας, απαγογορεύομεν πάσαν υπό παντός εκμετάλλευσιν των εικόνων». «But this definitely does not mean that any kind of devaluation of the holy liturgical function of the icon is a11owed, nor its transformation into a decorative aspect of worldly spaces of private homes or of displays of collectors and others who love icons in a worldly way, as simi1arly not permissible is their placement as a type of business or as objects to be copied many times on paper or mother cheap substances using contemporary means of mechanical printing, with the goal of exploiting, them to make money or the impermissible increase of their circu1ation within today’s secular society.

All these impious uses are regarded as a most heavy offense and insu1t to the holiness of the icon, this great spiritual achievement of our holy Orthodox Church, and as impermissible misnses condemning them, we forbid every exploitation of icons by all people».

42. See John of Damascus, ibid. 3,41, PG 94, 1356C.

43. Mansi 13, 65D.

44. See ibid. 3, 13, PG 94, 1352CD.

45. Mansi 13, 125C.

46. For more on this see Μ. Siotou, «Η διδασκαλία της Ορθοδόξου Εκκλησίας περί των θαυματουργών εικόνων», reprint from the Ημερολόγιον Μεγαλόχαρης, Athens, 1973.