Visual Arts

Theotokos Ruth Meredith c. 2000

Holy Images: The Theology of Icons

Christian Icon painting is rooted in the theology of the Incarnation (Christ being the eikon of God). During most of Christian history, most people could not read, and icons served as teaching tools. The images tell the story of salvation and the people who can serve as models for a Christian life. In the Orthodox Church, icons are held in the same reverence as the written gospels. According to Saint John of Damascus, one of the early Church Fathers, the theology behind icons is closely tied to the Incarnational theology of the humanity and divinity of Jesus. So, attacks on icons were considered to undermine the Incarnation of Jesus himself making the iconoclastic position heretical. In the Orthodox Tradition, images must be flat because the Church fathers believed that statues were too close to the ‘real’ thing and so might cause confusion in the weak minded.

Iconography deals with sets of coded signs, called attributes, that provide information about what the image represents in its appropriate signifying context and intertextuality involves the relationship between two or more texts—texts can include visual art works—that quote from one another, allude to one another, or otherwise connect. Iconography can be grounded in historical/traditional practice as well as scripture. Thus, interpreting these images requires knowledge as well as experience in order to arrive at their message.

The use of iconic attributes or reference to other works sets up a metaphorical relationship between two domains of experience. An artwork must provide both reference points and the means to orient those reference points in experience for the interpreter to successfully map the experience of the work onto its meaning.

For a closer look:

Icons for the Church Year

Stations of the Cross

4 Archangel Banners