If you know me you know I am passionate about iconography. It is a love that has developed over the last dozen years of my life. Icons are not everyone's "cup of tea", I know. While everyone's tastes are different, I do believe that many people do not understand icons and that is why they say they do not care for them. Icons are meant to deliver a message and to draw us into the mystery of what it depicted. They are not meant to be portraits. They are not meant to have literal reality, but rather, they show us inner reality, spiritual reality. That is, they depict God's beauty through symbolism. If one knows the language, it helps to see past the two dimensional aspect of icons and past the seemingly unrealistic symmetry. Icons are images that draw us into the reality of what is holy and the beauty which resides in each one of us.
The word icon means "image" in the original Greek, (eikon). They are much more than simply images, they are sacred. They draw the one who gazes into the very presence of the image written on the wood or masonite. One author I have read said icons are soul-windows, or windows to Heaven, because when we are in the presence of an icon we are in the presence of the Holy. They are Sacramentals, which means they remind us of deeper realities. We are always in the presence of the Holy: the icon reminds us not only of this truth, but it helps to draw us more deeply into the attentiveness to God's presence we need in order to "hear" His voice deep within. Icons help us to see God's reflection in the beauty around us.
I am fascinated by the lives of the saints who are our heroes in the faith. Therefore I love icons which depict the various saints. However, my favorites are icons of Jesus and Mary. An icon speaks a language: it speaks of awe, reverence, blessing, and sometimes sorrow. This language leads us to what is holy and reveals to us something about the holy one being depicted. This is why we say the iconographer writes an icon, rather than saying he or she draws it. Icons are almost always two dimensional, and rarely ever show the saint or holy one in profile because they are seen as being present to us rather than looking away. The person is not to "look realistic" because these are not portraits and are not like Western religious art. For example, the eyes might be large because they have seen the glory of God, and also they are in a sense, absorbing the one who is viewing. The nose might be narrow and the mouth small "because the presence of God has lessened the need for sensual satisfaction", according to Solrunn Nes, author of The Mystical Language of Icons. Halos surround them because they depict the essential part of that person who has been transformed by holiness. The saint is being depicted not as they were in life, but as they are in eternity. There is no facial expression so as not to limit the image. Sometimes that can be jarring for someone who has never really gazed closely on an icon before.
I do not intend to go into an entire teaching on the symbolism of icons, but rather to suggest that often it is helpful to put ourselves in the presence of the holy by having an image to remind us of God's beauty. God's beauty, for me, is often seen in the face of a friend or loved one. Honestly, if we look around us with eyes that seek God's beauty, we can see it in the face of a total stranger, even in a person with whom we have the most fleeting of encounters. If we look another person in the eyes, even briefly, we can see the beauty of God if we take the time to accept it.
I believe friendship is a relationship of beauty. John O'Donahue, in his book Eternal Echoes, says this about friendship: "When someone is really close to you, you are in each other's soul-care. Because of the calling of your own life, you cannot be continually there. Yet in the affection of prayer, you can carry the icons of their presence on the altar of your heart." (Italics mine.) However, I also believe that when we learn how to gaze deeply into the eyes of any person, we can learn to carry the icons of their presence and their joy or suffering in our own hearts as well. In other words, we can be affected and moved to compassion and love, or simply to see the beauty of God reflected in anyone's face, that is, their presence, if we open our eyes to see. Having iconography can help open us up to the greater reality of God's beauty around us so that we can see others as icons of God's beauty, too. If I can only see beauty and experience God's presence on a piece of masonite or wood, then truly I have not seen it at all.
My favorite iconography is from the work of a friend, Fr. William Hart McNichols, (known as Father Bill to most people), so I admit to being biased. However, it was his iconography that came first and the friendship which grew out of my love for his work, later. Through him I have learned that the iconographer would not be able to write his or her icons if not for a deep relationship with the Lord. That is, the iconographer has to see beauty and become one with it as much as possible in order to express it. It takes root in the soul of iconographers because they are always in the space where beauty dwells. They immerse themselves in the life of the holy person (or the Lord) that they are depicting. In other words the person has to be a person of deep prayer which expresses itself not just as love on a piece of masonite, but it is seen in all he or she does. Fr. Bill is just such a person. Both his work and his friendship have taught me a lot about holiness and beauty.
Therefore I recommend that you take a look at Fr. Bill's work, (and at the work of different iconographers, too), to see if there is something that leads you to that gazing and longing for God which sparks a desire to learn the language of beauty to a new dimension. If we begin to understand not with the mind but with the heart that beauty is all around us, we can begin to realize that beauty also resides within us. The icon helps us to learn how to gaze deeply within it, which in turn helps us to learn how to gaze deeply within the hearts of others and ultimately into our own hearts. It becomes a sort of inner transfiguration in which we begin to see with different eyes, just as the apostles saw Jesus with different eyes after they witnessed the inner reality of His divinity residing along with His humanity. They did not realize it until they were able to gaze upon it. So we, too, have to learn how to see the inner reality of those around us. When we do, everything is transfigured; everything reveals the beauty of God.
Let us ask God for the grace to see the inner beauty within the Holy Ones, that it might inspire us to holiness, too. Let us ask for the grace to see the hidden beauty of those we love and those who are strangers, that we might be inspired to deeper love. Let us ask for the grace to see the hidden, inner beauty within ourselves, that we may be inspired to greater freedom and to actions of greater good. May we all be filled with wonder and awe at the beauty of God all around us and within us. Let us continue to meet in the Heart of the Lord, the most perfect abode of beauty. Peace!
I have cited three books in this posting:
Festival Icons for the Christian Year, by John Baggley. London: Mobray, 2000.
The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty, by Paul Evdokimov, (translated by Fr. Steven Bigham). California: Oakwood Publications, 1990.
The Mystical Language of Icons, by Solrunn Nes. London: St. Paul's Publishing, 2000.
I have also quoted John O' Donohue: Eternal Echoes. HarperCollins, 1999.
The icon on the top of the page is the famous Old Testament Trinity icon by St. Andrei Rublev and is long thought to be the most perfect of all icons.
Additionally, you can find the work of Rev. William Hart McNichols, such as the icon at the left, at
Also I recommend Fr. Bill's books which contain meditations along with his iconography:
-Mother of God Similar to Fire by Mirabai Starr and Rev. William Hart McNichols. New York: Orbis Books, 2010. (I highly recommend this one!!)
-"You Will Be My Witnesses" by John Dear, Icons by Rev. William Hart McNichols. New York, Orbis Books, 2006.
-Christ All Merciful by Megan McKenna, Icons by Rev. William Hart McNichols. New York: Orbis Books, 2002.
-Mary, Mother of All Nations by Megan McKenna, Icons by Rev. William Hart McNichols. New York: Orbis Books, 2000
-The Bride, by Daniel Berrigan, SJ, Icons by Rev. William Hart McNichols. New York: Orbis Books, 2000
You can purchase any of his icons as found on his website in various forms: plaques of varying sizes, cards, holy cards, giclee prints of varying sizes, etc. There is contact information on the site in order to call with any questions or simply to place an order. (P.S. I am not getting a commission or anything like that for encouraging Fr. Bill's icons for sale. I simply love him and his work and want to share the wealth!!)
Heart Speaks to Heart