One of the greatest necessities for the Christian life is to stay centered on Christ at all times. It is only in the purifying light of God that we see light, and become enlightened. “The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light.”i By abiding in this light the Christian believer is empowered to discern true reality. Only when our spiritual vision is renewed in the Divine Light of the Holy Trinity are we able to act in accordance with the Truth. Even more so, the one being illumined goes beyond acting in accordance with Truth, indeed, they move into existence in Truth. The continual incarnation of Truth through and in the Church to this world is only possible within the all revealing Light of the Holy Trinity: “For with Thee is the fountain of life, and in Thy light we see light.”ii
When persons within the Church cease to lift their eyes up to the lustrating energy of God they fall into darkness, and this darkness is great and of the worst kind. “But if your eye be bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If the light that is in you is darkness, how great the darkness!”iii When the inner eyes of a person are cut off from God that one is no longer able to discern true reality; it is then that the shadows of this fallen world are taken to be real. When this happens within the institution of the Church the result is devastating.iv The inner eyes (nous) become blinded by darkness and are cast into the abyss of existing in non-reality. This is the result of the eyes of the heart ceasing to focus on Christ Jesus, and becoming fixated on this temporal world. “Where your heart is, there your treasure will be also.”v
In the early 700's a loss of vision steadily arose in the form of a heresy known as Iconoclasm. Iconoclasm is against all pious depiction of Christ Jesus, the Theotokos or any saint, in a word it is against holy icons. Thus, it taught that icons were indeed idolatry, and forbade their veneration by the faithful. This false teaching was divinely repudiated in the Church culminating in what is known as the Triumph of Orthodoxy in 843AD. Iconoclasm is the sad loss of the true revelation of salvation as it relates to both man and the whole material world. It could be that the historical events, such as the rise of Islam and the growing gap between Eastern and Western Christianity at that time helped to cause the Iconoclasts to take their eyes off of Christ. It is not uncommon that even when we are tested we focus on the storm around us and cease gazing on Christ. In the midst of testing, if one fails to refocus on Christ, true vision may be darkened by unbelief. Whatever the reasons may have been, the rejection of icons betrays a tragic loss of true reality.
One of the many characteristics of the icon is the fact that it is a herald of true reality and life. It is a focal point reflecting the sanctification of man and the material world through the Divine Incarnation. “Holiness is the realization of the possibilities given to man by the Divine Incarnation, an example to us: the icon is the means of the revealing this revelation … In other words, the icon transmits visually the realization of the patristic formula … 'God became man so that man should become god.'"vi Redeemed mankind, when dwelling in the reality of transformation into the image of Christ, through the community of the Church, is able by grace to take up the sensible and material and give it its true vision. The created material world, through the redemptive work of Christ, may once again fully achieve its original intent: to be a tool for the glory of God. St. John of Damascus writes: “I reverence the rest of matter and hold in respect that through which my salvation came because it is filled with divine energy and grace.”vii
The icon is one of the most potent examples of the redeemed cosmos. It presents to mankind the pure vision of revelation, portraying those things which are everlasting and real. The reality is that this world is being penetrated by the eternal – that death, sin, and corruption are no longer lords over mankind and creation. The icon cries out: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?”viii It stands as an invitation for all to enter into true reality and being. This entails rejecting the call and temptation of this fallen world to live in a state of non-being by following one's own carnal desire, thereby choosing the non-existence of falsehood. For to dwell outside of the revealed divine reality is to dwell away from God Who is Life and true being beyond all being.
Iconoclasm, the rejection of icons, is the result of a loss of true vision and reality. Tragically, the western world was heavily impacted by the Iconoclast spirit after initially being a champion of the icon. If any segment of Christianity begins to desire and focus on earthly power and prestige, the end result is a loss of heavenly vision. The rise of Charlemagne in the 700's in the west may be considered a marking point for this decline of vision. At the “council” of Frankfurt in 794AD Charlemagne led an attack and condemnation on holy icons.
Only six years later, in 800AD, the Pope of Rome crowned Charlemagne as the “holy Roman Emperor.” Of course, the events surrounding this are varied and complex, but it suffices to note this as the beginning of the end spiritually for the Western Church.ix Sadly, unlike in the East, the West failed to counter the Iconoclast spirit and it came to dominate. The loss of spiritual vision became increasingly evident in the artistic vision of the West. The Iconoclast spirit of Charlemagne paved the way for the massive shift of vision which occurred in the Renaissance, as art began to take on a much greater naturalistic feel. This naturalism in art began to dominate the Western Church, reflecting its progressive loss of divine sight.x
The Reformation and Enlightenment dealt a further blow to the sacred Christian vision of the icon. Art, in the west, became obsessed with naturalism, many times “raw to the point of repellency,” easily stirring carnal emotions.xi An evident example of this is “The Crucifixion” by Grunewald, where Christ is portrayed as writhing in pain and agony, His flesh bloated and twisted. The overall effect is that of hopelessness and the victory of death; the sweet hope of immortality is nowhere present. True reality is replaced with false reality. Holbein the Younger's portrayal of Christ's rotting flesh in the tomb denies the fundamental ancient Christian belief that Christ's body was a stranger to corruption. Christ is not the victorious King, but a mortal man subject to the decay of death. With the loss of true theology and understanding of sacred vision, spiritual ascent in western art ceased.
Many of the traditional symbols and ancient methods used in sacred art were done away with, and portrayal of the holy struggle of the saints for the kingdom of heaven ceased to a great degree. All these outer manifestations act to reveal the West's inner shifting of the eyes of the soul from the heavenly world to the fallen material. Protestant-dominated northern European art, for the most part, left all religious subjects and simply portrayed daily life, giving way to the humanist undercurrent that helped propel the Reformation.xii Some leaders of the Reformation (such as John Calvin) were outright iconoclastic in their dealings with religious art. This laid firm foundations for the recurrence of “anti-aestheticism in Western art” and paved the way for a “decline of Christian imagery in the Protestant Church.”xiii The Western Church, once a champion of the icon during the Iconoclast heresy in the East, tragically became the place where the Iconoclast spirit found a place to thrive. Both the over humanizing of Christian art themes and the outright destruction of religious art are symptoms of Iconoclasm. Iconoclasm in its essence is a denial of the true Christian vision. The icon remains, therefore, the pure Christian vision of reality.
In our days, as throughout all time, enlightenment by Christ is contingent upon a person having ears to hear and eyes to see. Those who were exposed to Christ Jesus in His earthly ministry were not automatically illumined; they had to desire this in their heart. So the icon, as with its prototype Jesus Christ, is not mechanical illumination. The icon is not a vulgar intrusion into each person's mental world; it is an invitation to reality. It forces itself on no one; it only seeks those who have eyes to see. True vision is possible only in the light of Christ, outside of which is darkness. The icon is the crown of healed sensible vision gazing on the eternal which permeates this world here and now. Therefore it is imperative for a person to begin with the cleansing of the eyes of the heart so as to truly understand the icon, and this occurs in the Light of the Trinity Who is Truth. Outside of this light man's vision becomes darkened by the fallen world and this becomes his focus and aim, even in the “religious” realm.
The icon makes luminous Christ Jesus, for Christ is true reality. If one chooses to dwell outside of Truth, which is manifest in the Holy Orthodox Church, that one cannot truly understand the icon. It will forever elude, either remaining a piece of art history, or a tantalizing religious relic of intrigue.