Imagine you are in a dark chapel. It is peaceful and you decide to stay and pray. You take a seat in front of the image of Mary and the Christ Child. Notice Mary’s gaze. Where is she looking? At Jesus? At you? What does her posture indicate? Is she pointing, beckoning, nursing? Is she inviting you to draw nearer to her? Her Son? Where are they? Where is Jesus’ attention? What other symbols are present in the background or foreground?
Candles flicker from within the red glass. Here you are in the first quiet moments of prayer, and already the images have naturally led you to a contemplative space. The purpose of icons is not just to add beauty to a place of worship, although they do, but to also add depth and inspiration for prayer within that space. Religious art forms contribute in a variety of ways, none more than icons.
Pay Attention to Icons
One of my favorite ways to make prayer feel more guided or tangible is to use images. Art can offer great, prayerful invitations both to the artist and to the viewer. Likely many of us have had a similar experience where a picture has inspired us to think of God in new ways. Formally this has been called visio divina, or sacred seeing—the sister to lectio divina, or sacred reading. I love the variety of ways that the stories from the Saints and figures from Scripture can be pulled out and brought to life in living color in the prayerful hands of an artist.
Icons, in a very particular way, call the viewer to a posture of prayer by connecting the audience with God through the use of holy figures and scenes. Not only that, but the icon itself is intended to offer a loving, heavenly gaze to the viewer. In technical terms, the viewer doesn’t view an icon, she “reads” it.
The Symbolism in Icons
The symbols included in each icon are significant enough to tell a bigger story while remaining simple:
Saint Joseph, for example, would likely be depicted with a lily and/or some sort of carpentry tool such as a square to remind the viewer that Joseph was a carpenter as well as head of the Holy Family.
Saint Mary Magdalene is most often depicted pointing to an egg, the symbol of new life, calling to mind her discovery of Jesus at the empty tomb in the Resurrection accounts in the Gospels.
The Trinity is famously depicted as three identical but distinct Persons whose clothing color distinguishes the various attributes of each person of the Godhead which communicates their heavenly, royal, and earthly identities. Even the corners of the table in the image is meant to signify the fulfillment of the four Gospels.
There is so much more to reading this particular icon and all icons, I’ll refer you to further resources below.
An Opportunity for Deep Prayer and Understanding
Iconography is a very specific art-form. We can thank the Eastern Orthodox Church for really holding onto this tradition and in a particular and sacred way. There was a time when icons were seen as idolatry and looked upon as scandalous rather than symbols that lead the faithful into deeper reflection and many have been destroyed.
The Making of an Icon
Icons always depict a religious theme, but not all religious art are considered icons. Unlike other art forms that can be equally prayerful, iconographers adhere to a somewhat regulated and intentional process. From start to finish, the creation of an icon is an exercise in prayer and is littered with symbolism from materials to practice. Because icons tell a larger story, the content of the images is of the utmost importance. There are clear guidelines related to how God the Father, Son, and Spirit can be depicted to offer the clearest theology to those who will use it for prayer.
The result is intended to be a window into Heaven:
- Icons are painted on wood. The wood serves as a reminder of the Tree of Knowledge and life before the Fall.
- The wood is wrapped in linen. The linen is a symbol of the cloth Jesus was wrapped in while in the tomb.
- The artist prepares and cleans the block and prays for a specific image to “write.”
- Icons are often detailed with gold gilt to emphasize the light of God.
- The clay and glue used to finish the icon itself is intended to remind the artist of the creation account in which Adam was formed by the clay of the earth.
Even if you don’t have a collection of fine art in your own home, chances are that you have encountered icons of Christ or Saints at your parish, on retreat, or even in art museums. These are easiest to identify by the halo around the image, signifying the illuminating light of Christ. Icons can be as large as wall art or as small as a prayer card.
Entering Into Prayer, Visually
In the same way, each of us is a unique manifestation of God’s creative love, it should come as no surprise that forms of prayer vary widely, too. Having a wide variety of options for prayer is a tremendous gift. Whether that means we adopt one tried and true method our whole life through, or we change frequently to supplement our prayer lives, paying attention to the best way to be drawn into conversation with God.
Although I hope you have been captivated by the depth and significance of icons, and how and why they should be used in prayer, I have only scratched the surface of their depth or history. I want to encourage your further exploration. If you have a favorite icon to pray with, consider finding a book at the library and digging deeper into meanings you might have missed. If you haven’t prayed with icons before, a quick google search or a trip to your local Catholic bookstore can be an eye-opening endeavor.
For further reading //
- Why Icons Should Be Part of Cathoilc Catechetics
- Icons in the Western Church, Jeana Visel, OSB
- The Art of the Icon, Paul Evdokimov
- Icon Writing (video)
Do you have a favorite icon? What strikes you most about it?
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