catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 1, Num 8 :: 2002.12.20 — 2003.01.02


Incarnation and the image of God

Part 3 of 4

Family photos: images of God and Mary

The very meaning of the icon has as its foundation the incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ?.It is because Christ became man and allowed man to glimpse on the divine glory of Heaven that we are able to write icons and venerate images of Christ?If Christ had not become incarnate, and had not revealed to us his transfigured glory on the mount, it would be impossible to depict the spiritual realm of Heaven in icons?While the incarnation is the basis of iconography, the icon itself in its role as a window into heaven, affirms the incarnation and speaks of God?s great mysteries (Michael Goltz, Iconographer).

The image of God is a prominent theme in Orthodox Christianity. The use of icons in the Orthodox Church attests to orthodoxy?s focus on image when it comes to the mystery of the Incarnation. Many orthodox iconographers?those who draw icons?claim the incarnation of Christ allows us to see and touch what we once could only theorize about. In iconography, the mystery of the incarnation is not articulated in theological words or put into philosophical terms. Instead, the mystery of the incarnation is revealed in a tangible way, in a way that appeals to human sensation.

The iconographer?s argument for religious icons finds support in the thoughts of the early Church. In the fourth century, St. Athanasius explained the goodness of God Who comes down to the level of our senses. Despite human sin, says Athanasius in Of the Incarnation of the Word of God, God came to the level of the people, in a form they would recognize. He writes,


Men had turned from the contemplation of God above, and were looking for Him in the opposite direction, down among created things and things of sense. The Saviour of us all, the Word of God, in His great love took to Himself a body and moved as Man among men, meeting their senses, so to speak, half way. He became Himself an object for the senses, so that those who were seeking God in sensible things might apprehend the Father through the works which He, the Word of God, did in the body. (43)


In an attempt to make the Incarnation more concrete for his readers, St. Athanasius explains this mysterious event in the context of image. He likens God?s salvation of humanity to the work of a painter who re-draws a portrait after the portrait is corrupted.


You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likenesss is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-holy Son of God. He, the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that He might renew mankind made after Himself. (41)


These words of St. Athanasius seem to reflect the thoughts of those in the early Orthodox Church who supported the use of icons. The religious icon, which comes from the Greek word meaning “image,” “likeness” or “portrait,” allows human beings to see God. Icons could be used to see God, according to many in the early Orthodox Church, because God Himself sat down for His own portrait at the incarnation.

The authenticity of the religious icon, then, is found in the original icon, God the Son. Unfortunately, many of the early icons—some of which were considered authentic images of Jesus—were lost or destroyed, but their existence is evident in later icons that still remain today. These later icons retain the early images of Jesus? face, which were supposedly taken from an unpainted linen formed either by divine miracle or by direct contact with Jesus? body.

The imprint of Jesus? face on the cloth, which was reproduced by later iconographers, acts as a lesson in the Incarnation. Hans Belting, author of Likeness and Presence, explains:


Just as the Creator of the universe was born of the womb of woman without a man?s seed, in the icon he created a ?figure painted by God??Being made man without human conception and becoming an image without the painter?s intervention are placed in parallel. The image is a kind of visible proof of the central dogma of God?s incarnation as a man, which is repeated in God?s becoming an image in the earthly material of the printed cloth. (55)


As the woman who carried Christ in her womb, Mary also serves as a lesson to the church. In early orthodoxy, she became known as a bridge to God, an intercessor, a compassionate mother in whom the world could find refuge. Mary is an important image for iconography “?for she is the doorway through which the uncreated light first came to our world. She is thus the patron of all icon-makers” ( Because Mary was receptive to God and His plan, she stands as a model for iconographers who seek to draw images of God the Son through which the true Light of the World can be seen.

The image of Mary?s face supposedly comes from a painting by Luke the Evangelist, whose reputation as apostle and author of Luke and Acts was enough to give authority to this image of Mary. It was believed that Mary sat down for the portrait herself and that the Spirit completed it. Many iconographers of Mary seemed to use this authentic image as a model for correctness.

The issues surrounding correctness and the authenticity of images often became complicated theological debates in the life of the church. Though the details of these debates can be instructive for Christians wanting to know more about the history of the church, such particulars may distract us from the theme of the image of God as it relates to the incarnation. After looking at this theme in connection with the Orthodox Church and iconography, we might again be tempted to think the incarnation is a field of study belonging only to the theologians, philosophers and now iconographers. Against such a thought, we might do what so many reformers have done throughout the history of the church: go back to where we started, to the Word of God.


>> Next >>


your comments

comments powered by Disqus