The Spiritual Beauty of Icons
By Fr. Joseph Frawley
When we speak of beauty, we usually refer to outer, physical beauty which is perceived by the senses. Thus, we evaluate artistic creations on the basis of simplicity, clarity, harmony, symmetry, etc. We also judge them by how well they reflect and imitate the natural world. On the other hand, spiritual beauty reveals an inner, spiritual state which is perceived by the eyes of the soul, rather than the bodily eyes. It deals with a higher level of being, because it reflects the spiritual realm and not the external, material world. If we are to understand and appreciate icons, we must view them, not as works of art, but as objects that lift us to that spiritual realm.
Some people are put off by icons because they are not naturalistic in style. The proportions of the figures appear to be distorted, trees and buildings seem too abstract. This is not due to the iconographer's lack of skill, but is deliberate. Icons done in the traditional style point to a reality beyond the physical world, and depict individuals who have been sanctified and purified from sin. In other words, the body is depicted in a glorified, transfigured state. Some parts of the body are exaggerated, while others are diminished. The head, for example, seems to be too large in proportion to the rest of the body. This is because the face is the most important, most expressive part of the body. The thin noses, small lips and elongated fingers suggest that the individual depicted has attained a state where his senses have been refined and spiritualized.
Those who wish to interpret icons correctly must themselves be in the process of becoming sanctified and purified, for spiritual beauty is perceived by souls which are cleansed from sin. Since God is the supreme Beauty, spiritual beauty is ultimately a reflection of the Divine Beauty. Spiritual beings, such as angels, are mirrors of the Divine Beauty. Our souls must also reflect the Beauty of God as far as possible. This means we must struggle, assisted by the grace of God, to attain the divine likeness. That is, we must become deified and become likenesses of God's perfection by acquiring the virtues. The acquisition of virtue is not putting into the soul something which is absent, but developing and making manifest what is already there. Abba Dorotheos (PG, Vol. 88, col. 1757) says that when passions are removed from the soul then the virtues are manifested once again. The virtues of the soul render it beautiful, a reflection of the Divine Beauty.
Icons also reflect the Divine Beauty and illustrate the virtues of faith, meekness, humility, freedom from passion, and spiritual love. How is this possible? The icon depicts two kinds of faith. The first, which is mere belief based on hearing, is a free acceptance of the dogmas concerning God and His creation. The second kind of faith grows out of the first, and is based on an inner perception and knowledge possessed only by those who are illumined by divine grace (Heb 11:1). Whoever has this second kind of faith knows, in part, the transcendent realm of mysteries. The halo symbolizes this state of illumination and higher knowledge as well as holiness. Those at the first level of faith are shown without haloes, but express their trust and reverence for God by their gaze, their posture, and their gestures.
Meekness is the freedom from anger or inner agitation. A person who has this virtue is not affected by praise or insult. In icons of the martyrs, or of St. George killing the dragon, there is no sign of anger or excitement. Their faces indicate calmness and serenity. Out of meekness grows prayer, which leads to converse and union with God.
Humility is self-knowledge, the ability to see oneself as one truly is, and also what one can and should become. This virtue is characterized by awareness of one's shortcomings, and a longing to rise to the infinite perfection of God. In iconography, humility is shown by the facial expression, posture, gestures, and bowed head and body of the saint.
Freedom from passion does not merely refer to our feelings and desires, but also to any overt sin, bad or negative thoughts, etc. Passionlessness is indicated by the saint's air of solemnity and spiritual grandeur. Suggestions of pettiness or moral weakness are avoided. The serene faces and wide-open eyes reveal inner strength and self-mastery.
Spiritual love, characterized by a love of God, and a love of man as the image of God, unites man to God. In iconography, spiritual love is indicated by an absence of sugary facial expressions and theatrical gestures. There is, rather, solemnity and awe.
St. John of Damascus tells us that "we are led by perceptible icons to the contemplation of the divine and spiritual" (PG, Vol. 94, col. 1261a). The holy icons teach us, and lift us up to the prototypes, and arouse us to imitate the example of the persons depicted. They help us to attain the beauty of holiness, and to attain the likeness of God. Likeness to God leads us to theosis, which is participation in the divine life. Theosis, or union with God, is another word for salvation.
May God illumine our souls and grant us His salvation.