Thursday, July 5, 2012

picturing Christ: icons in the Catholic Church

Today’s post invites you to consider Catholic teaching about icons. An icon is a work of art with religious significance, usually a painting. Icons are used extensively in the Eastern Churches (both Orthodox and Catholic), but also by Roman Catholics. A major point of contention during the Protestant Reformation, icons continue to separate Protestants and Catholics on a practical level. Some Protestants afford a place for art in worship, but many do not, and some reject any depiction of God, even of Christ.

Among Protestants, perhaps the most widely appreciated (recent) reflection on a religious painting is Henri Nouwen’s extended treatment of Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. Meditation on each aspect of the painting afforded Nouwen with a new depth of insight into God’s love for him, which became the subject of an entire book. The picture focused Nouwen’s reflections in a profound way on the truths of Scripture. In a similar way, Catholics use icons as objects of spiritual reflection. For some, this Christian use of images is controversial.

Unlike some Protestants who reject any depictions of God in art, even in his incarnation, Catholics see the incarnation as the authorization of iconography. With Protestants, Catholics agree that God the Father cannot be captured in any form, because his form has never been revealed (CCC §1159, 2129). Christ, however, took on a human form and became the very image of God, so his portrayal as a human is fitting (§476–477, 2131). Even in the Old Testament, God used images to anticipate his saving work in Christ (§2130). Icons illustrate the truths of Scripture and help to illumine it. In this way, icons are gospel-centered (§1160, 1161). All icons, no matter what their subject matter, ultimately represent Christ, because as images they recall the incarnation (§1159). Even an icon of Mary ultimately directs attention to Jesus’ incarnation.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) describes icons this way:

The contemplation of sacred icons, united with meditation on the Word of God and the singing of liturgical hymns, enters into the harmony of the signs of celebration so that the mystery celebrated is imprinted in the heart’s memory and is then expressed in the new life of the faithful. (§1162)

Andrei Rublev's The Trinity evokes multiple levels
of reflection, beginning with the story of Abraham's
three visitors and culminating in the unseen Trinity 
This evocation of memory lived out in faithfulness is the goal of sacred art. God himself spoke in the art of creation before he revealed himself to humankind in words (§2500). The CCC calls art “a form of practical wisdom, uniting knowledge and skill, to give form to the truth of reality in a language accessible to sight or hearing” (§2501). When it is done well, “genuine sacred art draws man to adoration, to prayer, and to the love of God” (§2502; cf. 2513). It focuses our meditation on biblical truth (§2705). Icons that are not made with excellence are to be removed by bishops, while good art—that which reflects the truth of Scripture while respecting the Tradition— is to be encouraged (§2503).

Protestants will be glad to know that Catholics are not to worship these images: “the honor paid to sacred images is a ‘respectful veneration,’ not the adoration due to God alone” (§2132). Dr. Cavadini has given us copies of several of his favorite icons to illustrate Catholic teaching. In each case, the symbolism of the artwork invites contemplation. (A book that has helped us to interpret the icons is Paul Evdokimov’s The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty). Protestants are perhaps confused by icons because we take them too literally. The Trinity? You can’t depict the Trinity! Of course, the artist knows that the Trinity is ineffable, and cannot be captured in full, but what they paint is meant to inspire our reflections on the Trinity. Dr. Cavadini calls an icon a “mediating device” or a “theological summary in pictures.”

We could learn from Catholics in this area. Rather than fear the imperfect analogy portrayed by a picture, we could let it direct us to contemplate the perfect reality: Christ himself. Remembering the purpose for icons will guard against their misuse. As the CCC says so beautifully, “Sacred images in our churches and homes are intended to awaken and nourish our faith in the mystery of Christ. Through the icon of Christ and his works of salvation, it is he whom we adore” (§1192). One of the best known Protestant religious painters is Ron DiCianni. A copy of “Simeon’s Moment” hangs on our living room wall (and a smaller version in my office), a reminder that the incarnation was the fulfillment of all of God’s promises and Israel’s hopes. As Simeon cradles the baby Jesus, his eyes sparkle and his face is radiant with the knowledge that the savior of the world has come! Ancient icons, like this modern-day depiction of the incarnation, are intended cultivate and inspire our faith in Jesus.


  1. Has Cavadini spoken at all about the different ways in which icons are conceptualized by Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox?

    Another interesting thing for Protestants to consider is the argument offered by John of Damascus in the midst of the Iconoclastic Controversy, very roughly summed up as: If you get rid of icons, you have to get rid of the Scriptures (i.e. what is the difference between words leading us to God and pictures, based upon God's revelation, leading us to God?). There is much more nuance to what he is saying, of course, but I think that it is a good argument with which we Protestants should take time to struggle.

  2. Bryce,

    Thanks for your comment. Yes, Dr. Cavadini touched briefly on the differences between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox (and Eastern Catholics) on this issue. While icons are venerated (honored) in the East, they are simply used devotionally in the West. Here's a blurb from my class notes:

    "Icons are venerated in the Eastern church because they represent Christ. In the Catholic church icons are handled with care, but not worshipped (this was settled at the second Nicean council). Veneration is not worship. Veneration mediates grace in a sense, making it like a sacrament, but it's not quite that strong."

    Dr. Cavadini did mention John of Damascus, but we didn't get into a lengthy discussion about him. Sounds like what he's saying is very similar to what I heard in class. (See section 477 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church for more).

    Yes, we should take time to chew on these things rather than simply reacting against them.