Friday, September 22, 2006

Why I Care About Icons

For those of us who are thoroughly "western" in mindset and disposition, iconography I imagine will always remain an enigma. Nevertheless, I began falling in love with icons a few years ago, maybe at first because of the icons I saw and experienced in eastern rite Catholic churches in Slovakia.

In any event, many icons grace my office and our home, and I'm always pondering how to introduce them into Lutheran worship spaces.

Protestants historically are concerned about icons becoming idols. It probably confuses us if we see someone in an Eastern Orthodox church kiss an icon, for example. But in the theology of Byzantium, where the dogmatic statement on icons was established, icons should and could better be seen as a liturgical manifestation of our Christian commitment to maintaining the two natures of Christ. Icons are true Christologically speaking.

An icon does not present itself as coextensive with the truth it teaches, but does present itself as the way that we who are its heirs must follow if we are to go beyond it... to a universal truth that is available only in a particular embodiment. An idol, on the other hand, is the embodiment of that which it represents, but it directs us to itself, rather than beyond itself. (Pelikan in The Vindication of Tradition)

In the West, we are constantly and dangerously prone to idolatry exactly because we don't understand icons, have no icons, don't even think about icons, maybe even think icons are idolatrous. By confusing icon with idol, we have established powerful idols in our midst from which we cannot escape. Money, fame, sports, self-fulfillment, etc.


  1. Have you ever seen the icons in the Greek Orthodox Church on E. Washington Avenue in Madison? I had the opportunity to tour the church last year, during their Greek Fest, and it was an eye-popping experience. The icons are gorgeous and I'm sure they enhance the worship experience considerably. I would love to see a Lutheran Church with similar representations.

    By the way, the man who painted the icons has a small store on Willy St. I highly recommend checking it out.

  2. Yes, they have a wonderful space of worship, artfully including many icons, part of their religious heritage. I too would like to be in a Lutheran space that looks like that.