Monday, November 24, 2008

A Pet Peeve

I've grown accustomed over the past few years to hear people opine on various issues in the Orthodox Church, and heard just about every opinion I'm likely to hear. There are a number of issues that seem to come up time and again. I can't tell you how many appeals I have heard from people who want to tear the pews out of their churches because the proper way to worship God is standing up, not relaxing in a pew. The same tactic is suggested for the few churches that have organs. "The human voice is the greatest instrument because it was made by God, and we ought to worship with our voice, not with organs." Or there is the frequent refrain, "Orthodox Christians are not supposed to pray with heretics." So naturally, everything from a prayer before a meal with your Protestant family to the Patriarch of Constantinople saying a prayer with the pope must be wrong. "Orthodox Priests shouldn't dress in Catholic style Clerical clothes, they ought to dress in a cassock."

Now I won't pretend like there aren't good reasons why these rules or traditions exist, but what I find truly astonishing is that when I say that God the Father ought not to be depicted, I will inevitably hear one of these same people say "But I grew up with them in my church, and I like them, and aren't there miracle working icons that have God the Father on them?"

The basis for all iconography is the Incarnation of Christ. In spite of the protestations of iconoclasts, we still adhere to the Second Commandment, and we are not permitted to depict what has not been seen. We can only depict Christ because He became a man, He took on flesh, and He became depictable. To depict God the Father is to undermine the very foundation of iconography. The Orthodox Church puts so much emphasis on preserving proper theological teaching, and yet when it comes to the visual proclamation of the gospel, we have often have such a cavalier attitude.

I rarely see this anywhere else in Orthodoxy, and it seems to me to be completely backwards. I would rather sit in a pew looking at an icon that properly expresses that only the Son of God became incarnate than stand in the presence of an icon that makes a subtle statement that perhaps God the Father did as well. I would rather sing along with an organ(and I really don't like organs in church) in a church where the invisible God is invisible and the Incarnate God is depicted than sing A Capella in a church where both are depicted. Even issues of who we ought or ought not to pray with pale by comparison with what we pray. We try to keep our ears safe from hearing heresy, why do we not want the same for our eyes? We care more about a priest in the wrong clothes offending our eyes than a false image offending our eyes.

And believe it or not, my position is not as harsh as what people suggest for pews. I don't advocate that we tear all these images out immediately. What I advocate is that we listen to what the church in council has suggested, which is that when they are replaced they should be replaced with something proper, and that no new ones should be made. But in order for this to happen, we need to be aware that these images are not correct, which requires someone to say that they aren't correct. Or maybe we can make a deal, I'll get rid of the pew that I like to sit in from time to time, and you get rid of that picture of Christ on an old man's lap with a bird that you like to look at. Deal?


Emily H. said...

I don't like depictions of God the Father either and somehow it seems even more strange to see it in an icon than it does in Western religious art. I didn't know what the Orthodox stance on this was since there are icons including the Father. I'm glad to hear more about it.

Out of curiosity, what do you think of Rublev's Trinity icon with regards to what you wrote in this post? I find it more acceptable because of the symbolic portrayal as opposed to a straight depiction of God the Father.

Do you know when or why the Father came to be included in icons?

Yours in Christ.

Matthew Garrett said...

I have heard people try to justify icons of God the Father by saying that they are just symbolic, but icons are not meant to be symbolic in that way. The difference between that and Rublev's Trinity icon is that St. Andrei depicted the scene from Genesis 18. That appearance of 3 men to Abraham is a type of or prefiguration of the Trinity. So the icon is not a symbolic representation of the Trinity, but rather a direct depiction of an actual event that is symbolic of the Trinity.

The depictions of God the Father came in large part from the West, but there were also some early depictions of Christ as the Ancient of Days with Christ as a child in His lap which was meant to be a depiction based on the hymnography of the Church, like the hymn that says "Verily the Ancient of Days becometh a babe for my sake." This image was then corrupted, most likely because it was misunderstood to be an icon of Father and Son, rather than Son as Ancient of Days and Son as a child.

Emily H. said...

Thanks Matthew!
It's enlightening to hear that there are icons from the hymnography of the Church. That's unfortunate that it was distorted.

Eric John said...

Well, one can do something about pews, organs, and the Patriarch of Constantinople (to some extent), but what really can be done with, say, the Kursk Root Icon which has God the Father depicted? You just venerate it.

Matthew Garrett said...

That is an extreme oversimplification, Eric John. The vast majority of the images of God the Father are not part of wonder working images, and could be torn out just as easily as pews, or organs, and much more easily than the Patriarch. If something is truly wonder-working, one venerates it as such, but it need not be held in esteem as an example of proper iconography, or as something to be copied. Most of the frequently touted miraculous images that contain depictions of God the Father are very bad examples of iconography. They are very westernized humanistic depictions, which is why they contain depictions of God the Father in the first place.

I don't know why God chooses to work wonders through any object. I wouldn't suggest that we not venerate a wonder-working object. But all I have ever suggested is that we stop using that as an excuse to continue making false images of God the Father. We should instead state clearly our objection to such a practice, based on the firm teaching of the Orthodox Church.

Emily H. said...

Beating a dead horse...

I recently learned that the Kursk Root Icon did not originally depict God the Father. When it was found, it was only the Theotokos of the Sign. Later Tzar Theodore Ivanovich of Moscow commanded that the icon should be set in a silver frame, the frame of which depicted the Lord of Hosts and the prophets with scrolls in their hands.

Br. Tom Forde OFMCap said...

I have just found your blog. Very interesting. May I comment that the image of the Father is very dangerous because it implies that there is something more to be revealed about the Father than has been revealed in and by the Son. It seems to say that he is not the fulness of the revelation, not His only Word and Image. That said I saw images of the Father on Mount Athos - it seems to be more common among Greek Orthodox and of course in the Western, Latin Church too but then my Church has never taken the clear stand on images that was taken in the East despite opposing the iconoclasts. Here in Ireland we have a small association of Iconographers under the tutelage of Eva Vlavianos,a fine and very Orthodox painter. God's blessing on your blog