Icons as Teachers

Archpriest John Matusiak (+2019) 

(Fr. John Matusiak fell asleep in the Lord on August 15, 2019 (Feast of Dormition). He was a gifted preacher, author and educator, as well as an iconographer.  In his memory we offer the following edited article written by him for the Orthodox Church in America’s Department of Religious Education.  May his memory be eternal!)

There exists a certain temptation on the part of many to complicate and/or thoroughly misunderstand the Orthodox Church's liturgy.  Some non-Orthodox condemn it as something ancient, archaic, mystical, mysterious, exotic, eclectic, ethnic and esoteric. Others praise it because it transports them into the time-warp "before Vatican II changed everything."  Orthodox Christians often define liturgy as something which has been "handed down" as part of our "cultural heritage," to be "preserved" and "treasured" by "our people.”  And the media could not possibly pass it up without rave reviews which note how "colorful" and "symbolic" it is. (Not so) oddly enough, none of the above has anything whatsoever to do with liturgy. To the contrary. Orthodox liturgy is quite basic. It involves the gathering together of God's people who, in "laying aside all earthly cares" engage in worship while learning more about Him and His Kingdom.  Worship and education. Hardly exotic!

Liturgical Art

In many instances, the so-called "trimmings" of Orthodox worship are equally misunderstood. This is especially so in the case of iconography. Icons are more often than not viewed as "decorative alternatives" to modern religious art, bad religious art, or no religious art. Through the ages they have been condemned by iconoclasts, humanized by Russian Emperors, restored by atheists, prized by collectors, and "featured" at Bloomingdale's and Neiman-Marcus. Icons may be appreciated for their "folksy," "primitive" or "other-worldly" properties, but in the process their true purpose and meaning are trivialized at best.

Icons cannot be defined as "religious art." Nor can they be termed "decorative." They are, first and foremost, functional. By their very essence, icons are inseparable from prayer and worship. Consequently, icons might best be termed "liturgical art." Orthodox doctrine would go so far as to say that apart from liturgy icons have no function whatsoever. In this sense, they are the "windows of God's Kingdom."

Theology in Color

Icons are the "blackboards of God's Kingdom" as well. In addition to their functional use in worship, they serve to educate. Like the liturgy, they teach us about God, the Theotokos, the saints, and ourselves. They transcend and transfigure "all earthly cares" so that we might gain a glimpse of God's existence while considering (or reconsidering) our own. Icons are often referred to as "theology in color." They present the Church's teachings in line, form, chroma and hue rather than with words. This was especially important in the early days of the Church when books and widespread literacy were rare. Church walls became wordless textbooks with the introduction of frescoes, which served to transform the church's interior into "sacred" space while presenting the Christian message visually.

The traditional arrangement of frescoes, if faithfully adhered to, surrounds the worshipper with the central mysteries of salvation, not only aiding in the liturgical celebration of those mysteries but in their intellectual comprehension as well. The schematic arrangement calls for Old Testament scenes and personalities, from creation through the prophets, on the narthex walls. The nave is adorned with New Testament scenes, from the Annunciation and Nativity of Christ to His Crucifixion, Death and Burial. Within the altar one finds the victorious resurrected Christ, while on the altar ceiling the Theotokos, like the ceiling itself, literally unites heaven and earth. The central cupola, representing the space-less heavens, bears the icon of Christ the "Pantocrator," or All-powerful. And the pillars, which stand in the midst of the faithful, are generally adorned with individual martyrs and other saints who literally "join" the congregation before the throne of God. (St. Theodosius Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio; St. Vladimir Church, Trenton, New Jersey; Ss. Peter and Paul Church, Syracuse, New York; and Three Saints Church, Ansonia, Connecticut, are among the…churches in America which follow this or similar schematic arrangement.)

Far from being decorative, this iconographic scheme transcends the very space in which it exists. Rather than "containing" space, the frescoes eliminate it. The faithful, regardless of the moment, are not so much surrounded by "events"; rather, they are placed into the very midst of these events as participants in Christ's timeless and space-less work of salvation.

 Teach with words, write with letters, paint with colors, all in conformity with the tradition. Painting is as genuine as the content of the books; it is a work of divine grace because what is represented is holy. 

Symeon of Thessalonica


From the moment the divinity united itself to our nature, our nature was glorified as by lifegiving and wholesome medicine, and received access to incorruptibility: this is why the death of the saints is celebrated, temples are built in their honor, and their icons are painted and venerated.

St. John of Damascus

Lessons in Images

Individual icons, whether they be frescoes or portable wooden panels, not only educate through placement and use; their content also serves to enlighten the faithful.

When one thinks of the "Last Supper," Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece usually comes to mind. It may be found everywhere-religious shops, black-velvet-paint-by-number kits, Aunt Helen's dining room wall. It's title accurately describes its content: Christ and the apostles are gathered (curiously, they are all sitting on the same side of the table!) for their last meal together.

From an iconographic point of view, da Vinci's work, for all its artistic excellence and emotional strength, leaves out the "punch line." The main point of the event was the institution of the Eucharist, not the opportunity to get together for one last meal. If anything, this was the "First Supper," not the last, inasmuch as it was different than any other meal shared previously.

(In Orthodoxy, this same event is depicted) in a totally different manner. Christ is pictured in the center, distributing His Body to six awe-struck apostles to His right, while sharing His Blood with another six to His left. The icon emphasizes the essential "event within the event." Appropriately, Orthodoxy refers to this as the "Mystical Supper" or the "Institution of the Eucharist."

The birth of Christ brings to mind countless Christmas cards "manger scenes." The traditional Nativity icon…while…accurately recalling the key elements surrounding Christ's birth - the Virgin, child, animals, shepherds, Magi, angels - is radically different than anything produced by the folks at Hallmark.

Perhaps the most noticeable differences are the positions of Mary and Joseph. Rather than kneeling on either side of Christ, Mary rests while Joseph ponders whether or not to "put away" his betrothed. Above, angels hover in adoration. To the viewer's right they announce the Saviour's birth to the startled shepherds, while to the left they offer warnings to the Magi. The bottom right corner shows two women servants bathing the newly-born Christ.

Why is the Nativity icon so different from the usual manger scene? Again, it serves to awaken within the faithful an appreciation for Who was born rather than how He was born. Comparing the icon to the gospel narratives, one discovers that the icon faithfully reproduces the scriptural accounts in every detail. Yet the icon goes even further by visually teaching that the newly-born child is also the pre-eternal God. This is accomplished by the very composition itself.

Christ is depicted in the center of the icon. The Creator of all is surrounded by His creation, angels, humans, earth, sky, light, darkness, animals and plants. The top half of the icon teaches that the child is indeed God. The angels proclaim Him, as does the star, which pierces the earth with Heaven itself. Yet the bottom half of the icon teaches that Christ is also man. He is bathed like every other new-born; Mary rests, as every new mother must; and Joseph, not fully comprehending the event, is faced with a very human decision. Not one aspect of the Saviour’s birth or the doctrine of Christ is missing in this icon.

"The Virgin of the Sign," (often placed in the Church’s apse, just behind and above the altar):  Unlike the famous Renaissance Madonnas which depict little more than maternal emotion, this icon instructs the viewer in a number of other ways.

First and foremost, the Theotokos is not holding Christ. Rather, He appears to be suspended in front of her in a circle. The mother-child relationship is presented, yet it is not the most important statement made by the icon.  Christ is not suspended in front of the Virgin. He is depicted within her and coming forth from her, surrounded by the same uncreated light which surrounds Him in the Transfiguration icon. The Church proclaims Mary as the Theotokos, the one who literally bore God in her womb. This vital theological point is accurately expressed in this icon.

Learning by Doing

Icons, like liturgy, exist for worship as well as education. That which they impart, however, does not simply satisfy the intellect. Icons, as we have seen above, also serve to educate by experience. While they relate events and the people involved in them, they also invite the faithful to "lay aside all earthly cares" and become participants as well.


Mystical Supper Icon CC BY-SA 2.0 Fr. Ted Bobosh @ https://www.flickr.com/photos/frted/5713012090