The Iconostasis as Silent Therapy
Part four of a series on the use and symbolism of the iconostasis in the Orthodox Church. Read part three here: The Iconostasis: the Yoke of Promise
The Icons on the Iconostasis are not Art, they are Pastoral & Therapeutic
Although the iconostasis is a collection of images, it should not be confused as art. Properly understood, icons are not art but liturgical artifacts. The importance that the fathers attributed to the image was not of an aesthetic nature, but of a pastoral nature. Thus in his Elegy St. Gregory of Nyssa was able to speak in the following way about the martyr Theodore: “The artist is to show all this through the art of colors as in a book that has a tongue to speak with. For the silent image can speak from the walls where it is seen by all, and there it renders the greatest service (Sendler, 8).” The icon in general, and the iconostasis in particular are therapeutic devices; they awaken the mind and soul of the one who gazes upon its face in contemplation. The icon has widely been compared to a window, which on the one had is an accurate description, as it opens the view of the worshiper to the reality of the eschatalogical realm that lies beyond and within it, but this is an incomplete description. In addition to being a window, the icon also serves as mirror; by reflecting an image of the penitent’s true nature and calling, the icon convicts the penitent of their shortfalls and sins.
The iconostasis is the spiritual mirror par excellence. By being a gathering of deified humans, saints, the iconostasis forms a community of brethren who simultaneously project and reflect. What the images on the iconostasis project is their transfigured state of likeness to God; the saints on the iconostasis have attained, by realization, the promise of salvation through the grace of God and the hope of His Kingdom. What they reflect is the penitent’s self-realization of their own lack of comprehension. This reflection is intended to bring its viewer to an awareness of their misguided attentions, and refocus them on the reality of God’s presence in their own life. This idea of projection and reflection is articulated by St. Dionysius the Areopogite in his prayer to the Theotokos:
I pray that your icon will be infinitely reflected in the mirror of our souls and that it will preserve them pure until the end of time, that it will raise up those who are bent down toward the earth, and that it will give hope to those who contemplate and try to imitate this eternal model of Beauty (Evdokimov, 44).
In projecting an image of deified humanity, the iconostasis calls penitents to claim their inheritance, beckoning them to become one of their community. The penitent must realize that they too belong on the iconostasis as a living icon, that this is their truest calling.
Salvation according to the church fathers, is not merely a juridical reconciliation as often characterized by contemporary Christian doctrine in the west, but rather a therapeutic restoration. Included within the idea of therapeutic restoration are atonement, reconciliation, and adoption; the difference is the holistic vision of the eastern fathers who emphasize the need for transfiguration. The human person who is made in the image of God must be transfigured into the likeness of God as well; this requires a therapeutic remedy, not simply the gavel of pardon. The iconostasis serves as a therapeutic agent. What viewers discover in the iconostasis is kinship. “In experiencing the divine beauty through the icons they discover something of their own dignity, as living icons of God (Hart, 25).” Thus the iconostasis preaches deification through community. By communing with the saints whose images dwell upon the iconostasis, the community of believers on earth find their path to deification through Christ. The iconostasis leads the believer to the realization that they have already been adopted by their Heavenly Father and become co-heirs with Christ.
Read the conclusion to the series on the iconostasis: Meaning and Purpose of the Iconostasis
Sendler, Egon. The Icon, Image of the Invisible: Elements of Theology, Aesthetics, and Technique. (Redondo Beach, CA: Oakwood Publications, 1988), 8.
Evdokimov, Paul. The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty. (Redondo Beach, CA: Oakwood Publications, 1990), 44.
Hart, Aidan (August 2012). Icons and Pastoral Care. (aidanharticons.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/PASTORIC.pdf), 2.