The Power of a Picture
“All art is either infection or education.” —John Ruskin
Images have a tremendous power, so different from that of words. As we read, we can pause and reflect, analyze and decide whether to be persuaded or unmoved. With an image, however, the mental imprint is instantaneous, involuntary, and often below the level of conscious thought. Words enter the mind through the faculty of reason; images operate at the level of instinct and emotion. One of the common ideas of the world’s traditions is that “We become what we behold”: those things that are habitually in our gaze work their way into the core of our being and reshape us into their own image.
The advertising business knows this, which is why this half-trillion dollar industry keeps our society awash in images. Some instruct, but most infect—with baser passions of greed, gluttony, lust, and pride. Is it not possible, though, to counteract the power of those soul-corrupting images with others that inspire purity, faithfulness, repentance, and holiness?
In some way, all spiritual traditions reckon with the power of images. Some prohibit, others embrace. Like most, the Orthodox Church navigates a middle course between the two ends of the spectrum, allowing certain types of sacred art, disallowing others, and regulating their proper use as visual aids for spiritual formation. We obey the Second of the Ten Commandments by excluding images of the Invisible Godhead, allowing depictions only of that which has been revealed to human eyes, just as with the representational art that the Prophet Moses enjoined for the Tabernacle (cf. Exodus 25:18, 33, 28:34). And even of these visible things—nature and people, angels and demons, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit hidden behind the form of a dove or in tongues of fire—we allow no “graven images” (three-dimensional sculptures).
Iconography educates, and not merely by retelling stories from our sacred Scriptures. The iconographer’s goal is not so much to teach you or thrill you or move you to tears or laughter; it is rather to change you, to configure into the image of divine glory that is the subject of every icon (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:18). In pursuit of this holy purpose, the iconographer approaches the act of “writing” an icon (not “painting”) with prayer and fasting, with confession and purification of soul and body—not unlike a doctor scrubbing in for surgery.
Images have a power not only to configure, but also to connect. Through the image, the one represented is somehow re-presented, made present anew. The honor (or dishonor!) shown to the image passes on to the prototype, and the holiness (or unholiness!) of the one depicted affects the observer. A Byzantine emperor disputed this idea, and so to prove the point, a monk produced a coin bearing the emperor’s image, tossed it on the floor and stepped on it. The emperor lost the argument at the moment he ordered the monk to be executed. The Orthodox venerate icons with kisses to express love for the holy people represented, much as we might kiss a loved one's photo.
Orthodox iconography encodes a paradox in its use of reverse perspective: lines do not converge at the horizon, but rather at the viewer. This subverts the usual sense of observer and object: it forces a kind of spiritual disorientation, or rather, re-orientation to the centrality of God and the marginality of the individual ego. Conveying this spiritual value is one of icons’ primary powers of education and transformation.
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