Iconography Basics – Raised Catholic episode 96

Saint Joan of Arc, by Albert Lynch

The following is a transcript of a Raised Catholic podcast episode. To listen to the episode, click here.

Today is episode 96: Iconography Basics

Hi friends. This week I’ve been thinking about where we put our gaze when it comes to our faith, and this has led me toward a pretty interesting study on icons – that religious art that is created intentionally as a means of prayer. So today we’ll look at what an icon is, at why and how to pray with them, and the real danger of an icon becoming an idol.

The word ‘icon’ has come to mean many different things – it’s the person that stands out in a particular sphere over the span of time, like the late Congressman John Lewis is a civil rights icon, Julia Child is a culinary icon, Prince is a pop music icon, and so on. Their excellence and accomplishments have resulted in their embodying or almost being thought of as synonymous with their field. Maybe as I speak today, some of these kinds of icons are coming to your mind. 

On our phones or computers, icons are those cute images you click on to get to the apps you need – like the little camera for your photos or the green and white thought bubble for your texts.  Or one iconic image can serve as an emblem for a whole group or an idea – as Rosie the Riveter did for women joining the workforce in America in World War II or the iconic Earth photo from Astronaut Bill Anders which represented and propelled the environmental movement.  And along with all these definitions of the word are religious icons, and that’s the kind of icon we’re speaking about today. From the start of Christianity, icons have been used to represent a sacred event or a person, and it is used as an object of veneration or a tool for instruction. From the Greek words, ‘eikon’ (meaning image) and ‘graphe’ (meaning writing), we get iconography, or the ability for an image to tell a story. An image can be so powerful, can’t it, friends? More than art which is meant to be admired, an icon is made to facilitate prayer – the image itself is intended as a ‘window to Heaven’, and the purpose of an icon is encounter with God.

In our fast-paced lives, we don’t often take the time to look at any one thing for an extended period of time, unless you count our phones, of course, but the first icons were intentionally created to do that very thing. In the early church, icons were painted in a Byzantine style, where every color, symbol or motif, body or hand position, object, lettering, figure, and clothing in the piece is significant and has a very specific meaning. For example, in icons of St. Francis of Assisi, you’ll always find two symbols which characterize his life – the cross of sacrifice and the dove of peace, and you’ll always find him wearing his brown robes which signify the Franciscan order that he founded. On icons of St. Joan of Arc, you’ll find fleur de lis, which represents French royalty, and her armor and banner signify her role as a soldier and a leader. Often, you’ll find her carrying a spear. The color white in her icons signifies her purity, and red points to her martyrdom. I found one icon of her with a red ribbon tied on her arm, which I thought was so cool. Modern iconography, like the work being done by Grace Morbitzer, contains all of those elements and symbols, but with an updated style. Actually, I am contributing a piece of writing to Gracie’s upcoming book with her gorgeous modern icons, and I highly recommend taking a look at her work, so I’ll link to her and many more resources in the show notes for you. New or old, taking in a piece of art like this takes time, but when it comes to an icon, it is important to remember that it’s more than art appreciation. An encounter with an icon is a prayer. 

If you were born and raised Catholic, you likely have prayed in front of a statue, a stained-glass window, or other piece of religious art.  Our older churches are full of art, and that art has a function. In churches, art depicting the saints or the stories from the Bible were meant to communicate the story of God and the truth of the Gospel to a wide range of people, many of whom were illiterate or who did not have access to books. The heavy use of art in our worship spaces in modern times can lead at times to accusations of ‘praying to statues’ which is obviously something we should not do, though some Catholics do elevate the importance of religious objects far beyond their function. If you’re a cradle Catholic, you probably have witnessed something like that along the way. But when used appropriately, an icon can be a great tool in our spiritual toolbox, and a window to something (or someone) else.

After a run or a walk, I’ll sometimes stop at the Mary statue at my neighborhood chapel, and I’ll hold the statue’s hands while I talk to Mary and give my people into her care. And that’s weird, right? Believe me, friend, I know. I am sometimes mindful of the passersby who might find this practice funny or strange, but since I find it helpful, I carry on. The tactile nature of putting my hands into her hands somehow allows my spirit to commune with Mary, who is not a statue, of course, but is my Heavenly Mom, and so I spiritually place my needs into her care in this way, along with many other ways. I can’t see or touch Mary this side of Heaven, but here, the statue is an object which helps facilitate a spiritual reality.

Icons are helpful and good, but misuse of an icon can turn it into an idol. Respect and reverence for a holy object is appropriate, but worship of that object, whether it be art, a statue, or in our current culture, even a photograph of a public figure or a flag – well, that’s a sign that something has gone dangerously wrong, don’t you think? Objects can be used to aid or inform the practice of our faith, but worship – that is for God alone.  

So, how do we find an icon, and how could we go about praying with one?

I highly recommend the internet for images of icons, particularly of the saints. In preparation for this episode, I found so many that I loved and will refer back to for sure, and I’ll link to some of those in the show notes for you. In addition, I love the work being done by artist Scott Erickson. I frequently use his visual prayers as a window to help me enter into a spiritual reality. From time to time, I’ll make my way to a church and contemplate a particular piece of stained glass or an icon of a saint, taking in the symbols and the meaning that find their way to me fresh on that day. And each day I contemplate an image of my very favorite saint, my Mom who art in Heaven, and I even send her a little kiss. Out in nature, the sun shining through the fall leaves will draw a longer look from me as I contemplate how God works in and through the seasons. And this is a crazy thought, maybe, friend, but what if we looked to other humans – our sisters and brothers that God made – as icons – as beautiful signs and symbols of the living goodness of God. How might that change how we moved through our day?

To interact with an icon, to contemplate it and let it speak to us requires quiet and intention. We slow our breath. We pause. We look, we reflect, we respond to the color and the meaning of the elements that we see. We let God speak to us through this window of our gaze and the gift of our time. When we contemplate an icon, what might we find?

Well, maybe we’ll find inspiration, in the life of a saint or fellow traveler. Maybe we’ll receive illumination, wisdom, or hope. Maybe we’ll find sustenance, as God feeds our spirits in encounter with him through the door of that icon. Maybe we’ll find the direction that we so desperately need.

It’s worth taking the time to find and sit with an icon in whatever form that might take this week, because God who loves us wholly and uniquely wants to come to us where we are, as we are, in whatever way God can. He wants us to open a window or a door and as Jesus promises in the Book of Revelation (this is from the Amplified translation),

Behold, I stand at the door [of the church] and continually knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him (restore him), and he with Me.

Ah friend, don’t you love that. God is continually knocking. He wants to be with us and eat with us and restore us. Praying with an icon is just one way to open the door and let Him in.

Thanks so much for listening today, friend. If you need me, you can find me on Instagram @kerrycampbellwrites or on my blog at mylittleepiphanies.com. Thanks so much for rating, reviewing, subscribing and most importantly, sharing this podcast with a friend.  That really makes a difference in growing our community, so thanks. If you’d like to support this podcast financially, there’s a way for you to do that in the show notes, along with lots of resources related to today’s episode, so do check all of that out, but before we go, let’s pray together.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.

God, it’s been said that the eye is the window to the soul. Help us to set our gaze on good and holy things, and as we do, use our encounters to restore, help, encourage, and guide us. Thank you for all the makers of good, true, and beautiful things including icons, and this week, we pray for us and our dear ones, too, that we would open a new door and experience your kind presence with us.  

In the name of Jesus we pray, amen.

Thanks so much for listening today, friend, and I’ll see you next time.

Show Notes

This week we will look at religious icons – what they are, how to pray with them, and how to avoid making an icon into an idol. 

If you’d like to connect with me, find me on Instagram or on my blog.  If you’d like to help support this podcast financially, there’s now a way to do just that, and thank you – visit me on my page at buymeacoffee.com! Thanks as always for sharing, subscribing, rating, and reviewing, as this helps our community to grow!

Here are some resources I hope will help you to engage with this week’s topic in a deeper way for yourself:

1. Article: An Introduction to Iconography and iconographic analysis, by Dr. Lauren Kilroy Ewbank at smarthistory.org

2. Visual prayers by artist Scott Erickson

3. Modern icons by artist Gracie Morbitzer

4. Article: How to Pray with Icons – A Brief Guide, by Philip Kosloski at Aleteia

5. Activity: Make an ofrenda with images of loved ones who have passed and pray for them during the month of November.

6. Search: St. Joan of Arc icons (check these out!)

7. Article: The Importance of Religious Icons in Christian Faith, from the Art of the Icon blog

8. Collection: Icons by artist Cecilia Lawrence

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