Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 18th May 2014
18 May 2014 at 10:00 am
The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence
Today I shall be speaking about St Luke, one of the four gospel writers who, according to tradition, was also an artist and a ‘writer’ of icons. St Luke is known as a fellow worker with St Paul, an evangelist (the author of the gospel that bears his name and the Acts of the Apostles), and a physician. For those interested in icons, St Luke is revered as the first (according to tradition) to write an icon of the Blessed Mother. In iconography, the verb ‘to write’ is preferred ‘to paint’ because an icon is seen very much as visual theology.
In chapter 1, verse 2, of his gospel, Luke tells that his sources were some of the very people who were ‘eyewitnesses and servants of the word…’. Luke is the only one of the evangelists who sets out a full and in-depth account of the annunciation and incarnation to Mary as well as her visit to her cousin Elizabeth. Through his account of the good news Luke achieves what the iconographer attempts to do visually through the discipline and skill of writing an icon. Luke brings the reader of his writings into a direct encounter with the living Christ.
We shouldn’t really think of icons as ‘paintings’. The Orthodox Church teaches us that when we look at an icon we’re not just looking at some painting of a saint, Mary, or Christ himself. Rather when we look at an icon we’re looking at the saint, or Mary, or our Lord. Or indeed, when we are before an icon it is the saint or Mary or our Lord who is gazing upon us. For this reason, perspectives are so often reversed in iconography. That’s why icons can, on the surface, appear to be rather simplistic, but of course they are anything but simplistic and naïve.
But also, icons can help us in our approach to the gospels. They can help train our spiritual sight by allowing the gospels to gaze upon us, rather than the other way around. Time and again, throughout history, we’ve seen the temptation to read the gospels from our own perspective and vantage point, rather than letting the gospels envelop us into their depth and horizon. In the gospels we encounter the very face of Christ gazing upon us, Christ who died on the cross and was buried, and Christ resurrected in his full glory! St Luke is called the patron saint of painters due to the tradition of his writing an icon of the Blessed Mother.
In his gospel (and in Acts) we’re presented with a verbal icon of Christ, and in this way icons can help us delve deeply into an ongoing encounter with the living Christ.
Both scriptures and icons share the work of revealing the risen Christ to the world—mediums through which God reveals himself to us. The picture of the Iveron Icon that we have before us this morning helps us, in a special way, to enter this encounter with the living Christ. Thomas Merton explains how icons can be seen as an act of witness: ‘What one sees in prayer before an icon is not an external representation of a historical person but an interior presence in light, which is the glory of the transfigured Christ, the experience of which is transmitted in faith from generation to generation...’
So, how should we approach an icon, how can we learn from it, how do we engage spiritually with it? One of the most fruitful learning experiences is to reflect upon the icon while you engage with the words of the hymns and the readings that are set for the day. Here the icon comes alive. With our eyes we see, and with our ears we hear, and with our lips we pray: the reality that the icon is giving becomes known to us. This is perhaps the most direct way to use an icon in worship.
But a bit of technical background is also useful: white is the colour that represents eternal life and purity. Blue represents celestial beings, God’s dwelling place, the sky. Red symbolizes activity, just as in Hebrew thought it represents life. Indeed red can also depict health, fire, and the Last Judgment. Purple is the symbol of royalty, wealth, power, and priestly dignity. Green represents nature and vegetation, and therefore representative of growth and fertility. In many icons it is also used for the robes of martyrs and prophets. Brown represents density and lack of radiance. It is also used as a symbol of poverty and renunciation for the dark garments of the religious and ascetics. Black represents absence of life. Great Schema monks wear black garments, as a symbol of their renunciation of all that is material. Yellow represents sadness, and is used in the icon of the Saviour being placed in the tomb. In Deuteronomy it is mentioned as a sign of misfortune, bad harvest, and blight.
The Orthodox Church also teaches us that an icon is a visual expression of a spiritual reality, that through the icon, an everlasting and unchanging reality speaks without words. In this sense an icon can positively help us grow in spiritual understanding. But if we misunderstand this idea (if we approach an icon incorrectly) it probably won’t open itself to us, but instead seem rather strange and silent.
The Seventh Ecumenical Council of Nicaea AD 787 records: ‘The more a person contemplates the icons, the more they will be reminded of what they represent, the more they will be inclined to venerate them by kissing them, prostrating themselves, without, however, evincing towards them the true adoration which belongs to God alone, yet they are to be offered incense and lights, as are the Holy Cross and the Holy Gospels … Whoever venerates an icon, venerates the person it represents.’
Christian tradition states that St Luke was the first icon painter, although in the Early Middle Ages he was thought to have been only one of several New Testament figures who practised as an artist. He is said to have painted pictures of the Virgin Mary and Child, in particular the (now lost) Hodegetria image from Constantinople . The total number of icons claiming to have been painted by Luke is said to have reached 600 during the Middle Ages, including the image that we have before us this morning. Whether he actually painted it or not, is in many ways secondary to the truth it conveys. At the end of the day, there’s not much sentimentality or drama in an icon. Usually an icon represents biblical events and biblical characters. Interestingly, faces are always devoid of their feelings, but at the same time they point us towards virtues such as: purity, patience, forgiveness, compassion, and love.
The silence of an icon is a silence that speaks: it is the silence of Christ on the cross, the silence of the Virgin, the silence of the transfiguration, the silence of the resurrection.