Icons for Contemplation

Icon of John the Baptist – Egg Tempera and 24 k gold on wood by Shelli Joye – 14″ x 16″

The term icon stems from the Greek word eikon, which can be translated as image. In contemporary usage, the word is most readily found associated with a multitude of tiny graphical images on computer displays, and used as short-hand to select computer files or functions of various types. Traditionally however, icons are recognized within Orthodox Christian churches as images of a religious nature, painted with great care and reverence using egg tempera prepared from natural minerals and clays on flat wooden panels. In this context, the icon is revered as a holy object that not only acts as a visual reminder of various figures and scenes from the Bible, but also can function as numinous doorways, gates, or portals into the transcendental mysteries of the images they portray.

While at first glance icons appear similar to paintings arising from the creative expressions of the artist, the icon should not be associated with the secular world of art and aesthetics, but, as the iconographer Solrunn Nes has written:

It refers to a spiritual dimension and forms part of a concrete, religious practice. . . Among Orthodox Christians the icon also has a natural function as a private devotional image.

Thus the icons should not be confused with a painting. It does not act as a window through which we might view the visible world through the eyes of an artist. Rather, an icon is above all a metaphysical tool of great power, offering the potential to link the contemplative to an omnipresent yet invisible world, providing a portal to eternity, a bridge to a mystical but very real locus beyond space and time. Here the American philosopher Jacob Needleman describes a common experience encountered during the viewing of an icon:

If one makes the effort to ‘just look’ at icons, one may undergo a fleeting, but extraordinary experience. From trying to see the icon, one may suddenly sense that one is seen by it. For a moment, we are under the regard of a greater presence. It is for this reason that icons are regarded as holy mystical instruments or tools, each having a life of its own, bridging our everyday space-time world with light-filled, numinously transcendent dimensions. Our modern scientific culture has been unsympathetic to such mystical tools, tending to relegate them to the margins of our culture or attacking them as heretical. Nevertheless, the origins of the icon are essentially mystical, and harken back millennia, perhaps even to the famous Paleolithic images painted more than 17,000 years ago in caves discovered at Lascaux and Altamira. Iconic images have been found in ancient tombs in Egypt in amazing states of preservation, though originally painted on wood using egg tempera.