Contradictions in the Theology of Icons

While a foundational ideology of the icon is that matter and created things have potential to become sacred, some of the ideology actually implies that the physical world is a lower reality. Calian suggests that the icon seeks to convey a structure of ideas – a picture of the divine world order – a picture of how things are in their true state – in the eyes of God – and not as they appear.146 This implies that the way things appear (the material and physical) is just an image of reality. This is a Platonic idea that seems to be inconsistent with Orthodox theology. A further application of this thought might result in the conclusion that the reality of Christ was not evident in his physical body. His reality was as he appeared but his appearance was merely some kind of shadow of his reality. This appears in contradiction to other Orthodox teaching on the icon, which is very material and incarnational.

The physical characteristics of those portrayed in icons also reflect this problem. The persons in icons have a small mouth – teaching that the saint has no thought for his own life or what he may eat or drink, but seeks first the kingdom of God.147 According to Ouspensky, the role of the icon is not to bring us closer to what we see in nature (eyes, nose, mouth, ears, etc.) but to emphasize the absence from this world.148 Limouris suggests that the icon, according to OC thought, is to represent a plane above the physical – the spiritual “…which constitutes the highest truth.”149

146 Calian, 1968, p. 131.
147 Coniaris, 1982, p. 175.
148 Ouspensky, 1992, p. 178.
149 Limouris, 1990, p. 100.

The implication is that the physical (material) has less importance than the spiritual. It seems that this violates the idea of kenosis and the redeeming of creation. To relegate all human desire to the evils of the flesh seems in contradiction to the idea of the possibility of the redemption of creation. It seems highly possible that this reflects a problem of the acceptance of the physical as good. In light of many of the defenses of icons in the first millennium, this seems like a contradiction. The primary defense for icons includes the belief in the actual, physical incarnation of Christ. A reasonable conclusion from this is that the physical Christ had healthy, appropriate, physical desires and pleasures. Certainly we see examples of this in the Gospels. In fact, Christ participated in the joys of eating and drinking to the point that he was accused of being a glutton and drunkard (Matt. 11:19). Therefore, it seems unfair to portray Christ and others in icons as being free from such wholesome physical desires and pleasures. Impassionate portrayals of Christ and others seem to downplay the humanity of Christ. This singular emphasis on transfiguration seems somewhat unbalanced.