On Good Iconography

Hieromonk Seraphim Rose 1934-1982

If the authentic spirit of Orthodoxy is not transmitted to us like this, there is a temptation for us to be following “external wisdom,” the wisdom of this world. We will then, in coming to Orthodoxy, go after external things: good icons, beautiful Church services according to the Typicon, just the right kind of chanting, tithing, having beautiful churches…. All these things are wonderful and good, but we can approach them without placing first a warm, Christian heart and a struggle with ourselves whereby we are made humble. If we neglect this essential priority, then all these wonderful external things can, as the philosopher Vladimir Solovyev describes, be put in a museum of Orthodox antiquities—and the Antichrist will love this.

If you get all excited about having the right kind of icons and begin saying, “There’s an icon of the wrong style in your church! ” you must check yourself and be more careful, because you are again placing all your emphasis on something external. In fact, if there is a church with nothing but icons of the latest “approved” style, one might justifiably regard it with suspicion. There is a case (one of many) in which a church had old, original Russian icons—some good and some in rather poor taste, painted in a relatively new style—and a zealous person took them all out and put in new, “traditional” style paper icon prints. And what was the result? The people there lost contact with tradition, with the people who gave them Orthodoxy. They removed the original icons which believers had prayed before for centuries.

An icon is first of all something to be prayed before. This was once affirmed by Archbishop John (Maximovitch) who was the president of a San Francisco icon society dedicated to the restoration of old icons. One member, who was very zealous for the old icon style, wanted the Archbishop to make a decree in the diocese that only old style icons are to be allowed, or at least to make a decision that this was the officially approved position. In a way, this man’s intention seemed good. Archbishop John, however, told him, “I can pray in front of one kind and I can pray in front of another kind of icon.” The important thing is that we pray, not that we pride ourselves on having good icons. (Raising the Mind, Warming the Heart)