Rashid and Inessa Azbuhanov, a Russian couple, are in my opinion, some of the most impressive icon carvers alive.  With the very purpose of revivifying the art of icon carving, they create works of jaw-dropping beauty, almost like wooden lace, with intricate patterns carved into elegant folds of clothing.  

They are said to take up to two months to create a single icon, and their work is so expensive, it is only accessible to the very elite of society.  Their pieces trickle into the collections of the Pope of Rome, the Patriarch of Moscow, the President and Prime-Minister of Russia as well as several European royal families.  Although it is sad to see their work go to hidden rooms of private collections, they no less set the bar for the rest of us, and they set it very high indeed. 


Saint-John The Theologian
Virgin Eleusius
St-Boris and Gleb

“Symbolism” is a term that has become quite diluted in the past 500 years. Since the middle ages, the notion of the symbol has undergone a deep mutation which is informed by immeasurable changes within our experience of knowledge and meaning.  Symbolism has been progressively reduced from informing our very cosmological world view, to now being a form of “signifying”, like the little man on the door of the lavatory or a traffic sign with its shapes and color.  There is an exteriority, a non-participation between the symbol and the signified meaning.  So for example, when Reformers said that the Eucharistic bread “symbolized” the body of Christ, they were implying a separation between the two rather than a union of the two.  This vision of symbolism has not always been so, and one of the great thinkers of the early Church, Saint-Maximos the Confessor, will help us find that more ancient meaning.

Looking at the word « symbol », one can already gather what the original understanding was.  The Greek word symbol means a « meeting » or « gathering ». We call a “symbol of faith” that which is a bringing together of the essential elements of what we believe. The most outstanding use of the notion of « symbol » in the new testament, very much in the sense we will be looking at, appears in Luke 2:19:  « Mary kept all these things, and pondered (from « sumballo », « gathered » might be another possible translation) them in her heart ».  We will in fact see that “to gather in the heart” is one of the most adequate definitions of symbolism we could come up with.

A symbol in the true sense of the word is not a « substitution » for something, a sign merely pointing to something else through resemblance or through an arbitrary consensus.  A symbol, properly understood, is only a sign pointing to something, a principle, in the sense that it concentrates that principle in a direct way, makes it manifest.   And a symbol, being a concentration and manifestation is also a participation in the thing it symbolizes.  The Church is a symbol of Christ in the sense that Christ is the Principle (he is the head, kephale, in Greek) and the Church is his Body (In fact the word “church” or: “ekklesia” means nothing else than a meeting) and so it is both a manifestation or “condensation” of and a participation in the head.  In this understanding,  symbolism is not opposed to realism, rather it is realism itself.  Saint Maximos tells us“…for he who starting from the spiritual world sees appear the visible world or else who sees appear symbolically the contour of spiritual things freeing themselves from visible things... that one does not consider anything of what is visible as impure, because he does not find any irreconcilable contradiction with the ideas of things. [1]”.

Ultimately, a symbol is the meeting place of two worlds, the meeting of the will of God with His creation. Saint-Paul tells us that «…since the creation of the world, (Gods) invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead… ».  The symbol is that place in created things where one can see the heavens, making what is on earth like what is in heaven.  That « place » is a theophany, it is seeing a glimpse of God working through creation. 

The “bringing together” that underpins the theophany is the very reconciliation in Christ of which saint-Paul speaks in 2Cor.5,  “...all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ…” for “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself…”.  Although in translations, the emphasis is often put on people, the text speaks of ALL THINGS for “if anyone (or anything) is in Christ, he (or it) is a new creation…”   This point of contact between creation and the divine of which we have been speaking is what is often known as the « divine spark », the logos by which that very created thing exists, and by grasping it one can seize that things ultimate meaning, its « simple nature », as well as its place in creation.  So what is a logos, what are logoï?  The logos is the quality of something which is simple and unified, its spiritual reason, bringing together specific modalities through a “communion” of what is eclectic and dispersed into something which is one.  The logos of something could be seen as the “essence” of that thing in God from all eternity.  Saint-Maximos explains that we are able to “understand how everything in the universe is separated one from another in an orderly manner in accordance with the logoi in which each thing consists by the ineffable One who holds and protects everything in accordance with unity.”[2] 

The person of Jesus Christ then is in fact the ultimate symbol, for in Him lies the very fullness of the concentration of meaning in a form, showing us God while revealing the very essence of Man.  He is the type of the Father and the archetype of Man, “reconciling all things” to the Father.  This mystery can be seen in the function and even in the form of the cross, which being the union of the vertical and the horizontal leads to that very point in its center where the symbol finds its source.  “The mystery of the Incarnation of the Logos contains in itself all the meanings of the enigmas and the symbols of the Scriptures, all the signification of creatures visible and invisible. He who knows the mystery of the cross and the tomb knows the logos of things; he who is initiated to the hidden signification to the resurrection knows the purpose for which God from the beginning created everything."[3]”.

The unification just explained is what we mean by symbolism.   Not surprisingly, this process in the created world, for saint-Maximos, happens in man, whos logos contains in itself all the logoï of the visible creation and must unite them in his own logos. He is “the laboratory in which everything is concentrated and in itself naturally mediates between the extremities of each division[4]”.  This communion is always a concentration, as when the radii of a circle are nearer to one another the closer they come to the center, finally converging into a single point.  Therefore man, by concentrating himself, that is by moving towards his own center (heart) also gathers within, though a process of analogy, all of creation, finally giving himself and all that is within him to God through an act of love.  Andrew Louth in his commentary on St-Maximos the Confessor gives a concise description of this process saying that “by ‘a way of life proper and fitting to the Saints’, the human person unites paradise and the oikoumenê to make one earth.  Then, by imitating by virtue the life of the angels, the human person unites heaven and earth.  Then, by being able to perceive the logoi of the created order, the distinction between the intelligible and the sensible falls away.  And finally, by uniting created nature with uncreated nature though love, the coinherence or interpenetration of God and the creation becomes apparent.[5] If it is through its analogy to man that creation participates in God, it is by man’s analogy to the Divine Logos, that he participates in the Divine.

That, my friends, is symbolism.

I was once told by an Orthodox Deacon who I admire very much, that if the Catholic believes Christ’s body is REAL in the eucharist, and if protestants believe it is a SYMBOL, the Orthodox believe  it is REAL because it is a SYMBOL.  I think that sums it up quite nicely.

[1] St-Maximos quoted in Balthazar, « Liturgie Cosmique », (my translation)  “…car celui qui partant du monde spirituel voit apparaître le monde visible ou encore qui voit apparaître symboliquement le contour des choses spirituelles se dégageant des choses apparentes…, celui-là ne considère rien de ce qui est visible comme impur, parce qu’il n’y découvre aucune contraditction inconciliable avec les idées des choses. p.235

[2] St-Maximos quoted in Andrew Louth,  Saint-Maximos The Confessor »p.113

[3] quoted in Balthazar, (my translation) "Le mystère de l’Incarnation du Verbe contient en soi tout le sens des enigmes et des symbols de l’Écriture, toute la signification des creatures visibles et intelligibles.  Celui qui connaît le mystère de la croix et du tombeau connaît la raison (logos) des choses; celui qui est initié à la signification cachée de la resurrection connaît le but pour lequel Dieu dès le commencement créa le tout" p.210

[4] quoted in Louth, p.73

[5] Andrew Louth, « St-Maximos The Confessor » p.4 

Just as wooden icons became more prevalent in later centuries of the Russian Orthodox Church, carved stone icons became quite common in the Byzantine world between the years 1000-1500.  Here are a few beautiful examples of those early stone icons.
Carved Byzantine icon of Saint-Michael in steatite.  The goldleaf adds a nice touch.  Maybe I should try it.  

Carved byzantine Icon of St-Nicholas in steatite. 

Carved byzantine icon of St-Demetrius in steatite. 

I began martial arts lessons with my son a few weeks ago.  When entering the class,  we have to bow as a sign of respect.  We then bow to the “master”, the flag, and have to bow before exiting the class.  It is striking to see so much bowing in a world where bowing, kneeling, prostration has all but been evacuated.

The act of prostration is a very powerful physical gesture which involves both body and mind -a gesture of making oneself low before something or someone as a sign of respect .  Only a century ago, it was not uncommon to bow, to curtsey (for ladies) or else to kneel in church.  Such practices were completely integrated in our culture as is still in Asian cultures.  All that is left today is an actor bowing at a curtain call. 

In the Bible also, bowing is commonplace.  One bows before the king, (1 Sam. 24:8, 25:23, 25:41, 2 Sam. 9:6, 16:4)  the altar (Jos. 7:6), angels (Gen. 19:1) to others in asking for forgiveness (prov.6:3) and to others in general (Gen.23:7, 23:12).     

It is not difficult to understand how a society of individualism, where community is breaking down, where all authority is seen as suspect, where the “rebel” is admired and where children do not respect their parents would have evacuated all forms of “lowering” oneself.  Are we not all equal?  Do we not all have the same rights? If so, then why should I bow?!

Yes, we bow out of respect and deference. Ultimately though, to bow is to be struck by awe, to see something greater than us at hand, feeling the need to become small, to give all room for that greater power.   To bow is to see how the infinite God is at work in the world around us, to suddenly see the divine image in my fellow man, to be overwhelmed by the sacred.  And so we can say that we bow both to the all-powerful God in absolute adoration, yet also to the vision of God in the world, to the new temple that is my brother or sister.  We also bow before things and places used by God to interact with his people, and so just as the Israelites bowed before the altar or the ark of the covenant, we bow before the cross, the scriptures, the altar and also to icons.  

Yet,  our own world, the world of self-sufficiency, refuses to bow.

If we refuse to bow because we don’t see why we should lower ourselves like that, why we should acknowledge that another is greater than us, then we are sadly missing out on a powerful tool for bringing  love for others  into our lives, a tool to experience the awe of the infinite moving in the finite. 

If we refuse to bow in a constant fear that we are in danger of idolatry, then we are missing the point entirely.  Instead of protecting ourselves from idolatry, we are ejecting the possibility of God working in this world, we are cutting the link between God and the world, a link that God had made eternal in the person of Jesus Christ.  That is, how is it possible that the coming of God into the world, the “reconciliation of all things” preached by Paul leads to an absence of the sacred?  Should not instead the sacred grow, multiply, appear in the most suprising places as a promise of the Kingdom of God? How could it be that the coming of God in the flesh makes creation even more suspect than before? Should it not be possible instead for the things of the flesh be made to participate in Christ as having already “resurrected with Christ”.

But bowing before images, though? Icons?  Well if one agrees that Christ is the visible image of the invisible God, making sight and the image a true vessel for the manifestation of God (as I have explained in a previous post),  then the answer is YES. Bowing before an image can be a great tool in spiritual growth.

And so let us bow, those who see the light appear in darkness.  Let us bow, so we can be filled with wonder at the Divine present all around us. 

One cannot make an image of the Divine.  That is clear.  In fact, in the Orthodox tradition this is strictly forbidden!   According to Orthodox canons, one should not make images of God our Father or even of his Holy Spirit.  But, as for His Son, as for the Logos, as says St-John of Damascus, the great defender of the Faith:

“...I worship Him clothed in the flesh... That flesh is divine, and endures after its assumption. Human nature was not lost in the Godhead, but just as the Word made flesh remained the Word, so flesh became the Word remaining flesh, becoming, rather, one with the Word through union.” Therefore I venture to draw an image of the invisible God, not as invisible, but as having become visible for our sakes through flesh and blood. I do not draw an image of the immortal Godhead. I paint the visible flesh of God.” (Source)

Christ’s flesh is made to partake in his Divinity through the Incarnation, giving credence to Job’s prophecy: “in my flesh shall I see God.”  And if before the coming of Christ, God's revelation came mostly through the hearing of God’s Word, a transformation appears  at the outset of John’s gospel.  The Word has become Flesh. From Word into Flesh, from Name to Face, from Spirit into Body, from Sound to Image:  It is the movement of the Incarnation itself, and in that movement, the nature of our relationship with Divinity has changed.  For if the Psalmist addressed God in saying “we praise your glorious name”, we now can say with confidence “we praise your glorious image”.

And this is not just a fancy, just a clever use of rhetoric, but cuts to the very core of our understanding of who Christ is, and what that means for us.  One of the reasons why the possibility of somehow seeing God in the Old Testament is so tentative, so frightening, so seemingly impossible, is because to see God “Face to Face” was in fact the highest spiritual attainment one could have.  There are a few instances in the Old Testament where a man is said to have seen God Face to Face despite the warnings in other places that this would result in death.   And these moments are seen like extraordinary, exceptional and even strangely contradictory. God seems to “speak” quite frequently in the Bible, but to see His Face is to know Him. “LORD spoke unto Moses face to face, as a man speaks unto his friend.”   

Although this may seem surprising at first,  but it is largely because the image is so powerful that it was proscribed, it is because the desire to “see God” is so strong in man that man makes idols.  The desire to see God “Face to Face” is not wrong, in fact I would dare say it is the reason why we were created!  But man now having lost this capacity to properly be the image of God he was meant to be, he searches everywhere for that Image and creates these false gods.   But we have seen the face of God!  We are called to see it every day in those around us, in the littlest ones even.  Why now should we not rejoice in his Image?  The image has become a mode of revelation. Why now should not the image enter our relation with God, participate in our praise and our worship of Him?