Steven Bigham

1. Introduction

In the Orthodox Church, sacred art is not a matter of individual taste or style, but a dogmatic matter having to do with the very heart of the Christian faith. It is an expression in visible, artistic forms of the dogmatic basis of the Church herself. Therefore, the Church is very concerned about how well iconography reflects her basic beliefs: she should be able to see her faith reflected in her art. If the faith is not reflected, or only poorly reflected, then we can assume that there is something wrong with the art or that false assumptions about the faith are being made.

The doctrines of St. Gregory Palamas are also dogmatic matters for the Orthodox Church; we cannot be Orthodox and reject the fourteenth-century conciliar decisions on the matter of essence and energies. It follows logically, then, that this doctrine should somehow be reflected in the Church’s iconography. In this study, I propose to investigate the Palamite doctrine of essence and energies along with its manifestation in Church art. I will first set out the doctrine itself and then apply it generally and specifically to icons.

2. The Doctrine of Essence and Energies

God who created all things is He who in His very being, His essence, is beyond all knowledge and is transcendent to, and untouched by, any created thing. The essence of God means that which He is in Himself, which makes Him God and not an angel, for example. In His essence, He is radically different from the created order; therefore, one of the fundamentals in theology affirms the impassable gulf between God, the Uncreated, and the created universe.

Though we cannot know or touch God in His essence, we do believe that He touches us; He makes Himself known, knowable, and accessible to us in the created order by means of His energies. The natural energies of God are God Himself; they come from His essence but are not the essence itself. The energies are not created powers either. They radiate, however, from the essence as rays from the sun or radioactivity from uranium, thus creating, sustaining, and sanctifying all things. By these energies, God reveals Himself to us as Trinity so that the three Persons sharing the same hidden, divine essence also radiate the energies. We are able, therefore, to truly know and participate in God Himself by being bathed in His energies. We become “radioactive, magnetized ” as it were, to the degree that we allow God to penetrate, transform, and transfigure us with His energies.

Salvation is defined as the progressive establishment, in us individually, in the Church collectively, of the new, transfigured humanity of Christ. The process and the goal are called deification, the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, the establishment of the Kingdom of God. The new creation in Christ is the Kingdom which is inaugurated in the Church and will be completed on the Day of the Lord, the Eighth Day, at the end of time. This new creation is the resurrected and renewed humanity in the transfigured cosmos, the New Jerusalem spoken about in Revelation.

One of the principal forms in which the energies of God are manifested is in the uncreated Light, the Light of the Transfiguration of Christ. Since the salvation process, the transfiguring of man, is accomplished in the total man (mind, heart, spirit, emotions, body), all aspects of him are affected by deification; it is, therefore, the belief of the Church that transfigured human beings, if God wills, can see the uncreated Light. This vision is the seeing of a real, though non-material, Light; it is not simply a metaphorical, intellectual, or symbolic phenomenon. The seeing is real also because the whole man, including the physical eyes, is transfigured and transported into the New Day, into the heavenly Jerusalem, where all things are made new. The uncreated Light which shone on Mt. Tabor in Christ’s Transfiguration is God manifesting Himself in His energies. As He grants, to the degree we are able to receive it, we may be caught up in this heavenly vision and so see, and manifest ourselves, the transfiguring power of God which works for the building up of the Kingdom here on earth.

3. General Principles

Before we see how this doctrine manifests itself in iconography, we must take a look at the general purpose of icons in the Church. The first thing we must get out of our minds is that icons are simply decorations used to beautify the Church. Secondly, they are not simply pedagogical helps in teaching the truths of the faith: What the Bible teaches in words, the pictures in Church teach in art. Icons do in fact serve these two purposes, but such is not their principal reason for being. The Church uses icons primarily to portray the New Creation, the transformed cosmos, the Kingdom of God come in its final fulness. Icons are not meant to portray things, people, and events as they appear in the world as we know it. Our present world is one dominated by sin, corruption, and death; things happen here that are not a part of the original or the restored creation. Although there is a connection, a continuity between our present state and the new humanity of the Kingdom, the same laws and conditions are not at all operative.

Notice the difference between the so-called natural, human condition of the apostles and the condition of Jesus’s humanity after the Resurrection: they are similar but different. We get a glimpse of restored humanity in the scenes of interaction between the resurrected Jesus and the apostles. Icons are meant to depict the new world of the resurrection, humanity as it will be, not as it is now:

The whole content of Orthodox iconography . . . concerns . . . the new heaven and the new earth of Christ’s redemptive work, the man and the world of regeneration. It is not concerned with the “old,” the “natural,” the “transient.” That is to say, Orthodox iconography represents the world regenerated by divine Grace, the world where the unsetting light of God dominates.1

The primary, biblical text describing the new world is found in St. John’s vision in Revelation:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; the first heaven and the first earth had disappeared. . . I saw the holy city and the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven. . . Here God lives among men. . . He will wipe away all tears . . . there will be no more death, and no more mourning or sadness: Now I am making the whole creation new. . .(Rv 21:1-5, Jerusalem Bible.)

In the spirit, he took me to the top of an enormous, high mountain and showed me Jerusalem, the holy city. . .It had all the radiant glory of God and glittered like some jewel of crystal clear diamond. . . (Rv 21:10-12)

…and the city did not need the sun or the moon for light since it was lit by the radiant glory of God and the Lamb was a lighted torch for it. The pagan nations will live by its light. . . The gates of it will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. . . (Rv 21:23-26) It will never be night again and they will not need lamplight or sunlight because the Lord will be shining on them. (Rv 22:5)

The image of a non-material light emanating from God is also present in the creation story: “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” Although it is not very clear what kind of light this was, created or untreated, it is definitely not natural light coming from heavenly bodies since these were not created until the fourth day, perhaps energy in general. The strange character of this light is underlined by the distinction between “day and night” and “morning and evening.” Before there were natural light sources (sun, stars, and moon), there was something called “day” which was the presence of this primordial light; there was also something called “night,” its absence. What is of God, then, is only light and day; darkness and night are what is left, nothingness:

According to the biblical story of the creation, in the beginning “Evening came and morning came: the first day.” The six-day creation story, the hexameron, does not know “night.” Darkness and night are not created by God. For the moment, night is only a sign of non-existence, the abstract nothingness which is “separated” from being by its very nature. Morning and evening denote the succession of events; they designate the creative progression of things and only form “day” which is a dimension of pure light. The opposite of “day,” that is “night,” is not yet the effective power of darkness. According to the meaning given to it in John’s gospel, night only appears with the fall.2

So what we have here in these two biblical passages is a linking of the mysterious light of the first day of creation with that of the last day of the recreation. We find ourselves in the middle living by the natural light of the heavenly sources but looking forward to the day when that light will be replaced by the creating and recreating Light of God.3

It is quite easy now to move to the concrete realm icons where we notice that one of the basic principles of this art is that no natural light source is depicted. Such light is excluded, unnecessary; as in the New Jerusalem and at the creation, the Lord Himself, or the Lord shining in His transfigured saints, is the Light. There are no shadows painted either, as they would indicate the direction of a light source. Here is another indication of the different character of iconic light: “Icons depicting events which took place in the daytime are no brighter than those showing us events which took place at night. The Last Supper and the prayer in Gethsemane are no darker than the Lord with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, the Resurrection or Pentecost.4

Some would say that there is here only an accidental parallel of light symbolism between the special new light of the Holy City and the lack of natural light sources in icons. We maintain, however, that the divine energy manifested as uncreated Light, dogmatically defined in the 14th century, is the same Light spoken of in Revelation and which, in an artistic mode, illumines the icons of the Church. Since icons portray the new creation where the uncreated Light of God illumines all, they must necessarily exclude the light sources of our fallen world since they have no place in the Kingdom.

So we must understand that the presence of divine energies as Light in icons is fundamental to understanding this art form. The doctrine of this Light permeates all icons; it is iconography’s foundational principle. Even if there were no other indication of the presence of this doctrine in icons, the understanding that they portray the Kingdom in its fulness would be enough to establish the doctrine’s importance for iconography.

We must also understand that the 14th-century councils did not create a new doctrine: this is not the function of any dogmatic decision. Rather, they codified and gave words to what was the unexpressed and assumed faith of the Church from the beginning. The councils excluded once and for all any merely symbolic meaning of the references in Scripture and the Fathers to this Light, if we take symbolic to mean not real but metaphorical. Icons were painted in their present canonical manner long before the doctrinal background was set out in words. The Light referred to is a real manifestation of God Himself in His energies, in His transforming, renewing, and transfiguring work of redemption.

Another basic principle which underlies faithful Church art and which is related to the Palamite doctrine is the double nature of the uncreated Light. It is 1) a thing seen because we see light as it shines in darkness; it is also 2) a medium since it allows other things to be seen. Depending on many physical factors such as quality, intensity, color, source, type, etc., the objects we see will appear different under varying light conditions. Different kinds of light can actually determine the nature of the objects seen in that light. We find the same effect on the level of the uncreated Light. Since we believe that salvation is the transformation of the whole person into the deified humanity of Christ, all our senses, among them our sight, are affected. So, as we are more and more transfigured, our sight will also be transformed so that we can see not only the Light of Tabor, if God so wills, but also ordinary things in a different light. What, to ordinary and untransfigured eyes, may be a human derelict, will be, to transfigured eyes, an icon of God as much in need of restoration as the viewer himself.

Paul Evdokimov summarizes the point this way:

The Taboric light is not only the object of the vision, but it is also its condition: “Whoever participates in the divine energies . . . in a sense becomes light himself. He is united to light, and with the light, he sees what remains hidden to those who do not have this grace. He thus goes beyond the physical senses and everything that is known [by the human mind] . . . 5

The implication for contemplating icons is clear. For those who have untransfigured, “natural” eyes, who do not have eyes to see, icons will have little meaning. Such persons will see a picture about a religious subject that may look like a poorly drawn cartoon. Even more sophisticated eyes, the artistically trained eyes of an art critic, for example, not filled with the transforming Light of Christ, will see only an example of Byzantine or Russian religious art of a particular era manifesting certain stylistic characteristics, etc., etc. Such a critic will see all the exterior aspects, and not really see at all; he will miss the inner meaning completely. In fact, he may even be quite talented in technically reproducing icons for sale, but at the same time be an unbeliever. For those who have eyes to see, an icon is a window on eternity, a locus of communion with the transfigured persons depicted. As the persons themselves radiated the divine energies when alive on earth, and as do their relics now, so their icons are also points of radiation whereby we can have communion with them. Both media and objects, the divine energies have transformed a material painting into a vision that transcends the earthly, unrecreated cosmos, transporting us into the New Heaven and the New Earth. So, again, the doctrine defined in the 14th century is quite relevant to the definition of what an icon does, as well as of what it shows. Without Palamite theology standing behind Church art, our understanding of icons and their use would not be so clear or complete.

4. Specifics

Let us now turn to actual icons to see by what means the doctrine of essence-energies is depicted. We will be dealing only with the energies as uncreated Light since, according to the doctrine, the divine essence is unknown, indescribable and, therefore, unpaintable. However, I have heard a different interpretation which I mention as the belief of one iconographer relating to the essence-energies doctrine in icons: the gold background of icons represents the essence, and the gold that is seen on actual figures in the icons represents the energies shining through. I have not been able to confirm this idea in any sources.

Paul Evdokimov, however, gives another interpretation:

Even in technical terms, the icon’s golden background is called “light” and the artistic method is called “progressive enlightenment.” At the beginning of his work, the iconographer covers the face with a dark color. Then he puts on a brighter color obtained by adding some yellow ocher to the previous mixture. In effect, he adds light. This procedure of adding brighter and brighter colors on top of each other is repeated many times. Thus the progressive appearance of a human face on the icons follows a parallel progression which produces in living persons an increase of light, a greater degree of transfiguration.6

Evdokimov also says that since the energies are visible icons of the invisible essence, we can treat any representation of the energies as an iconic depiction of the essence.7 As the Son is the visible image of the invisible Father so an icon of the Son is an icon of the Father, though not a direct depiction of the Father, an impossible thing; what we have is an icon of an icon.

The icon of the Transfiguration has a special place in Orthodox art and theology. It is the depiction of this event which the Orthodox use as an image of the transfiguring process itself. Since on this icon we see Christ bathed, shining in the uncreated Light, the breaking forth of the light and energies of the age to come, we need to study it carefully.

Its importance is shown by its use in the initiation of an iconographer into his art. His eyes must be transfigured to see the transfigured world;

[…] the iconographer can then paint the transfiguration, an image of the world to come: In former times, every iconographer-monk began his ‘divine art’ by painting the icon of the Transfiguration. This living and direct initiation taught him, above all, that the icon is painted not so much with colors as with the Taboric light.8

On the icon of the Transfiguration, we see Christ on the mountain in the center of a group of circles of blue-white light, called a mandorla; sometimes other colors are used. This mandorla is also seen in the icons of the Dormition, the Ascension, and the Descent into Hell. Not all icons of Christ, however, have mandorlas; they usually appear only when some spectacular breakthrough of the divine Light is represented. The mandorla is the iconic representation of the uncreated Light. On the Transfiguration icon, the uncreated Light is shining on the three disciples. In some icons, rays are shown descending onto them, emphasizing that they beheld the Light individually. The troparion of this feast states that the disciples “beheld the Light as far as they were able to see it,” thus indicating the various levels of their spiritual progress. Sometimes there is a star superimposed on the mandorla which represents the luminous cloud, another symbol of the Light; this cloud descended on the mountain and on Christ and is a sign of the Holy Spirit.

In the icon of Theophany, a ray is shown coming down from a partial semi-circle at the top of the icon, usually with a dove in the middle of the ray, representing the Holy Spirit. The single ray then breaks into three and descends on Christ. We often see this partial circle in icons of a less spectacular, divine manifestation. The same design is seen in the Nativity icon, but with a star in the place of the dove. In the following text by Evdokimov, we have the only written reference I have found to confirm, at least partially, the oral testimony referred to above concerning the representability of the divine essence:

The Christmas and Epiphany icons show the same three-rayed light; on the Epiphany icon, this indicates the ethereal presence of the dove, a presence that is guessed at rather than seen. In the Christmas icon, the star of Bethlehem shines out of the sacred triangle inscribed in the divine sphere. . . A single ray comes out of the upper triangle and signifies the one essence of God, but as it comes out of the star, the ray divides into three so as to indicate the participation of the three persons in the economy of salvation.

Ouspensky offers a different, vaguer opinion:

In accordance with the gospel text cited above, in the upper part of the icon, there is a segment of a circle symbolizing the open heavens. . . This segment of a circle signifies the presence of God which sometimes is emphasized still more by a hand, blessing. Thence are shed upon the Savior rays of light. […] This ray connects the star with part of the sphere which goes beyond the limits of the icon—a symbolic representation of the heavenly world.10

If the circle represents the presence of God, then it is certain that it represents the energies because God is only present in this world in His energies and not in His essence.

For dogmatic reasons, I tend to agree with Ouspensky and Lossky and not to identify the partial circle with the essence, which is uncircumscribable and unknowable. Even though the circle is appropriately black, symbolizing the divine darkness, black has still another meaning in icons: death, sin, nothingness. Such a two-fold definition of darkness fits in quite well, however, with the opinion of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, who spoke about two darknesses. For Dionysius, there is, on the one hand, the darkness symbolizing absolute nothingness out of which we were created and toward which we slip as we sin and die and, on the other hand, the super-essential darkness above all light, where God dwells in His unknowable essence. In fact, this second “darkness” is really the result of an overabundance of light, like that causing St. Paul’s blindness on the road to Damascus. It is also appropriate that the two darknesses, one due to a lack of light and the other due to too much light, are found at the top and bottom sections of icons. The upper one is the circle representing the divine darkness, and the lower one in holes, caves, and dark rivers, is the absolute nothingness. In between the two is the created world ever moving away from absolute nothingness toward the full being of the super-essential darkness. Such an interpretation, at least, fits the iconographic layout, but the dogma of the Church, as opposed to Dionysius’s opinions, seems to speak against any direct iconic representations of the unknown essence.

Other ways of representing the divine energies are seen on the icon of Pentecost, the Descent of the Holy Spirit: here the tongues of fire form the half-circle. Perhaps the tongues are right on the heads of each apostle to indicate, as the doctrine states, that although there is only one “kind” of energy, so to speak, it is distributed and multiplied for the sustaining and perfecting of the creation. As “there is one Spirit but many gifts,” so there is one energy causing multiple effects in the creation; that is why the word energy is often used in the plural.

We can take notice of a phenomenon in many icons which shows people and objects giving off a glow as though they are illuminated from inside; according to the doctrine, of course, they do radiate the energies from inside. Since there is no natural light source to cause reflections and shadows, the light must come from within. The rocks and iconic mountains also appear to glow; people’s clothing shows signs of being on fire, radioactive. Such phenomena indicate that all of nature (man, rocks, plants, everything) is to be transfigured in the uncreated Light.

A word needs to be said about halos. Since there are only two physical dimensions in icons, halos appear as circles around the heads of saints, but in fact they represent spheres since the Light shines forth from the person’s whole body. Halos are not simply flat plates set on top of the saints’ heads as is sometimes shown in Western religious art. Such halos are signs of holiness but not necessarily connected with any doctrine of an uncreated Light: “The halos which encircle the heads of the saints on their icons are not simply distinctive signs of their holiness but the shining forth of their bodies’ luminosity.”11 Orthodox halos are always circular, not oval which would indicate a third dimensional plane. Three dimensions, except in bas‑relief, are rare; they are too intimately tied to our own world. It is more difficult for three dimensions than for two to depict the transcendence of this world and to manifest the mystery of the Kingdom.

There does not seem to be any consistent practice regarding halos; sometimes they are not present when we would expect them. This lack of consistency is especially present in reference to Old Testament figures. It is interesting to note that Adam and Eve rarely have halos in the icon of the Descent into Hell. Why, on one side of this same icon, do David and Solomon have halos and not Moses on the other? There are cases of non-saints, such as emperors and donors to specific churches, who are given halos. Some persons, living at the time of the paintings, have even been shown with square halos to distinguish them from dead saints.12

Duplication and triplication of symbols also exist: some saints and especially Christ are shown with individual halos within a mandorla; there may also be a halo and a star within the mandorla. In the Pentecost icon, halos are sometimes combined with the tongues of fire; rays from the half-circle can also go with halos. As stated above, there does not seem to be any clear-cut system for deciding who should get a halo or with what other symbols it can be combined.

5. Conclusion

We have seen that there are both general principles and specific techniques which set forth the Church’s dogmatic belief about the uncreated energies and the unknowable essence of God. Throughout the history of the Church, various ages have more or less adequately expressed this belief in art, and we know that in certain periods the dogmatic vision was practically lost. The Church’s art became a servile imitation of Western art using foreign models, techniques, and theory. Though the vision of the uncreated Light was obscured during these long years, the joyous renaissance of proper Orthodox theology and its expression in canonical iconography in our time shows that the vision, though darkened and dimmed, was not extinguished.

1Constantine Kalokyris, The Essence of Orthodox Iconography, Brookline, Mass., Holy Cross School of Theology, Hellenic College, 1971, p. 24.

2Paul Evdokimov, The Art of the Icon :A Theology of Beauty, Redondo Beach, CA, Oakwood, 1990, pp. 5-6.

3Archm. Vasileios, Hymn of Entry, Crestwood, NY, St. Vladimir’s, 1984, pp. 85-86.

4Evdokimov, p. 233, quoting St. Gregory Palamas, « Homily on the Presentation of the Holy Virgin in the Temple, » Sem. Kond., VII, p. 138.

5Ibid., pp. 186-187.

6Ibid., p. 234.

7Ibid., p. 299.

8Ibid., p. 237.

9Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, Crestwood, NY, St. Vladimir’s, 1982, p. 164.

10Ibid., p. 159.

11Evdokimov, pp. 187-188.

12André Grabar, Byzantine Painting, New York, Rizzoli, 1979, pp. 50-51 and pp. 78-79.

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