Dom Alex Echeandía, OSB: "This blog reflects on what many people ask about God and His image. In a way, it focuses on questions like: How should art depict the relationship between man and God? How can art best express eternal values? Can you, and should you, portray the face of Christ? For many centuries these were some of the questions which taxed the minds of the greatest artists of Western Christianity. For Eastern Christianity, the sacred icons make that connection between God and man in Christ, the perfect and ideal Image of God: Imago Dei."

The Creed Illustrated in Monreale: Italian bishops launch TV program on stunning cathedral

 The Italian bishops' conference have produced a twelve-part television series presenting the Creed from Sicily's Monreale cathedral, a 12th century church covered in rich mosaics which explain the faith, step by step. Join me here to hear and see what  Fr Innocenzo Gargano, Camaldolese monk, has to say. He really explains very clearly the spirit of the images in this magnificent place.

An initiative for the Year of Faith, “The Creed in the Mosaics of Monreale” presents the twelve articles of faith as they are found in Catholic Creed, or profession of faith. Enjoy!

XXIV Sunday of the Year C: Homily by Dom Alex Echeandía, OSB.


Homily by Dom Alex Echeandía, OSB             
Belmont Abbey, 15th September 2013

We should celebrate and rejoice because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found.

When we say that we have lost something, it can mean that we are deprived of what we possessed before, like our car keys, for instance. We can also lose weight. When someone wins, it implies that others lose; Germany lost the War; we can lose a fight or a race or a football game. Often it means being deprived of someone or something to which we are very much attached, like a wife, a husband, a son or daughter, a boy or girlfriend.

The Gospel of St Luke today shows us Jesus eating and drinking among tax collectors and sinners, among those who were rejected by society; their way of life, their behaviour had put them in the wrong. They were considered lost and were cut off from their roots. However, Jesus has something in mind. In order to help people to make sense of his attitude and actions towards these people, he tells three parables. First, there is the parable of the lost sheep, then that of the lost coin, and finally that of the lost son.  As we see in these three stories, a great joy comes when what was lost is found.

However, the stories are not about that which was lost but about the person who loses them: a shepherd, a woman and a father. The shepherd and the woman search with enthusiasm, energy and spirit till they finally find what they are looking for. Well, let us concentrate on the well-known story about the so called “prodigal son” because, unlike an animal or a coin, a son, as a human being, is closer to ourselves. Rather than focusing on the figure of the son, we need to focus on the human relationship, not only of the father with the younger son, but his relationship with the other son as well.

At the centre of this parable is the great concern and affection of the father, his readiness to forgive and to welcome his son back home. He is not happy because he found his lost son, but because his son found himself. After squandering all he had, after rejecting any family attachment, the son had to suffer the consequences of his actions. He thought he had achieved autonomy and independence in his desire to be a real man; and, at first, thought that it was necessary to leave his father's house to achieve maturity, but what he discovered was failure and nothingness, a poor life of selfishness and vanity, devoid of any meaning or joy. Moreover, by breaking off relations with his father and his family in order to follow his own desires, he had committed sin.

The story tells us that he came to his senses and decided to return to his Father's house. This illustrates what it means to be a repentant Christian: God is inviting him back home.

In the first reading Moses reminds God of the covenant he made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  The people of Israel are invited to return to God and to love him as they did long ago. The second reading shows God calling Paul to his service. Paul himself recognized how God was patient and merciful to him.  Certainly God is like that. He calls and He remembers, but he asks us now to remember as well and to come back home.

In the parable, the Father was moved with pity and ran towards his son whom he saw from afar.  God is all the time calling us home. God has the same attitude to the other brother who was angry, resenting his Father’s overabundant love and mercy for his younger son. In his anger, he also became lost and he cut himself off from the joy and happiness of his father's household. He became an alien in his own home. It says that the father “came out” to plead with him. He needed to come back home as well, remembering what his loving father said to him: “My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours.” The father did not give up inviting him because he wanted to have the two children united with him as one family.  Such is the love God shows us. He never gives up, even if we frequently give up seeking him in our daily lives, committing many infidelities and with many failings. However, God is persistent and, all the time, he wants to show his mercy and love to us.  Rather than giving us what we deserve, God shows compassion towards us, towards you and me; and also towards the older brother who is behaving badly.

This is what God is asking us today: to come home once again. It is not enough just to enjoy the banquet prepared by God all by ourselves, but we are asked to invite our brother who remains wilfully outside: we are all invited to this happy and joyful celebration. We are to be drawn, called and brought into unity. The state of our Christian family is marked by our enthusiasm for the sons’ return. We are given the task to call all others who ignore how much God loves them. As we begin this Home Mission Sunday for the Church in England and Wales, let us pray and support the work of evangelization of the people of God, our brothers and sisters in Christ who, for different reasons or situations have drifted away from the practice of their faith and don’t come to church frequently, those who feel estranged, who don’t feel at home. Let us announce to them the Good News, how important they are to God and how much-loved they are as members of Christ's body. Let us not be content with mere words: more important, let us show them by our example.

XXIII Sunday of the Year: Homily by Dom Alex Echeandía, OSB.

Homily by Dom Alex Echeandía, OSB             
Belmont Abbey, 08 September 2013

“Anyone who does not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”

When Jesus started his ministry, a large crowd of followers were attracted by him, full of admiration for the great signs he showed.  When Jesus called Peter and his brother Andrew, his first disciples, they were amazed by the amount of fish they got in that miraculous event. The other two important figures among the Apostles were James and John, who also at one point wanted to sit next to Jesus on his right and left, and probably their mother wanted to have a nice place in the kingdom as well, due to her children. Moreover, the rich man wanted to follow Jesus, that is to say, to become a Christian, as a kind of second label as well as enjoying his comfortable and secure life.   Indeed, there are well known passages in the Gospels where apparently quite ordinary people become disciples of Jesus because it was good to be with Him, to see the wonders he did and, in addition, to attain a privileged place in the kingdom that they could enjoy.

In today’s gospel it seems as if he wants to thin out the crowd, to put off those who were mere opportunity seekers. He started by telling them that they have to hate all those to whom they belonged, their entire family. Can you imagine if someone asks you, “What do I have to do to be a member of this parish”?, or better yet, “What do I have to do to be a Christian?” So I say, “Please turn to Luke 14.”

 So, why would Christ do that? Well, Jesus had come to a decisive point in his ministry. He put this process of becoming a disciple in a different and less romantic light because he expects his followers to be committed to him in such a way that they would reject all self-seeking and replace it with a disinterested love for others, for Christ’s sake. But he still goes further, saying that anyone who wants to be his disciple has to be prepared also to die, to be crucified as Jesus Himself will be crucified.  They had to prefer the will of God to any other more natural attachment. To love one’s mother, father, spouse, children and grandchildren certainly manifest the love of Christ Himself, but here we are called to prefer God, even to carry the cross and be crucified.  This is no easy and attractive way to be a disciple, but it is the only way.

So, what does it mean for us to follow Christ? What are the costs that we need to take into account? Today’s scripture is so challenging that, perhaps, it would help if we were to look at it in a new way.

It is not easy to follow Jesus and being detached from the ones you love, especially when they become an impediment to our following Him.  In other words, it is saying to us: “Don’t rush, think about it.” It is like planning to build a house or a tower. One needs to think about all aspects of the project, how much it is going to cost us to complete the plan.

To construct a Christian life is a more important and a more costing project than building a house.  So, think carefully what it implies to live that life.   Are you ready to pay what may be demanded of you, as the first apostles did?   After that first fishing experience, Peter never thought of dying on a cross like his Master. It never crossed James’ mind to be the first to die among the Apostles. It is what Paul in prison shows us in the second reading. He did not imagine that the encounter with Jesus in the light on the road to Damascus meant that he had to follow Christ even unto death.  So, Jesus is not asking for mere enthusiasm here, but for intelligence and realism and, above all, a generosity willing to give all. It implies commitment from the ones who genuinely want to be his disciples, as he found by the Sea of Galilee with Peter, James and John, and as he found in Paul on the road to Damascus.

The cost of being a Christian may be too high, and work may be too hard, because these words that Jesus addresses to us are harsh words to hear, but if we are going to be good disciples we need to act realistically about the situation in which we live, in order to build a life in Christ. This is the good news Christ brings. It is good news, because Jesus gives us an opportunity to do something great with our lives, to give our lives to something more important than ourselves. To turn our backs on cheap ways and avail ourselves of a costly grace, a grace full of meaning and depth. 

"Image and Icon" by Dom Alex Echeandía at Belmont Abbey (03)

Retreat on Icons

a)    Baptism
b)   Eucharist


   Early XIV century, Ohrid, Serbia

Composition of the icons for the Baptism of Christ developed between the third and sixth centuries and they have remained mainly consistent since then. Icons show the Lord Jesus appearing and revealing himself in public in a special way. Not just the Son, but the two other persons of the Trinity are manifested: one in a form of a dove and the other the voice that calls upon his son. Here the Holy Trinity is revealed, Christ is baptized and the origins of Christian baptism are discerned.

The Epiphany for the West is mainly focused on the visit of the Magi; while in the East, what is called “Theophany” or “Epiphany” relates to the Baptism of Christ. This separate celebration of Christ’s Baptism feast dates from the fourth century.[1] Before that it was united to the Nativity. This separate celebration was a reflection of the situation in the Church at the time.  In the fourth century, the Church was prepared to answer questions about the divinity of Christ raised by Arius from Alexandria (250-336 AC). Is Jesus divine?  Does this mean that he is God? “Of course”, we may say, but it was not certain in the first centuries of Christianity. Icons of Baptism reflect the teaching of the Church at the Council of Nicea in 325. 

Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity, God the Son Incarnate from the Virgin Mary. Thus, icons manifest in colours, lines and other elements the teaching of the Church at the councils, the central truth of our faith, like the Divine Maternity of Mary, Her Virginity and that Christ is the incarnate Son of God, truly God and truly Man united in one person.

The icon of the Baptism of Christ reproduces the gospel account. It also contains other elements taken from the liturgy and from other biblical texts. The implication of the Trinity, for example, at the beginning of Genesis: “Let there be light” is implied in the symbol of the ray of light at the centre of the icon.[2] It also recalls the column of light in the desert as God’s presence.  The Trinity is manifested in the icon without divisions. It is a unity.

Christ in the Jordan blessed the water in order that we may enter into a renewed life, a new creation. Christ immersed in the Jordan symbolized our own immersion in the waters of Baptism. Christian baptism follows Christ in the Jordan. Liturgical text and liturgical actions in the East accompany this event. Texts refer to Christ saving Adam by cleansing and enlightenment. He comes to slay the enemy hidden in the waters in order to deliver the world from his snares and give eternal life to mankind.[3] Dragons are frequently represented in this icon and in hymns derived from the Psalm 74:13 “You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the sea monsters on the waters.” Other texts show a sense of paradox like: The master baptized by the servant, the Source of joy baptized in the streams of the Jordan, the Invisible becoming visible at the Jordan.

In practice, the liturgical act is an extension of what Christ did at the Jordan. The waters were blessed and the life of his creation renewed. So, the day before Theophany, called Forefeast, the first blessing of the water is for the sacrament of Baptism and other uses in the Church. It takes place at the centre of the church. The second blessing of water takes place outside in the environment such as rivers and seas because they are related to nature for the use of everyday’s life.

Water as a key element of material creation becomes instrument of renewal, healing and sanctification administered by the Church. In the icon the dark central area representing the waters of the Jordan looks very much like a mouth of a cave. It may recall to similar features to the icons of Nativity and Anastasis (Easter). He is portrayed standing naked in the Jordan symbolizing the nakedness of Adam. His right hand is always blessing the waters. Above Christ is John the Baptist with his right hand on Jesus’s head and with the other pointing out either the one who is been baptized or to the one who send him, all in the light of the Trinity. He is in a higher level representing the humility of Christ, the Servant of God

On the right there are angels attending this mystery. They show that heavens are participating in this cosmic event at the Baptism of him who is Human and Divine, God and Man at the same time. Their hands covered and their bowed position show a sign of veneration.  At the top of the icon we see the dark blue shape representing the divine reality from which comes a ray that contains in it the dove descending on Christ. It also is seen in icons of the Annunciation and Nativity manifesting the Trinity in a mysterious way bringing about in different events God’s plan of salvation. The dove also is related to the story of the flood in the Old Testament in the figure of Noah. It involves destruction and a new beginning.

The sacrament of Baptism takes us into Christ work of redemption achieved by his death and resurrection. It is signified in his baptism, because here the Holy Trinity has been manifested as it was manifested at the Transfiguration of Christ. The words of the Father are very similar, and the cloud that covered Jesus and the shape of dove upon Jesus reveal the link between these two events.  The image of the Baptism of Christ is interpreted as the opening of a  path to a new life. 

The movement from death to life reminds us that his death and his resurrection opens the door to our own resurrection in Him. John Chrysostom said: "Going down into the water and coming up again in baptism are the image of the descent of Christ into Hades and of his resurrection."[4] Thus, the icon of the Baptism of Christ, like all other true icons, is embedded in Scripture and the Tradition of the Church. They exist in order to invigorate the spiritual and theological life of the faithful. Through these icons we can approach God and God can approach us in a more familiar way. We can meet the Lord in his mysteries as we prepare our hearts to be responsive to God in the ordinary circumstances of our lives.


    A good icon that refers to the Eucharist is the Famous Trinity icon of Andrei Rublev. It is based on the Old Testament account of the hospitality of Abraham under the oak of Mamre.[5] The three mysterious pilgrims which the bible called angels announced the miraculous birth of Isaac, an announcement that fulfilled what God had promised to Abraham. This event became a source of patristic interpretations, but it was in the East of the ninth and tenth centuries that used it in liturgical and theological works.[6] They saw in this event the symbolic apparition to Abraham of the Holy Trinity.

The three angels, grouped together in a conversation round the table, outline the shape of a circle, a perfect figure. Symbols of the bread and the chalice contain a calf’s head. It is the symbol of the lamb of sacrifice which becomes the centre of the circle.  It refers to the passion, death and Resurrection of Christ, the love manifested in the sacrifice of the cross. So, the Icon of the Trinity as Eucharist shows us that God’s love for man which results in the Incarnation has its origin in the very Nature of the Triune God as Eternal Love and Communion.

The lines that make up the image are replete with theological implications.. We can also concentrate on the “back to front” perspective. It is not a natural, temporal and realistic perspective.   The point in the picture where all lines meet is not, as in other pictures, behind the figures: they meet in the heart of the person looking at the icon!! It is as though the persons are looking at us, that we are the picture, rather than the other way round. It is not man who contemplates God but God who contemplates man. In the same way, Christ offered Himself in his body and blood to us without any merits from our part.  The icon draws us into the dimension of the eternal.

There are various interpretations of the individual persons. The Father may be on the right because this would put Christ on his right, which is his normal position.  On the other hand, He may be represented by the angel on the left because the other two persons wear stoles, and he does not.  A stole means that a person has been sent. Both the Son and the Spirit were sent; the Father was the One who sent the Son and the Spirit. What most people who interpret this icon agree, is that the Son is in the middle. He is blessing the cup and the the gifts, as he did in the last Supper and on the Road to Emmaus. He is also the one the People of God saw face to face when he became man.  

So, the meal prepared by Abraham and Sarah prefigures the Last Supper. It was during the Last Supper that Christ founded the Church and instituted the Sacrament of the Eucharist. In addition, a liturgical Eucharistic act is seen here. The two angels at each side stand for the priests saying the prayers over the Eucharistic gifts.  It is a reflection of the Liturgy of Heaven. Thus, to share the table the Trinity also recalls the Eucharist banquet of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Holy Eucharist Icon

Following what we mentioned about the Eucharist banquet in heaven, this icon does not depict an event from the life of Christ or His apostles. Rather, it represents the timeless, eternal, and mystical event being celebrated celestially. The Eucharist is not restricted to a particular time or place.

The Eucharist was already described by St. Paul[7] as the “proclamation” of Christ’s death and Second Coming. As the purpose of Scripture is essentially the proclamation of the Kingdom and the announcement of eschatological realities, the Eucharist is a foretaste of the Kingdom.

The icon frequently has the Scriptures on the altar with the words: I am the Living Bread which came down from heaven. It comes from John’s Gospel 6:32. Christ is presented as bread, and sometimes icons place Christ in a chalice symbolizing his own body and blood. In other icons Mary is behind Christ in the shape of a chalice representing the container, the one who bears the Lamb of God in her womb.

[1] John Chrisostom says: “It is not the day when Christ was born that should be called epiphany, but the day when he was baptised because before the day of his baptism he was not known to the people”. Cf. Festival of Icons for the Christian year by John Baggley, p. 49.

[2] Cf. The Art of the Icon by Paul Evdokimov, p. 295.
[3] Cf. Cf. Festival of Icons for the Christian year by John Baggley, p. 49. Text taken from  the Sixth Hour on the Eve of the Theophany.
[4] Homily 1 Cor. 40; PG 61,34 B.
[5] Genesis 18
[6] Taken from Dionisij Worshop 2000,  p.12.
[7] I Cor. 11

"Image and Icon" by Dom Alex Echeandía at Belmont Abbey

Retreat on Icons

on 31 August 2013

SESSION TWO              
a)   Annunciation
b)   Nativity


East and West have expressed central truths of Christianity.  They have responded with great devotion and creativity to the mystery of the Incarnation. The Annunciation is a great event in the history of our redemption. Images communicate the beauty of the Christian Mystery, of God made flesh in Mary’s womb. In addition, Scripture and Tradition give us a theological reflection on our faith that we want to express by images. The Gospel of Luke especially permits a good reflection of this event, not merely by giving us the brute facts but providing us with wonderful imagery in prose, hymns and poems within a liturgical context. Tradition gives Mary a title: in the light of the incarnation, she is called the Theotokos (God’s bearer).   She is also the bridge that leads to heaven, the Burning Bush, the Lamp, the Throne, the Ladder, the Gate, the Temple, the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant and the Chalice.

Mary plays a very important role in this mystery of the Incarnation because the Revelation given through Christ shows that what was given in the past, in the Old Testament, was fulfilled in the New Testament. Only in the fullness of revelation given found in Christ, can the separate mysteries of the Annunciation, Nativity and so on find their real meaning, be understood and be expressed in images. So, in the Annunciation, Adam and Even are kept in mind. This mystery involves the whole humanity.

Icons of the Annunciation are very numerous. In the Orthodox and Eastern Churches they are frequently seen on the walls or pillars, on the iconostasis of the Church which depicts the main feasts by a series of icons, on the Royal Doors as well as in icons provided for veneration on the day of the feast.

The earliest existing image of the Annunciation seems to be a third century one in the catacomb of Priscilla in Rome; then it became widespread as iconography developed. In the following centuries details such as the ray of light descending on Mary and the dove suspended above her as a symbol of the Holy Spirit became familiar. Some details in the depiction of the Annunciation icon come from the apocryphal book of James: It refers to the life of Mary. At the well, she hears a voice calling her, highly-favoured and blessed among women. She moves away in fear, and is then approached by the angel as she is working on the veil for the Temple. According to this apocryphal book the young Mary had been chosen to fulfil the task of preparing the purple and scarlet material to be used in the making of the veil.[1]   

2nd Century Image                   Annunciation  XIV century, Ohrid, Bulgaria.

It is not certain that the veil was for the Holy of Holies, but it may refer to the veil at the time of Christ’s death, a barrier between human and divine. So, this is why Mary appears in icons holding the yarn; other icons show that this yarn is falling to the ground as she hears the message of the Archangel. It can also mean that Mary is called to a higher vocation and becomes herself the Temple of God, the Theotokos, the God’s bearer. Through this icon, Mary teaches us to be detached, to let things go in order to receive a greater gift because, as we experience in our own lives, attitudes and anxieties can impede the work of God at a deeper interior level. 

Christians from the first four centuries used many sources to help them understand the mystery related to Christ because the cannon of Scriptures was not strictly defined at that time. Hence, the names of Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anne, come from an apocryphal gospel.  However, the Gospel of St Luke is the principal source. The way in which the scene was depicted at that time has influenced all future art and has become part of the heritage, part of the Christian tradition down the ages.

In the Divine Liturgy, Mass for the West, is celebrated as a meeting of the human and divine.  The icon of the Annunciation at the Royal Door, reflects the living dynamic of how the assembly enter into the mystery that has been revealed in Christ. All this begins with Mary’s response to God at the Annunciation. So the Annunciation shapes our approach to worship; it calls us to collaborate in the reception of the gift of Christ, in order to seek and do his will. So, frequently the Royal Doors of the iconostasis have the figures of the four Evangelists, because it means that the Gospel record has to be heard and lived. Thus, the Annunciation icon emphasised the attitude of the worshipper in response to the Holy Spirit. It is not just an intellectual response; it requires mind, heart and will, a new beginning in Christ. 

The two standing figures, Mary and the Archangel Gabriel, make an impact on the viewer and bring us into that moment in which God enters into human life to renew and transfigure his creation. The significance of the event goes beyond particular time and place; although it is celebrated as a specific event in history.   It opens new possibilities, a reality of the divine presence seeking to enter in to this particular person, the one that contemplates the icon. Thus, if Annunciation is closely related to the Incarnation, when humanity has been taken back and united to God, the celebration of this feast cannot be regarded simply as an event in the past.

The icon of the annunciation is connected with the Crucifixion. To receive God, as Mary did at the annunciation, also means the way to Calvary.  The  seventh canticle for Compline on Good Friday in the Eastern Church, the lament of the Mother of God reflects this relationship: “Where, O my Son and God are the good tidings of the Annunciation that Gabriel brought me. He called you King and God and Son of the Most High; and now, o my sweet Light, I behold you naked, wounded and lifeless.” Mary was chosen to be the Mother of God, and it implied the cross. The same emptiness and self-living love of God are manifested in these two events. Mary receives the love and cherishes that love in the person of Christ.


The icon of the Nativity reveals what the First Council of Nicea in 325 discussed on the Divinity-humanity of Christ.  The focus is not on Christ’s human birth as a mere historical fact. It is about strongly emphasising Christ’s divinity. It is about the human birth of the Second Person of the Trinity. It shows the invisible reality of Son of God that takes place in the womb of Mary and is born in Bethlehem.

As we know in the West, under the Franciscan influence, Christmas has  a different character with the manger scene. Popular devotion focused on a human side of the mystery: Joseph the carpenter, the Child Jesus and his mother Mary. These images of the Holy family became widespread in the West but which was totally unknown in the East.  The emphasis was put in the celebration of Man-God (Christology from below), different from the Eastern view of God-Man (Christology from above). Icons are not principally sentimental. They reflect on the mystery in order to increase the faith of the people.

The Liturgy talks about God becoming flesh; God coming down to fill the virgin womb of Mary as the answer to the fiat on behalf of the whole of humanity, in order that man can become God (the deification of man). This is a central truth of Christianity.

The icon here is a 16th century Novgorod school. The type of this icon goes back probably to an image in a church built by Constantine in the site thought where the Nativity of Jesus took place.

This image does not look busy: it has sober colours and lines, and the spaces within it are perfectly separated.

The three rayed light and the dove appears in this icon as well as in the icons of the Annunciation and Baptism showing the manifestation of the Holy Trinity in different but related events. The dove represents the Holy Spirit because it recalls the Archangel’s words: “the Power of the Most High will take you under his shadow (Lk 1:35). St Gregory of Naziansus on the feast of Nativity: “O world, […] with angels and shepherds glorify the eternal God…Let us cry glory to God in the Trinity.”[2] This single ray signifies the one essence of God, and the division within the ray signifies the participation of the three persons in the economy of salvation.

Under the descending ray is placed the child Jesus as the centre of the icon. The True Bread is placed in the centre, in the house of Bread; that it what Bethlehem means. The star serves to reveal Christ who might not be recognised in a humble place. He is in a dark cave symbolizing that Christ is the light that comes into the world: “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it”, as John refers in his prologue. The darkness is dispersed by the power of the light. The depiction of the darkness symbolizes that the human ignorance has been replaced by the knowledge brought by Christ, the light of truth. Adam and Eve turn their back on God and hid themselves. 

They are called back from that exile of darkness and sin. Christ calls them back though his entire life: birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection. It is reflected by the way he is depicted in the cave at Bethlehem. He is covered with swaddling cloth prefiguring his death. His strange immobility recalls Holy Saturday, the day of great rest.  Birth implies death; his mission was already depicted at his birth. 

The animals, ox and ass are shown adoring the incarnate Lord. It calls Scriptures one more in the book of Isaiah: “the ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib.” In the New Testament, in the Gospel of Mathew 11:30 Jesus says:  “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” The yoke is carried by the ox; the burden by the ass. These animals reflect what Jesus offers to the believer. In that cave with the animals the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, as the apostle John says. Thus icons contain a lot of symbolism and we can explore them in many way. We can also say that the cave is a place of a new life. It is a place of death and burial and also a place of birth and resurrection.

The figure of Mary, a Virgin Mother is reclining on a mattress, after having truly given birth to the Incarnate Son. Many icons depict Mary marked by three stars symbolizing her virginity before, during and after the birth of Christ. The Virginity of Mary is a dogmatic truth of the Church.  Her half-seated position implies an easy birth because, unlike Eve, she was not under condemnation. She is the Eve, the Mother of all the living. As the New Eve, she pronounced her fiat for everyone. This is why she is the image of the Church because she represents the whole humanity.

Joseph, on the other hand, has an anxious pose because he still trying to comprehend the mystery of the Incarnation. He knew he was not the father of the child Jesus. By looking at this scene of Joseph, we also identify ourselves every time we don’t understand or are tempted to neglect a central truth of our faith. Joseph was tempted by the devil as it is shown at the bottom-left of this icon. On the bottom-right are the midwives helping Mary with the child. This comes from the Apocryphal book from the first centuries. This washing of the child anticipates the baptismal bath at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

In the higher part, are the angels, Magi and shepherds. The angels fulfil different functions. Two of them, by looking toward the Source of Light  are contemplating God face to face, in eternity. They represent the unending praise of God in the heavenly liturgy. The third on the right and lower part is fulfilling his role as messenger, which is what the word “angel” means. He is bent towards mankind and watching like the guardian angel. The other three by the cave are contemplating the Incarnate Son of God, in human and divine natures. In addition, the magi are led by God to worship him by predicting not only his death but his resurrection, through the gold, the myrrh and the incense. Gold as the king of the ages; incense because he is the God of the universe; myrrh because the Immortal one was going to suffer death for three days and then rise again to save the world. Finally the shepherds remind us of the Good Shepherd, Christ himself. They are receiving the message from the angel. However, another figure like the shepherd is placed in a lower part. He is Satan who tries to convince Joseph about the event related to Christ.

Thus, angels, Magi and shepherds fulfil a role in revealing the mystery of the Nativity of Christ. They manifest our faith in a symbolic world and allow us to connect our heart, mind and spirit to the mystery of the Incarnation. Icons of the Annunciation and Nativity have put together heaven and earth, divinity and humanity depicted in one unity.

[1] Cf. Festical Icons for the Christian year by John Baggley, p. 27. It mentions how the council of priests call pure virgins of the tribe of David to make the veil for the temple of the Lord. Mary was chosen. She then went home to work on it.
[2] Cf. The Art of the Icon by Paul Evdokimov, p. 274. 

"Image and Icon" by Dom Alex Echeandía at Belmont Abbey (Int.)

Retreat on Icons 

on 30th August 2013


How to participate in the mystery of faith?
       a)    Why does Christian art exist? – Incarnation –                II Council of Nicea
       b)   Meaning of Icons
       c)    Roots of Iconography

      A work of art is a new creation. It manifests an organic unity. The artist strives to so unite the different elements that a new reality comes into being, something greater than its parts, something that bestows richness and purpose on all the elements that make it up. This is true of icons as  well as all other kinds of art.  So, what is the difference between Christian works of art and other works of art? It introduces another transcendent dimension to the image which is seen in the light of Christ. It gives people a new way of seeing things, in faith and meditation within Christian spirituality.

Christian art requires first the use of the most advanced artistic techniques and artistic talent in the execution of the work. Together with the skills of the craftsman, Christian art also receives from Tradition its Christian content. Christian Tradition is the interior life of the Church, born out of the harmonious cooperation between the Holy Spirit and the faith experience of the Church, and is itself the extension of God’s incarnation.  Thus, Christian art first began during the centuries of persecution at the very beginning of Christianity.   In the same Tradition, Christian art received new life from the dogmatic deliberations of the great ecumenical councils. Tradition combines with Sacred Scripture that it interprets to provide material for sacred art., Thus it is rooted in the very heart of our faith.

Images of God, as you know, were prohibited in Deuteronomy. Many believe that they are still against God’s Law and that using them in prayer is a form of idolatry. How can one make an image of the Invisible God? How can one represent the One who has no quantity, height or limits? In fact, not all figurative representation was prohibited in the Old Testament. There was the bronze serpent[1] and the ordinances concerning the cherubim in the ark[2]: “For the two ends of this throne of mercy you are to take two golden cherubs, you are to make them of beaten gold”.  So, the Jewish world, showed a certain tolerance towards images.[3]

Mosaic Floor (517-528 AD) Beth Alpha Synagogue,   discovered  in 1922 in the Northern District of Israel. 
Scene of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his bound son Isaac

In fact, for a Christian the Incarnation of God in Mary, brought about a new situation,  a new reality, a New Creation. As St Paul says, Christ is the image of the invisible God.[4] Thus, for us Christians there should be no problem using images of God as signs of our faith because God has provided us with the Image of all images. John Damascene against iconoclasm declared: “I don’t adore the matter, but the Creator of the matter who became matter for me, and through this matter I was saved.” The incorporeal one became man for you. So, it is possible to make his human image. By Christ becoming man, one may see the image of the one who was seen by the Apostles in human features.

Damascene was a very important figure in the difficult time of iconoclasm, when there was a misunderstanding related to images. Iconoclasm means rejection or destruction of religious images seen as heretical. It involved religious icons, symbols or monuments.  Iconoclasm was motivated by people who adopted a literal interpretation of Scriptures texts which forbids the making and worshipping of "graven images or any likeness of anything"[5]

Fresco destroyed in Cappadocia

Iconoclasm appeared in the Byzantine Empire during the 8th and 9th centuries. Since Constantine was converted and declare Christianity the religion of the Empire, images were allowed to represent Jesus Christ or other important figures of Christianity. The iconoclasts viewed the use of icons as pagan idolatry and therefore wanted to remove them from Christian worship. They also believed that the icons might be Nestorian.   According to their view, art can only depict the human nature of Jesus, leaving undepicted his divine nature, thus separating these two natures which, in fact, are united in One Person.[6] If the icons portrayed only the human side of Jesus, they could not help but promote a Nestorian Christianity as opposed to the true Christianity.

From a manuscript Psalter 68, Constantinople 843

The II Council of Nicaea in 878, the seventh of the ecumenical councils, restored the use and veneration of images.[7] This council used texts from Scriptures and the Fathers and proved that the veneration of images was legitimate. The central truth of the Council was focused on the honour given to images. They receive veneration (proskinesis), and not worship (latria), which is reserved for God alone. What is more, images are not the ultimate object of veneration because the image only has a reality in relation to the object represented. The image is the reflection of the prototype, Christ; the veneration is transformed into worship. Thus iconoclasm was condemned as heresy and liturgical veneration of images was re-established. Monks in the East played an important role in its restoration.

Now, when we talk on the subject of images, we need to refer to icons, frescoes, mosaics, oil paintings as well minor arts. Here let us concentrate in what an icon means. What is the essence of an icon? What are its roots?

The word icon comes from Greek εἰκών eikōn "image" It also means likeness, reflection. When you look at your mirror and look at yourself it is also an icon.  Thus this word has different meanings.[8] However, when we refer to images of Christ and the Saints we can call them the “holy icons”.[9]  This image or reflection we find in the icons. St Steven the New[10] in the 8th century call the icon a “door”. It is a way to enter, to access the age to come; it is a way to encounter, to meet with the communion of Saints. As a door, the icon fulfills a mediating function. It makes person and events present to us: Christ, Our Lady, the Saints. Through the icon we participate in the mystery that is depicted. So icon means presence. 

Some people call it a window, from which one can see. A door is something through which we pass and we can become part of what is on the other side of the door. The door can also permit someone on the other side to come to us; and, in an icon, Christ can come to us from the heavenly kingdom in order to meet us face to face.  The icon makes the person present to us.

The icon is seen from three aspects:  artistic, theological and liturgical   An icon is a work of art, with human and natural qualities. At a higher level, the icon has a theological meaning that teaches the people of God. Finally it is used in a liturgical context because the icon exists in an atmosphere of prayer and worship. Out of this context of prayer it loses its meaning, because, principally, it is sacramental, a sign that makes what is holy present. The Eucharist makes Christ present in the bread and wine after the consecration. At a different level, paint and board make Christ and saints present to us. By itself the icon does not become Christ as in the Eucharist, but it reveals the presence of Christ and His Saints in a special way. Icons reflect the reality of the incarnation. The iconographer uses wood and paint from God’s creation by which God’s glory is presented in a new way: thus is the world offered back to God.

In addition, the icon is a product of Tradition that is formed within different cultures and styles. The icon, as well as the Early Christian art, did not develop in a vacuum. It is a result of a concrete evolution, and different cultures have contributed to its historical evolution. So, we can mention three main roots that have made the icon what it is today.

From the ancient culture of Egypt icons received a profound sense of presence. Egyptian art normally shows calm men and women acting from an inner calm to express piety, family affection and social harmony. This is exemplified in the Elousia icon, which takes the ‘family affection’ prized by the Egyptians into a new dimension. Egyptian art is based on the hieroglyph, which like Chinese writing expresses primarily an idea that the writer intended to convey. The icon expresses specific information and is immediately recognizable by its form. In the icon the child is a miniature adult, and it is noteworthy that the reason given here is to draw attention to the fully human quality of the child.  This can be contrasted with a modern attitude that justifies abortion on the grounds that the unborn child is not fully human. (An example of this type that came to Christian art and iconography is the example of “Mother & child” 1470 BC).[11]

Egyptian canon to depict an image was very influential in iconography. A Egyptian figure found in the tomb of a priest shows how they measure out the dimensions of the body which had not changed since 1900 BC. The image of the body remained.[12]

In practice, icons received a lot from the Egyptian art. Gesso was used for the mask to cover bodies from the earliest period (c. 2,000 B.C.). The gesso was made from glue and whiting, as today, and often polished to a very smooth finish. The surface was pointed in dense colours from a limited palette, or covered with gold leaf. Flat colour and simple natural tones were characteristic; the emphasis was on pure simple unmixed colour. Low relief carving as with icons was an important form of art. Workshops were under the direction of an educated supervisor, familiar with several crafts, able to recognise an inferior standard of work and to correct errors. Many similarities can be seen between this approach to sacred art and the later approach of the Christian icon.

From the pagan Greeks the image possessed a mystical character. Statues of Athena and Artemis of Ephesus were said to be not made by human hands and to have fallen from heaven. These images were decorated with flowers and were venerated through a rite of unction.[13] We may say that the head of Medusa was a pagan model that Christians may have used to depict the person and the effectiveness that its holds.  Artistic inspiration came from different sources that for us can be difficult to make understand, but for the first Christians it was a new way of looking at things. 

In the Roman world images played a special role. They were also influenced by the Greek culture. The portrait of the ruler was worshipped as cult objects. They were honored as gods. Under special circumstances, the image of the emperor became a legal substitute; it was a vicarious presence of the emperor himself.  If the portrait of the emperor was present in court, the judge could decide a case as if it were the Caesar himself. It was also seen when the cities offered the keys to the emperor as a sign of submission. The keys were given to another person but in the presence of the emperor’s image. It was considered legal. The theory behind icons still remains as it was from the time of the Romans. Another element we find in icons is the halo. It is argued that Mithras was the origin of the halo around the head of Christ and the Saints. The Roman god Mithras was always shown with a halo, and this symbol was adopted by the Christian Church to signify the concept of divinity in sacred images.


Thus, the development of iconography and other Christian art was rooted in different cultures and traditions and took from them what can express the faith of the believers.

[1] Cf. Numbers 21:4-9
[2] Cf. Exodus 25:18
[3] A good example is found in the discovering of Synagogues in Israel.
[4] Cor.1:15
[5] "You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them." (Exodus 20:4-5a)
[6] Shown in the Pantocrator  icon
[7] It had been suppressed by imperial edict inside the Byzantine Empire during the reign of Leo III (717–741)
[8] Narcisus saw his face on reflected on the water; he saw his icon.
[9] Kallistos Ware refers to it in his lecture given at an Orientale Lumine session. See:
[10] From Constantinople, he died under torture and beatings. Finally, Emperor Leo gave orders to lock up the saint in prison, and to destroy his monastery. Iconoclast bishops were sent to St Stephen in prison, trying to persuade him of the dogmatic correctness of the Iconoclast position, but the saint easily refuted all the arguments.
[11] Cf.  ‘Egyptian Art’ by Cyril Aldred. It depicts Senemut nursing princess Nofrure.
[12] In the unfinished tomb of a priest called Ramose, his brother was the Pharaoh’s chief artist.  It shows exact squares in red lines. The figure was 19squares tall. The feet were 2 ½ squares long. The pupil was 1 square of the centre line. This is why the style remained unchanged for so long. Egyptian society did not want to change. The society was driven by stability and order reflecting the cultural values.
[13] Egon Sendler, The Icon, p. 9.