Icons: Windows to the Divine

Originally printed in the March-April 2000 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation:Luchakova, Olga and Johnson, Kenneth. "Icons: Windows to the Divine." Quest  89.2 MARCH-APRIL 2000): 44-49

By Olga Luchakova and Kenneth Johnson

If the language of icons has become unfamiliar to us and seems "naïve" and "primitive," the reason is not that the icon has outlived or lost its vital power and significance, but that even the knowledge that the human body is capable of spiritual transformation...is lost by men.

—Archbishop Ignatius Bryanchaninov

They stare at us from their niches in museums and art galleries, the intense ascetic faces lit with an otherworldly glow. Whole cosmograms dance in sweeping circles, lit with Byzantine gold, archaic mandalas of the Western world. These are the icons of Russia, Greece, and Byzantium, avidly sought by art collectors the world over.

But icons are more than works of art. They are the focus of a complex spiritual discipline that has its roots in archaic Christianity.

Mystical Christianity

Primordial Christianity included a system of self-transformation that led to theosis, the dissolution of the individual self in the Godhead. This contemplative system, called hesychasm or "the tradition of inner stillness," consisted of meditative practices designed to calm the mind, purify the passions, and develop skills of absorption. These practices of self-transformation and self-transcendence, such as "wakefulness," "inner stillness," and "the Prayer of the Heart," have been undeservedly forgotten. Though secretly preserved in the Eastern Orthodox Churches of Greece and Russia as an inner, esoteric teaching, they are virtually unknown in the West.

Throughout the centuries, solitary hermits have devoted themselves to prayer and meditation in the cave monasteries of Greece and in retreats amidst the vast Russian forests. Their meditative techniques, passed down solely through direct oral transmission and initiation, could be described as Christian Yoga or, to use the metaphor preferred by the hesychasts themselves, as a ladder by which the individual consciousness ascends from separateness to communion and identity with Godhead. Working with these techniques may help bring contemporary seekers to "recovery" from the "childhood abuse" of a fundamentalist Christian upbringing. Reconciliation with Christianity is a healing process for many people, since traumatic childhood memories often have a strong connection with religious archetypes.

Icons and Archetypes

The creation of and meditation on icons are significant parts of this hesychastic tradition. The icon as an art form is derived, in part, from the portrait painting of pre-Christian Rome, the first Christian icons being portraits of the early sages and saints. Eusebius, in his History of the Church, writes: "I have seen a great many portraits of the Savior, of Peter and of Paul, which have been preserved up to our times." According to legend, the Vladimir Mother of God (one of the most famous Eastern Christian icons) is in fact a portrait of the Virgin painted by St. Luke; and though New Testament historical criticism may dismiss the legend as a chronological impossibility, it nevertheless illustrates the belief that icons are genuine portraits of sages and saints.

Such legends and beliefs are important, for they reveal part of the secret of the icons’ imaginative power over the worshiper. Icons are, first and foremost, portraits of archetypes. Divine figures and Christian saints may be the ostensible subjects of icons, but icons also show the attributes and archetypal powers of gods and nature spirits that reigned in the sky of the European mind long before the advent of Christianity.

In many cases, worship of the old pagan divinities never entirely died out. As archetypes—powers and potencies inherent in the human soul but not dependent upon ritual or dogma—they merely underwent a transformation, their attributes and even their stories transferred to the saints of the new religion. In Byzantine Greece, St. Catherine took on the nature of Aphrodite, and the people prayed to her for love. St. Nicholas doubled for stormy Poseidon, though in Russia he came more closely to resemble Volos, the pagan god of the dead. St. Elijah’s fiery chariot formed a natural link with the ancient lords of thunder; in Greece he became the simulacrum of Zeus, and in Russia of Perun, the Thunder God. In Russia, too, peasants prayed to St. George as the protector of the land and celebrated his feast day by covering one of the local men in leaves and dressing him in green; this Russian St. George evokes memories of one of the most ancient gods of all, the Lord of the Wildwood who was worshiped as long ago as the Neolithic period.

The Magic of Icons

The merging of archetypes from different traditions, which occurs in iconic art, reflects the spiritual processes of both the psyche and the world. Archetypes are fluid and eternal. They transcend cultural boundaries, evoking parallels between religions, yet they sustain their unique flavor as carriers of the energies inherent in different spiritual traditions. An icon is a symbol as well as an image, and each of its separate components carries many different layers of meaning. The major informational charge of an icon, however, lies in its nature as an image, speaking directly to the unconscious through our senses, producing certain inner responses and altered states of consciousness.

Hesychasm deeply influenced the art of the icon. Icons carry the imprint of the states of consciousness attained by the hesychastic artists who made them famous, as well as the vibrations of the energies associated with the saints and gods who are their prototypes. A famous icon is like a painted sutra—a terse capsule containing nonverbal information about the stages leading to the attainment of theosis. "What the word transmits through the ears, the painting shows through the image," said St. Basil the Great.

The iconographer’s art—even in its physical details—profoundly resembles that of the Tibetan tanka painters, as Nicholas Roerich noted long ago. The artists are typically meditators who receive powerful initiations before beginning their work; they fast, undergo purification rituals, meditate on the archetype, embody its state of consciousness within themselves, and then infuse their art materials with the uncreated energies of the prototype through meditation and prayer. Icon making is a long, meditative process; sometimes it takes years. The materials themselves become transfigured, carriers of grace. As with old sacred buildings or power spots, spiritual information is encoded in matter, elevating its vibrational level.

Though it has its roots in pre-Christian portrait painting, an icon does not look quite like a realistic portrait. It is, more properly, a portrait of the subtle and invisible (as opposed to the merely physical) body, a terrestrial attempt to convey knowledge of the forms that belong to celestial realms, hence the refined noses, arched eyebrows, halos, and elongated bodies. This refinement of human features illustrates the results of the fasting and asceticism that were frequently undertaken by the Eastern saints. According to the mystical theology of the Orthodox Church, God can incarnate, becoming flesh; and physical matter can be divinized, becoming subtle, close to spirit in its nature.

The canons of iconic art reflect the appearance of those who have been thus transformed by spiritual discipline. The use of gold, of "enliveners" (the white paint strokes that produce an impression of luminosity), of multiple washes of tempera that allow the underlying layers of lighter paint to shine through—all of these techniques reveal the inner luminosity contained in the bodies of the saints, as well as our own true "light nature." To experience this inner light is the very essence of the Christian yogi’s practice. Symeon, called the New Theologian, wrote: "The Christian mystic dwells in light," hence the term "illumination" for one of the stages of attainment. When placed in a church, an icon serves as the source of the subtle energy that infuses the sacred space of the church itself. The icon works as an energy window, causing actual changes in the aura and cleansing the psycho-energetic centers of the human body.

Some icons—such as those depicting St. Seraphim of Sarov or Panteleimon the Healer—can be used as "projectors," which radiate the subtle energy that induces both physical and spiritual healing. In Eastern Orthodox terms, they "emanate grace." Other icons may actually serve as embodied states of consciousness, and contemplation of them may lead the devotee to actual knowledge of God through those states. The special nature of the iconographer's art allows him to imprint nonordinary, sacred states of consciousness into the icon, and these states can be absorbed by the meditator centuries after the creation of the icon itself.

The open-minded contemplation of and identification with an especially sacred icon may even be equivalent to receiving a powerful initiation from a living teacher. Hesychia, the "inner silence" identical to the peak spiritual experience cultivated in so many traditions, may be directly transmitted by certain icons of the Mother of God in her aspect of loving-kindness—for example, by the Virgin of Kazan. An icon of Christ the Savior in glory, which once followed the coffins of the czar’s family members during Russian state funerals, depicts Christ in the deep absorption of essence and can transmit a state of consciousness beyond ego, the experience of oneness with God. When contemplated correctly, such an icon may present an entire initiation, signifying a new stage of spiritual progress for the seeker. Of course, this direct silent transmission from an icon is possible only if the mind of the seeker is ripe for such appreciation and ready to accept the gift.

Icons may also be used to induce a special kind of centering. In fact, they provide a specific attunement of the chakras or inner psychic centers in the mind, the heart, or (very rarely) in the belly or "center of power," more commonly used in folk healing and magic. The nuances of such centering may sometimes indicate particular ways for the practitioner to concentrate awareness on certain energy centers in the body and attain higher spiritual experiences. St. Xenia, the Vladimir Mother of God, and the Virgin of the Sign, for example, all awaken the heart center and indicate love and devotion or bhakti as the path to the Supreme. Icons of Sophia or of Christ the Pantocrator emphasize transcendental wisdom and insight; they work predominantly upon the sahasrara and ajna chakras, the crown and the so-called third eye. Finally, certain icons may be understood as mandalas, diagrams of an inner cosmos: these include icons of Christ as the Pantocrator and cosmological icons.

Meditating with Icons

If the Orthodox iconographer and Tibetan tanka painter share a particular mode of working, then sometimes so do the Christian contemplative, the practitioner of Tibetan deity yoga, and the Hindu bhakta. In all cases, the power of the sacred archetype is brought deeply and profoundly into the auric sphere of the practitioner, who strives for total identification with the archetype.

But if there are similarities with Eastern practices, there are also notable differences. In icon meditation, it is generally the image rather than the symbol that works upon our minds; hence the position of the body and hands, the gaze, and the over-all energy of the icon are perceived intuitively by the subconscious. This brings Christian practice closer to Hindu bhakti than to the Buddhist path, for such truly symbolic works of art as Tibetan mandalas require an intellectual knowledge of the meanings inherent in the symbols in order to be properly meditated upon and understood.

There are a number of different methods for working with icons, which are defined by the esoteric qualities of the icon itself. As a general rule, meditation on an icon begins by establishing a devotional attitude towards the archetype or saint in question. Visualize the iconic image in front of you and connect with its "embodied sage." After you have established an initial relationship, you may begin the meditative techniques.

First, relax and drop your awareness into your body. Let your eye muscles relax, so that your gaze is slightly out of focus. Let the icon itself guide you; surrender your state of mind to its influence. Turn your body into a relaxed, reflecting medium, thus allowing the icon to make its benevolent imprint within. The icon helps establish the inner current connecting the mind with the divine inside the practitioner’s psyche. Awareness of the emotional content of your own dialogue with the archetype helps to integrate alienated and traumatized areas of the mind.

A deepening of this initial practice may lead to identification with the actual physical form of the saint as depicted in the iconic image, though unless the practitioner’s consciousness is thoroughly centered in the body, as described above, the desired results will not be obtained. "Becoming the saint" leads to living that individual’s inner experience, at least to a degree. The idam practice of Tantric Buddhism, which likewise creates an identification between the deity and the meditator, is very similar. Upon identification with the sage, practitioners open analogous levels of awareness and higher states of consciousness within themselves.

After you have learned to enter into dialogue and identify with the icon—letting it be reflected in your body, centering you and transmitting its state of consciousness—you may learn to meditate upon the icon by contemplating it from the vantage point of the energy structures within your body. For example, if you imagine your physical eyes within your heart chakra and gaze out from that point (opening your physical eyes too, of course), you will notice the subtle energies of the icon—its aura and radiant energies. You may attempt to "relocate" your eyes to the various chakras or energetic centers within the body and contemplate the icon from each one of them, even examining it from the space behind your back. These more sophisticated techniques will allow you to see the invisible and subtle energy content of these mysterious condensates of grace—the icons of the Eastern Christian tradition.

Olga Luchakova, MD, PhD, is a spiritual teacher with a background in Yoga, Vedanta, and Hesychasm; she is an adjunct professor at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology and John F. Kennedy University.

Kenneth Johnson studied Comparative Religion at California State University, Fullerton, and is the author of six books, including Mythic Astrology: Archetypal Powers in the Horoscope, North Star Road, and Jaguar Wisdom.

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