Trinity College

Orthodox Iconology: Iconography in a Worship Context

Course Code: 
Last Offered: 
Fall 2021
Next Offered: 
Fall 2024

The Word is to hearing what the Image is to the sight [John of Damascus]
What we have heard, we have seen [Nicea II]

Visual language has always been an essential dimension of Orthodox liturgy and prayer. Almost every Christian assembly, whatever its ecclesial theology, has some elements of the “visual” incorporated into its liturgical worship – provided that we look beyond just pictorial imagery and include architecture as “visuality,” together with the movements, postures, garments, and behaviour of the worshippers – but only the Orthodox emphatically insist on the dogmatic significance of the visual, and only the Orthodox venerate visual images. Iconology, the theology of iconography is the question about why visual imagery is so meaningful – i.e., so evidently a revelation of the Word of God – that we find it worthy of veneration and essential, in our prayer life. The course will show that the visual element is as vital an aspect of the expression of worship and truth as are the words said and the music; in fact – as the course will demonstrate – all of these elements are linked together in an inextricable circle of meaning.

Such an approach to Christian iconography requires first of all a grasp of how the visual language works, how to “read” its basic elements of image, figure, compositional values, etc. as if they were the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of a living language. As well, the close link between iconography, visual style, and verbal rhetoric needs to be understood. But the course aims to probe more deeply than the rudiments of the iconographic surface; our true goal is to ask how the visual context in our worship communicates meaning; we want to grasp the iconology of the visual in Orthodox worship even at the moment of prayer and liturgical action. This requires three further dimensions in our study: (1) we must link our visual examples to verbal primary texts, especially Biblical, liturgical, and hagiographical texts, but also dogmatic texts and sermons. (2) we must consider not just sign and symbol in iconography, but also the meaningful significance of structure and placement; for this reason, we must pay some attention to architectural design of worship space, and our primary iconographic examples will be monumental wall programmes in mosaic and fresco, followed by consideration of  the role of portable panel icons in worship, and then liturgical furniture, and finally the visual iconology – vestments, gestures, etc – of living humans engaged in worship within the framework designed by the visual programme. (3) Our study must include some critical attention to recent secondary literature which attempts to offer a theological iconology. When appropriate, we will compare and contrast Eastern and Western notions and examples of Christian iconography and theological iconology, noting both intersections and oppositions; in particular, we must examine the special impact of the Iconoclast Controversy on Orthodox thinking about images; is post-Iconoclast theology continuous with Patristic ideas, or changed in emphasis?

The history of Orthodox iconology – closely linked to the central Orthodox issue of Tradition vs. traditionalism – is very important to us, because historical study teaches the all-important point that iconography and programming are a living, ever-developing language which responds to contemporary culture. The historical-theological aspect of the course will give students the opportunity to develop some methodology to discuss critically such moot aesthetic issues as “good vs. bad” or “right vs. wrong” iconographies and styles, as well as the theological question of whether an “icon” is only one special kind of image and object. This aspect of the course will also have pastoral implications; nothing raises more questions among Orthodox than “appropriateness” in iconography, and as church leaders, you will be called on to deal with such questions.  But the aim of the course is not art-historical, nor will we attempt a complete survey of the history of Orthodox visual culture. Instead, students will study selected key monuments in great detail, searching for a deep grasp which can inform their present-day theological and devotional sensitivity.