Holy Icons in Today’s World (Pt.3): Ecology

By Aidan Hart on April 2, 2014

We turn now to our second subject of ecology, looking in particular at icons of Pentecost and Transfiguration. [Pentecost]When I was learning to drive, one of the first things I was told was to keep my eyes on the road because the car would follow my gaze. It is the same with any civilisation: its actions will follow its ideas, its dominant ideology. The word idea comes from the Greek idein, meaning to see. Under Plato the word then came to mean the pattern or archetypal form of something, the invisible thought behind an action or object.


So if we want to address ecological problems of our time we need to identify and replace the erroneous ideology behind them. We need to direct our gaze back ontto the road before we crash. We need to work to replace our false ideology with one that works and is worthy of man and the world. This is where the icon tradition and its theology offers insights.

The Orthodox Church’s theology of ecology, if we can call it that, can be summarized in the three ministries of prophet, priest, and king or artist. These are illustrated in the icon of Pentecost. A prophet perceives creation as word of God, as a declaration and vision of divine wisdom and love; the priest offers thanks for creation as gift, and calls down the Holy Spirit to transfigure it; the king is like an artist, who through his skill, mastery and love of his material kingdom makes creation even more articulate in the praise of God.

In the icon of Pentecost we see the disciples arranged around a horseshoe shaped table, with rays of light descending individually upon each person. Tongues of fire are sometimes indicated upon each disciple’s head as well. In the centre is a dark space with an old man wearing a crown. He holds a scroll which carries twelve scrolls. Sometimes the word cosmos is written above him. In early icons, instead of this old man cosmos, various people of different races were depicted there.

Let us now consider ecology, our relationship with the material world, in the light of the three ministries of prophet, priest, and king.


Man as Prophet

Before a prophet speaks the word of God he needs to hear it. The seer sees the Word of God in visions. According to the Orthodox Church’s tradition, we all of us are called to be prophets by hearing the word of God speaking to us in the created world. We are created to be seers by seeing the world as a world burning with the presence of God without being consumed. Our ecological problems are in large part caused by the loss of this sacred view of the world. This in turn justifies our treating the world as mere matter and a means of gaining wealth and leisure.

So before we act, we need to listen, we need to see. Before preaching, the disciples at Pentecost saw and heard God in the rushing wind, the flames of fire. Revelation preceded speaking. The apostles were mystics first and missionaries second. Before St Paul begins his mission, he first experiences the Lord as light and speech while on the road to Damascus. And even then, before beginning his missionary labours, he spends many years in prayer and preparation first in Arabia, then in Damascus, and then Syria and Cilicia, perhaps spending some of this time in the desert.1

In our capitalist world we are taught to treat the material world as a collection of things to be turned into profit or a means of gaining us pleasure or leisure. But our first attitude should be wonder. Creation is the most splendid dowry ever given. And even this is but a small glimpse of the infinitely greater beauty, wisdom, splendour and love of the Giver. Such wonder makes a person feel the wealthiest in the world. This of itself reduces the demands we place upon the earth. Surely, dissatisfaction is what drives consumerism, the aching belly of spiritually hungry souls?

Wonder does not lead to inactivity, does not stop us working the land, does not stop industry. But is does offer a new and lasting blueprint for our labours. This listening before we act provides us with a new vision towards which we labour. Behind every labour is a notion of the perfect life, however vague it is in our minds. The secular New Jerusalem behind our ecological problems is a non-existent world of satisfaction through material wealth. But this imagined Jerusalem is a utopia, it does not exist. It is a mirage. It is a world full of gadgets and every comfort, but these things prove to be but husks to the thirsting soul. It does not satisfy, and so the more one has the more one wants.

Icons help give us a true image of the New Jerusalem. They give us an inspiring, satisfying and achievable vision of life to work towards. Icons are not the fruit of fantasy, or of some unobtainable idealism. They are the fruit of vision, of knowledge through experience.

This is why iconographers work within a tradition. And by tradition I do not mean that we copy, but that we work within certain parameters, tried and tested by time. These are not arbitrary rules, set down by some authority, but are timeless principles. If some new icon style does not resonate with believers’ experience of Christ, it is rejected. Inasmuch as mere paint can depict heavenly realities, iconographers try to receive and then communicate a God-given vision of things as they are, and not as they seem to the senses. This is why an iconographer needs to be a person of faith, to fast and pray, to live an active liturgical life, to be a theologian. He or she seeks not just to copy other people’s vision, but to know Christ and His saints personally.

The American Evangelical philosopher and theologian Francis Schaeffer did much to revive art within the Protestant world, and I am deeply indebted to his writings for helping me to set out on life as a Christian artist. But he was mistaken in criticising the icon tradition for not depicting real people in a real world. Quoting Michael Gough, Schaeffer wrongly understood Byzantine art as “a change from ‘the acceptance of an element of naturalistic realism to a preference for the fantastic and unreal.'”2 Real people are deified people, and the real world is a world transfigured. A lamp is truly a lamp only when it is turned on.


Before entering Jerusalem, Christ wanted through His transfiguration to show His chief disciples the purpose of His coming suffering and death. Six days before His transfiguration He had promised that:

there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom. (Matthew 16:28)

Christ wanted to show them the kingdom towards which all His pending suffering was heading: the deification of the human person and the transformation of the world. The transfiguration is therefore a precursor or foretaste of Pentecost.

Perhaps the chief thing which distinguishes the icon tradition from mere religious painting is that it through its style it indicates the kingdom to come. It helps us see beyond the sufferings and insanities of this present life. It shows the world as seen by prophets and not the profane or secular.


In icons, for example, we do not see shadows, the chiaroscuro created by a single light source, for all of the world is bathed in light, and light comes also from within the saints.


Trees are shown in wonderful ways, as though dancing to the cosmic hymn of love.


Hills rise up like ascending prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, or open like the jaws of Hades, or part like the river Jordan at Christ’s baptism.


We do not often see vanishing point perspective, but things are depicted as though viewed from different angles all at once.


Clock time is subsumed into divine time, and so we see different events depicted simultaneously.


I run a Diploma course in icon painting, and one of the first things I try to instil in the students is a respect and affection for their raw materials. The translucent and cool pigment terre verte has a different voice than the more opaque and warm red ochre. Listen first to the materials, I tell them, and they will teach you how to use them.


We all of us are called to be priests as well as prophets in relation to the land, sky and sea. But what is a priest? This is a complex thing. A priest is one who offers, who sacrifices, who gives thanks to God for creation, and one who invokes the blessing of God upon His creation.

During the Holy Liturgy the priest and all the congregation call down the Holy Spirit upon themselves and upon the gifts of bread and wine. This prayer is called the epiclesis. By this descent of the Spirit the bread and the wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, and the people who partake of the Gifts become little Christs, become Christians, become God bearers. The epiclesis is a renewal of Pentecost.


So the icon of Pentecost shows the Holy Spirit coming down upon the whole world through the apostles. The old man in the dark space at the bottom and centre of the icon is not just the people of the world who have not heard the Gospel; He is also the whole material world. This is why St Paul writes:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God… the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now.. (Romans 8:19-22)

When the priest offers the bread and wine he offers the world. A Russian poet once wrote:

Every time the priest celebrates the Eucharist, he holds in his hands the whole world, like an apple.3

We offer to God what is already His to remind us that He is the source of all life and existence. “Your own, of your own, we offer to you, in behalf of all and for all.” This offering is doing the opposite of what happened in the Garden of Eden: we acknowledge the world as God’s and not just a source of pleasure.

Offering, but why sacrifice? God doesn’t require the blood of sheep and goats. God asks us to sacrifice in order to keep us free, to keep us from clinging to things as though we would die without them. We surrender things and, lo, we are still alive! We had lived as though our life depended on having that thing, and now that it has gone and I am still alive I see that I was a slave to it.

To give praise and thanks in all circumstances is a form of sacrifice open to everybody. In doing this we see Him in all things and in all circumstances. This is one vital role of the icon. Icons stand as a permanent offering of praise in colour, and not only in churches but also in buses, cars, homes, above city gates, by the road. Those of you who have visited or lived in traditionally Orthodox countries like Greece will see icons in action in this way.

Thanksgiving is at the heart of the Holy Liturgy, the Eucharist, which is itself at the heart of the Christian life. Thanksgiving is the undoing of the Fall, the most sure path to God, an act of high wisdom. As G.K. Chesterton wrote:

I would maintain that thanks [is] the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.

Traditionally, an icon painter does not sign his or her work. Once completed, the icon does not stand as an artistic achievement by an individual, but is an offering on behalf of all believers, a thanksgiving and acknowledgement that the saint depicted is alive in Christ. It is an offering of thanksgiving. This is one reason why people commission icons, in gratitude to the Lord for some blessing they have received.

Kings and artists

So our relationship with the earth can be as prophets and priests. We are also created to be as kings and queens. As the USA is a Republic perhaps we can liken this role to that of an artist and his materials as well as of a king to his kingdom.

Secularists tell us that the God of Genesis is to blame for our ecological crisis. His fault, they say, was to let man “have dominion”4 and to tell him to “fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”5 But do we blame an artist for mastering his materials? Do we blame a gardener for subduing the verdant wildness of nature’s weeds to make a splendid garden? And anyway, to live without exercising some dominion is impossible, for without farming or hunting we could not eat.


And so the question is not whether we should exercise dominion or not, but what domain we create by our dominion. This is why God started the ball rolling by planting a garden. He set Eden as a guideline for us. He planted Paradise and then put us in it not only “to till it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15), but to expand its borders and make the whole world Paradise. This surely is the meaning of the command to “fill the earth and subdue it.” The subjugation is to be understood as the craft of the artist, a craft that raises his material to a higher plane rather crushing it to a lower. We recall that the Bible ends with the image of a city, the New Jerusalem. A city is the result of culture, of labour, of creativity, of wise rule.

Perhaps we now think of cities as polluted and polluting things. But this New Jerusalem is a garden city. It is a life-giving city.


The angel showed the Apostle John

the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. (Rev. 22:1,2)

The artistic act of making an icon is a microcosm of how we should relate to the world. Icon making is a dominion that raises and not crushes, sanctifies and not pollutes. 

The icon painter takes representatives of all three kingdoms of the world: pigment from the mineral kingdom, wood for the panel from the vegetable kingdom, and egg as the paint binder from the animal kingdom. These good things he or she then fashions into something even better, something very good, a holy icon.


Before becoming pigment the yellow ochre was earth to be trodden on. Now it is kissed. The gold leaf that was once hidden in rocks now represents the glory of God. And the gold is happy not to be worshipped or made into an idol, and rejoices that it now points to its Creator. The icon painter is like the Magi who offered gold to the infant Christ, like the priest who at the Liturgy proclaims: “Your own, of Your own, we offer to You”.


We come now to our final subject of community. What insight does the icon tradition offer us about life in community?


To be fully human is to love. To be fully human is to be in community, for we are made in the image of the Trinitarian God. God Himself is a community, of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And so the Body of Christ, the Church, is not merely a means to the end of an individual’s personal salvation, but is itself the end of that salvation. The very word person means face, and a face is fulfilled in relationship, with eyes to see the other, ears to hear them, lips to speak with them.

It is in the Body of Christ that Janet can cease being an isolated individual and become a person. There her uniqueness and preciousness shines among the other saints. Hell is people standing with their backs to each other, heaven is people facing one another.

And so a church covered in frescoes or mosaics of the saints, angels, the Mother of God and the Lord Himself, is a single icon of life as it is meant to be: men, women and children in the family of Christ together with all the angels and the transfigured cosmos.

This church might be a tiny chapel, with but a few icons, but these few icons affirm that when we gather together on earth to pray and praise, we are but joining in the world-wide and heaven-wide community of the brethren and angels. Icons help make the communion of the saints reality.


The icon of the hospitality of Abraham, the so called Trinity icon,[Trinity] shows the three angels whom Abraham addressed in the singular as Lord. The painter of this illustrated icon, St Andrei Rubliof, has arranged the three angels within a circle, but with their heads forming a triangle. All three angels have blue in their raiment, and each also wears a uniquely coloured second item of clothing. These things indicate that God is one in nature, yet three in Persons.

The fulfilment of this icon is that of Pentecost, for it shows man in the image of the communal God. The Pentecost icon shows the disciples gathered around a horseshoe shaped table. They are all one as humans, and also all gods by the descent of the Holy Spirit. This is what they are in common. A monastic elder once said:

I have spent twenty years fighting to see all human beings as only one.

But each disciple is also different, with different faces, gestures and garments. Each has a unique personality, a unique calling and role in life. We have a unique name. And we don’t have all the time in the world to find this name. Children can be very wise. An eight year old girl called Ruth said:

I had a baby budgie called Tabatha but she died before she knew what she was.6

This uniqueness has a mission. A person’s distinctiveness unfolds through courage and service and not mirror gazing. Pentecost gave the disciples a mission, to bring paradise, the Good News, into all the world, to the cosmos who awaits in their midst. The disciples were granted seeds from the Tree of Life and were commanded to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.


A frescoed church is a foretaste of that paradise. Paradise, life with Christ, is not a white cloud. It is rich and colourful, material and spiritual at the same time. The New Jerusalem is not white marble. The Apostle John tells us its foundations are of jasper, sapphire, agate and a host of other outrageously coloured stones. Perhaps God likes bling! At the same time John tells again and again that things are clear. Even the gold is “clear as glass”. This means that light, the light of God, penetrates and animates everything.


And so it is plain that Christian communalism is not the grey of communism but the colour of a carnival. An icon starts with white gesso, but ends in bright colour. Man-made religions stop at the black and white sketch, but the Cross paints a living icon of startling brilliance and variety. The gate to the kingdom of God can be very narrow, for we cannot carry through it the baggage of our idols. But the gate can also be very wide, wide enough to greet the whole universe received with thanksgiving, a world worn as the garment of the transfigured Christ.


1 See Galatians 1:13-24.

2 Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live?: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture. (Crossway, 2005) p.30.

3 Quoted by Alexander Schmemann in “Church, World, Mission” (New York ,1979), page 222

4 Genesis 1:26

5 Genesis 1:28

6 Nanette Newman, Vote for Love (Collins, London,1976).


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