Spirituality | Icon
The Spirituality of the Icon
Our Mother of Perpetual Help: A Byzantine Icon
The original icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help which is enshrined in Rome is a Byzantine (Eastern Orthodox Church) icon painted sometime from 1350 to 1450 AD in the island of Crete by an unknown iconographer (painter of icons). It expresses the Byzantine culture. Because it belongs to a foreign culture, it is not easy to decipher. As Ferrero admits,
[F]or those who belong to a different culture from that represented in such images, icons are works of art that are not easy to understand or appreciate. As with all works of symbolic character, they require an authentic introduction. It is not possible, in a spontaneous way, to capture the message of which they are bearers and which they set out to convey.
Because of the cultural and time gap, it is also one of those that have been most exposed to iconographic distortion. Without losing its fundamental symbolic elements, artists have adapted it to the aesthetics of each region, reducing it, in many cases, to a simple devotional image. Due to this localized adaptation, the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Succor has acquired its own context (added to those of the past) in the Marian devotion that it now symbolizes. The sanctuary of Crete, in which it was so venerated as the Virgin of the Passion, has been replaced by altars to Our Mother of Perpetual Help that the devotion has created all over the world.
The purpose of Byzantine style of art is not to show a beautiful scene or person but to convey a beautiful spiritual message. The icon is neither an idol nor a charm, but a symbol. It resembles a “sacred page” which conveys a message of salvation to us. To grasp this message, we need to know how to “read” the page on which it is found and “to allow oneself to be read” by it.
Let us, therefore, discuss even if briefly the Eastern iconographic background of OMPH.
Beauty is Divine
English bishop and Eastern Orthodox theologian, Kallistos Ware, describes the Icon as an expression of divine beauty; icon expresses a theology of beauty. The icon is beautiful but its beauty is not worldly but divine beauty. God is the source of all beauty, thus icons are expression of divine beauty. The beauty that the icon expresses is the beauty of the living God. The Greek word for beautiful means I called, I invoke; it calls us, it evokes in us a response. The divine beauty that the icon calls, however, is sacrificial beauty, like Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Beauty, therefore, is beauty only if it is kenotic beauty. The beauty of the cross is particularly expressed in the icon of OMPH through the instruments of the passion carried by the angels.
The depiction and understanding of beauty is one of the differences between Western and Eastern art. Beauty depicted in Eastern iconography is not about worldly or anthropocentric beauty but divine or theocentric beauty. V. Lasareff and O. Demus explains the purpose of art in iconography, “An image intended for devotion cannot be conceived in the same way as a painting whose sole purpose it to provide aesthetic pleasure… the Byzantine icon simply evokes, suggests, symbolizes. It is not in essence an object but a dogma expressed through an image”. That is why, “Byzantine art was often criticized for its austerity, stiffness, distortion, and most of all, its lack of naturalism and realism,” as Kim Piotrowski explains. “It was not accepted as a refined, high art because it did not have the exalted and admired qualities such as three-dimensional depth and shading as did the art of the Renaissance.”
Icon is not a humanization or ‘worldlization’ of Jesus, Mary and the saints but the divinization of humanity and the whole of creation, or a word used in Eastern theology—theosis. According to Eastern Christian teaching, theosis is the purpose of human life. It can be achieved through a synergy between human activity and God’s uncreated energies. The Byzantine icon is not merely an image of the man Jesus but precisely God become man. This is what distinguishes the Orthodox icon from Renaissance religious art which represents Christ “humanized”. It is for this reason that the Orthodox Church never portrays Christ in her icons simply as a human being suffering physically and mentally, as in Western sacred painting. 
Icon as Doorway or Window to the Eternal
We are called to encounter God’s life and God’s world that God offers and invites us. The icons invite us to see, live and understand our present lives and world vis-à-vis God’s life and God’s world. In the icon there is an intermingling of the earthly and the heavenly, the human and the divine, the mundane and the holy, the secular and the sacred, the natural and supernatural, the material and the spiritual, God’s transcendence and immanence.
As doorway and window, icons communicates the dynamic intermingling of the Immanence and transcendence of God. The heavenly is brought to earth; the earthly is elevated towards heaven and is transfigured. Bringing together of the heavenly and earthly, they permeate each other, no dualism. The icon is a reflection of the prototype, and every icon is the reflection of the human and divine natures without mixing as in the person of Christ.”
The sole purpose of icons is that they offer access through the gate of the visible to the mystery of the invisible. They lead us to the contemplation of the divine. As Constantine Cavarnos tells us, “The icon stands for something other than itself. It is designed to lead us from the physical to the spiritual realm. The icon is an image of a real, sacred person or event, and is designed to lead us to it.”
To truly comprehend the richness of the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help we must do more than give it a simply vague or even pious look. We need to tune in to the theological message it holds through an iconographic, aesthetic and spiritual ‘reading’ of the symbolic elements it employs.
The Greek word eikon, from which the current term in other languages derives, means image, figure, and representation. In the history of art it is used as a technical term to describe a type of sacred image found in eastern churches. Its object is to arouse a sense of the supernatural, not ‘to hold the mirror up to nature’… In short, the natural means is subordinated to the supernatural meaning… Its appeal is neither natural, nor sentimental. Primarily and fundamentally it appeals to our faith and to our sense of the supernatural.
As sacred art and symbols, Icons are considered doorway or window to eternity. As doorway, icons give us access to the mystery of the Kingdom of God. The icons are also called gateways like Christ is seen as a gateway. They are also seen as windows opening on to the mystery of God and the invisible world, through which we are able to enter this world and contemplate it and which simultaneously project on to us the brilliance of the divinity. An Orthodox theologian: