More than religious art, iconography is an entry point into divine presence.
If you have any sort of prayer or meditation practice, you know that one of the biggest challenges is staying focused. We use all sorts of tools to help settle our busy minds: zeroing in on the breath, choosing a sacred word or mantra to repeat, rolling prayer beads through our fingers with a fervent determination—but have you ever prayed with a holy image?
Windows Into Heaven
Eastern Christianity has long used icons—religious paintings of holy people or scenes from the Bible—as part of devotional life. These paintings are not just art, however. Referred to as “windows into heaven,” the icon is not only a place for you to rest your attention, it is also a gateway, an entry point to let your spirit wander into divine presence.
[Read: “Glimpsing the Divine.”]
Take some time searching online for images of iconography and pay attention to the uncanny style of this type of religious art. You’ll notice the images are often flat, challenging your depth perception, and the figures often have large, piercing eyes that invite your attention. The bold colors are full of meaning as well: white for divine purity, blue for the Kingdom of God, and vibrant reds representing life or love. The style is meant to put you off balance for a moment, to look familiar yet just unusual enough to make you want to ponder it a bit longer.
Another fascinating thing about icons is their bidirectional nature; you can gaze at the figure in the image, and they gaze back. (For years I’ve had on my desk a small icon of Jesus carrying a lamb. Sometimes he invites me to be the lamb, lost, rescued, and carried, and at other times to be the shepherd, helping someone find their way back home.)
Using Icons in Your Practice
To pray with an icon, find a comfortable posture, take a few deep breaths, and gently lay your gaze upon the image. Let your eyes wander over the details without too much focus on any one part. As your mind wanders or when you get distracted, gently return your attention to the icon. Enter through the window into sacred presence, letting the silence fill your awareness and allowing yourself to be transformed by the hallowed countenance looking back at you.
Begin to notice what this figure might be saying to you. What challenge or teaching do they have for you today? What part of you do they see that you’ve been hiding? Sit with these feelings and promptings; let God—or whatever you conceive of as the divine—enter through this sacred doorway.
Traditional or Unorthodox: Let the Icon Challenge You
In depicting the divine, iconography can wade into contentious waters. Certainly, there’s something brave and risky about painting Jesus and other heavenly hosts. Do you give Jesus a beard? What color should his skin be? Should his expression be warm, intense, or perhaps more ambiguous for the viewer to project upon? More importantly, who is worthy enough to become a window into heaven?
While there are countless icons of Jesus, Mary, and the Christian saints, some iconographic artists are expanding the bounds of who’s depicted in this sacred art form. One artist, Kelly Latimore, asks, “Who are the saints that are among us here and now?” She creates icons of people ranging from Mr. Rogers to Mary Oliver to George Floyd. Other artists, like those at Trinity Stores Religious Artwork and Icons, similarly present a wide range of international, lesser-known, and sometimes non-Christian figures as icons. These artists also move beyond the familiar format of Eastern icons, often using the artistic style and language from the culture of the person depicted. For example, they’ve depicted an Apache Madonna, Christ as a Maasai warrior, and an Ethiopian Moses.
In this way, icons can be a tool of liberation as they force us to ask, “Who is holy?” Social evils like prejudice, racism, and misogyny diminish people into objects. The worth of the oppressed person becomes defined by their usefulness to the needs and desires of the oppressor. By depicting divinity in the form and image of the marginalized, the artist reclaims the dignity and worth of the oppressed person. In an act of artistic subversion, the righteousness of the divine figure is transferred onto the oppressed person. Moreover, in the process of using an icon for prayer, there is a power shift between the viewer and the icon. The viewer becomes the object as the icon leers back at them.
These innovative uses of iconography empower the gaze and physical presence of marginalized people in a world that would rather silence and erase them. In this way, we can use these icons to remind us of the sacred in each person, to find God in the unfamiliar, and to be transformed by the powerful gaze of the Other.
For more on tapping into the sacred, check out “Creating an At-Home Altar to Bring Spiritual Peace and Joy.”