Simon Barrow

Seeing towards the heart of things

By Simon Barrow
March 16, 2009

In a recent lecture given at the Royal Academy of Arts, Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, explored aspects of how icons are examples of the way in which in which the divine energy (unconditioned life) may be present in material reality, and in that understanding can be practical aids to meditative prayer. That is, opening oneself to the invitation of God by gazing on the image as a window to illumination.

It is one of the many interesting features of the emerging post-Christendom situation here in the West, that practices and possibilities which were once locked into particular traditions are being rediscovered in others, or in the cultural smorgasbord around us.

Herein lie great opportunities for enrichment, but also for misunderstanding, dumbing down and cheap commodification.There is no venture without risk. But it can be worth it - abundantly so.

Recently I have encountered Anabaptists thinking about iconography (which might previously have been eschewed as idolatry or 'vain ritual') and Catholics helping to re-excavate Protestant piety (

Rowan Williams' variously angled work on icons ( draws on his considerable skills at mining the past in such a way as to make it available in the contemporary without doing violence to its specificity and 'otherness'.

In his lecture on 'Icons and the Practice of Prayer' he does just that. The whole text is here (, but a good summary of what is at stake is outlined near the beginning:

The argument of those opposed to veneration of icons... boiled down to something like this: Jesus Christ is God incarnate. God is not capable of being represented. Either then you represent the humanity of Jesus alone, which is heretical because his humanity is never divorced from his divinity, or you purport to display his divinity which is impossible - and heretical also because any claim to portray his divinity suggests a diminished and trivialised view of God. Therefore, inexorably, you cannot represent Christ truthfully.

That argument in itself takes a good deal for granted about the already current rhetoric of God being beyond all representation and God's essence or substance being beyond all concept, as well as appealing to the indivisibility of the human and the divine in Jesus. But the response of those who defended the cultus of icons was to draw on some of the theories elaborated, particularly in the work of the great theologian of the 7th century, Maximus the Confessor, Maximus of Scythopolis. Maximus (and you can look up his Centuries on Love in the translation of The Philokalia published by Faber some years ago) argued that while we could not see or understand or apprehend the essence of God, we did encounter his action, his 'energy'.

That, in its plural, manifest, interweaving forms, was what percolated through the entire material universe just in virtue of creation, and was raised to an almost immeasurably higher power in the lives of holy people and to its supreme state of intensity in the incarnate humanity of Jesus Christ. In other words, the relationship of the invisible, unknowable God to the material world, whether in Jesus Christ or more generally, was not simply the relationship of a self-enclosed divinity, infinitely distant from all material reality. It was the relationship of an active, outpouring, self-diffusing God whose action, as you might say, soaked through the material so that there was indeed a 'real presence' – and I use the words advisedly – of God within creation, and, by the work of grace and the Holy Spirit, an intensified presence of God in baptized people - even more intensified in those who took their baptism seriously and became saints; and supremely intensified in Jesus Christ.

So it's quite true that you can't represent God. But you're not trying to. You're representing, when painting an icon, the way in which the divine energy is present in a material body. You're representing, you might say, the effect of God on and in the material world. Nor are you therefore trying to represent a humanity divorced from divinity, the humanity of Jesus alone. Represent the humanity of Jesus and you represent a face, a body, a physique, soaked through uniquely with divine energy. And so in the human material reality of Jesus of Nazareth human activity is interwoven with divine activity. There is what Maximus and others called a 'theandric', a divine-human reality going on there, and the icon, the image of Jesus Christ represents that theandric reality - the interweaving (not fusion or confusion) of the endless, divine resourcefulness of agency and love with the particularities of a human life.

In an address seeking to unpack the meaning of Trinitarian language for a post/modern audience (, I ended up resting my case on "that remarkable and famous icon about the Trinity painted around 1410 by Andrei Rublev. If we are swimming intellectually, this image will, I hope, begin to make what is being said [concerning God and our relation to God] more approachable. First, let’s be clear, this isn’t (as the untrained modern eye might assume), a representation of ‘God in three figures’ - a sort of celestial tea-party. Absolutely not. An icon is something to look through, not at. You need to go beyond the immediate appearance to ‘see’ what is ‘hidden within and beyond it’, so to speak. In this case, the three gold-winged figures are the visitors encountered by Abraham as he camps by the oak of Mamre. As he talks with them he finds himself mysteriously in conversation with God through being drawn into their curious communion, symbolized by the chalice. This only works if the picture, like the doctrine, is figurative – the opposite of what our modern minds fear, thank God, which is naive ‘literalness’.

"The life of God is seen by looking at what is happening between these figures, not by objectifying them or substituting one or more of them for God. In particular, as Rowan Williams has pointed out, God’s life is envisioned (rather than pinned-down) in the mutual, non-competitive and continual loving gaze of each toward the face of the other, creating a perfectly free unity of relations – rather than a homogeneity of ‘things’ or ‘stuff’. To appreciate this is to receive divinity as beauty in prayer, and to find in that beauty a loving dependence on the indwelling, expanding love of God. Such a tiny glimpse of divine possibility is then strengthened by living, serving and praying together – seeking to see and respond to more of what God goes on giving as we enter a shared life-journey of transformation.

"This, then, is the 'Trinitarian' task of the church, according to St Paul in Romans. Not to create abstract formulas about God, but to allow the language that flows from Christian encounter with God to remind and teach us so to live, labour and long that the Creator who brings life to the world, the Christ who brings peace and the Spirit who brings love may be understood more and more as the true source and goal of our flourishing."

Also on Ekklesia: 'Byzantium Exhibition at the Royal Academy' -

More here:


© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

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