An iconographer in Orthodox tradition is one who paints icons – uses lines and colors to “write” theology. Iconographers often distinguish between themselves and “artists” on the basis that the artist is trying to create new things reflecting his or her own unique individualism while the iconographer is attempting to reveal the image (Greek = icon) of God in each human being. The iconographer is interested in revealing Christ in whom we can see God, and the saints in whom that image of God is visible as well. Thus it is always God who has set the pattern for what the iconographer paints.
Iconography is theologically experienced as an essential truth in Orthodoxy because it does manifest the basis of the incarnation and of theosis. The truth of the world according to traditional Christian experience is that all manners of dualism are rejected. The physical and spiritual are not unrelated opposites, but rather both belong to the nature of things as created by God. Humans were created to experience the divine through their senses, through touch, sight, hearing, taste; as we find written in 1 John 1:1 :
“We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life…”
The physical and the spiritual are part of the same created reality. Indeed the physical senses were also the very means through which God intended us to experience Him, because God created the world so that we could encounter Him through empirical reality. Divinity and humanity were meant to be in union and communion not in enmity and opposition. Dualism is fully rejected; God is revealed through the physical world as we read in Romans 1:19-20
“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse…”
An iconographer paints, some prefer to say “writes,” on a physical board or canvas using paints and colors to help us see Christ, the incarnate Word of God who became man some 2000 years ago. As Christ says, “he who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). The iconographer uses the things of physical creation to portray the truth about the incarnation: the Word becomes flesh thus revealing what humans and all creation were meant to be.
There is a sense in which each Christian is an iconographer, even those who can’t draw or paint even the most elementary “stick figures.” For each of us is supposed to reveal “the Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20) through our own lives. Thus we are always painting a living icon of Christ through how we live, how we treat others, through what we say and what we do. St. Paul says to the Galatian Christians that Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified before their very eyes (Galatians 3:1). He didn’t show them a movie! He may have preached to them, but he also was a witness to them through his very life. His lifestyle made him an iconographer.
Painting icons requires artistic skill, theological knowledge and a spiritual life of being a disciple of Christ. When we live the life in Christ, we are in effect being witnesses to the world and are painting a living icon. We are using the spiritual gifts we have received and the skills we have learned as disciples to portray Christ in the living icon of our lives. In fact we are painting two icons.
First through our lives and discipled commitment to Christ, we are portraying Christ and Christ crucified to those around us. They can see Christ in us, and thus our lives are a constant witness to Christ, and perhaps the best (maybe only!) opportunity for some to encounter Christ in their own lives. If my life is an icon of Christ – how am I portraying Him (my Lord) to friends, family, co-workers and neighbors?
Second, through the life we live we are always revealing that image (icon) of God which is imprinted on our hearts. Each Christian, really each human, is created in the image of God – God’s icon (This is the very reason that Orthodox priests and deacons cense both icons and people in Church!) Each person is an icon – in the image – of God. We always are painting that personal icon through what we do and say and in how we treat others. If we only think of icons as those wooden painted objects which we venerate and before which we offer up our prayers to God, we have forgotten the notion of living icons. The saints are not painted portraits of those long dead adorning the walls of churches to remind us of an ancient past, but rather they are alive in Christ constantly interceding for us. Additionally, each human is created in the image of God and thus each of us is a living icon of God! We each are to be that saint in whom the image of God is visible to all.
In our lives we are constantly “painting” a living portrait of that image of God in us. Our lives are the canvas on which we paint the two icons: the image of Christ our Lord, and the icon of God in us.