The hand of God in the dome of the baptistry at Belfast Cathedral, created in 1924 by the Martin sisters (Kay Ringwood/Alamy Stock Photo)

Images of the Invisible God

How icons avoid idolatry


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What happens when we look at an image of a person’s face—a painting, a drawing, a photograph? What the mind registers at first glance is not the parts but the whole: the expression, the demeanor, the visage. Only after we have instantly taken in the whole, recognized the face as the face of a person—a subject who addresses us, and not just an object—do we take in the various parts, as our eyes move over curve of nose, bloom of lip, shade of cheek. But what first gives us entrance to the image of the other is the eyes. We have to stop ourselves and unlock our gaze in order to attend to the various parts that show us what else the face is telling us, what it is disclosing to us about the person whose image it is, the world that the image is a part of and participates in. The face is the map, but the eyes are the legend of the map. A disorientation is required that leads to a further, deeper reorientation—sundering, as the poet Richard Wilbur says, “things and things’ selves for a second finding.” Seeing the image, rather than merely looking at it, draws us deeper into it, illuminates things we failed to notice in the first, necessary instant of recognition. Seeing involves an attentiveness to the face that allows that first moment of recognition, and it deepens our encounter with the person represented in the image.

Gazing in devotion at an icon involves this double movement—a glance, a disorientation, a second finding. The face in an icon demands that the viewer enter into its world on its terms; and its terms are submission, suffering, holiness. One must find oneself addressed. One must first be mastered by the image before one can enter into it—before, as Jean-Luc Marion says, “the gaze of man is lost in the invisible gaze that visibly envisages him.” When we look at the face of Christ in an icon, we are looking at the face of a man, but not only a man. The gaze of faith sees the face of God.

These reiterative attentions—and the demands they entail—feature prominently in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Parker’s Back.” In a tattoo parlor Obadiah Elihue Parker hurriedly flips through a book with options for tattoos of God. He dismisses several images as he rifles through them: “The Good Shepherd, Forbid Them Not, The Smiling Jesus, Jesus the Physician’s Friend.” But then: “On one page a pair of eyes glanced at him swiftly.” In a long series of sentences in which Parker is the acting subject, this is the only one in which he is not. He is caught in a passive moment of address, the image exerting a kind of agency. When he turns back to the page he sees “a flat stern Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes.” Later, when he has gotten the tattoo, he looks at it in a mirror, and “the eyes in the reflected face continued to look at him—still, straight, all-demanding, enclosed in silence.” The eyes disorient his life, turn it completely upside down. “The eyes that were now forever on his back were eyes that were to be obeyed.” What choice does he have but to obey? Under the gaze of those eyes, “he was as transparent as the wing of a fly.” It is this gaze that is the catalyst of Parker’s transfiguration.

Christ the Merciful mosaic icon, twelfth century (Peter Horree/Alamy Stock Photo)

Not long ago I got into a conversation with a couple of friends about images of God. These friends are Dutch Reformed. Though both of them have been deeply shaped by their Reformed faith, neither of them fits the stereotype of the zealous hyper-Calvinist eager to cast down the idols of superstition. Rather, in the course of our conversation they wrestled honestly with the cultural and theological influences of their tradition on their visual sensibility. They were cautious about religious art—particularly art depicting Christ—even while they both admitted to frequently being drawn to its beauty. One of them said, “I love religious art, and yet I always feel a little bit like I shouldn’t—like perhaps my love of aesthetics is overriding any genuinely theological consideration of imagery.” Then she pointed out a particularly beautiful carved icon of Christ walking on the waters, his garments, nimbus, and the waters he touches illuminated with gold. In response, my other friend said, “I find myself drawn into the beauty of the image and the scene that it depicts, but not necessarily taken in by the image of Christ’s face. There is a holding back there, for me.” What struck me, as an outsider to the Reformed tradition, was not the restrictiveness but the thoughtfulness, the restraint, the impulse to hold back in looking on the face of God.


To gaze upon the face of God is a perilous and a terrifying undertaking. The ancients knew that under ordinary circumstances to see God was to be destroyed. Seeing God and living to tell about it was possible only under tightly governed conditions. The prohibition against graven images in the Decalogue seems to rest on this prior assumption. To presume that one could enter into the presence of the divine was to transgress the ordering of the natural and supernatural worlds—the sacred and the profane—and thus to bring violence upon oneself. The law is an intermediary, a means of access to God. At Mount Sinai the Israelites say to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die” (Exodus 20:19). And God tells Moses on the mountain, “You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20).

And after Jacob wrestles the angel at the river Jabbok, he is amazed because, as he says, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered” (Genesis 32:30).

And Isaiah, after seeing “the Lord sitting upon a throne,” says, “Woe is me! For I am lost…for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:1,5).

Ezekiel has a vision of God, but struggles to describe what the vision discloses: “And above the expanse over their heads there was the likeness of a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was a likeness with a human appearance” (Ezekiel 1:26). These various stages of remove—a likeness upon likeness—are appropriate to divine vision not because the form of the Lord’s glory is vague or unintelligible but because it exceeds description. God’s unmediated presence obliterates human categories.

We have lost this understanding—and not, I believe, because it is false. As a result, we have also lost the capacity to think and act as if the prohibition against imaging the Godhead in Scripture and tradition carries moral and ethical weight. To represent the unutterably holy is to risk not only that we will worship the representation but also that we will trivialize it. It is therefore worth asking whether looking upon an image of God can result in a sort of damage. And if it can, a further question follows: Under what conditions might gazing upon an image of God not damage us?

For Christians, it is the Incarnation that makes possible the conditions in which we are not ultimately destroyed by the consuming fire of God’s presence. The Orthodox party at the Second Council of Nicaea claimed that a refusal to allow the image of Christ to be depicted and venerated is tantamount to a refusal of the Incarnation itself—that in the Incarnation matter admits of divine penetration. Indeed, icons in the Orthodox Divine Liturgy admit of every human sense: they are gazed upon and thus seen; they are kissed and thus tasted; they are censed and thus smelled; they are even heard, when on the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy the priest holds the image in front of his face and the icon itself “proclaims” the Synodikon of Orthodoxy. These are ritual acts, performed with care and reverence. The iconic portrayal of Christ and the saints in images, along with the veneration shown to them, is tightly governed by Orthodox tradition because the Orthodox—like Calvinists, and like the Israelites of old—understand the difficulty of looking upon the holy.

In the West images were teaching devices; in the East they were incorporated into worship.

Orthodoxy thus moderates the flow, so to speak, of image-making, maintaining an iconographic tradition that prizes not originality or creativity but a set of conventions that may be innovated on only by working in continuity with the tradition. As my Reformed friend might say, love of aesthetics does not override the theological consideration of imagery.

But by the ninth century the West and the East had already been drifting apart for centuries. The iconoclastic controversy was an Eastern phenomenon, and neither the sacramental theology of icons that provided the basis for their veneration nor the prohibitions against imaging the Father that upheld the Mosaic commandment ever took root in the Latin-speaking world. In the West images were teaching devices; in the East they were incorporated into worship. In the West, they reflected tradition; in the East, they were tradition—a mode of revelation.

In Orthodox iconography, the unrepresentable, invisible presence of God the Father is only “depicted” with gold leaf, a material that cannot be mixed with paint but whose luminance suffuses the entire image. In the words of the Orthodox theologian Pavel Florensky, “The icon is executed upon light.” Gold leaf thus represents not an object but the uncreated light of God’s energies, whose interactions with the created order “constitute the ontological skeleton of a thing.” The medium, in other words, is the metaphysics.

Giotto di Bondone, ‘The Baptism of Christ,’ c. 1305 (Artefact/Alamy Stock Photo)

But in the West after the first millennium (and sometimes in the East too), the invisible Father began to appear. Previously he might have been portrayed symbolically—at Christ’s baptism, say—as a finger or a hand or a golden orb. Slowly, however, he began to be depicted as a head and then a bust, usually in the form of Christ, because according to the Gospel of John, to see the Son is to see the Father. Even so, the Father was still not fully enclosed within the frame.


That changed in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when for the first time the entire outline of God’s perimeter could be traced. While these images were at first relatively indeterminate, they slowly became clearer. And when the Father was depicted, he occupied a separate, “sacred” space—an upper quadrant of the frame, maybe—or he was inscribed within a circle, representing “infinite” space.

It was Michelangelo who crossed, in the words of the art historian Elizabeth Lev, “the ultimate frontier of invisibility.” In the panels of the Sistine Chapel, God the Father is fully present in human form—he has feet and legs and abdominal muscles—and he occupies the same visual space as humanity. After 1512, when the Sistine Chapel was finished and unveiled, God the Father was a fixture within the frame of Western art. This change was, in its own way, as significant as the advent of linear perspective a few decades earlier. Both innovations were rejected by the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Michelangelo, ‘The Creation of Adam,’ 1508–1512 (Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo)

All of this occurred without reference to either the affirmations or the anathemas of John of Damascus and the fathers of the Second Nicene Council. There was in fact almost no discursive reflection or rationale, and surprisingly little scandal or controversy, as the scope of the representable in Western art expanded. So it is a little difficult to understand why these changes occurred. Any explanation is thus of necessity speculative, provisional, and incomplete. Three lines of thought provide rough explanations for these slow but steady changes, all of them converging on the intellectual developments in the West associated with the Renaissance. One line of thought is historical, one is scriptural, and one is philosophical and theological.

First, Lev, a Roman Catholic, argues that as the Middle Ages transitioned into the Renaissance, nature, the body, and human action came to be viewed with a dignity and an honor they had not previously been thought to possess. They thus became worthy sites of meditation in the language of art. As the dignity of the human person and the created order became more embedded in the social imaginary, it was no longer thought that to portray God the Father with a human body besmirched his dignity.

Second, according to the Orthodox theologian Fr. Steven Bigham, the “loss of the sense of typology between the Old and the New Testaments has serious effects even in the realm of art history.” With the emerging historical consciousness in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, “theology became subordinate to history.” The Old Testament was no longer viewed as a set of shadow symbols whose eternal reality is shown forth in full clarity in the New Testament, but as a record of historical events in the deep past. The appearance of the Son in the Old Testament, then, would more likely have been interpreted as an anachronism. This new understanding of the Old and New Testaments, at least in terms of typology, combined with the burgeoning desire among artists to daringly express visual frontiers hitherto unexplored. The Renaissance masters were more interested in expanding the threshold of representation than in remaining within the boundaries of tradition, giving rise in the end to a willingness—an eagerness, even—to clothe “the divinity with form and substance.”

Third, the Protestant art historian Matthew Milliner connects this willingness to depict the Father visually with Duns Scotus’s notion of the univocity of being. If God possesses the quality of being just as any other being does—if the Creator’s existence is in the same category as the existence of his creatures—then he becomes an object within “the sphere of knowledge.” Visual circumscription of the invisible God thus becomes thinkable.

Again, these explanations are very rough, and the last of them, at least, would be controversial among scholars. But whatever the interplay of cause and effect, whatever the mechanisms of change, something profound shifted underfoot over the course of five hundred years, and no explicit theological rationale was demanded or given. In the West by the sixteenth century, the prohibition against graven images seems to have been fully overturned.

So perhaps the Reformers had a right to be cranky. But they disagreed among themselves about the place of art in Christianity. Luther retained a positive role for images in the Church, relegating them to “adiaphora”—things indifferent to essential matters of faith. Calvin, of course, would brook no modulation of the commandment against graven images into the key of the new covenant. In his zeal to rid the Church of its abuse of divine images, he swept away not only the Western tradition of ecclesiastical art but also the distinction between veneration and worship enshrined in the Second Nicene Council. For Calvin, the human propensity for idol-making is simply too strong to be controlled by such sophistries. It is in his discussion of divine images that Calvin utters his famous phrase that the human heart is a “perpetual factory of idols.”

I disagree with Calvin’s assessment, but I’m not sure the current moment calls for a complete repudiation of Calvin or a blanket approbation of all images. In the list of topics on which the Orthodox and the Reformed don’t see eye to eye, the role of images has to be near the top, and I am not trying to make them agree. But I would like to hazard a deeper continuity, a pious inclination that both traditions recognize even if they finally come to different conclusions. Despite the embrace of iconography among the Orthodox, both parties at Nicaea II in the eighth century—and the Reformed Protestants in Geneva and Zurich nearly a millennium later—took as normative a former prohibition: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” To say that this commandment was overturned by the Incarnation is not quite right—not right at all in fact. The two bounds of divine representation articulated by John of Damascus and the Orthodox party in the iconoclastic controversy in the eighth century still pertain: the faithful are not to represent as God things that are not God; and the faithful are not to represent as God a God who is by definition unrepresentable. With the Incarnation, the invisible suddenly existed under the conditions of the visible. The second person of the Trinity became, in the words of Jaroslav Pelikan, “susceptible of portrayal.” But the Father did not.

The power of representational images has not diminished; we are simply less aware of it.

Both the Orthodox and the Reformed have handed on a sense of restraint—the Reformed by damming up the impulse to represent the divine, and the Orthodox by providing bounds, like the banks of a river, to guide the course of valid representation. Their methods diverge, to be sure, but not radically, not at the root.

In the Age of the Screen, however, any representation of Christ or the Father or the Spirit or the Trinity is permissible, and we now have buddy Jesus and golden retriever Jesus and surfer Jesus and all kinds of other Jesuses, to say nothing of images of the Father produced by Titian or Dürer or Michelangelo or Monty Python. The prohibition of the commandment has been overturned and the levies of tradition have been dismantled. The river of images has overflowed its banks, and we are awash in depictions of the face of God.

It would be easy to assume that the ubiquity of images in modern society dilutes their potency, that because of their overwhelming pervasiveness we have become immune to their power. But it would be more accurate to say that the ubiquity of images anaesthetizes us to their effects. The power of representational images has not diminished; we are simply less aware of it.

So the impulse to hold back at Christ’s face that the Reformed tradition has given my friend—I think that’s healthy. It acknowledges that a restriction remains theologically prior to visual permissiveness. My Reformed friends understand the power of the image. They understand the possibility of damage caused by our undisciplined gaze.

Still, if a false image has the capacity for corruption, a true image has the capacity for transfiguration. The Reformed tradition may help us avoid the former, but it also precludes the latter. It is the tempered refinement of the Orthodox iconographic tradition that best holds in tension the potent double capacity of divine images. An icon-painter who produces true icons does not depict the truth of the Church’s spiritual realities by learning or copying techniques, or through talent or creativity. An icon-painter represents those realities by sublimating his own contemplation directly into a theological visual language. One can contemplate the divine in icons because they are themselves contemplations of the divine. For this reason the saints and the fathers of the Church are considered icon-painters every bit as much as the craftsmen who produce the physical images. The one who produces a true icon of Christ—whether in life or on an icon board—cannot have contemplated those realities without opening his spirit to them through the purification of his vision. “His eyes,” says Bigham, “must be transfigured to see the transfigured world.”

This is the transfiguration that is visited upon Obadiah Elihue Parker, who in his suffering becomes an image of the image he bears. When he reaches home after getting his tattoo, he becomes suffused with the gaze of the Byzantine Christ: “All at once he felt the light pouring through him, turning his spider web soul into a perfect arabesque of colors, a garden of trees and birds and beasts.” Parker’s wife, however, is an iconoclast of a particularly unreflective variety, refusing to admit the penetration of God’s presence into the mundane world. As a result, she does not recognize Christ in the image (“It ain’t anybody I know”), and denies her husband’s newfound union with him. When she witnesses his new birth (at the end of the story he is “leaning against the tree, crying like a baby”), her eyes, which have been described twice as icepicks, harden “still more,” and she screams idolatry and beats Parker on the back with a broom. The blows that wound the image of Christ permanently inscribed on Parker’s body wound him as well, thus drawing him into a literal conformity with the sufferings of Christ.

Published in the February 2022 issue: 

Jeff Reimer is an editor at Comment magazine.

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