Worth a Thousand Words: Iconography as Language

Artwork for Iconography as Language

The Pascha Icon-for Easter

“A picture is worth a thousand words,” as the saying goes. This common phrase hints at something deeper: the profound ability of images to communicate ideas. This should not surprise us. Words are signs, pointing to something besides themselves. Images, too, can be signs, when they point beyond themselves to indicate something larger. And for these signs, be they words or images, to be intelligible, there must be a sort of structure in which they can be organized and employed to convey their ideas—there must be something like language. Christian iconography has been called a “visual language.” Here we will treat this concept of a “visual language” in greater depth, hoping to give the reader the basics in developing a “conversational iconography.” By setting out the rules and structures by which this language may be said to operate, we will come to a greater understanding of how iconography functions as a medium of communication and education.

Any language needs rules to govern its usage. Canons of grammar, syntax, and proper diction allow words to be used together in expressing ideas, from the simple (“I am cold”) to the complex (“Language is symbolic action”). To attempt language without such a structure would be like trying to create a portrait of someone by throwing cans of paint at the canvas: it is possible the result may convey what was intended, but highly unlikely. A visual language needs rules just as much as a verbal language. What sort of rules are there, or might there be, for the use of icons?

One attempt at determining some of these rules was made by the evangelical scholar, Telford Work. Work appropriates the “rule theory” of George Lindbeck, which Lindbeck had conceived in the context of the development and expression of doctrine. Just as Lindbeck views the rules within religions as being similar to the rules that govern a culture or a language, so Work applies these cultural-linguistic rule structures to the use of icons in the Christian community. This Work calls “iconomy,” or the “law of icons,” the framework that determines how icons communicate.

Work’s writing explores the facets of one rule he believes governs the use of icons within Christianity: “A particular image or group of images is appropriate in a particular context in the life of the Church when the following conditions are satisfied:

1. It communicates truth to its observers.

2. It neither discourages worship of God nor misdirects worship away from God.”

The various elements of the rule are then expanded upon. Work notes that “‘appropriate’ carries positive force. An image considered appropriate has not traditionally been viewed neutrally, but positively: “it should be where it is, and it is harmful to remove it.” As to the “observers,” the oft-repeated notion that icons were “books for the illiterate” is opposed by Work, and this opposition is a crucial part of his definition: rather than being targeted toward an unlearned underclass, “images must be treated as potentially educational (or misleading) for all Christians.” Thus, the language of icons is not an elite tongue, but a vulgar one, intended for a wide use.

The first numbered portion of the rule emphasizes the centrality of communication in iconography. As in any language, the point of iconography is to pass on an idea from one subject to another; and as in any language, the effort can only be deemed successful if the idea is grasped by the viewer of the icon, for “an image is effective and thus proper not when symbolic meaning is transmitted, but when it is received.” Only when reception has taken place has communication taken place, and thus only when the meaning of an icon is understood by the viewer, beyond its aesthetic value, has the icon served its purpose. Approaching iconography as a language allows us to consider necessary questions within the discipline that might either be ignored, or receive insufficient attention, “such as the ability of any graphical language to communicate transcendent divinity, the need for the Church and its visitors and newcomers to know the image’s language, the way languages change over time, and how to respond when communication fails.”

This ability to communicate effectively is another key to the first numbered portion of the rule. Debates on the role of icons in the Church have often turned on the question of whether, or how, icons can communicate anything about God. Consider the controversy around the time of the Second Council of Nicaea. Some parties of iconoclasts (those who would literally “smash icons”), the agraptodocetists, objected to icons of Christ because, they claimed, by making a depiction of Christ one is denying Christ’s true divinity. If Christ is God, and God is infinite, then Christ, too, must be infinite—there is then no way to circumscribe him, and thus there is no way to depict him. The iconodules (those who “adored icons”) counter-argued that this position went too far, and resulted in denying Christ’s true humanity. If Christ is truly man, they said, he must have a certain hair color, a certain eye color, a certain height, a certain shape of chin, and so on. Some of the iconoclasts, in defending the infinitude of Christ, went so far as to say that Christ had every hair color, every eye color, every possible permutation of feature! The argument was dismissed as absurd, and the council fathers concluded that, because Christ has a true human nature, that includes having determinate features, and because he has determinate features, he can be depicted. Thus, the truth of the very nature of Christ is at stake in the debate on icons. If iconography could not communicate truth, it would be no language at all.

Perhaps, we ought to give it an even wider berth, though. Work notes that often the propriety of icons is determined negatively, that it “has to do more with abuse than with use”—in other words, the question is usually, “Will this lead to error?” rather than “Does this perfectly encapsulate truth?” Few if any would try to argue that any icon could exhaustively depict some aspect of divine truth; the most we can ask is that it not lead us astray. This via negativa is reflected in the second numbered portion of the above-mentioned rule, which is concerned that icons not “discourage” or “misdirect.” This criterion we make of icons is consistent with what we demand of our use of words, particularly within theology and in formulating the Christian faith. While we strive for clarity and precision, we recognize that perfection is virtually impossible in our expression, and we ask of ourselves at least that our words are not ambiguous, or misleading, or easily mistaken. We recognize that at times, words fail to capture the moment; while they may not always do justice, we hope at least that they not do injustice. This is why Work considers it to be another rule of iconography that “no image can truly communicate the transcendent essence or work of God.”

From this point in his article, Work attempts to identify rules specific to various distinct Christian groups: Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, Reformed Christians, etc. Here, we might have room to critique Work. If iconography is to be considered a language, how do we treat the different attitudes towards, and uses of, iconography within these Christian communities? How do we extend the analogy? Do the different communities equate to different dialect groups, all essentially speaking the same language but with peculiar modifications and additions? This option seems less fitting. Dialects within a language are mutually intelligible (by and large, with the occasional exception) and tend to operate according to the same rules as the standard from which they all derive. The use of icons within these disparate Christian groups, however, is so varied, with some groups promoting what other groups disallow, that the rules governing it seem hardly transferable from one to the other—in other words, the iconographies of the groups are rarely “mutually intelligible,” as thus would analogously constitute different languages. (Notice that Work, in his essay, was only able to identify two rules common to all Christians.) Rather, it seems that the better analogue is that of the relationship between offshoot languages and a mother tongue, e.g. French, Italian, and Romanian to Latin. Each has its roots in the same original language, but events over time have shaped each into a unique system of speech that (usually) is not mutually intelligible with the others.

The reason for this should be clear from what has been said above. Icons are intended to convey the truths of the Christian faith. Yet, all too often this is the point of division between communities of Christians. When groups cannot agree upon doctrine, as a matter of course, they naturally will not be able to agree on how to communicate doctrine; and indeed, if Marshall McLuhan is right that “the medium is the message,” then certain media will be seen as inappropriate for the intended message. Work recognizes this when he notes a tendency within the Reformed tradition: “One stream in Reformed thought traced medieval excess to the sensuality of its worship, and drew upon Erasmian humanism’s renewed emphasis on the spiritual as transcendent to distinguish radically between ‘material’ versus ‘spiritual’ worship. This dichotomy has led to a dualistic streak that persists to this day among many Protestants.” Where this dualism is operative, and the spiritual and material are seen as opposed, Christians draw back from depictions of the divine or the holy using material media; and when this happens, they can no longer “speak” iconography. When theological and philosophical presuppositions differ, as when grammatical and verbal structures become fissiparous, communication breaks down.

If iconography is to be a common language, it needs a commonly understood structure. Where can we find such a basis, an Ur-iconography, if you will? Work suggests that the basic icon rules he identifies as operative in all Christian communities point to Orthodoxy as a possible source. On a most fundamental level, Work thinks that “rule theory may allow the Church to draw on the resources of Orthodox iconology without having to reproduce its philosophical presuppositions in every Christian culture.” This acknowledges both the helps, and hindrances, that a focus on Orthodox iconography would bring to the issue. In suggesting the Orthodox view as a potential framework for a widely intelligible Christian iconography, we must recognize that certain Orthodox presumptions about icons clash with those of other communities.

For example, while Reformation churches tend toward the aforementioned split between the spiritual and material, with grace opposed to matter, “Orthodox theologians have long seen icons as analogous to a sacrament, often using quasi-sacramental language to call the icon not a mere representation of events, but ‘Grace incarnate, a presence and an offering of life and holiness… a life-giving presence.’” Indeed, even more strongly regarding the icon itself, “Orthodox Christians like to speak of the materials of an icon as being deified and sacralized by their role in conveying the image of Christ, or by a member of his eschatological body, the Church.” And even among Catholic iconographers, who ostensibly share so much in doctrinal presuppositions with the Orthodox, the rigidity of Orthodox style might rankle those who would embrace the diverse palettes of El Greco, Da Vinci, and Fra Angelico, since “the rules of Byzantine style, rooted both in classical Greek style, and in the distinctive patristic theological vision, govern Orthodox iconography so canonically that even minor stylistic variations cause uproars.” Likewise, the Orthodox might object to these Latin Church artists as being too fleshly, too bound to the material; as Work notes, “what Orthodox critics find objectionable in Western images is that their so-called realism obscures the reality that is transcendent—the real reality.” Significant differences in substance and style separate the Orthodox iconographers from their fellow Christians. Orthodox iconography is much more comfortable sacrificing certain aesthetic dimensions for the sake of symbolic meaning: examples include the depiction of angels with disproportionately large eyes so as to communicate their wisdom, and making the size of figures in the frame relative to their importance, e.g., Christ is significantly larger than John the Baptist. Such practices may strike the Western viewer as odd and unsettling, and worse yet, unintelligible. Yet, a shift toward mutual intelligibility will require some movement, and if the Orthodox method is to serve as the model, it would require more movement on the part of others. This reality should be recognized.

Let us discuss in more detail what the Orthodox philosophy of iconography is—its grammar and syntax, if you will. The Orthodox theologian, Stavros Fotiou, explicitly identifies Orthodox iconography as a sort of language, which aids in the instruction of the faithful in the faith: “What Orthodox iconography preaches in its own artistic way, this also Orthodox education conveys to its students…. Hence, the study of this ‘new language’ of the icons, the thorough knowledge of the ‘Iconographie Grammar’, constitutes a fundamental obligation for Orthodox Christian education.” This maps onto Work’s first enumerated rule of “iconomy” very well, and fits our concept of iconography as a language. The Orthodox view of iconography is as a method of instruction and an aid in prayer.

In Orthodox iconography, virtually every feature, every shape and curve and color and proportion, is significant; each stylistic choice is an adjective or adverb modifying the message; each feature is a word, pointing beyond itself. The art is intended to represent reality, not as a photograph might, but as a frame filled with visual metaphors, as this description by Fotiou of the depiction of saints indicates:

The saint, the authentic human being, is the person who acquiesces to being filled with the light of God, who allows the love of God to transform their life. This is the reason why in icons, the saint is illuminated and illuminates at the same time, the saint is an incarnate “witness to the light” …. Thus, ontology and aesthetics coincide.

As the following quotation from Fotiou is especially instructive in learning the “vocabulary” of Orthodox iconography, it is worth quoting in full:

This transformation, which the human being experiences in the entirety of their psychosomatic makeup, is rendered by the icon in a special way: The eyes of the pictured saints are painted in the shape of an olive, in order to reveal their esoteric purity and peace. The mouth is painted small, devoid of every passion and wickedness, bearer only of sweetness and good words. The ears are shown in their entirety, incessantly attending to the divine word. The nose is painted elongated, because it does not just perform a physiological function but is primarily enjoying the fragrance of God. In a similar way, the hands of the saints are depicted in many icons longer than normal, stretching out to receive and embrace God and their fellow-humans. Finally, the forehead of saints who were great theologians is painted protruding “as if in it is contained the entire divine wisdom and the wealth of theological knowledge.” In this manner, as also by the given forms, the icon presents the human person transformed both inwardly and outwardly.

Every spatial feature of the person depicted signifies their holiness, their connection to God, their ongoing apotheosis or divinization (becoming “partakers in the divine nature,” as 2 Peter 1:4 says). Even time is transformed in icons, as in depictions in which several events that happened years apart are juxtaposed within the same frame: “Iconography, by presenting together in the same icon events that are apart in time, is putting forward liturgical time, the transcendence of every fragmentation of time,” as Fotiou says. Icons reach toward eternity, and thus, “as a ‘window to eternity,’ iconography presents the beauty of God, the beauty of humanity and the loveliness of creation. It reminds us in this way that ‘beauty will save the world.’” There is an inherently eschatological dimension to iconography. In the Orthodox conception, the beauty of the material world is not a temptation to be feared, but a manifestation of the glory of God that is to be praised, appreciated, and put to good use in the service of the building up of the Church.

This proposal can be seen as both descriptive and prescriptive. It is descriptive in that the use of icons first flourished in the East, and subsequent iconographic styles elsewhere in the Christian world were constructed using the Eastern model as a base, so that in one sense the Orthodox style really is the Ur-iconography of Christianity. Yet this proposal is prescriptive in that, as has been discussed above, the current reality is a fractured Christianity with doctrinal splits, and divergent aesthetic sensibilities, and a shared iconography would require a movement toward a shared aesthetic (which may, perhaps, someday eventually lead us back to shared doctrine).

That last parenthetical point raises important questions on this issue: what is the relationship between doctrine and expression? To what degree can communities share a common form of communication if their worldviews differ? Is shared doctrine required for a shared iconography? Will the iconographies of different groups only be mutually intelligible to the degree that they share doctrine? Can there be a unified iconography of Christianity if there is not a unified Christianity? It seems the answer is a conditional one: it depends on which doctrines are disputed. Catholics and Orthodox tend to share both doctrine and aesthetics to a large degree, at least in the most fundamental ways. Both have an appreciation for the material world which seems often to be lacking or at least lagging within the Reformation communities. Both have a sacramental sense which carries over into their approaches to art—both affirm that the material is capable of conveying the spiritual, as seen most eminently in the Incarnation of Our Lord. A universal Christian iconography requires a universal Christianity. Otherwise, in our visual language, we might use the same words, but we won’t mean the same thing. Perhaps a greater and wider appreciation for the beauty of icons will lead us to share the truths they communicate, and make us to be one.

Nicholas Senz About Nicholas Senz

Nicholas Senz is a husband and father, and is the Director of Religious Education at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Mill Valley, CA. He is a managing editor at Catholic Stand and a Master Catechist. Nicholas holds Master's degrees in philosophy and theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA, and blogs at Two Old Books. (http://nicksenz.blogspot.com/)


  1. Avatar Dr. William C. Zehringer says:

    Dear Nicholas: I have just read, with pleasure and profit, your erudite and judiciously phrased article on
    icons. And I could not but be reminded of one of Flannery O’Connor’s most unsettling stories, in fact, the last that she published before her death, “Parker’s Back.” (It may be found in the collection of her fiction entitled, “Everything That Rises Must Converge.”)

    Readers who remember that riveting tale of unbending and adamant religious belief will never quite
    be able to forget the story’s chilling conclusion. A man has managed to have a tattoo of the head of
    Christ affixed to his back, in order to please his termagant wife, an unbending biblical fundamentalist.
    In the end, how deluded he was. For he was rewarded for his attempt to appease his wife by her
    driving him out of their home, while cursing him as a blasphemer, a worshiper of “graven images.”

    Can there be a more stark portrait of the sad division between Christians, when even an attempt
    to share a vision of our Savior can result in such an infernal quarrel?



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