Speech during the graduation and award giving ceremony, of the students of the hagiographic art class, at the ‘Makarios III of Cyprus’ Seminary. October 7th 2017.

Reverend Fathers and Deacons, Our brother and distinguished Iconographer, Andreas Narmala, Beloved students of our first ever class of Hagiographic art, Brothers and sisters in Christ,

I greet you all in the Name of the father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today is a very special and unique day for our Orthodox Church, and not only in Kenya but indeed in Africa. Today we witness an official graduation ceremony for the Hagiographic Arts students. Many of you who are graduating today, believed in you artistic abilities of bringing an idea to life through a pencil and paper. However, during your 2 short courses, you have been introduced to a whole different realm of art; the divine art of Church Icons.

The Theology of the Icon which you have been introduced to includes more than the basic theory of the transfiguration of beauty. It is a fundamental element in the entire body of Orthodox Tradition.

To many, the icon is just that; an image of a saint. However, in the Orthodox Church’s understanding, it bears some very important aspects; theological, anthropological, cosmic, liturgical, mystical and ethical. I will make an attempt today, for purposes of this graduation, to consider the Orthodox icon in its theological, cosmic, liturgical, and mystical aspects.

The theological meaning of the icon

The icon is above all theological. It has been described as “contemplation in colour”, while being “a reminder of the prototype in the highest”. The icon reminds us of the Almighty God as the Archetype in whose image and likeness every human being is created. The theological significance of the icon, therefore, is that it speaks in the language of art about dogmatic truths revealed to human beings in Holy Scripture and Church Tradition.

The Holy Fathers saw the icon as a Gospel for the illiterate. St. Gregory the Great, Pope of Rome taught that Images are used in churches so that the illiterate could at least look at the walls to read what they are unable to read in books. This was also reiterated by St. John of Damascus, he explained that the image is a memorial, just what words are to a listening ear. What a book is to the literate, an image is to the illiterate. The image speaks to sight as words to hearing; therefore through the mind we enter into union with it.

The cosmic meaning of the icon

While the principal character of an icon is a person, its background often represents an image of the transformed cosmos. In this sense, an icon is cosmic since it shows nature but nature in its eschatological and changed state.

According to Christian understanding, the original harmony which nature enjoyed before the fall was desecrated by an act of disobedience. Nature, therefore, suffers together with man and similarly, awaits redemption together with man. Thus says St. Paul the Apostle: “For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Rom. 8:19-22).

The icon mirrors the eschatological, apokatastatic, redeemed and deified state of nature. While in an icon we see images of almost the entire creation, from birds to fish to donkeys to trees and grass, yet, all are subjected to a distinct design and constitute a single church in which God reigns. They all appear to fulfill the call of the psalmist “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!”

The liturgical meaning of the icon

The icon’s purpose is purely liturgical; it is a fundamental part of liturgical space, which is the church, and an essential participant in divine services. The icon is should not be viewed as an image intended for private devotional veneration, its theological dwelling is predominantly the liturgy in which the message of the Word is complemented by the message of the icon.  Outside church and liturgy, the icon largely appears to lose its intended meaning. However, while every Christian has the right to have an icon or icons at home, hung on the wall or at a prayer stand, they have this right only in so far as the home is a continuation of the church and their lives a continuation of the liturgy.

The icon, the Gospel and the other sacred objects, collectively participate in the Liturgy. Just as the Gopsel in the tradition of the Orthodox Church is not only a book for reading but also a liturgically revered object, where, during the liturgy the Gospel is solemnly offered for veneration and kissing to the faithful. Similarly, the icon as “Gospel in color” is an object not only to be contemplated but also to be venerated with prayer. It is not the painted board before which a Christian bows, or which a priest or deacon censes, but before the person depicted on it.  St. Basil the Great teaches that the honour paid to the image passes on to the prototype.

The mystical meaning of the icon

The icon in its mystical aspect is inseparably bound up with the spiritual life of an Orthodox Christian, together with his experience of communion with God and that of his relationship to the spiritual world. Simultaneously the icon reflects the entire Church’s mystical experience, not only that of her individual members. That being said, an artist’s personal spiritual experience cannot reflect this mystery in his icons; rather it is only the life of the Church which can perceive and test it. Many iconographers and indeed masters from the past possessed profound inner spiritual life. However, they seldom painted “from themselves”; Church tradition is deeply entrenched in their iconographic works, which embraces the total age-old experience of the Church. Many revered icon-painters were also great contemplators and mystics.

So, beloved spiritual Children, what you have set foot in is not merely a work of art. It is a deep Theological, Mystical, Liturgical and cosmic journey. With you and the talents you have acquired, we are assured of continuity of the sacred art of Icon painting for the Orthodox Church in Africa. I believe that it is time now that we open a new chapter for our Church, by opening a studio for making Icons.

I sincerely wish to thank our brother Andreas, who has taken his time to patiently teach our people the sacred hagiographic art. I also wish to convey our deepest gratitude to Archbishop Leo of Finland and the entire fraternity of the Church of Finland whose generosity has gifted us with this priceless knowledge. I also congratulate Fr. Evangelos for tirelessly coordinating the entire process.

I exhort you, beloved children in Christ, not to sleep on the knowledge which has been imparted to you. Make your teacher proud by ensuring that our local parishes, starting with your own local parish, are with time filled with majestic Icons of the Saints of our Church. Whatever blessings the Lord may bring your way, let them find you joyfully doing His work.

Congratulations once more and God bless you all.
Archbishop Makarios

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