The icons of Yaroslavl

In my travels for the Monastery or the University, I’m often asked (usually by non-Orthodox or recent converts) about iconography: what is its place in Christian worship? What are icons good for? I find it amazing that the question even exists. For me, it’s like asking what is the use of love. None, really, except love itself. Only the experience of love itself can justify love. I am convinced that the same applies to iconography – only the true experience of an icon itself can justify iconography.

Yes, an icon is a theological statement: just as depictions of God were heretical in the Old Testament, it has become heretical after God’s Incarnation to claim the impossibility of such depiction. God took on our human nature, God took on human flesh and bones – real flesh and bones, like yours and mine. As such, this human body – its shape, its colours,its consistency – can and indeed should be depicted in painting precisely as an affirmation of the reality of Christ’s body and Incarnation. An icon is a much stronger, much more direct, much more striking theological statement about Christ’s Incarnation than any written dogma.

Yes, icons are also ways to visually represent the history of our salvation. Painting can do the same thing writing does, only that it works differently. On the one hand, people who cannot read (children, the illiterate, those speaking a different language that the language of worship) can still follow the story of the Gospel through these visual depictions. On the other hand, even those who can read relate and understand things differently when these stories are represented visually through painting. It’s one thing to read a poem on a page, a different thing to hear someone recite it out-load and an entirely different experience to hear it arranged musically, as a song. The same applies here. The same story about Christ’s pain in the Garden of Gethsemane can impact you in entirely different ways when you read about it or when you see it painted in an icon.

Anyway, icons can do something else too. This is something I’ve discovered personally, through my own experience. There are people who cannot read, but there are also people who will not read. I know, because I was one of them. For these people, there is only one hope, and that hope is God’s direct intervention in their lives, and – sometimes – this intervention takes the form of a real experience of an icon. When people ask me about icons, I wish I could put them all in my pocket and just fly them to the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow or the two extraordinary icon museums of Yaroslavl: the one in the Kremlin and the one in the Metropolitan Palace. To me, a monk and a priest, these museums are some of the (if not the) most transformative and holiest spaces I was blessed to visit and experience.

The icons of Yaroslavl are large, amazing ‘theses’ about the deepest Christological dogmas. They reveal ancient truths and point to new revelations. A Psalm, a hymn, a story, the history of a place, of an icon, of a saint, even a dogma – the iconographic masters of ancient Yaroslavl seem to be able to take anything and transform it into creations that are just as spectacular as works of art, as they are as theological writings. I was crushed by the intensity of these icons. I had to take long breaks between rooms, to sit down and gather strength as I moved from one section to the other. The museums are simple and unassuming buildings, sometimes almost falling apart; the light is terrible and the general aspect of these spaces is simply unfit for a museum. And yet, time after time, among these strange and imposing figures looking at me with their other-worldly eyes, I rediscover a sense of purpose to my life, a sense of reality of God’s presence. As for for the shortest second in the history of my life, I am touched by Someone and this touch both heals everything and re-opens all wounds at the same time.