Icons & Scripture


by Fr Stephen Freeman

The great summary statement of theology at the Seventh Ecumenical Council is succinct: Icons do with color what Scripture does with words. The first time I read this, I was a graduate student at Duke University, studying Systematic Theology. I wound up writing my thesis on the “Icon as Theology.”

What was new for me – and the thought that became central in my mind – was the inherent possibilities in the simple statement of the Seventh Council. To make the link between icon and Scripture is not quite the same thing as saying, “Icons tell a story.” Many icons do indeed tell a story – but they do so in a particular manner. Thus it is first off quite interesting to say that you can tell a story with color.

Icons indeed tell stories – but they do so in a very unique manner. Icons are not cartoons. Cartoons tell stories, but usually through a certain caricature of reality. They are like little movies with most of the action removed. I was a great lover of comic books as a young boy – indeed I had a friend who was a great lover of “Classic Comics” all the way through high school, since those comic books often provided a shortened version of some of the books we were required to read as literature.

But icons are not cartoons. They fairly early on developed an artistic “grammar,” a way of saying things with color that words could not always easily repeat. In that sense, icons do something with color that Scripture does with words – but Scripture does things with words that sometimes require icons to help us read.

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