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Icons in Anglicanism

Icon of All the Saints of Britain

In the seventeenth century, Bishop Lancelot Andrewes asserted that the basis for authority in Anglicanism is to be found in one canon of Scripture, two testaments, three creeds, four councils, and five centuries of patristic teaching.  In limiting the authority of the ecumenical councils to the first four, Andrewes, and those who follow him in this, would appear to deny the significance and authority of three of the seven generally recognized ecumenical councils of the early church.  These three councils fall outside of Andrewes' "five centuries".  Also, Andrewes was writing at the time of the Reformation when images, the particular issue addressed by the seventh council (Nicaea II in 787), were a particular  sticking   point  for  protestants.   However,  it would be a mistake to say that the Second Council of Nicaea, which brought an end to the iconoclastic controversy and established the legitimacy of icons in the architecture and worship of the Church, was concerned only with images.  For the fathers of the council, the issue of images, or icons, was a Christological issue:  the material depiction Christ and the saints in icons is an affirmation of the reality of his Incarnation and bodily Resurrection and of the restoration of the image of God in all who are sanctified in him. The icon of All Saints of Great Britain and Ireland is copyright St Seraphim's Trust, http://www.iconpainter.org.uk, and is used by permission.

Before the Reformation, images abounded in English churches.  Wood and stone carving, stained glass, painted and woven work depicted God and his saints, biblical stories, and the lives of the saints.  Much of this work was essentially decorative and educational, but a lot of it was also devotional:  for example, statues of Christ and the saints were often the centerpieces of elaborate shrines to which the faithful would often resort for prayer.  In fact, authority for the use of images--even icons--in English Christianity may be found nearly two centuries before the Second Council of Nicaea:  when St. Augustine arrived in 597 to begin his mission to the English, a picture of Jesus Christ painted on a board was carried before him.

13th century icon of Christ from St. Catherine's Monastery,Mount SinaiMany images were destroyed at the Reformation, but some survived and in time new ones were created.  It is said that a group of Orthodox clergy who were being shown around an English church in the 20th century weretold that the stained glass windows were "Anglican icons".  The comparison is not entirely accurate, as windows are not generally venerated as icons are.  The function of stained glass both before and after the Reformation was educational and decorative, not devotional.  Nevertheless, the point was made that images were never completely eliminated from Anglican church architecture.  And later in the 20th century, actual icons, painted on prepared boards, began to appear with great frequency in Anglican churches, and also in the homes of Anglican Christians, just as crucifixes and other devotional objects were introduced in response to the catholic revival of the 19th century.  It would be fair to say that for many  Anglicans icons are a  variation  on stained glass--decorative and educational, an attractive addition to the fabric of our churches, bringing an ecumenical flavor to them.  However, others are finding  meaning in the theology of the icon and its use in prayer. 

Orthodox Christians reverence icons because they are a particular way in which the presence of God is made known. While icons have a sacramental quality, people do not worship the icon itself.  Icons have been described as "windows to heaven."  When praying in front of an icon, it is said that a person looks through the icon to the heavenly reality behind it.  To show reverence to an icon is to worship God.  The orthodox understanding of icons, clarified in the decrees of the Second  Council of  Nicaea, makes  a  careful  distinction between worship, which may be given to God alone, and reverence, which may be shown to icons and other symbols which direct us to God.

Icon of St. Alban, First Martyr of Britain by the hand of Elizabeth HudginsThe principal subject of icons is the person of Jesus Christ who is the "image (Greek: εικων–‘icon’) of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation" (Colossians 1:15). Icons of Christ are a graphic expression of our creed that the invisible God took on our flesh in order that we might see and know him personally. Icons depict the divinity of the Son of God in the fullness of his humanity. Icons also depict the saints in whom the image of God has been restored through their union with Christ. All people are created in the image of God. That image has been broken and distorted by sin, but in Christ it has been restored. The unique two-dimensional style of icons intentionally avoids a strict realism in order to emphasize the fact that the image of God transcends our earthly existence.

Just as light figures significantly in the art of stained glass, light is an important characteristic of icons. The eyes of people portrayed in icons are never depicted as reflecting light. Rather, an icon and the person depicted radiate light from within, the divine Light who is the second Person of the Trinity.  It is this Light which illumines the saints who are, in turn, the lights of the world in their generations.

The Orthodox describe the process of painting an icon as "writing" because icons are an expression of the Gospel, a medium by which the Word made flesh is proclaimed to the world.  The actual writing of an icon is more than a technique or artistic process.  It is a form of prayer in itself and traditional iconographers prepare for their work by prayer and fasting.   As icons have found their way into Anglican churches and prayer, interest in writing icons has also arisen and iconographers are being trained in the traditions passed down through the ages in the East.

In Orthodoxy, the blessing of an icon takes place in three ways.  First, there is the writing of the icon itself, surrounded and lifted up by the fasting and prayer of the iconographer.  Secondly, it is customary for a new icon to be placed on the Altar during the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.  Finally, the icon may be blessed by a priest or bishop. 

A simple form of blessing is found in the Book of Occasional Services of the Episcopal Church:


Christ is the icon of the invisible God; all things were created through him and for him.

V.  The Word became flesh:
R.  And dwelt among us.

Let us pray.  (Silence)

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior manifested your glory in his flesh, and sanctified the outward and visible to be a means to perceive realities unseen:  Accept, we pray, this representation of _________; and grant that as we look upon it, our hearts may be drawn to things which can be seen only by the eye of faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Icon of St. Columba, by the hand of a Sister of the Community of the Holy Spirit

Another, more elaborate, form of blessing draws on the rich tradition of icons in the East:

Priest: Blessed be the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, both now and forever, and unto the ages of ages.  Amen.

O heavenly King, Consoler, Spirit of Truth, everywhere present and filling all things, Treasury of blessings and Giver of life: Come, dwell within us; cleanse us of every stain and save our souls, O Good One.  Amen.

The Priest censes the icon(s) while the following is said:

Holy God,
Holy Mighty,
Holy Immortal,
Have mercy upon us.

Our Father....

The Lord be with you
And with thy spirit.
Let us pray.

Ethiopian Icon of the Mother of GodLord God, thou art glorified in the Holy Trinity whom neither mind can comprehend nor word have power to express, whom no man has anywhere seen, of whom we only learn from the Holy Scriptures and the teaching of the Apostles. Thus we believe and thus we confess thee: God the Father without beginning, and thy Son of one substance, and thy Spirit equal in sovereignty and essence. As the Old Testament telleth us of thy coming in the form of three angels appearing to the Patriarch Abraham, so after the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ from the ever-virgin Mary thou didst show us the image of the most holy Trinity in his Baptism by John in the Jordan River and in his radiant Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. Thou didst teach us also to reverence the Icon of our Lord Jesus Christ not made by hands, miraculously revealing his image on the handkerchief sent to Abgar, King of Edessa, diseases. So, too, thou hast not rejected but dost  and with it healing him and many others of divers diseases. So, too, thou hast not rejected but dost accept the Icons and likenesses of the Saints who worthily served thee.  And now, O God, do thou thyself look upon these Icons which thy servants have fashioned in honor of thee, one God glorified in the Holy Trinity; and of thy only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ; and of hismost pure and most blessed Mother, our Lady, the Mother of God and ever-virgin Mary; and to the memory of thy Saints NN. Bless and sanctify them and grant to them power of healing and of driving away all the snares of the devil. Grant that all who zealously pray before them may be heard, and confer upon them the mercy of thy love and grant to them thy grace. For thou art our sanctification, and to thee we give glory: to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and for ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Priest: Peace be with you all.
And with thy spirit.

Sprinkling the Icons with Holy Water, the Priest says:

These Icons are sanctified by the grace of the most Holy Spirit through the sprinkling of this Holy Water, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

After sprinkling with Holy Water, the Priest censes the icons. He makes the sign of the Cross on each icon and says the Collect proper to the icon.

Icon of St. Thomas of Canterbury, by the hand of Henry Shirley

The use of icons in prayer and worship is not an esoteric matter.  A number of helpful books have been written for westerners on the subject, but it is most important for the worshiper to understand that venerating an icon is nothing more or less than meeting God very much as we do in other forms of prayer.  In a manner similar to the sacraments, an icon uses the matter of earth to communicate the reality of the divine.  It is not the beauty of the icon that is important but the simple fact of its material reality which reminds us that God himself took on our flesh and that he renews us and all of creation in all of its earthiness.  Icons are indeed windows to heaven.  They do not transport us to a mystical state of being but allow us to see with our own eyes. 

Icon of a Guardian Angel, by the hand of Judith KaestnerOne may simply stand before an icon while praying, with or without words, with the eye and the heart open to God's presence.  But the physical nature of the icon invites us to active engagement, to make the sign of the cross, to touch the icon.  One may kiss the margin of the icon or the hand or foot of Christ or the saint who is portrayed.  It is also appropriate to touch the forehead to the icon, bringing the conscious praying mind physically to the presence that is communicated through the icon.  Finally, one may light a candle or a lamp.  A flame burning before an icon is both a prayer to God and a way of affirming that we, too, are called to bear the Light of Christ into the world.

The use of religious symbols, such as crosses, statues, and pictures to sanctify a home or a room is a familiar practice in many cultures.  In Orthodox homes, icons serve this purpose and may be found in several rooms--icons of Christ, his Mother, or a family patron saint in public rooms and the saint for whom a person is named in a bedroom.  At meals, everyone faces the icon in the dining room when they pray before and after eating.  In a traditional Russian home, the main room of a home has a place known as the "beautiful corner" where the principal family icons are kept and where family prayers are said.


Santos: Icons of New Mexico
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Our Lady of Sorrow - José Aragón (early 19th century)
A remarkable tradition of sacred images that has begun to find its way into Anglicanism is the tradition of the New Mexico santo. Santos are the folk art saints depicted in panels (retablos) and statues (bultos) which have been created for churches, shrines, and homes in New Mexico for centuries. While the tradition derives from similar Spanish and Mexican religious art, it took on a unique "vernacular" form in New Mexico that recapitulates Orthodox iconography in a striking way. To a large degree, the singular nature of this tradition is due to the extreme isolation of New Mexico in the colonial period. Settlements were scattered across a vast landscape of mountain ranges and deserts, isolated from one another as well as from the centers of government and culture. The journey from Santa Fe, the capital of New Mexico, to the principal cities of Mexico took months and so a local culture developed that had roots both in Spain and Mexico, but flowered in its own distinctive ways. This new local culture drew fresh inspiration from the indigenous Pueblo Indian culture, which was only partially converted and absorbed into the colonial Hispanic culture, and from the varied and enchanting natural environment.

Our Lady of Solitude - Antonio Molleno (early 19th century)Foremost among the challenges that faced the settlers who came from Spain and Mexico was the task of establishing and maintaining a viable and dynamic religious life. Priests were few and many villages had no resident priest. Indeed, the Franciscan friars who came to New Mexico concentrated their energies in the Pueblo missions, leaving the colonists largely without regular priestly ministry. Traveling clergy did circulate among the settlements, but they would have but a day or two to spend in a village where they would celebrate the sacraments and then move on, not to be seen again for months or even years. During these visits, couples who were already living as husband and wife were formally married, children who had been born in the interval since the last visit of a priest were baptized, other necessary rites were performed, and then the community was left once again to fend for itself spiritually.

Lay religious communities, including Third Order Franciscans and, most especially, confraternities such as the Penitentes (Fraternidad Piadosa de los Hermanos de Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno) were one answer to this problem. San Rafael, Museum reproduction by Frank Servas, based on a bulto by José Aragón (early 19th century)With their own chapels (moradas), elaborate rites that centered on personal penance and the Passion of Christ, and dedication to charitable provision for the needy, the Penitente brotherhoods provided a rich, though non-sacramental, religious life in the settlements of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado.

The other answer was the santo: God, the angels, and the saints represented on carved and painted panels and statues, which were found in the village churches, in the moradas, and also, quite prominently, in every home. The colonists possessed a lively sense of the Communion of Saints, which they understood to be the presence and active involvement of the saints in daily life. The saints were not merely revered as ancestors in the faith or examples to be imitated. They were friends who were involved in the joys and the trials of daily life, and who could be called upon for assistance in times of need. And their presence was tangible in the form of the santos, the painted boards and hand-carved statues that were found on the church altar, in the meeting places of the confraternities, and on the altarcito de casa, the home altar which was the focus of family devotion. The prototypes of these devotional objects came from Spain and Mexico. They included baroque oil paintings on canvas hung on the walls of churches, retablos painted on tin, lithographs of sacred subjects, and finely carved and painted statues of wood or stone. Since such treasures were not easily obtainable in New Mexico, the need was met by local artists and craftsmen who adapted the tradition to local conditions. Instead of canvas, animal hides were used for larger paintings; instead of tin, pine boards cut in the way Pueblo artists cut theirs; and instead of stone for statues, the root of the cottonwood tree, also used by the Native Americans to make their kachinas. When paint could be imported, it was, but, again following the example of Native artists, a variety of minerals, mixed with animal oil or water was used.

Station V, Stations of the Cross by Marie Romero Cash (contemporary santera), St. John's Cathedral, Albuquerque, NMThe particularly significant element in the development of the art of the santero is the matter of style. As Thomas J. Steele, S.J., notes (Santos and Saints, Santa Fe, 1994), the influence of the Renaissance never penetrated as far as New Mexico. The Hispanic art of New Mexico retained a medieval outlook in which the creation of art was a religious, not an aesthetic endeavor. As Steele puts it, the people of the Renaissance wanted art that was realistic but the people of New Mexico wanted art that was real. As with Orthodox icons, this means that features like perspective and proportion are generally missing from flat retablos. The painting and modeling of faces and other physical features is either crude or intentionally naive, and other details, such as the blood on the crucified Christ, are stylized or exaggerated. It might be argued that these characteristics are due to a lack of training for artists who were essentially amateurs. However, to evaluate the work of the santero in this way is to misunderstand the fundamental nature of his art, which is meant to be (and believed to be), a participation in the divine reality which cannot be adequately portrayed in the terms of artistic realism. It is the holiness of the subject, not the beauty of the product, that is most important. Indeed, as in the tradition of the Orthodox iconographer, so with the santero: the making of the santo is to be surrounded with prayer. The santero was not expected to be a saint, but he was revered and was expected to be a person who took his faith seriously. After all, he had the high responsibility of representing to the community, through his art, the mystery of holiness. Furthermore, this holiness is not an abstraction. Rather, it is a living reality in every person's life: in church and at home, in the field and at the market, at work and at play, where God and his angels and saints are at home with us. From the altar at church and the altar at home, they watch over us and are our companions and helpers throughout our lives. 

In times of rejoicing, the santos are present, as at the Indian Pueblos when they are carried in procession from the mission church to the main plaza to preside over the traditional dances in a wonderful mixing of religious and cultural traditions. They are also present, and called upon to intercede in times of need. The story is told of a village that was suffering under the effects of a severe drought. The villagers took the santo of El Niño, the Christ Child, out to the fields to show him how bad things were. The next day torrential rains wreaked havoc on the village and its barren fields. In response, the villagers took a santo of the Blessed Virgin Mary out to the fields: "Look," they said, "what your Son has done to us." The story is apocryphal. Whether it is literally true or not is unimportant. It illustrates the point. In the religious art of the Hispanic people of New Mexico, just as in the icons of the East, a profound connection is made: the presence of God and his saints is made real, and it is understood through this connection that God and his saints care and are involved in our lives in this world. The santo is not a worker of cheap miracles, but it is a source of help. If someone is sick or in trouble, if something is lost, if the crops are being planted or harvested and the farmer needs help, if someone is embarking on a journey, it is the most natural thing in the world to ask a friend for help. To the Hispanic people of New Mexico, and indeed to all Christians, those friends include God and his saints, and it should be the most natural thing in the world to ask for their help. Through these holy santos the prospect of help is made concrete and the santos themselves participate in the communication of the message as well as the response to it. They are not worshiped any more than Orthodox icons are worshiped, but they are reverenced as windows to the holy and real companions along the way of faith.

The santero tradition is alive and well today. The old art is practiced in the traditional ways and is to be found in churches and chapels and homes as it always has been. Here are some more examples.

  Adam and Eve by Arturo Olivas (contemporary santero)        San Juan Evangelista by Mary Jo Madrid, frame by Jimmy Madrid (contemporary santeros), St. John's Cathedral, Albuquerque, NM     Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha by Nicolas Otero (contemporary santero)

Some related links: 

The Seventh General Council and the Doctrine of Icons, from the minutes of a conference of representatives of the Church of England and the Greek Orthodox Church in 1918

The Church of England and the Seventh Council, by Claude Beaufort Moss

Nuestro Señor de Esquipulas
(a 19th century Mexican crucifix)



  Santisima Trinidad
(a retablo of the Trinity by a contemporary New Mexican santero)