Every Christian Is an Icon Painter

Iconoclasm has not been an issue for many centuries. Icons are no longer destroyed like they used to be in the 8th and early 9th centuries. However, we could say that, in a sense, there is a permanent struggle against God’s image in every heart going on all the time. You see, human beings were created in God’s image, and the sin works inside our hearts to besmirch or destroy this image.
Fr. Sergius Nezhbort
If you look at the history of art, the roots of our civilization lie in the antiquity. This art was human-centered, that is, man was in the center of all fine arts. The ancients instinctively, intuitively felt that there was a wonderful secret in every person, and tried to find out what it was. If you look at Greek or Egyptian art, it always focuses on images of people. Although these people had been created in the image of God, they still had sin dwelling
in their hearts, which is why the art of icon painting could not appear at that time.
Since the time when Christ, the God-man, came to this world, we can see on an icon not just a human being, but a deified human being. It is like a bridge: on the one side, there is God who became human, and on the other side, there is a human who becomes God.
Thus, we encounter the real person, the true beauty of Christ, on an icon. The Christian civilization centers not just on the man but on the God-man.
Unfortunately, the contemporary world brings a sinful, damaged, and distorted human being back to the spotlight again. In this sense, the struggle against the icon is going on even today. We have to understand that every person, every Christian is also an icon painter in a certain sense. One needn’t be a professional icon painter but if you live with God, an icon is being painted in your soul. Perhaps, you are not the only person who should be able to see this icon: other people also need to be able to see it — to see something special in our words and actions, to see Christ through everything we do or say. Sadly, we often fail to be an example, an image of Christ.
One day, I was invited to give a lecture about the icon for non-religious people. It was in the Museum of Fine Arts. The guide urged me, «Please, Father, tell people more about miracles, they would love to hear about miracles». I thought to myself, «Of course, we all know that miracles happen after people pray in front of some icons. The Lord makes miracles, seeing their faith and hearing their prayers. However, there is one more miracle – the creation of the icon. Who paints an icon? Just a person, who is weak and has his own issues and tackles his own difficulties. Even so, the Lord works this amazing wonder through this person. And this is a real miracle! It is quiet — not accompanied by thunder or lightning — but it truly is a miracle — this beauty — and it is near, it is in our daily lives. This miracle happens not because that person is very talented but thanks to the prayers of the entire Church».
I heard a priest say that the quality of an icon depends on how people pray. If we come to Tretyakov Gallery and look at the 14th-15th century icons, we will see how people could pray at those times, how spiritually advanced they were. The power of their prayer found its reflection in the art of icon painting. But if we look at contemporary icons, we will regrettably have to admit that our prayers are weaker than they used to be in the past. We must remember that, in fact, it is the prayer that the kind of images that modern icon painters create depends on. I say so because I have something to do with it in some way.
 Brace yourself for a battle
There is a chapter in the Gospel where the Lord says that hard times will come and there will be a lot of suffering for the entire Universe. However, just below we read his words about the resurrection of the dead coupled with promises that he that endures to the end shall feel the joy of the eternal life with God. Temporary afflictions frighten us — but they foreshadow eternal delight, too. The tribulation and anguish that we consciously and voluntarily endure here give us a key to understanding God’s Providence about us. If we suffer because of our sins, we only get what we deserve. But if we suffer for the sake of Christ and humble ourselves down, we will be blessed.
We are constantly talking about humility, about something we don’t have but we would like to have — something that we ask from God when we come to him. This is something that can help us to navigate through all the sorrows, all the snares, all the cobwebs of sin that has wrapped the world, and open the door into the Kingdom of Heaven for us. This is something that the Lord wants to teach us: this renewal of a person, his return to his original image and likeness.
The Lord gives us strength; He sacrifices himself for us; He gives us a chance to start a new life every day. We wake up every day hoping to «remain unscathed by sin». Certainly, we do not always succeed but we do our best, and we combat the sin at least for some time — in the beginning of the day. Even if sin defeats us, if it crucifies us, we will eventually do away with it, if we keep looking up at God, if we trust him and remain close to him.
God’s mercy outweighs all our sins but this does not mean that we may go on sinning as long as we want to. It means that we should not be depressed when sins prevail over us, when they throw us down into the mud. We must rise up, purify ourselves, and keep going where God sends us and doing what He tells us to do. This is, perhaps, what St Tikhon of Zadonsk called ‘a Christian’s way’ — going from a downfall to a downfall, and rising up again every time. We should not lie down for a long time; we should not be depressed; we should struggle with our sins to the best of our abilities.
How we finish this race depends on God, of course, but it also depends on our will. If the Lord sees that we attempt to turn to him — not even taking a step towards him, but simply looking at him and asking for his help with hope — He will accept our last breath. On his deathbed, St John Chrysostom exclaimed, «Glory be to God for everything!» Let us thank the Lord for his gifts.
Father Sergius Nezhbort, Head of the Icon Painting Studio of St. Elisabeth Convent
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