I’ve heard it from others and wondered it myself when first exploring Orthodoxy: why do we not see Jesus or the saints smile in iconography? Why can’t they all just be happy?
Why So Serious?
From what I have learned, the iconography that has been popular in the Orthodox Church for the past one thousand years is the Byzantine style of iconography (other cultures had their own style – depicted to the left is an icon similar to Christ Pantocrator from the Irish Book of Kells) but for reasons beyond the scope of this blog, the Byzantine style became the most popular (that’s what’s pictured above).
Iconography of Byzantium, like that of other regions, did not develop in a bubble, but adapted several themes from their culture’s art (from the gestures of the right hand to books/scrolls being held in the left, etc). With that said, I’m not aware of any Byzantine art that depicts notable people smiling.
The same goes even with photography and paintings of notable people all throughout history before the 1950’s. Even a quick survey of United States Presidents will reveal that they weren’t depicted smiling (click on the image to maximize it). I think our desire to see a happy Jesus partially stems from a culture in which nearly every photograph is taken with the preceding words of either “smile!” or “say cheese!” When we gaze upon these solemn figures, it doesn’t seem right to us. It doesn’t look like the Jesus we picture in our heads, or that we’ve seen depicted in children’s Bibles and story books; that cartoon Jesus who just looks so happy all the time.
Perhaps just as pertinent of a question is: why do we smile in nearly every photograph? and why do we expect the work of an ancient Church to conform to the standards of late 20th century’s photography?
Also, I think we want to be affirmed. We want Christ or a saint to smile at us and tell us through that smile that we are loved and everything is ok. The gaze of the saints and Savior challenge us. They look deeply into our souls. I have found that when I am not at peace, the countenance of Christ has a tendency to pierce me (usually that means it’s time to go to confession). But there have also been times when I am more at peace with Christ and I feel a loving gaze from the icon.
Mirrors and Windows
I think for the reason I mentioned above, icons are accurately described as being mirrors to our souls. This actually reveals part of the Orthodox understanding of heaven and hell as well: not as physical places in which we are sentenced for all eternity, but an actual state of being when we encounter the Almighty God of Consuming Fire. God’s loving and fiery presence either causes us to withdraw within ourselves or to reach out, be engulfed in the flames, and healed. The states of being called “heaven” and “hell” begin here in this life, and are fully consummated in the age to come. But that’s a topic for another time.
As I mentioned, icons serve as mirrors because they cause us to reflect on our own interior state. But they are also considered windows to heaven. Again, “heaven” is not that pretty place “up there somewhere,” but referring to the resurrected, glorified state of being fully alive and human in Christ.
In regards to icons as windows to heaven, we do not interpret a lack of smiles as dullness, boredom, or anger. The icon instead manifests the peace and serenity of life in Christ. It may also show sorrow, but it is not a lasting sorrow (nor one that leads to depression). Rather, it is meant to be understood as a sorrow for all of the horrors that are occurring in the world due to sin, and a call for us to shed tears for the multitude of our sins as well as the sins of the world.
O come, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the Lord our maker. ~Psalm 95:6 LXX
Rivers of waters run down mine eyes, because they keep not thy law. ~Psalm 119:136 LXX
Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh…Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep. ~Luke 6:21,25
Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner…For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death. ~2nd Cor. 7:9-10
Brief Thoughts on Sorrow
In all of Christendom throughout the ages, except in modern times, tears for ones sins have been considered a virtuous and godly thing. As the passages state above, we should feel a sense of sorrow for our constant sinning against God. Nowadays, we have a difficult time taking sin seriously.
But this call to sorrow is not the same as depression nor despondency, those are ungodly sorrows. An entire blog could be written on the difference between godly sorrow and sorrow of the world. For now, I would say ask your priest for guidance.
Unfortunately, many of us have been duped into thinking that Christianity means living “Your Best Life Now” which is interpreted as happiness, monetary wealth, health, fun, and games. But such a carefree attitude is foreign to the Gospel of Christ, in which we have been promised trials and difficulties and we have been commanded to pick up our cross and follow Christ.
Reminding us that this world is not our home, iconography depicts the sober reality that surrounds us — the reality that modernism attempts to hide from us with its “fun” and carefree living.