Q: Why should I pay attention to icons?
A: Icons are better than photographs. Photographs are chemical reactions to physical light, and they are barely art. A good photographer composes and frames, and manipulates software-applied effects. Icons, though, are pure art in which everything is intentional. Everything is intentional, because icons are reactions to the impression of Natural Life.
Natural Life is rare: most phenomena, in this world, are unnatural. A thing, or a circumstance, might be normal, but in a world going dead, it is most likely unnatural, heavy, sodden with passionate idolatry. Natural Life, however, is the Divine Image clear, like spring silver in an April sun, running like whitewater toward a joyfully anticipated predestination of Divine Likeness. That is Natural, and that is Light and Life.
So Life moves among the Names, repentant and otherwise. It impresses, like a stamp on clay, its legacy and form. A Life filled with Light carries with it the glorious mass of kabod, true hypostasis, and it is truly a Word that speaks into meaninglessness: and because it is the only Grammar, the Word will not return void.
Thus we humans, barely repentant, when the Word dwelt among us full of grace and truth, when we beheld Him and touched Him, we could not help but respond with our own word. Our art became intentional indeed, and participated in meaning. It, too, became shaped by the Divine Grammar: the Word is the subject, we are the object, and the icon reveals the patent signal of all our dogma. Iconic art began to refer to higher planes of reference. The vanishing point of the icon’s perspective reached infinitely into the depth of soul. Light streamed from the Still Point, everywhere present in the Image on our art.
An Icon is not an idol – but what it is is something that strains understanding even more. We are too used to this truism we employ against jejune accusations of idolatry: in our careful iconodulism, we usually forget that all art is rhetoric. And because of the Incarnation, Orthodox art participates in the Divine Rhetoric: it participates in the Word and the Grammar of the Word. Canonical iconography is touched by the Everlasting: and thus its “word” is not static, neither is it a dead letter or a shriveled totem: it is an ongoing sentence, even a dialogue. This is the meaning of the trite “windows into heaven” epithet. It is better to say that Orthodox icons are Christological Speech, in art, that demands repentance, acquiescence, obedience, and – hardest of all – belief, from the impressed heart of man.
Why pay attention to icons? Because through them and above them, God is paying attention to you.