Typology is a seldom used word; it’s related to symbolism. In our computer dominated world, software engineers, understanding typology, have developed little symbols that indicate where to click for new pages on the Internet. Many times a day we use use those symbols, called icons, to tap into additional, but related information. That’s typology. Our modern geeks adapted the concept from ancient Christian icons.
The seemingly static Russian or Byzantine icons are human attempts to express heavenly realities through art. The typology that permeates them suggests that the subject of the icon relates to, illustrates, or expands on similar ineffable concepts. Contemplating Christian icons can open up new ideas to consider just as clicking on the computer icon opens up a new page.
I didn’t always understand this. In fact, looking at icons used to bother me. They were so stilted and disproportional that it irritated me to view them, except in passing. I thought they bordered on ugly and never imagined that I would ever buy one for my own house.
Then one day, a friend of mine from Lebanon explained that the iconographers used color and symbols to paint a picture of spiritual reality. As an amateur photographer, I understood that concept. All photographers know that the human being is more than that physical body in front of them. No, the real person is inside, animating the body and the photographer hopes to capture the essence of that real person through facial expression, body language, clothing, lighting, back drops, etc. One can not photograph personality, but one hopes to suggest it in the photo.
In a similar way, the iconographer uses color as one method to achieve his goal of expressing the divine in a painting. Color suggests certain broad concepts:
- Red indicates life, vitality, beauty
- Blue indicates heaven and mystery
- Gold indicates sanctity, splendor, the glory of God, life in the heavenly kingdom
- Purple indicates wealth, power, authority
- Green indicates youth, fertility, or vegetation
- White indicates purity, the divine world, innocence
In order to transcend the earthly concepts of time and space, the icon is always static, showing no movement, suggesting eternity to the viewer. Mouths are always closed to encourage silence. The hands often hold a symbolic object.
One should contemplate icons, not just glance at them. Through meditation of these symbols, one enters into that new transcendent reality far beyond one’s current situation.
I found the icon above of Christ the Teacher especially appealing, perhaps because I was a teacher. His right hand is raised in blessing; his left hand holds the open New Testament. His clothes are red and blue, overlaid with gold. to indicate his divine, yet human nature. I haven’t progressed to the point of praying with icons, as many do, but I hope that this one always reminds me that each one of us should function as both teacher and student all of our lives.
Copyright 2017 by Kaye Fairweather