icon: Bulgarian origin, artist unknown
An icon is a small slab of wood onto which is painted the image of a heavenly face. It orients a viewer by virtue of its flatness. There are, technically speaking six sides – front, back and four finger-thick edges – but functionally speaking, an icon has only one side: the front side. The other sides serve only a supporting role. When a viewer experiences an icon, he faces its painted side. In this way, an icon is like a looking glass. For it to work, a viewer must be directly in front of it, facing it like a mirror from another realm.
You have probably seen an icon featuring the standard pose of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus close to her with her left hand while the fingers of her open right hand beckon the gaze of the viewer, directing it to her child as if to say, “Come, behold my Jesus.” Her speaking hand directs the gaze of the viewer toward a halo of glittering gold and the face of the baby Jesus it surrounds. Her gaze meets the gaze of the viewer. The right hand of Jesus also speaks. With two fingers, he issues a blessing. In other words, a viewer stands in front of the icon and the icon receives the viewer’s prayer, filters it through a small maze of hand gestures and reflected gazes winding through the image of Jesus, then returns it to the viewer transformed by its sacred passage. What power is housed in this small slice of wood!
An icon is like an ancient battery-less device with a single application, a utensil for reflective adoration. It's no accident that the icon I'm holding in my hand is almost exactly the size of an iPhone, also a personal utensil, also an object with the capacity to dazzle.
An icon is like a prayer that can be endlessly repeated without ever becoming stale. The longer it engages a viewer, the better it works. The longer the soul attunes to the image, the more heavenly the soul becomes. Persistent contemplation achieves deeper, more spiritual layers without ever revealing its core. Staring at the icon, a viewer’s thirst is never quenched.
This eternal freshness is accomplished by dazzling and trapping the gaze of the viewer. The surface of the icon is brushed lushly with gold paint, a reflective pigment that greets the eyes of the viewer with a mesmerizing sparkle. An icon is literally reflective. Also, the complex exchange of hand gestures and gazes forms a maze with the gaze of the viewer in a continuous loop of pointing and re-pointing, trapping the gaze of the viewer in another manner.
Because the thing a human will respond to most robustly is the sight of a human face, when a person approaches an icon face to face, it feels like meeting another person. In fact, according to an eleventh century text, a person praying to an icon of this type should hold up his or her hands toward the icon in imitation of the gesturing hands of the Virgin, two people playing the mirror game. One is fascinated by the image on an icon like one is fascinated by one’s face in a crystalline pool of water.
Mysteriously, an icon is both reflective like a mirror and transparent like an open window, piercing a rectangular passage into the sky of a distant realm.