Icons, Plato and Paul: the path to understanding most clearly

After a day thinking about icons and iconography, Dr Mark Vernon looks for the links with the teaching of Plato.

Plato is not dead, I was once emphatically told. Go into any Greek Orthodox church. Icons are Platonism made manifest!

The face of Plato

The face of Plato

We’ve seen many astonishing icons on day five of the pilgrimage, in the thriving Metéora monasteries and their churches. But why are they Platonic and should Christians care?

In his dialogue the Republic, Plato offers a series of analogies and myths that convey four levels at which human beings can perceive, make sense of, and know God and the cosmos. The most famous is the myth of the cave. It begins with the experience of prisoners strapped down at the back of the cave, only they don’t realise they are held because it’s the only reality they have ever known. They see flickering shadows on the wall in front of them and take them to be real.

It’s a metaphor for the first level at which we know things, the empirical level. This is the material level of seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling. There’s nothing wrong with it. When I took part in the icon retreat at Southwark cathedral last year, one of the loveliest pleasures was handling the egg tempera paints and colours. But if my attempts to write an icon had stopped there, I would have scarcely begun. So too, in general, if we treat the brute stuff of the physical world as the sum total of reality, life won’t take us very far.

In truth, no-one stops there. Human beings quite spontaneously interpret and analyse, gather and assess what their senses tell them. I don’t just see azure blue outside the window, I see the bright sky. Similarly, with the icon writing. After a day becoming familiar with the paint, we moved onto applying it on a board, and experimented with the imagery produced. When the skilled iconographer sits down to work, the elegant forms of Christ, Mary, angels and saints emerge. The materiality of paint and board are transformed into an object of belief and devotion.

It’s Plato’s second level of knowledge. In the myth of the cave, it corresponds to the moment a few brave prisoners loosen their bonds, peer into the gloom behind them, and see that the flickering shadows they had taken to be reality are the result of puppets dancing in front of a fire. There’s more to life than they first assumed. Plato called it the level of belief – living by the convictions we have about things that are fine insofar as they go, only they don’t go far enough either.

 There is a third level. Think again about the icon. What really matters is not the picture but what the picture conveys. The Greek “eikon” means image or likeness. So it’s the tangible manifestation of an intangible reality which the picture transmits or channels. Hence the sense of the numinous or transcendent when one enters an Orthodox church. The sacred space filled with icons becomes a thin place that opens your mind and imagination to a spiritual perception that is actually closer and more immediate than your physicality. The presence enters you like a breath. You step into an awareness of the aliveness of life at the level of soul.

St Paul uses the word “eikon” many times in much the same way, too. Just as we bear an earthy or visible eikon, he tells the Corinthians, so too we bear a heavenly or invisible eikon. In other words, our bodies are not only biological organisms but are breathing mirrors of our ensoulment. It’s why our character becomes etched into the lines of our face as we grow old, and why others know who we really are when they see into our eyes. 

Plato called this third level, flexible thinking. The seer now is one who is not held back by the literal or concrete but can work with, and live from, the metaphorical and symbolic. It’s closer to the truth.

In the myth of the cave, it corresponds to the next step that the escaping prisoners take as they realise they are in a cave. They see the mouth of the cave. It emits a uniform, illuminating light. They don’t yet see or understand the source of the warm glow, but they certainly now know that shadows and fire don’t explain much at all. They stay brave, inch their way towards the opening, and step out. To their astonishment and delight, they see the sun – or at least, they don’t see the sun but realise that there is a source of all light that gives life. They can’t quite look at the sun. It’s blinding.

It’s the fourth level of knowledge, the mystical. Plato calls it direct perception or true understanding. It’s ineffable, an awareness of reality that is known through and beyond all eikons, perceptions, or words. In the most common Orthodox icon, Christ Pantocrator, this most profound awareness is symbolised by three letters painted into Christ’s halo: ο, ω, ν. “ο ων” means “who is”. The letters are reminders of the Being of which Christ is the full manifestation; the image of the invisible God. To appreciate the icon at this level is to understand it fully.

It’s the goal of the Christian life. Such direct perception is to be united with the Being, with the divine. Union is possible because we can only understand what we can share in, participate with, or are akin to. We understand the material world because we are material as well. Similarly, we understand the immaterial world because we have an immaterial nature too. At the deepest level, the Platonists and indeed Paul risk saying that we can understand and know God insofar as we ourselves manifest the divine, which is to say that we have realised an awareness of the ground of our being and all beings.

It’s the mystery of the incarnation, which Plato’s fourfold schema unpacks too. First, there is the biological materiality of Jesus the man. Second, there is the historical actuality of his birth and death – the beliefs captured in creeds. Third, there is the theological meaning that is drawn out of these details, from the kenotic emptying Paul describes in his letter to the Philippians, to his notion that we too can become children of God or akin to the divine.

'The Father gives birth ...'

‘The Father gives birth …’

And fourth is the most basic reality of all. The incarnation reveals that in all eternity, the Father “gives birth” to the Son within God, as God. And so also God is born in creation within the human soul, alongside the cosmos as a whole. Hence, Paul writes of creation groaning with birth pangs. It’s the fullness of the icon. We see God. We see Christ. We see Jesus. And we see the awesome truth of ourselves.

Dr Mark Vernon

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