My first point concerns the way in which icons occupy a kind of ‘in-between space’, the way in which the icon is essentially something between – between God and human kind, between heaven and earth, between the realm of the saints and the realm of human affairs.
This sense of ‘in-betweenness’ can be negotiated in various ways. The intellectual discipline of theology is concerned with forging, or at least understanding, a relationship between God and man, God and the universe. Politics and political figures can function in this way, too: the earthly state can be understood as reflecting some eternal reality. Understandings of how reality is peopled can be concerned with the ‘in-between’: beings such as angels, or demons, can be thought of as mediating between an upper world and a lower world. Prayer and mysticism is a further way of exploring the relationship ‘in between’. But the icon is a visual and immediate way of designating the in-between: the surface of the icon lies along this in-between. We stand on one side, and on the other side are the figures or events depicted in the icons.
Various artistic techniques were developed to bring out the significance of the icon as in-between. The use of perspective in icons does not separate us from what is depicted, as does the use of linear perspective that became normal in the West from the Renaissance onwards; rather, the use of perspective is intended to create a space that embraces both what is depicted in the icon and the one who beholds the icon. The beholder of the icon, as it were, finds him- or herself passing through the in-between and entering this other world. St Stephen the Younger, one of the martyrs to the cause of the icons under the iconoclast emperor, Constantine V, affirmed that ‘the icon is said to be a door that opens the mind created in accordance with God to the inward likeness of the model’.
Celtic spirituality, both Christian and pagan, sometimes speaks of places where the boundary between heaven and earth becomes ‘thin’: as if at such places you could almost touch the heavenly realm. The icon represents such ‘thinness’. I would like to speculate that it was a sense of such thinness that led to the tradition of icons being flat: three-dimensional figures, even three-dimensional relief (though to a much lesser extent) makes of them too much objects in themselves, interposed between the spiritual world and this world, rather than simply marking out a boundary that they enable us to pass.
This notion of ‘in-betweenness’ affects the form of holiness attributed to the icon. Some of the defenders of the icons made the point that the holiness of the icon was not something added to it – by a priestly blessing, say – but something intrinsic in its being an image or icon. It was because it was an image of the reality depicted that it provided access to that reality, and in providing access to that reality came to partake of the holiness of the people or events depicted. “If we behold the icon of the resurrection – in Orthodox use, the icon of Christ rescuing from Hades the whole of human kind, beginning with the forebears, Adam and Eve – we see the power of the risen Christ over death, and are able to make contact with that power, as it were. It is a power that reaches us. Or an icon of the Mother of God, introducing us to her son: the face of the one ‘full of grace’ draws us to Christ.