Why So Serious?
From what I have learned, the iconography that has been popular in the Orthodox Church for the past one thousand years is the Byzantine style of iconography (other cultures had their own style – depicted to the left is an icon similar to Christ Pantocrator from the Irish Book of Kells) but for reasons beyond the scope of this blog, the Byzantine style became the most popular (that’s what’s pictured above).
Iconography of Byzantium, like that of other regions, did not develop in a bubble, but adapted several themes from their culture’s art (from the gestures of the right hand to books/scrolls being held in the left, etc). With that said, I’m not aware of any Byzantine art that depicts notable people smiling.
The same goes even with photography and paintings of notable people all throughout history before the 1950′s. Even a quick survey of United States Presidents will reveal that they weren’t depicted smiling (click on the image to the right to maximize it). I think our desire to see a happy Jesus partially stems from a culture in which nearly every photograph is taken with the preceding words of either “smile!” or “say cheese!” When we gaze upon these solemn figures, it doesn’t seem right to us. It doesn’t look like the Jesus we picture in our heads, or that we’ve seen depicted in children’s Bibles and story books; that cartoon Jesus who just looks so happy all the time.
Also, I think we want to be affirmed. We want Christ or a saint to smile at us and tell us through that smile that we are loved and everything is ok. The gazes of the saints and Saviour challenge us. They look deeply into our souls. I have found that when I am not at peace, the countenance of Christ has a tendency to pierce me. But there have also been times when I am more at peace with Christ and I could almost swear I saw the icon show a hint of a grin.
Mirrors and Windows
I think for the reason I mentioned above, icons are accurately depicted as being mirrors to our souls. This actually reveals part of the Orthodox understanding of heaven and hell as well: not as physical places in which we are sentenced for all eternity, but an actual state of being when we encounter the Almighty God of Consuming Fire. God’s loving and fiery presence either causes us to withdraw within ourselves or to reach out and be consumed and healed. The states of being called “heaven” and “hell” begin here in this life, and are fully consummated in the age to come. But that’s a topic for another time.
As I mentioned, icons serve as mirrors, but they are also considered windows to heaven. Again, “heaven” is not that pretty place “up there somewhere,” but referring to the resurrected, glorified state of being fully alive and human in Christ. In regards to icons as windows to heaven, we do not interpret a lack of smiles dullness, boredom, or anger. The icon instead manifests the peace and serenity of life in Christ. It may also show sorrow, but it is not a lasting sorrow. Rather, it is meant to be understood as a sorrow for all of the horrors that are occurring in the world and a call for us to shed tears for our sins and the sins of the world.
Many books have been written on icons. I just wanted to touch on them briefly here. For further information from those who are much more learned than myself, check out some of the links below: