I’ve heard it from others and wondered it myself when first exploring Orthodoxy: why don’t we see Jesus or the saints smile in iconography? Why can’t they all just be happy?
Why So Serious?
Orthodox iconography initially developed in the ancient Roman Empire. Like all art forms, it 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). With that said, I’m not aware of any Byzantine art that depicts notable people smiling. Even today in some formerly Orthodox cultures, a person walking around smiling would make others think he had gone crazy. It is a sign of being an idiot or an airhead. Nobility, therefore, would never be painted with a smile unless the artist wanted to insult his subject.
The same goes even with photography and paintings of notable people all throughout history before the 1950s. Even a quick internet search of United States Presidents will reveal that they weren’t depicted smiling. 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.
Perhaps we should ask ourselves: why do we smile in nearly every photograph? And also, why do we expect the work of an ancient culture to conform to the standards of late 20th century photography?
When we feel dismayed at the lack of smiles in iconography I think it is because 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 going to be ok. However, the gaze of the saints and Savior gently 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 (usually that means it’s time to go to confession). But there have also been times when I am more at peace with Christ and I feel a loving gaze from the icon.
Mirrors and Windows
I think for the reason I mentioned above, icons are accurately described as being mirrors to our souls. This 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 a state of being in which 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, to be engulfed in flames 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 because they cause us to reflect on our own interior state. 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 as 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 (nor one that leads to depression). Rather, it is meant to be understood as a sorrow for all of the horrors that are occurring in the world due to sin, and a call for us to shed tears for our sins that have contributed to spiritually darkening this world.
O come, let us worship and fall down before Him, and weep before the Lord that made us. ~Psalm 94:6 LXX
Mine eyes gushed out streams of water, because I kept not Thy Law. ~Psalm 118:136 LXX
Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh.…Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep. ~Luke 6:21,25
Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner…For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death. ~2nd Cor. 7:9-10
Brief Thoughts on Sorrow
In all of Christendom – throughout the ages – tears for ones sins have been considered a virtuous and godly thing. As the passages state above, we should feel a sense of sorrow for our constant sinning against God. Nowadays, we have a difficult time taking sin seriously.
But this call to sorrow does not mean we are to walk about with sour faces – as if we’d bitten into a lemon. Such a humble-looking display brings no benefit. Godly sorrow results in repentance and joy – ungodly sorrow brings hopelessness and despondency. While Christianity is not a means to wealth, health, fun, and games, it should be a source of deep spiritual joy. If you are struggling, ask your priest for guidance.
Reminding us that this world is not our home, iconography depicts the sober reality that surrounds us — the reality that modernism attempts to hide from us with its “fun” and carefree living.