Why is There No Smiling in Icons?

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?

Book of Kells - Christ Pantocrator
Icon from the Irish Book of Kells

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 tAll United States Presidentshey 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

christ_pantocrator_sinai_2I 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.

Further Reading

A Reader’s Guide to Orthodox Icons

Orthodox Arts Journal

Several articles and resources on icons

6 thoughts on “Why is There No Smiling in Icons?

  1. I cannot agree with you about the reason we want Christ to smile. I believe that the smiling Christ is the Christ of the gospels. That is not to say that He is not at times stern or angry or all the other emotions that a man would have, but one of the main notes of Heaven is joy. I have never met anyone who I would truly consider Christ-like who did not have joy and that meant it was written all over his face
    For example Psalm 21:6 says
    For you make him most blessed forever; you make him glad with the joy of your presence.
    There are really no good spiritual reasons that icons do not smile, it is merely tradition.

    1. Kostya, I agree with you that those who are Christ-like do possess the joy of the Lord. “The joy of the Lord is our strength,” and as you quoted, those in the presence of God have joy. It is truly one of the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control). One of them. However, I would add that a smile in no way expresses all of the fullness of the Kingdom of God, nor all of fruit of the Spirit, nor even the fullness of joy itself. And you probably don’t believe that either.

      Paul stated, “we preach Christ crucified, unto Jews a stumblingblock, and unto Gentiles foolishness” (1 Cor 1:23) and later “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I that live, but Christ living in me” (Gal 2:20). The saints of the Church have depth of understanding of what it means to daily pick up our cross, to fight the demons and enemies of darkness, and to be crucified with Christ. Until the second coming, we are engaged in warfare and the faith is truly a sober matter of warfare, repentance, and deep love. Our icons reflect this reality.

      Is there a time and place for laughter and smiling? Certainly! However, the Church has chosen not to depict that aspect of our lives in the iconography.

      1. I certainly agree that we are in a spiritual battle. But we must not give the impression that the holier you are the sadder you will look. Repentance brings joy and freedom, not a look on our face like we have sucked on a lemon.
        The passages in 1 Cor and Galatians 2:20 that you quote are not just about the daily fight against demons etc. They are about our union in Christ who was crucified. There can never be true holiness if we are motivated by guilt, gritting our teeth and a sense that we have to battle in our strength. True motivation for holiness is motivated by a knowledge that our sins have been forgiven and that we are now united with Christ who sits viotoriously on the throne with the Father (Ephesians 1&2)

        1. There are countless passages on tears, weeping, and repentance, but I don’t want to get into a Bible kung-fu match 😉

          Starting with John the Baptist, the Church for the past 2,000 years has taught that in order to unite with God, and in order to live the Christian life, we must walk in a state of continual repentance. Our sins have been forgiven, they are being forgiven, and they will be forgiven. Salvation and repentance are past, present, and future. Seeking the Kingdom and daily, even hourly, acknowledging ones sins before God has nothing to do with looking holy through a sad face. It has everything to do with theosis.

          Salvation, repentance, union with God in Christ: all of those are the same thing in Orthodoxy.

          I had very similar thoughts to yourself when I entered into Orthodoxy regarding the solemn icons and even the services. It seemed unnecessary to me to ask God to have mercy so often. What changed my mind though was entering into the life of the Church; diving deeper into the mystery of Christ through Orthodoxy. I would invite you to do the same.

          1. Thank you for the invitation to the Orthodox Church. I used to be in it and was invited to train for priesthood and a Archimandrite asked me to join his monastery. However there were too many deep flaws and errors that in Biblical conscience I could not accept.
            They are not the major ones for me, but for example the ones you mention.
            You say : Salvation, repentance, union with God in Christ: all of those are the same thing in Orthodoxy. That is a very interesting statement. I cannot agree with it. There are too many implications theologically. Orthodoxy operates from a totally different theological framework from what I have come to believe.
            I know that we need to live in the knowledge of the mercy of God daily, moment by moment even, but the difference between you and me, and I suppose Orthodoxy and me, is that I believe we live not in the need of asking for it, but of being aware of it as being completed in the Risen and Exalted Christ. One leads to deeper self absorption and wondering if one has repented enough and the other to freedom in the Spirit and in joy and victory.
            The Protestants talk of the finished work of Christ. That is a key concept for me.
            There is a lot of ‘hypergrace’ in the Protestant church which denies our need of mercy and the reality of sin, but I am not one of them.
            Regarding John the Baptist, I am surprised that you would use him as an authority on the Christian life. Remember that the apostles had to rebaptise his followers because they did not have the Holy Spirit.
            Anyway, I can see that this conversation will either go on forever or it can stop here.
            Peace and blessings to you

          2. Peace and blessings to you as well, Kostya.

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