A picture (it’s often said) is worth a thousand words. But some pictures do more than just speak to us. They invite us to become a part of the drama they depict. That’s the role icons play in Armenian Church spirituality.
Beginning with this edition of VEMKAR, you’ll learn how icons enrich our faith. Whether they’re found carved in stone or painted in manuscripts, adorning church walls or incised in stained glass, icons honor our Lord Jesus Christ and his saints, drawing us into the sacred events surrounding their lives. They remind us that God is alive and active in our world—and that we are participants in events that please God and can lead us to his kingdom.
The purpose of the icon—called սրբանկար (surpa-nugar) or “holy picture” in Armenian—is explained in a 7th-century document, The Defense of Images, by the Armenian monk and poet Vertannes Kertogh. It’s considered the first written explanation of sacred art in all of Christendom, in which Vertannes describes how such art functions in the Armenian Church, and how it relates to theology and worship.
“When we bow down before the Holy Gospel or when we kiss it,” he writes, “we do not bow down before ivory or lacquer … but before the word of the Savior written on the parchment.… [Likewise] it is not on account of the colors that we prostrate ourselves before images, but because of Christ in whose name [the icons] are painted.”
Naturally, icons existed long before Vertannes’ treatise. The Holy Cross is considered the very first icon, held in common by all Christians, whose image has dotted the landscape of our homeland since the 4th century.
Divinely-created Nature has always provided the media for icon-making. Pigments gathered from minerals, plants, and insects are pulverized into powder and mixed with egg yolk and egg whites, vinegar, and garlic juice. The resulting paint is applied to lamb skin pages or wooden panels, with brushes made from the hairs of squirrels, kittens, or horses.
Icon-creation was often the domain of clergymen, who would even sew icons into their vestments. They would strive to capture the holy image not merely with the physical eye, but more importantly with the “spiritual eye” that could convey the mystery of God’s presence to the beholder.
Whether its scale is miniature, life-size, or monumental, the icon is a visual language that translates the words of Scripture into a comprehensive image. As Vertannes put it, the icon helps us to understand the invisible through the visible. It is a window onto the kingdom of heaven. When we look at it, we honor the Savior in whose name it was painted.