Looking at an ikon
by Angelika Baxter

Angelika Baxter is an Orthodox Christian who works as EAL Co-ordinator at Nightingale Primary School, Redbridge. In this article, which is written for a general audience, she explains what she 'sees' when she looks at the ikon of St George and the dragon (REFERENCE). The ikon itself was painted by Tatiana Kolibaba and was reproduced in a 2002 calendar entitled "Approaching Holiness: The Russian Icon in the 21st Century" sponsored by the EE Media Group and produced by White Space Gallery. We are grateful to White Space Gallery for permission to reproduce the image of the ikon on our website.

Why are ikons so important to Orthodox Christians, and how are they distinct from Christian art forms produced within other Christian denominations? Instead of attempting a theoretical reply, I shall try and share with you part of my own response to a particular ikon.

I've chosen an ikon of St George and the Dragon (see front cover), partly because an ikon of this type has accompanied me for most of my life, and partly because St George, patron saint of England, is also patron saint of Moscow. Moreover, he is venerated in much of Western, as well as Eastern, Europe.

The legend of St George tells us of how he defeats a fierce dragon in order to save a young woman, who would otherwise have been sacrificed to the beast. The story itself is shared across a number of Christian denominations. How does this ikon interpret the legend of St George? What does the image have to teach us about the Christian life?

Looking at the ikon, a number of things may appear incongruent at first. Note, for example, St George's facial expression, and the way his hand guides the lance. Neither of these suggests the body language of someone attacking an opponent. Moreover the dragon, whose head has clearly been pierced by the lance, is not shown bleeding. Neither are there any onlookers - not even the young woman - watching the scene. There is only a barren, rocky landscape under a red sky. I shall return to these points later on.

Rather than concentrating on an event in the outer, visible world, this ikon emphasises the inner world and inner struggle, using a visual language charged with symbolism. By now, you will probably have spotted the divine hand which is pointing out of the top right hand corner at the saint's own hand on the lance.

Note the radiance illuminating St George's face, neck and armour, reflecting also on the rocks below and even, to some extent, on the dragon's body. Only the cave on the left remains unilluminated. In this context, it may be interesting to note that ikon painters start by applying the darkest colours, then gradually progress towards the lightest; not only does this suit the technique, but this process is also associated with a person's journey from darkness towards light, spiritual awareness, faith. There is no realism of light and shade; the light seems to be coming from everywhere at once. 'The light of Christ illumines all', to quote an Orthodox liturgical phrase.

Let's take a closer look at St George's body language. His hold on the lance seems too light for doing battle; his face appears calm and serene. There is a lightness of touch, a gracefulness of both horse and rider. We see no menace, no hatred even for the writhing monster at his feet. The saint's own hand is positioned so that a straight line could be drawn from it to the divine hand on the right. His attitude is thus one of obedience to divine command and guidance. His fight does not serve to strengthen his ego, but to carry out the divine will.

Accordingly the dragon, moving close to the ground, depicts a kind of monster that we may find within, rather than outside, ourselves. Inordinate anger, perhaps, or simply one of those parts of our psyche that may be difficult for us to accept. The dragon is depicted emerging from a cave - a dark recess of the mind, perhaps, an inner corner that we may not often look at. St George's tranquillity is to do with obedience to God, or discipline in the sense of discipleship - following, learning, being open to the divine will, so that the human person may be transformed by divine grace.

Each colour also has a specific meaning - although ikon painters will point out that there is no simple one-to-one relationship between a colour and its symbolic content. However, green, the colour of St George's coat, often expresses humility of attitude. Bright red, used for the sky, tends to signify spiritual strength. White, used for the horse and for highlights throughout, is a colour associated with Christ's resurrection at Easter, which is celebrated by Orthodox as the main festival of the church year - a life-giving event and the source of human transformation.

I try to remember to look at this ikon if feeling irritated or angry; I often emerge with a feeling that my energies have been redirected, so that my attitude can now begin to change. In experiencing this, I have not of course done justice to the ikon, which contains many more visual and symbolic elements than have been mentioned here. I have not touched upon the ikon painter's technique and spiritual discipline. Neither have I discussed the place of ikons in Orthodox teaching, or in the history of the Orthodox Church. I hope, however, that I have managed to give you a glimpse of how one might look at an ikon - in a church, in a home, in someone's car - or perhaps during an RE lesson at school.

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