Dead People and Why Icons Look Weird

Dead People and Why Icons Look Weird


If I say, “Hello,” it is not a stretch to think that the answer will be something like…well… “Hello.”

However, if I say, “Hello” to a dead person, a two-way conversation may hit a wall.

Greeting, let alone conversing with, a dead person might be considered by some to be anything from quirky to insane.

What IS the difference between talking to a dead person and talking to a live one? The first thing that comes to my mind is that dead people don’t reply. And yet, Christians have been talking to dead people for centuries.

The Christian conversation with “dead” people starts with talking to Jesus.

You might respond, “But Jesus isn’t dead!” and I would say, “Aha, you’re making my point!”

It seems to me that the difference between talking to a dead person and talking to a live one is a faith matter! More specifically, it has to do with whether one believes life exists after death. And this is at the root of who Jesus is, what He did, where He is now and what He means to us.

But to say that faith explains the difference between talking to a dead person and talking to a live one is an easy-sort-of, almost cop-out or expected type of answer to what is a very tough nut to crack. And while it may not be an easy answer to a cop out, Jesus, through Luke, Cleopas and the Emmaus story, shows us a path to absorbing this elusive thing, faith.

Along the road, Jesus explained about Himself from the scriptures, but the Apostles still did not understand who or what He was. But they did not have to wait long for their eyes to be opened, and it was Communion, the Eucharist, that opened them.

Jesus revealed the formerly hidden messages of Scripture. He showed Himself to be The Christ of the Old Testament. And even more amazingly, the Apostles eyes where opened to knowing that this was Jesus there with them! He had risen from the dead! And maybe now with our eyes newly opened by such things as the elucidation of the Scriptures and the “Breaking of the Bread”, we will be able to see Christ’s victory over death too.

It is as if with Christ, a Holy atomic bomb blows open the graves and, opposite to a bomb of death, brings life to all those who have died.

This, oddly, brings in the title topic of “weird” looking icons.

It is the “weird” look of icons that emphasizes and articulates the concept of people being dead-but-not-dead! The idea that someone could be dead-but-not-dead is the one taught in Emmaus (and in all of the Resurrection messages of Jesus).

The way people are depicted in icons is, on the one hand, visibly decipherable as being completely human and like us. Yet on the other hand, iconographic, artistic flair portrays these dead-but-not-dead people in an abstracted, stylized way that proclaims in a poem for the eye that these people are in heaven. For an artist to paint a portrait of someone who is dead-but-not-dead presents a formidable challenge. The answer is revealed as being that “weird” look expressed in Orthodox iconography.

As such, we have a double, mysterious blessing for finding the faith to talk with “dead” people.

The mystery of being dead-but-not-dead is revealed in Jesus-explained Scripture and in the mystery of the “weird” art of Orthodox iconography!

Image credit: Road to Emmaus icon, Nicholas Papas

About author

Nicholas Papas

I’ve been producing art since early childhood. I’ve been producing art as an adult child, professionally, as an iconographer for several decades now. Now, I have taken to writing down some thoughts.