Icons in the Syriac Church? by Fr. Dale A. Johnson


Just as it is important to maintain an Orthodox approach to worship in the musical sphere, we must also strive to maintain our established iconographic traditions. Unfortunately, even as some quarters of our Oriental Orthodox Communion have proven permeable to heterodox forms of worship antithetical to Orthodoxy, others have proven equally pervious to heterodox iconography. In both cases, harmful theology can be imparted to the naïve and innocent who erroneously regard it all – from Evangelical “praise & worship” music to Roman Catholic iconography – as generic, white-label “Christianity”. Walking into an Oriental Orthodox Church today, even in our African, South Asian and Middle Eastern homelands, it is not uncommon to find images from other traditions that contradict our own theology, such as Roman Catholic depictions of the “Sacred Heart of Christ”, decorating our churches. In this article, Syriac Orthodox priest Fr. Dale A. Johnson (Bar Yuhanon), formerly a clergyman of the United Methodist Church, delves deep into an ancient Syriac icon of the last supper, demonstrating the importance of using icons only within our own Orthodox tradition.

Icons in the Syriac Church? by Fr. Dale A. Johnson

The very first positive mention of an icon in Christian literature is in a Syriac document, The Doctrine of Addai. A painted image of Jesus is introduced to the story; and icon clothing even later, in the account given by Evagrius, the painted image is transformed into an image that miraculously appeared on a towel when Christ pressed the cloth to his wet face. That the cloth remained in Edessa until the 10th century, when it was taken to Constantinople. In 1204 it was lost when Constantinople was sacked by Crusaders.

What is an icon? It is a religious work of art that communicates the sacredness of God’s presence in the cosmos. Byzantine theologians are perhaps best known in the western world for developing a theological system for the interpretation and purpose of icons.

Icons possess several traditional characteristics according to Byzantine artists and theologians. Here are seven basic features of most Byzantine icons.

1. They are never signed by the creator of the icon.
2. The creator fasts and prays as he or she “writes” (paints) the icon.
3. Icons are not painted but are “written” because they have a teaching purpose.
4. They must conform to the truth of scripture.
5. The perspective is behind the viewer so the viewer is part of the icon.
6. There is no background in the icon giving it no “3-D” perspective as if it is suspended in space and time.
7. Light comes from within the subject and illumines the figure (You never see a shadow in a Byzantine icon).

In the Seventh Ecumenical Council (789 AD) icons are supported by the Roman Church as an eastern form of theological expression. But when the Franks took over the Holy Roman Empire papacy in the eleventh century they reacted violently and instituted an age of iconoclasm. Veneration of the icons were outlawed and destroyed and removed from churches and homes. The seeds of this reaction began with a misinterpretation of the Seventh Council at the end of the eighth century in the Frankish Libri Carolini which declared that icons were worshiped and thereby banned.

During these centuries Syriac art progressed slowly within the environments of the Islamic world that prohibited sacred images. Nevertheless, Syriac art found its way within the Gospels and Lectionaries rather than in external expressions on church and monastery buildings. Many of the icons found within Syriac manuscripts demonstrate influence from Byzantine influences in style and cultural forms. In the Rabbula Gospels, for example, the icons show Greek columns and images.

The sacred icon never fully took root in the Syriac speaking churches of the east except in Bible manuscripts. The Syriac icon was rooted in the written word of God. There was also a practical value to this fusion. It was easy to hide the Gospel images when under attack. Churches east of the Euphrates were almost under constant siege being looted and pillaged in nearly every generation. The images of Christ could be written in lectionaries and gospel records and preserved under the protection of watchful monks and priests.

A few icons stand out as pure expressions of Syriac iconography quite distinct from the Byzantine aesthetic traditions.

Perhaps one of the purest and most distinct Syriac icons is of the Last Supper. It has no Byzantine parallel. It is a unique contribution in the world of sacred art. The first thing we notice about this work of art is that the table is round. In so many Syriac churches we find DaVinci’s Last Supper where we look across the long table at Christ and his disciples. While this image is not an icon, it is treated as an icon in many Syriac churches. This is sad when we have a supreme iconic images within our own tradition.


Let us look at this icon closely. Where is the cup which figures so prominently in the Last Supper? We are viewing it from above and looking into it. The table is the rim of the cup and the sacrifice sits in the heart of it. The circular form draws all of us to the center. If we have any doubt about where to look we see Christ pointing to it. In the other hand is a book held by the living word. In Orthodox faith, the Word of God is Christ himself. It can never be sola scriptura. Scripture is anchored in Christ not in our interpretation.

The focus of the Syriac icon is on the sacrifice. Christ is pointing to it rather than reaching out to earthly delights as evidenced in the hands of the disciples. This is interesting theology as it points to the act of Christ rather than the human form of Christ. In a way it suggests to us the way of Christ for our own lives. They are to be lives of sacrifice. As we look to the sacrifice, we look less to ourselves and more to the One who gives us the power to act.

As we go around the table we notice the dimensional aspect of the icon. In the extended dimension we can see around corners. It is a deep anthropological perspective often used by native cultures. Pacific Northwest natives created icons of various animals that played a large part of the inner mythology of their culture. The raven, the salmon, the bear, and other creatures are seen from all sides. We stand in several places at once. It is a divine perspective. In the Syriac icon we stand inside the icon and in several places at once.


At first it may look like a two dimensional image. But it is not. If we look closer we see that it is curved space. We are inside the cup. We are the sacrifice. It is a profound image full of significant theology.

The authority for the icon comes from Christ himself. All icons are about Christ, even when he is not represented in the icon. A saint who is pictured is Christ because it is Christ who illumines him. An icon is never venerated directly. It is a window through which we look onto the vast cosmos of Christ.

In general, Syriac icons follow the Byzantine rules for icons except there is a more exceptional experimentation in the dimensionality. This feature is noted not only in the icon of the Last Supper but in several other icons in the Syriac world. On a vestment in the Metropolitan Museum of Art we view the images of Christ. His face is folded out as if the face is peeled off. We see around the sides of the face and see the whole head.


We see the face of a ritual animal in the same way on a Northwest Coast image. The face is folded out into an extra dimension. These faces present a quality that takes us about of our Euclidian dimension and into a heavenly one where God knows every hair of our head.


Syriac icons are more than just mere images. They are sacred expressions of the divine that reveal a rich and complex tradition as thoughtful as Byzantine iconography.