Icons are created to point us toward God and help us be drawn into God’s reality. They are works of faith and prayer first, artistic endeavors second. They are created with a reverse perspective. The colors, poses, and objects are all part of a faith language designed to deepen the prayer life of the one who gazes upon it. We come before an icon with the expectation that God will meet us. The icon that we pray before drops away, and the Spirit comes to envelop us. Icons tell a deep truth and encourage us to participate in it: God’s reality is much larger than our own, and the Spirit draws us into it.
Iconographers don’t sign their icons. Their creations are meant to point to God, not indicate who created the icon. Putting a name on an icon may lead the faithful to concentrate on the artist rather than God. An icon that doesn’t lead to a deeper experience of God is pointless – literally! Iconographers create them with prayer and for prayer, not to be admired for their own sake.
Vainglory is seeking credit and admiration, wanting our name in lights. It is a hunger to be seen and admired by others, to make a mark on the world never to be forgotten. All activities and talents are self-referential, pointing to us and going no farther. But all the fame and credit in the world won’t create a satisfying, meaningful life, and we won’t meet God through them.
Perhaps iconographers know a truth about fame and recognition that is easily forgotten: If your life wasn’t enough beforehand, it won’t be enough after.
The thought of vainglory is especially subtle and it easily infiltrates those whose lives are going well – wanting to publish their efforts, and go hunting for glory among [men] people; it raises up a fantasy of demons shouting, and women being healed, and a crowd of people wanting to touch the monk’s clothes. It prophesies priesthood for him, and sets the stage with people thronging at his door, calling for him, and, even though he resists he will be carried off under constraint. Then, having raised him up with empty hopes like this, it suddenly leaps away and leaves him… (The Eight Bad Thoughts, Evagrius of Pontus, 345-399. Found on public pages of Early Church Texts, earlychurchtexts.com)