Why do the Saints never smile in icons?

Saint Silouan the Athonite

There are over 400 occurrences of the word “joy” in the Bible, most of them referring to what awaits those who become close to God. So why do icons – portraits of people who have been received by Christ into Heaven – show the Saints looking sombre?

Lazarus of Bethany, who n only smiled once during his lifetime.

Lazarus of Bethany, who only smiled once during his lifetime.

It is certainly the case that there is a tradition within Orthodoxy of a continual grieving over our sins that leads to purification. Indeed, St James states it quite clearly in his epistle:

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double minded. Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up.
(James 4:7-10)

There are numerous examples of ascetic Saints who pursued this path of mourning, both for their own sins and the sins of others, being granted the gift of tears. Saint Lazarus of Bethany, who was raised from the dead by Christ, was famous for not smiling in all the thirty years of his life lived after the joyous Resurrection of Christ. The twentieth-century Saint, Silouan the Athonite (pictured above), wrote: “The Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, accords the monk the love of the Holy spirit, and because of this love his heart continually sorrows over people, because not all will be saved.” (emphasis mine).

Yet for all this, there is no suggestion from the Holy Fathers that smiling or laughter is somehow sinful, nor that the Saints themselves did not smile. A story about the father of monasticism, Anthony the Great, relates how a hunter discovered him laughing with the other monks. The hunter was shocked to see such behaviour from the great ascetic, but St Anthony showed by the example of the hunter’s bow that it was sometimes necessary for the monks to relax in their labours, so that they do not “snap” under the strain (the story is here). It is also true that despite injunctions from St James to mourn over our sins, the ultimate aim is for the Lord to “lift us up” to heavenly things. With this undoubtedly comes “joy”.

The question, then, becomes: what is this joy that we Christians are promised? Monk Moses the Athonite writes about what true joy is not:

Some think that joy will be found in unbridled fun, shameless revels, the overnight hunt for pleasure, the celebration of drunkenness, the drunkenness of luxury, extravagance and indulgence. If one could photograph the depths of the hearts of these patrons of so-called entertainment centers, we would observe an abyss of pain, desolation, coldness and hard loneliness. Joy is not sold in any store nor bought with little or much money….. They return from secular entertainment jaded, downcast, sad, more alone. Some think that all rich people are quite happy. This is a big lie, which often is confirmed by the same.

True joy is something that comes from God and is therefore eternal. Fleeting pleasures are, by definition, temporary and do not bring true happiness. The smile is a reflection of fleeting happiness, because it too is temporary. There are many examples of “good” smiles – the pure smile of a child, the loving smile of a mother, the sincere smile of a friend – but nevertheless the smile is something belonging to worldly life. No worse, nor less useful, than eating or sleeping, smiling is along with those things something that is done while we are in the flesh, but something not required once we are purified and worthy of Heaven.

Maximus the Confessor summarizes the state of those who complete this purification:

The rewards for the toils of virtue are dispassion and spiritual knowledge. For these are the mediators of the kingdom of heaven, just as passions and ignorance are the mediators of eternal punishment.

And according to the same saint: “Dispassion is a peaceful condition of the soul.”

It is this “peaceful condition” that is communicated in the countenance of Saints in icons. It is far above the fleeting happiness of the world and the ceasing of sorrow over sins, and is what can truly be called joy. It is the transfigured, revealed, reality of the blessed, joyful, heavenly state. It is a reflection of the peace Christ promised to His disciples; the peace which belongs to Christ Himself (John 14:27).

Rublev's Icon of Jesus Christ

This heavenly dispassion is present in all well-painted icons. Emotion can be depicted in bodily gestures (see the Epitaphios), or in the colours used, or especially in the eyes (again, see the Epitaphios with the mourners’ tear-tracks).

Yet through all this the general countenance of Christ or His Saints remains calm, clear, peaceful and dispassionate.

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Despite all that is written above you may still not be convinced that the Christ and His Saints look all that happy in icons of them. Well, there is an extra point to consider. Icons depict the heavenly reality of God, His Holy Mother, and the Saints, and effectively present them to us. When we stand before an icon of Christ, for example, and see Him “looking at us”, we are to be reminded that Christ is always present and looking at us. The clairvoyance of Jesus is shared by His Mother and the Saints too. Given that they all know our sins, sorrows, and frailties, why should we expect them to look happy? To see any sadness in their gaze is a reminder of their love for us and should act as a spur to our own repentance and sorrow over sin. Lord have mercy!

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See also:

Our Relationship with Icons.

Why is No One Ever Depicted Smiling on Icons? – a more concise answer to the question, from Pravmir.com.

About St Lazarus of Bethany (including the one time he did smile!).

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9 Responses to Why do the Saints never smile in icons?

  1. geloruma says:

    Thanks for the explanation. I don’t agree with the position of portraying saints this way, athough I respect the tradition and thought behind it.
    Irina says: “Dear Julia, it goes without saying that smiling is not a sin. But smiling is a natural emotion – one might say an earthly one.”
    However, the incarnation of Christ gave him a “natural” body which had the ability to smile…

    • iconreader says:

      This is true, although Christ’s body also had the ability to eat – which He did after the Resurrection – but there is no suggestion Christ needs to eat or drink anymore in His glorified body. The same is taught about our own glorified bodies: there is no need to eat or drink, nor to be given in marriage. Neither of these things – eating, sex within marriage – are sinful, but that doesn’t mean that they will continue into the Heavenly realm. The same can be said of smiling – it is a natural way of communicating happiness on earth, but such is the communion of Saints in Heaven that this sort of outward sign becomes redundant.

      However, I think the lack of smiles has more to do with the idea of true joy being intrinsically linked with peace. An unsmiling face doesn’t mean a miserable face. I myself have seen icons where the Saint, or Christ, or His Mother *do* look happy, and yet they are not shown smiling. With a good, inspired, iconographer such emotions can be communicated in the eyes.

      • geloruma says:

        Yes I agree that our glorified bodies will not be limited to the same functionality as earthly bodies. When Jesus visited the apostles after the resurrection,( my point is); that he did not need to eat fish – but he could, and did so perhaps for no other reason other than the Apostles needed to see that.
        We don’t actually know for sure if that outward sign of smiling becomes redundant in heaven, that really is only a presumption. Much as I love icons, I find the disciplines used (which become conventions over time) are sometimes dangerously close to being legalistic rather than spiritual,
        Thanks for the reply.

      • geloruma says:

        apologies, looks like I accidentally posted twice – the page temporarily disappeared…

  2. Jeremiah says:

    I’m quite the ignoramus when it comes to many things, icons included. However, from what I have learned, iconography did not develop in a bubble, but adapted several themes from Byzantine art (from the gestures of the right hand to books/scrolls being held in the left, etc). I’m not aware of any Byzantine art that depicts notable people smiling (but I’m not an art expert, so feel free to correct me).

    The same goes even with photography and paintings of notable people all through pre-modern history. They weren’t depicted smiling. I think our desire to see a happy, buddy Jesus partially stems from a culture in which nearly every photograph is taken with the preceding words of either “smile!” or “say cheese!”

    Also, I think we want to be affirmed. We want Christ or a saint to smile at us and tell us through that smile that we are loved and everything is ok. The gaze of the Christ Pantocrator instead challenges us. He looks into our soul. I have found that when I am not at peace, the gaze has a tendency to pierce me. But there have also been times when I am more at peace with Christ and I could almost swear I saw the icon show a hint of a friendly grin. I think for this reason, icons are accurately depicted as being mirrors to our souls.

  3. stannaw says:

    Well I certainly smile with joy when I gaze upon the icons of the Saints and our Lord. I wonder what you would make of Elder Joseph, a monk from Vatopedi, one of the Greek Orthodox monasteries at Mount Athos? And I wonder what the iconographers will think when they undoubtedly will write his image in the future?
    Read more: http://vivificat1.blogspot.com/2009/08/why-is-this-monk-smiling.html#ixzz2mMDljVuL

    Many thanks for your insightful blog. I am compiling a book on the Saints of Cyprus and your work has been most enlightening. God Bless.

  4. Don R. says:

    I’m pretty sure that “smiling icons” question is unique to US. Some cultures consider excessive smiling to be a sign of mischief or disrespect.
    Russians don’t smile: http://mentalfloss.com/article/54461/4-russian-travel-tips-visiting-america

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