Virtuous Icons: Unique Persons or Gendered Stereotypes

Virtuous Icons: Unique Persons or Gendered Stereotypes

Published: Apr 7, 2010 by Maria Gwyn McDowell

I recently spoke at Huffington Ecumenical Institute's 2010 Symposium on <a href=">Women and Church, East and West</a>. My talk, "Virtuous Icons: Unique Persons or Gendered Stereotypes" is available in four parts via YouTube.  I have included the intro and conclusion as text below.


The 20th century in particular has seen the development of a theological anthropology in both East and West which affirms persons as unique, irreducible and free. Uniqueness and irreducibility go together. Each human person is a unique creation in the image of God. We are, according to Elizabeth Behr-Sigel, the French Orthodox and feminist theologian, ‘colored’ by ou particular qualities of body, sex, race and ethnicity, each color contributing to our individual uniqueness as icons of God.1 As unique icons of God, we cannot be reduced to any single quality, virtue, or ‘way’ of being because no single characteristic or set of characteristics can adequately describe who we are. Metr. John Zizioulas, defending the essential importance of difference among human persons, says that "A Eucharist which excludes in one way or another those of a different race or sex or age or profession is a false Eucharist....The Eucharist must include all these, for it is there that the otherness of a natural or social kind can be transcended. A Church which does not celebrate the Eucharist in this inclusive way risks losing her catholicity."2

Yet the Orthodox liturgy does exclude. While all Orthodox Christians present are welcome to receive the Eucharist, only male Orthodox are welcome to preside at the Eucharist. Orthodox response to the question of the ordination of women to the priesthood has changed over the last four decades, yet two basic objections remain. First, like the Catholic church, Orthodox share the presumption that a lack of precedent precludes any possibility of change in current practice. While I do not think this is an adequate reflection of how we understand Tradition, I will not take this up here. Second is the continued belief that the liturgical symbolism of the priest requires a male body, in Fr. Thomas Hopko’s phrase, the priesthood is a “masculine ministry."3 This assumes, incorrectly as I argue elsewhere, that there is something particularly masculine about the priesthood. Further, it creates a one-to-one correlation between between the physical body and a supposedly gendered quality, characteristic or virtue. The iconic material, the body, dictates the manner of relating. My argument is that an Orthodox theology of icons does not support the romanticized complementarity of rigid gender binaries which underlie this theology. Rather, liturgically situated icons envision salvation in embodied, transfigured persons who are unique, irreducible and free.


The Orthodox tradition encompasses diverse images and narratives of our “full humanity.” Mary’s virginal motherhood cannot be reduced to Victorian piety or imperial power. Her full humanity encompasses both, though it also may reject certain elements of each. The plethora of images, verbal and iconic, in Orthodoxy testify to the diversity of virtues, virtuous practices, and embodiments of holiness seen in transfigured persons. No single saint exemplifies full humanity, any more than does a single virtue or practice. Further, a particular virtue is not restricted to a particular function, role or social location, such as “selfless love” with motherhood. Saints point us to the enactment of virtue within our particularity as the core of the Christian life. Embodied virtue does not allow a clean division between a mode of female enactment and a mode of male enactment. Icons do not portray virtue as gendered or sexed. The do portray sexed and gendered persons as virtuous. The body matters, not because the body dictates what virtues will or will not be expressed, but because it is only through the body that any and all virtues are expressed.

What then, is wrong with a male priesthood? On the one hand, nothing. A male priest can exemplify the virtuous humanity that we are all (including the priest) becoming. In their bodies of flesh rather than wood and paint, they make our “new humanity” visible through the practice of virtue. This is the emphasis on the priesthood found in patristic texts, not masculinity, but virtue. A male priesthood is wrong however, when it is exclusively male. Our gaze is arrested at flesh and blood in a manner no less idolatrous than allowing our gaze to be filled by wood and paint. The Icon, which at one point opens our gaze to the divine ceases to do so, because our gaze is filled with the visible. As Jean-Luc Marion notes, idols mirror precisely the degree of the divine that the one gazing is able to see. If we see only male fatherhood in the priest who is an eikon of our humanity in Christ, we see only males as icons of Christ. The long and hard-fought tradition of wood and paint icons is a battle for the radicality of an incarnation in which all matter is transformed through participation in the work of the Spirit. We need to see female icons of transfigured humanity on wood and paint, as well as flesh and blood. Women who can set forth the image before us, being God and making others to be God. We need to see this in the liturgy, since it is in the Eucharist, the “holy things for the holy people,” embodied on the table as well as in each and every person, “thine own of thine own,” that we attain our unique, irreducible and free human personhood.


  • 1. “Each person is ineffably unique and called upon to serve God and men according to his or her own vocation and special charisms. These are certainly colored by the person’s sex, but not determined by it.” Élisabeth Behr-Sigel, The Ministry of Women in the Church, trans. Steven Bigham (Redondo Beach, CA: Oakwood Publications, 1991), 16.
  • 2. ”The Eucharist sanctifies communion as well as otherness, and Eucharistic fails to do this is destroyed and even invalidated.” John Zizioulas, “Communion and Otherness,” St Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 38, no. 4 (1994): 355.
  • 3. Thomas Hopko, “On the Male Character of Christian Priesthood,” St Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 19, no. 3 (1975): 147-173; Thomas Hopko, “Presbyter/Bishop: A Masculine Ministry,” in Women and the Priesthood, ed. Thomas Hopko, (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1999).