Presence and Power

Reflections on the Politics and Theology of Icons


  • George Pattison



Contextualized by the use of icons during the current war in Ukraine, the paper finds a point of orientation in the veneration of the icon of Our Lady of Smolensk by the Russian army on the eve of the Battle of
Borodino, as portrayed by Tolstoy. Is this turning the icon into a battle-­flag? The use of icons in historic conflicts parallels the use of relics as a means of making present the power of the saint. Peter Brown shows that the cult of relics was closely associated with the sacralization of the burial site and dead body of the saint, democratized through the dismemberment of the saints' bodies and the use of physical items associated with them, a process that icons take still further, making the saint present in every church and household. Showing the saint as both heavenly and earthly, the icon recalls human beings to their own finitude and mortality, as we see in Tolstoy's image of Kutuzov kneeling before the icon of Our Lady of Smolensk. As expressive of human beings' individual and collective incapacity in the face of the last things, this understanding of icons provides a defence against the misuse of the icon as a battle-flag or its instrumentalization as a means of political domination and manipulation