Windows to Heaven

Introducing Icons to Protestants and Catholics

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"Illustrated with exquisite colour plates, [this guidebook] details the nature and purpose of Orthodox icons and explains how their contemplation might enrich the spiritual lives of non-Orthodox Christians. . . . [It] expertly introduces Protestants and Catholics to 'the world of visible spirituality' depicted in Orthodox icons."--Ecumenism

After even a casual encounter with Orthodox icons, Protestants and Catholics often find themselves strangely attracted to--yet disconcerted by--the beautiful, haunting images. From the theological to the aesthetic, questions flood in: Why are the facial expressions so fixed? Why the colorful robes? What do the images symbolize? Do Orthodox Christians worship icons? Doesn't that make them idols?

In their exquisite new guidebook, Windows to Heaven, Elizabeth Zelensky and Lela Gilbert detail the nature and purpose of Orthodox icons, describing how these powerful images "bridge the abyss between the material and spiritual worlds." In a generous, ecumenical spirit, they explain how the contemplation of icons might enrich the spiritual lives of non-Orthodox Christians.

Each chapter opens with relevant scriptural references and engaging anecdotes and closes with excerpts from personal journals. Zelensky and Gilbert offer theological, historical, and aesthetic contexts for five specific icons, including Andrei Rublev's Icon of the Holy Trinity, the Vladamir Theotokos, and Theophanes' Transfiguration of Christ.

With special emphasis on the incarnation, Windows to Heaven eloquently and expertly introduces Protestants and Catholics to "the world of visible spirituality" depicted in Orthodox icons. Here is an approachable and engaging guide, perfect for all those seeking to deepen or refresh their prayer.


"A moving and poignant assessment of the meaning of icons in the Eastern Christian tradition. Narrating in personal terms, the authors bring the reader into the presence of the living Christ to whom the icons attest. In the splendid tradition of Daniel B. Clendenin, Windows to Heaven provides the Western reader with major clues to understanding Eastern Orthodox worship. The book does not take the mystery out of icons; it puts the mystery in them--the mystery of the incarnation."--Thomas C. Oden, editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and author of The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity

"Often under suspicion, icons have enriched the devotional lives of millions of Orthodox Christians for centuries. At a time when many non-Orthodox believers are discovering their value, the authors offer a highly readable and much-needed guide to their meaning and purpose."--Jeremy Begbie, editor of Beholding the Glory: Incarnation Through the Arts

"Zelensky and Gilbert combine personal journaling, history, theology, art, and liturgy to elucidate the central role of icons in Orthodoxy. Their book is a welcome addition to the growing literature that introduces Catholic and Protestant believers to Orthodox Christianity."--Daniel B. Clendenin, author of Eastern Orthodox Christianity

"At a time when icons are becoming increasingly visible in many denominations, this is just the book we need. It skillfully weaves theology, history, and liturgy into a discussion of the development and use of icons that is accessible to all Christians. I am enthusiastic about it. Read it with the images--it will stimulate prayer and meditation."--William Dyrness, Fuller Theological Seminary; author of Visual Faith

"This lovely book offers an inviting way to begin to encounter the prayerful ancient art of icons. These images, which seem strange and severe at first, are gradually revealed as friends through Zelensky and Gilbert's careful and accessible work."--Frederica Mathewes-Green, author of Facing East: A Pilgrim's Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy and The Open Door: Entering the Sanctuary of Icons and Prayer

"I've never quite been able to understand icons, despite pondering them and talking with Orthodox in Greece, Turkey, Romania, Egypt, and Washington. For me this book is a delight. It clearly and movingly illuminates their meaning and their role in the believer's life. There is no better place to begin in understanding them and in understanding Orthodoxy."--Paul Marshall, coauthor of Their Blood Cries Out and Heaven Is Not My Home

"We live in an age characterized by both an aimlessness and a deep spiritual hunger. Though at first glance the two may seem at odds, the fact is that they represent an asymmetry of sorts in an authentic search for God. The barrenness of contemporary men and women is leading many to a sincere and deep search for life, love, God, and existential meaning. Windows to Heaven opens the reader to the beauty and depth of praying with icons. The late Henri Nouwen once noted, 'Gazing is probably the best word to touch the core of Eastern spirituality.' That is why icons are such an extraordinary treasure for all who hunger for God. As a Catholic who has prayed with icons for many years and, through them, entered through their heavenly window into a participation, a communion, with the inner life of God, I am deeply grateful to the authors for writing this beautiful book. Windows to Heaven points the way toward encountering the living God for so many who desire to gaze on his loveliness and enter into his embrace of love."--Keith A. Fournier, author of The Prayer of Mary

The Authors

  1. Elizabeth Zelensky

    Elizabeth Zelensky

    Elizabeth Zelensky, a Russian Orthodox believer, lectures in history at Georgetown University.

    Continue reading about Elizabeth Zelensky

  2. Lela Gilbert

    Lela Gilbert

    Lela Gilbert has written and coauthored numerous books, including Islam at the Crossroads and Their Blood Cries Out.

    Continue reading about Lela Gilbert


"In recent years, Protestants have discovered icons, once the provenance of Eastern Orthodox churches. Zelensky (a historian of Russia) and Gilbert (a prolific writer/ghostwriter) team up to introduce Eastern icons to Western Christians. The authors open with a lucid discussion of what an icon is--and is not. . . . The heart of the book is a reading of five famous icons, including Andrei Rublev's icon of the Holy Trinity. Readers will learn about the history of these icons, their 'writers' (creators), symbolism and place in Orthodox theology and liturgy. Six glossy illustrations round out the book. . . . The book is a feast; its authors compellingly suggest that icons offer a much-needed space for contemplation in a frenetic world. Indeed, this little book is itself such an oasis. Readers who like Frederica Mathewes-Green and Henri Nouwen will welcome this new addition to the icon shelf."--Publishers Weekly

"This is a rambling, unpretentious little book, which, in an 'unorthodox' way, manages to get its point across. . . . The book does not pretend to be an exhaustive study or even a systematic presentation. It tries to arouse interest by vignettes that mix theology, history and spirituality. . . . The overall perspective is ecumenical, the desire to share riches without imposing views. . .. It is good that there are books like this where treasures and experiences are shared among different traditions. . . . In a context of pro-existence, the different Christian confessions would seek to learn from one another, to be attentive to the workings of the Holy Spirit in other contexts. This book is a healthy step in that direction."--Jerry Ryan, National Catholic Reporter

"[This] book offers fresh and unusual explanations of familiar icons such as Andrei Rublev's vision of the Holy Trinity. . . . It combines spiritual insight and useful art history facts to explain why the Orthodox are so transfixed by [these] famous icon[s]."--Julia Duin, Washington Times

"This new guidebook, illustrated with exquisite colour plates, details the nature and purpose of Orthodox icons and explains how their contemplation might enrich the spiritual lives of non-Orthodox Christians. Each chapter opens with relevant scriptural references and engaging anecdotes and closes with excerpts from personal journals. . . . With special emphasis on the incarnation, this volume expertly introduces Protestants and Catholics to 'the world of visible spirituality' depicted in Orthodox icons."--Ecumenism

"This excellent handbook describes the general characteristics of icons and lucidly and prayerfully analyzes five famous holy icons. . . . Clear, colorful illustrations . . . show the variety and beautiful spiritual quality of famous icons and the authors analyze each piece. . . . Holy icons are windows to heaven and this book explains many of the factors in Orthodox culture and history that make the icons so powerful and appealing. Recommended for religious art collections."--Jack Edson, Catholic Library World

"Zelensky and Gilbert's perspective gives a tantalizing glimpse of church history through the lens of ancient Christian aesthetics and explains why an ancient tradition appeals to postmodern spiritual sensitivities. Above all, their work dispels prejudice born of ignorance and encourages sympathetic dialogue with theology from the patristic paradigms of the Eastern churches. . . . In a post-Christian age when allies are few, this work adds another span to the growing bridge to evangelical Protestants."--Timothy J. Ralston, Bibliotheca Sacra