What are icons?
Orthodox icons are pictographic representations of Christ, Angels, Saints, and significant events in their lives; sometimes, we even find icons representing the parables taught by Jesus. Behind the wood and paint, however, icons contain a depth of theology that makes them integral tools for teaching the Christian Faith, for revealing the glory and Grace of God, and for providing the believer with an intimately physical mode for expressing his/her love for Christ. An icon, though a solid picture, is best seen as a mirror, reflecting the glory of God and of Heaven to believers, offering them a symbolic vision for the goal of salvation.
Didn’t God forbid icons?
There are a couple Old Testament passages that are most-often cited to defend the belief that icons and their veneration are contrary to Christian teaching:
“You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the waters under the earth” (Exodus 20:4).
“So be careful to guard your souls, for you saw no form when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb on the mountain from the midst of the fire. Do not act lawlessly and make for yourselves a carved form of any image: the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any cattle on the earth, or the likeness of any winged bird that flies under heaven, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, or the likeness of any fish in the waters beneath the earth.” (Deuteronomy 4:15-18)
We see here and in various other passages two main reasons that idols were banned from becoming a part of Jewish worship: (1) nobody had seen God and He thus could not be sculpted or painted and (2) God wanted to keep Israel from worshipping other creatures or the gods of other nations. In other words, this was about keeping the worship of the True God free of any pagan influence or non-inspired interpretation. Something very interesting, however, can also be found in the Old Testament text. In various places, God actually commands that certain images be used in Jewish worship. For example, Exodus 25 recounts how God commanded that cherubim be placed on the top of the Ark of the Covenant. Cherubim also adorned the tent walls and the curtain leading into the Holy of Holies. Recent archaeological digs have also discovered frescos on ancient Jewish synagogues depicting, among other things, various scenes from the Old Testament.
So how does this all seem to apply to Orthodox iconography? Firstly, we have to distinguish between icons and idols. The difference really comes in their use (which is discussed further on in more detail). An idol is an object of worship, being active representations or actually being deities themselves; Orthodox icons are religious depictions that help adorn, beautify, and assist worship, but they are not objects of worship themselves. Again, this will be discussed a bit more later on.
So what of the two Old Testament objections to any painted or sculpted images? How do Orthodox icons fare when confronted by these objections? As with absolutely any area of theology, everything changed with the incarnation of the Son of God. Nothing is kept untouched by Jesus Christ Who altered and alters all. We see in Jesus that even worship is transformed, including the use of icons. Even while some images were allowed in ancient Jewish worship (as we have already discussed), the idea of depicting God was still unacceptable. With Jesus Christ, God became man… a visible, tangible, touchable human being. Already, one of our objections is utterly upturned. While once, we could not depict God because He had never been seen, now God has become one of us. Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human. Just as if we could go back in time, any one of us would snap a picture of Jesus and put it in our homes, we can still paint pictures of Jesus. The incarnation changed everything.
As for the other objection, when God became man, He revealed true worship to us much more fully than it had been revealed in the time of the Prophets. We see this especially in Jesus’ baptism:
“When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’” (Matthew 3:16-17)
Here, as one of the hymns of the Orthodox Church says, “the worship of the Trinity was made manifest.” In this scene and others in the Scriptures (especially the Transfiguration), we have a manifestation of the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and the revelation of the Trinity and thus true worship becomes a protection against trying to worship false gods and creating various idols. Once more, the incarnation changed everything.
So, we see that the objections to idols in the Old Testament:
1) address idols and not icons, as shown by even God’s command to make certain icons and images.
2) were protections of Israel’s worship to keep them pure in preparation for receiving the Messiah.
3) are, like much of the Law, addressed differently after Christ Who does not do away with the Mosaic Law but rather fulfilled it (Matthew 5:17).
Still, many condemn Orthodox Christians for surrounding themselves with these images and believe that their use either dabbles in or quite blatantly is the worship of things other than God. To examine this, we have to ask about the use of icons in the Orthodox Church.
The use of icons in Orthodoxy
Firstly, let’s be very clear about something: Orthodox Christians worship God in Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and we worship God alone. We do not worship Mary, the Saints, Angels, and certain not depictions of any of them… including icons of Jesus Christ. “But Orthodox Christians bow before and kiss icons… Isn’t this worship?” you might ask. To understand this practice, one must know that Orthodoxy Christianity makes a very clear distinction between worship and veneration. Let me explain.
To “venerate” something essentially means to show it honor and respect. The act of bowing before and kissing something, however, is very foreign to many today… especially to Americans. In the ancient world and many other countries even contemporarily, bowing and kissing is a normal part of everyday. It is not unusual in the least to see a younger person kiss the hand of an elderly person in Romania, for instance. Even in the United States, people often have pictures of their loved ones who have past, and in some cases, they kiss these pictures before going to bed. Would we consider this worship? Of course not! Icons, for Orthodox Christians, are like extended family photos, so we engage in the same practice.
Imagine this: what if St. Paul were to appear, in the flesh, before any one of us right now? Would anyone be shocked and scandalized if someone made a small bow and kissed his hand? Most likely not. Why? This would most likely be seen as an act of honor and respect… not worship.
But why do we venerate icons in the Church? The idea here is that the veneration we offer to wood and paint (or mosaics or silver and gold or any other materials used in icons) passes on to the figure depicted. So, when I kiss the foot of Christ in an icon, that veneration is passed on to Christ Himself. Or when I kiss the hand of the Virgin Mary, I am showing the actual person, who stands and intercedes for us unceasingly before the throne of God, thanks and honor for all that she did and does for us with her prayers. Veneration is an act of love for one we respect and honor and who we hold to be an example of Christian piety and virtue which we hope to emulate. But icons have many other uses.
Other uses of icons
Icons in the Church are catechetical (or instructional or educational). We see theology at work in icons. While icons of scenes in the lives of the Prophets, Saints, and Christ are meant to be historical, sometimes things are depicted in ahistorical terms to show the theological reality behind the scene. In the icon of Pentecost, for instance, St. Paul is present. While his conversion didn’t occur until later on, his presence in the icon shows that he, too, was lighted upon by the Holy Spirit and became a full Apostles. Or the icon of Moses and the Burning Bush shows, inside the bush, the Virgin Mary and the Christ child, teaching us that the Virgin Mary became the Burning Bush: God became present through her, and even though Christ dwelt within her womb, His Divinity did not consumer her (just as the fire did not consume the bush). For most of the history of the Church, having a full Bible at home was almost impossible; icons painted on the walls of churches, then, became tools for teaching and remembering important stories and parables found within the pages of Scripture. Just as the Scriptures are the written Word of God, so icons are the painted or illustrated Word of God. Even with this explanation, people still look at traditional Byzantine iconography and note that it has a style all its own. The people don’t look realistic… It is a far cry from the famous Renaissance paintings of the West. So why do icons look the way they do?
The theology of icons
In the Orthodox Church, little if anything is done without reason. Iconography is no exception. The depiction of figures in icons is done in a very specific style to witness to the transformation we all await in Heaven. It is not a literal depiction of how we will look but a symbolic depiction, describing various aspects of the glory that awaits us. Figures are shown with a certain, almost stoic expression (even in scenes of horrific martyrdom), showing the “passionlessness” (or “sinlessness”) of a soldier after having won the battle against sin and the demons. There is a peace and calm that is clear in their expression… It is an inward smile that is revealed.
Along with this expression, various aspects of the face and body reveal the transfigured state of one glorified before God. The eyes are always open, looking on the face of God; the mouth is always closed, as the figure is always listening for the Voice of God; the nose is always thinned, as the figure only smells beautiful and heavenly fragrances. Further, the perspective in icons in inverted; rather than having a vanishing point in the background, the viewer becomes the vanishing point. This shows the eternity of the figures and events depicted… While they were events in time, the significance to our salvation is “ever-present” to us. Further, this serves as a depiction of God primarily looking at us from the icon; His view is not from one place, like ours, but is from all around. Thus, we are at the center of Christ’s gaze, since His eyes are always on us.
Another interesting aspect of Orthodox iconography is the process in which they are painted. Most paintings are done with light colors going on the canvass first and darker colors being added, little by little. This is so that the artist can properly show shadows. In Orthodox iconography, the process is reversed: the darkest colors go on first and lighter colors are added. The reason for this is the source of light in the icons. There is no sun, with shadows going one way. Instead, the figures themselves become the source of light. This is because a Saint is someone who is holy. Holiness, of course, comes from God alone. So a Saint is someone who can say, along with St. Paul, “…it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me…” (Galatians 2:20). This means that Christ, dwelling inside the figure, becomes the Source of Light, a Light which pours forth from the figure rather than shining from the outside.
Beyond this, every aspect of icons has some theological meaning: the colors used, the way scenery is depicted, the items figures hold, the position in which they are depicted… Nearly every detail of iconography portrays some spiritual reality not immediately apparent in the icon. In fact, taking an icon of a scene from the life of Christ such as the Nativity, His baptism, or the Crucifixion could take pages and pages to explain… and most elements could find corresponding Biblical verses to explain them.
This is why, as we explained before, icons are best seen as mirrors, reflecting the glory of Heaven; each element reveals an eternal and glorious Truth before our very eyes. Though often called “windows into Heaven,” perhaps the image of a mirror fits best, as what we see in icons is a reflection of the reality… The reality is present in the image. This is again why, when we kiss the wood and paint, the veneration is passed on to the prototype depicted.
The historical use and view of icons
Unlike today, iconography was not questioned in the Universal Church for well over a thousand years, save for one difficult period. Tradition holds, in fact, that the first iconographer was St. Luke the Evangelist himself. However, this was not an unexamined practice. In the 8th century, men known as “iconoclasts” began to question and argue against the use of icons in the Church. In response, the Church held an Ecumenical Council in Nicaea (the 7th entire undivided Church participated. The practice of the use of and veneration of icons was universally accepted and was not formally questioned again until Century, a group of clergymen, monks, of such Councils) at which holy bishops and theologians from the the Reformation, well over 600 years later. Seeing as Christ promised to send the Holy Spirit to lead the church into “all truth” (John 16:13) and the Church has accepted and embraced this practice for 2,000 years… and as it was not until the 15th century that a sustained rejection of the use of iconography in Christianity even existed…, it is difficult to justify rejecting the use and veneration of icons without likewise questioning Christ’s promise to the Church; in other words, could the Church be said to be in “all truth” when, for 1500 years, it was engaged in “idolatry” and false practices? It would seem not.
A source of Divine comfort and encouragement
When an Orthodox Christian sees an icon, he is reminded of the great spiritual athletes whose love for Christ was almost unimaginable. While icons are primarily used in churches and in prayer corners of the home, they can adorn any wall as visual encouragements, reminding Christians of the zeal and virtue to which we are all called.
As special blessings and encouragements, it is not rare to find icons that weep, exude myrrh, or through which God works many miracles and healings. These continue to exist even today and serve as a sign of God’s approval of their use in Orthodox worship. Icons are a blessing in education, in common piety, and in revealing the glory that awaits those who love Christ with their whole hearts. And the truth is, we couldn’t escape icons if we tried. All of creation bears the mark of its Divine Creator, and even man was made in the image of God. We are all icons of God’s glory, then, even if we stain these icons with the dirt of sin. Thus, as St. John of Damascus, one of the greatest defenders of icons wrote, “The whole earth is a living icon of the Face of God.”