Icons are specially-prepared works of art (usually paintings) that are essential to Orthodox Christian worship. They may depict scenes from the Bible, events from Church history and Holy Tradition, theological concepts, or saints.
Icons are often called “windows into heaven”. They do not simply depict literal facts about the scene or person depicted (such as actual appearance), instead they reveal spiritual truth about the subject, through the very specific artistic style and symbolism.
Furthermore, icons connect us with the spiritual world. Most people, at one time or another, have kissed a photograph of a person they love. This action is not an expression of love for paper and emulsion, it is an expression of love for the person. The same is with icons: when Christians kiss icons, that gesture is passed on to the person depicted. The Saints are alive in a vast crowd all around us, but since we cannot see them, we kiss their icons to show our love for them.
Key to the Incarnation
Icons are very important statements about the nature of God. Before Jesus Christ came to earth, God could not be pictured because he was infinite. When God was incarnate, the infinite God became a finite human being, and we now are able to make pictures of God Himself. We make pictures of God to prove he became one of us.
Are icons idols?
No. We do not worship paint or wood. Neither do we worship the saints; we venerate and honor them as our brothers and sisters in Christ, and we ask for their prayers and intercessions (see the article about the Saints for more detail). Since God created all things and all things are in God, all honor paid to his Saints is ultimately honor paid to Him.
Of old, God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was never depicted. Now, however, when God is seen clothed in flesh, and conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honouring that matter which works my salvation.
—Saint John of Damascus
Archaeologists have discovered the oldest icons in ancient Church temples from around AD 200. Church tradition holds that Saint Luke, the author of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, painted the first icon of the Virgin Mary and Christ. This famous icon is known today as the Theotokos of Vladimir.
The history of icons goes back even further, as similar artistry was used in synagogues and the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Thousands of years earlier, God Himself told Moses to decorate the Tabernacle (Tent of Meeting) and the Ark of the Covenant with images of angels.
Destruction and Restoration of Icons
Around the year 730, a period of iconoclasm (icon-smashing) began, where icons were banned in Churches and destroyed. The iconodules (venerators of icons) fought against these laws, and in 787 the Seventh Ecumenical Council was held in the city of Nicaea. The Council was led by the Holy Spirit to uphold the icons as essential to the Christian faith, and they were restored.
A second period of iconoclasm began in 813 and lasted until 843, when the icons were finally restored. This event is called the Triumph of Orthodoxy, and is celebrated on the first Sunday in Lent each year.
- Our icons at Saint George Orthodox Church
- Iconography at OrthodoxWiki
- Apologia Against Those Who Decry Holy Images by Saint John of Damascus
- Discourse in Iconography by Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco
- On the Differences Between Religious Art and Orthodox Iconography