For many Protestants one of the biggest stumbling blocks that keeps them from the Orthodox Church is the use of icons. I hope to present in this post and the ones that follow this post a decent exegesis of why the Orthodox Church uses icons and how icons can and should be used by Christians every day in their private prayers. Please, if you have any questions, leave a comment and I will try to answer you as best as I can. This falls into the Meaning of Orthodoxy series.
The tradition of icons (from Greek εἰκών eikōn: image or picture) goes back to St. Luke. Yes, the St. Luke who wrote a Gospel and a History that can still be read in any New Testament today. Orthodox Wiki has this to say about St. Luke:
"The holy, glorious and all-laudable Apostle and Evangelist Luke is the author of theGospel of Luke, the companion of the Apostle Paul (Phil 1:24, 2 Tim 4:10-11), and is numbered among the Seventy Apostles. He was a native of Syrian Antioch and a physician, and is the founder of iconography."It is said that the first icon made by St. Luke was that of the Theotokos (Mother of God, i.e. the Virgin Mary). But there is another icon even older than the first one made by St. Luke; the Image Not-Made-By-Hands:
Now, of course those are part of the Tradition of the Church and they have no basis in Scripture that I can find, but let us see if we can find any early sources that site the use of icons in a liturgical setting..."During the time of the earthly ministry of the Savior, Abgar, ruler in the Syrian city of Edessa, was afflicted with leprosy. Reports of the great miracles performed by the Lord extended throughout Syria (Matt. 4:24) and as far as Arabia at this time. Although not having seen the Lord, Abgar believed in him and wrote a letter requesting Christ to come and heal him. Abgar sent his court painter, Ananias, with this letter to Palestine telling him to paint an image of the Divine Teacher. Ananias was not able go to near Christ because of the great many people listening to his preaching. He attempted to produce an image of the Lord Jesus Christ from afar, but could not. The Lord called Ananias and promised to send his disciple in order to heal Abgar from the leprosy and instruct him in salvation. Then the Lord called for water and a towel. He wiped His face with the towel, and on it was His Divine Image."The Savior sent the towel and a letter to Edessa back with Ananias. With thanksgiving Abgar received the sacred objects and started healing. He continued healing until the arrival of the disciple Thaddeus, Apostle of the 70. The Apostle preached the Gospel and baptized the Abgar and all living in Edessa."
In the 1920's there was a remarkable archaeological find known as Dura Europos that was a very diverse city. OrthodoxAnswers.org has some information on this find:
Did you catch the date up there? AD 233. That is just a mere two-hundred years after the death of Christ and about one hundred years after the falling asleep of St. John the Apostle. Also note the use of icons in the synagogue - we'll be returning to that soon.
Now what purpose would icons serve in a church? If you guessed idolatry then I'm sorry but you are wrong. If you guessed teaching tool then you are right. The earliest icons were most likely used like picture books are today - to teach those who can not read, which back in that day was the majority of people. Remember, the movable type printing press which lowered the costs of books and made them widely available was not invented in Europe until the mid 1400's. The only way to get copies of the Gospels and Epistles was to copy them by hand, and even then the majority of people were illiterate. Icons served the purpose of telling biblical stories in picture format. Think of going to a church with stained glass windows depicting biblical scenes - they both tell stories through the use of symbols.
Even today our icons are full of all kinds of symbols to help the lay-people understand the Scriptures.
Note the two pictures above. One is of a stained glass window that you might see at any church you walk into. The other is an icon of Christ's Descent into Hades. Both depict Jesus' resurrection. In the first picture you see Jesus standing triumphant over death (symbolized by the sepulchral) with angles attending to Him and a light from behind to show His glory. Also, Jesus is holding a staff to possibly show that He is King of All. A very lovely picture over all and the message of Jesus rising and being triumphant over death is not lost.
Let us now look at the icon. What do we see? Firstly, in the middle of the icon we see Jesus with light from behind Him. Sometimes the light is depicted as black to show that we can not see the Divine uncreated light. Secondly, look at Jesus' feet. What is that He is standing on? Why the very gates of Hades themselves! Also note the two people coming out of their graves, one male and the other female. They represent Adam and Eve and this symbolizes Jesus righting the wrongs. To Jesus' right (our left) are those who prepared the way for Jesus' coming: King David, King Solomon, and St. John the Forerunner (aka Baptist). On Jesus' left (our right) are prophets that foretold the coming of Jesus. Moses is one of those and he is rather young, depicted with his staff. At the bottom we see a figure bound. This is death, showing us that Jesus overcame death and has come to save all of mankind (also depicted by Adam and Eve). Please follow this link for more information regarding the icon Descent Into Hades and note this from the aforementioned link:
"The deep and intricate theological meaning that is contained within this and all Orthodox icons is the reason they are often called “pictorial Gospels.” As part of the sacred Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Christian Faith, icons possess the same authority and truth as does written Scripture. This is also why icons follow a set formula of composition and why Anastasis icons painted even a thousand years apart do not vary greatly from one another. Because, to Orthodox Christians, varying iconographic composition in response to aesthetic tastes or current trends would be tantamount to a translator of scripture changing the words and meaning of one of the Gospels according to his or her own whim and fancy. This is why iconographers are sometimes compared to translators – but of the Church’s pictorial tradition. As such, they can remain no less faithful to their pictoral prototypes than a translator of Holy Scripture must remain true to original ancient texts and manuscripts."
"8. If Icons are so important, why do we not find them in the Scriptures?There are references in the Old Testament to icons in the Tabernacle and in the Temple! They were ordered to be there as can be seen in some of the Scripture referenced in the above quote. So we see that icons were ordered to be in the earliest buildings designed for worship by the Jews. Jump forward a few thousand years and we can see icons in places of worship for both Jews and Christians.
Ah, but we do find them in the Scriptures—plenty of them! Consider how prevalent they were in the Tabernacle and then later in the Temple. There were images of cherubim:
In short, there were Icons everywhere you turned."
- On the Ark—Ex. 25:18
- On the Curtains of the Tabernacle—Ex. 26:1
- On the Veil of the Holy of Holies—Ex. 26:31
- Two huge Cherubim in the Sanctuary—1st Kings 6:23
- On the Walls—1st Kings 6:29
- On the Doors—1st Kings 6:32
- And on the furnishings—1st Kings 7:29,36
Why wouldn't icons carry over? Christianity is the continuation and fulfillment of the original Hebrew religion and the early Church recognized this, which is why the early Church was so liturgical and why the Orthodox Church of today is still so liturgical, we are simply following the form of worship outlined in the Bible. And because icons were used in the Bible and by the Hebrews so too do we Orthodox use icons in our worship today.
I once asked a lady what she thought of the Orthodox Church. She replied that she liked it but it was too iconographic for her. But if you were to walk into her house you would see all kinds of Christian imagery from crosses to lighthouses depicting biblical scenes and a mechanical Nativity scene that uses magnets to bring the Magi and the shepherds by the Holy Family. So what is the difference between the icons used in the Church and Christian art in the home? Perhaps it is because we Orthodox venerate our icons? Ah, but that shall wait for another post...
Special thanks to my editor.
Special thanks to my editor.