Icons are beautiful examples of religious art which can be appreciated in art galleries and museums. In Orthodox Christian churches and homes, however, icons are expressions of our faith in the incarnation of Jesus Christ and our hope in the sanctification of human beings through the person of our Savior.
This faith and hope is based on things that have really happened. Many of these things were recorded in Holy Scripture. Christ was born in Bethlehem, crucified in Jerusalem, and ascended from the Mount of Olives. Other events happened in the lived memory of the Church. Our own St Nicholas was a real person. He was a monk in Palestine and the cave where he lived is still beloved in the Orthodox Christian village of Beit Jala. He was a bishop in Myra, which is a small city in Turkey where Orthodox Christians still celebrate the Divine Liturgy in his cathedral. Although icons use symbols that are not readily understandable without instruction, they always depict ‘real’ people and ‘real’ events.
Since icons are based on reality, they follow accepted patterns. Since the Son of God was really born as a human infant in Bethlehem, He was ‘like’ other human infants in many ways but He was also unique. He had a ‘real’ mother who was different from the other young mothers in Nazareth. When we paint Christ as a young child therefore we are not just painting a human being but a specific human being. Our model cannot be chosen at random. Any young beautiful mother cannot be the model for the Virgin Mary in iconography. The recognition of this uniqueness of the person of Jesus Christ is the main difference between icons and Western religious art. Each Western ‘Madonna and Child’ is based on a different vision and so each one only symbolizes Christ in the arms of His mother for believers. Icons, however, reproduce their subjects following a common pattern. The depiction of Christ in an icon always presents Him as the Church sees Him.
When we live with icons they not only help us to focus our minds on our incarnate Lord Jesus Christ they also change the way we see other people and the natural world. In icons the material world is fully alive firstly because it is God’s workmanship but more importantly because the Son of God lived and died upon it. The material world is seen as a vehicle of Divine grace in an icon and not just as a resource for our use. As the Psalmist said, “The earth is the LORD’S, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein (Psalm 23:1 Septuagint and Psalm 24:1 Masoretic). People too are seen as being created “in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:27)” and as capable of being transfigured by Divine grace. For that reason when the priest censes the holy icons, he always censes the holy people of God who are standing in prayer in the temple. Each human being is an icon of God created in His image and called to be like Him in holiness and love.
Icons depict real people but they are not those people themselves. When we hold a photograph of someone we love, sometimes we feel closer to them but we never confuse the photograph with the person. We cannot ‘worship’ icons because we know that Jesus Christ, the Theotokos, and the saints are not paint and wood but we ‘venerate’ icons because God’s grace is able to transfigure created things. Human beings are real icons of God but we die and our bodies wear out. “For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass wither, and the flower thereof falls away (1 Peter 1:24).” Because each human person has unique value in the sight of God, we bury our dead with dignity and honor. Even in death we acknowledge the image of God. When icons wear out, however, as St John of Damascus taught, we simply dispose of them and get new ones. Icons and people are both holy images but human beings are of immeasurably greater worth than paintings of human beings.
Moses commanded that images of cherubim be made for the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25: 18-21) and so it is clear that he did not intend the prohibition against images to be absolute. The ancient Jewish synagogue in Dura-Europos, located in modern Syria, is filled with iconographic images like the one to the left depicting the Prophet Samuel anointing David. No one thought these images of the Old Testament prophets were idolatry.The Lord’s command to not make gods for ourselves to worship, however, was absolute and remains so to this day (Exodus 20:2-6).
Living with icons is the Orthodox Christian’s way of preventing idolatry. All Christians boast that we have Jesus Christ enthroned in our hearts as Lord but we all too often create gods in our own image rather than recognizing that He has made us in His image. All too often people have replaced the Living God in their hearts with dead idols that represent their own desires and their own version of holiness. Icons remind us of who Christ really is and what holiness really looks like. We are all called to have a personal relationship with God but we cannot have a personal ‘god’ that differs from the experience of the Church. Jesus Christ is “the same, yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8).”