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Icon FAQ

Orthodox Icon FAQ

What is an Icon? The word icon is derived from the Greek eikon, meaning an image An Icon is an image (usually two dimensional) of Christ, the Saints, Angels, important Biblical events, parables, or events in the history of the Church. St. Gregory the Dialogist (Pope of Rome ca. 590-604), spoke of Icons as being Scripture to the illiterate: "For what writing presents to readers, this a picture presents to the unlearned who behold, since in it even the ignorant see what they ought to follow; in it the illiterate read" To those who would suggest that this is no longer relevant in our enlightened age, let them consider the rather large functional illiteracy rate we have, and the fact that even the most literate societies always have a sizable illiterate segment... their young children. Icons also lift up our minds from earthly things to the heavenly. St. John of Damascus wrote, "we are led by perceptible Icons to the contemplation of the divine and spiritual". And by keeping their memory before us through the Icons, we are also inspired to imitate the holiness of those therein depicted. St. Gregory of Nyssa (ca 330-395) spoke of how he could not pass an Icon of Abraham sacrificing Isaac "without tears". Commenting on this, it was noted at the Seventh Ecumenical Synod, "If to such a Doctor the picture was helpful and drew forth tears, how much more in the case of the ignorant and simple will it bring compunction and benefit". Only after patient study and prayerful reflection do these ancient icons begin to speak to us. When they do connect, they speak to our inner heart searching for God. Their artistic tradition was developed to communicate theological truths to the faithful and to provide in pictures what sacred scripture provides in words. They are rich in symbolism and meaning, attempting to give us a window into the divine rather than a realistic portrayal

Do Orthodox Christians pray and Worship to Icons?
Christians pray in the presence of Icons (just as Israelites prayed in the presence of Icons in the Temple), but we do not pray to the image. Holy icons serve a number of purposes. (1) They enhance the beauty of a church. (2) They instruct us in matters pertaining to the Christian faith. (3) They remind us of this faith. (4) They lift us up to the prototypes which they symbolize, to a higher level of thought and feeling. (5) They arouse us to imitate the virtues of the holy personages depicted on them. (6) They help to transform us, to sanctify us. (7) They serve as a means of worship and veneration. Orthodox Christians do not worship Icons in the sense that the word "worship" is commonly used in modern English. In older translations, one finds the word "worship" used to translate the Greek word proskyneo (literally, "to bow"). Nevertheless, one must understand that the older use of "worship" in English was much broader than it is generally used today, and was often used to refer simply to the act of honoring, venerating, or reverencing. For example, in the old book of common prayer, one of the wedding vows was "with my body I thee worship," but this was never intended to imply that the bride would worship her husband in the sense in which "worship" is commonly

Do Icons work miracles? To put this question in proper perspective, let's consider a few other questions: Did the Ark of the Covenant work miracles (e.g. Joshua 3:15ff; 1st Samuel 4-6; 2nd Samuel 11-12)? Did the Bronze Serpent heal those bitten by snakes (Numbers 21:9)? Did the Prophet Elisha's bones raise a man from the dead (2nd Kings 13:21)? Did St. Peter's shadow heal the sick (Acts 5:15)? Did aprons and handkerchiefs that had touched St. Paul heal the sick and caste out evil spirits (Acts 19:12)? The answer to these questions are, Yes, in a manner of speaking. Nevertheless, to be precise, it was God who chose to work miracles through these things. In the case of the Ark and the Bronze serpent, we have images used to work miracles. God worked a miracle through the relics of the Prophet Elisha, through the shadow of a Saint, and through things that had merely touched a Saint. Why? Because God honors those who honor Him (1st Samuel 2:30), and thus takes delight in working miracles through his Saints, even by these indirect means. The fact that God can sanctify material things should come as no surprise to those familiar with Scripture. For example, not only was the Altar of the Temple holy, but anything that touched it was holy as well (Exodus 29:37). To reject the truth that God works through material things is to fall into Gnosticism. So yes, loosely speaking, Icons can work miracles—but to be precise, it is God who works miracles through Icons, because He honors those who have honored Him.

What's the difference between "worship" and "veneration"? Orthodox Christians do venerate Icons, which is to say, we pay respect to them because they are holy objects, and because we reverence what the Icons depict. We do not worship Icons any more than Americans worship the American flag. Saluting the flag is not exactly the same type of veneration as we pay to Icons, but it is indeed a type of veneration. And just as we do not venerate wood and paint, but rather the persons depicted in the Icon, patriotic Americans do not venerate cloth and dye, but rather the country which the flag represents. This was the reasoning of the Seventh Ecumenical Synod, which decreed in its Oros the following: "Since this is the case, following the royal path and the teaching divinely inspired by our holy Fathers and the Tradition of the catholic Church—for we know that it is inspired by the Holy Spirit who lives in it—we decide in all correctness and after a thorough examination that, just as the holy and vivifying Cross, similarly the holy and precious Icons painted with colors, made with little stones or with any other matter serving this purpose (epitedeios), should be placed in the holy churches of God, on vases and sacred vestments, on walls and boards, in houses and on roads, whether these are Icons of our Lord God and Savior, Jesus Christ, or of our spotless Sovereign Lady, the holy Mother of God, or of the holy angels and of holy and venerable men. See: Veneration of Icons

Doesn't the 2nd Commandment forbid Icons? The issue with respect to the 2nd commandment is what does the word translated "graven images" mean? If it simply means carved images, then the images in the temple would be in violation of this Commandment. Our best guide, however, to what Hebrew words mean, is what they meant to Hebrews—and when the Hebrews translated the Bible into Greek, they translated this word simply as "eidoloi", i.e. "idols." Furthermore the Hebrew word pesel is never used in reference to any of the images in the temple. So clearly the reference here is to pagan images rather than images in general. Let's look at the Scriptural passage in question more closely: "Thou shall not make unto thee any graven image (i.e. idol), or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shall not bow down thyself to them, nor shall thou serve (worship) them..." (Exodus 20:4-5a).

Now, if we take this as a reference to images of any kind, then clearly the cherubim in the Temple violate this command. If we limit this as applying only to idols, no contradiction exists. Furthermore, if this applies to all images—then even the picture on a driver's license violates it, and is an idol. So either every Protestant with a driver's license is an idolater, or Icons are not idols. Leaving aside, for the moment, the meaning of "graven images" lets simply look at what this text actually says about them. You shall not make x, you shall not bow to x, you shall not worship x. If x = image, then the Temple itself violates this Commandment. If x = idol and not all images, then this verse contradicts neither the Icons in the Temple, nor Orthodox Icons.

Doesn't Deuteronomy 4:14-19 forbid any images of God? How then can you have Icons of Christ? This passage instructs the Jews not to make a (false) image of God, because they had not seen God, however, as Christians, we believe that God became Incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, and so we may depict that "which we have seen with our eyes" (1st John 1:1). As St. John of Damascus said: "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 honoring that matter which works my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God. How could God be born out of lifeless things? And if God's body is God by union, it is immutable. The nature of God remains the same as before, the flesh created in time is quickened by, a logical and reasoning soul."

But considering the violent opposition which Jews had to images how could the early Christians have accepted Icons?
Not only does one find Iconography throughout Christian Catacombs, but they are also found in Jewish catacombs of the same period. We also have the well preserved Jewish Icons of Dura-Europos, which were in a city destroyed by the Persians in the mid 3rd century (which of course puts a limit on how recent these Icons could have been made). Often Josephus' views on Iconography are erroneously taken as the standard Jewish view on the subject, but this is clearly not the case. The specific text usually cited is the one referring to a riot which took place when the Romans placed an imperial eagle on the gate of the Temple. This story is not so open and shut as some would like to think. These were zealots. Josephus, who was also a rebel, though one who switched sides and later aided the Romans, records these events. The Mystical Supper Josephus records that the Romans mounted an eagle over the entrance to the Temple, which the people tore down as sacrilegious—but was it images of beasts per se that were at issue, or was it Roman eagles on the Entrance to the Temple that were the issue. Josephus' views were so extreme on this subject that he thought the statues of animals in connection with the Brazen Sea in Solomon's Temple were a sin (Antiquities VIII,7,5). The over all attitude of Jews towards religious art was not nearly so Iconoclastic. The Palestinian Talmud records (in Abodah Zarah 48d) "In the days of Rabbi Jochanan men began to paint pictures on the walls, and he did not hinder them" and "In the days of Rabbi Abbun men began to make designs on mosaics, and he did not hinder them."

Also, the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan repeats the command against idols, but then says "but a stone column carved with images and likenesses you may make upon the premises of your sanctuaries, but not to worship them." Also, Jewish holy books have been illustrated as far back as we have them. They contain illustrations of Biblical scenes, much like those found at the Synagogue of Dura Europos (and like the Church found near by) which was buried in the mid 3rd century when the Persians destroyed that city (See "The excavations at Dura-Europos conducted by Yale University and the French Academy of Inscriptions and Letters," Final Report VII, Part I, The Synagogue, by Carl H. Kraeling). It is note worthy that the earliest Icons of the Catacombs were mostly Old Testament scenes, and Icons of Christ. The dominance of Old Testament scenes shows that this was not a Pagan practices Christianized by converts, but a Jewish practice, adopted by the Christians.

If Icons are so important, why do we not find them in the Scriptures?
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: 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 In short, there were Icons everywhere you turned.

Why were there only Icons of Cherubim, and not of Saints? The Temple was an image of Heaven, as St. Paul makes clear: "The priests who serve in the Temple in Jerusalem, serve unto the example and shadow of heavenly things, as Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern shewed to thee in the mount" (Hebrews 8:5; cf. Exodus 25:40). Before Christ came in the flesh and triumphed over death by His Resurrection, the Saints of the Old Testament were not in the presence of God in Heaven, but were in Sheol (often translated as "the grave", and translated as "hades" in Greek). Before Christ's Resurrection, Sheol was the destiny of both the just and the unjust (Genesis 37:35; Isaiah 38:10), though their lot there was by no means the same. As we see in Christ's parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31; cf. Enoch 22:8-15 [although the book of Enoch is not included in the Canon of Holy Scripture, it is a venerable part of Holy Tradition and is quoted in the Epistle of St. Jude, as well as in many of the writings of the holy fathers]) there was a gulf that separated the just from the unjust, and while the righteous were in a state of blessedness, the wicked were (and are) in a state of torment—the righteous awaited their deliverance through Christ's Resurrection, while the wicked fearfully awaited their judgment. Thus under the old covenant, prayers were said only for the departed, because they were not yet in heaven to intercede on our behalves. For as St. Paul said to the Hebrews when speaking of the Old Testament Saints, "And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us" (Hebrews 11:39-40). In Hebrews 12, St. Paul goes on to contrast the nature of the Old Covenant (12:18ff) with that of the New (12:22ff)—and among the distinctions he makes, he says that in the New Covenant we "are come unto... the spirits of just men made perfect (12:22-23). As both the Scriptures and the rest of Holy Tradition tell us, while Christ's body lay in the tomb, His Spirit descended into Sheol and proclaimed liberty to the captives (Ephesians 4:8-10; 1st Peter 3:19, 4:6; cf. Matthew 27:52-53). And these Saints that have triumphed over this world, now reign with Christ in Glory (2nd Timothy 2:12), and continually offer up prayers for us before the Lord (Revelation 5:8; the Martyrdom of St. Ignatius, Ch. 7 [St. Ignatius was one of the disciples of the Apostle John, and was made Bishop of Antioch by him]). Thus, while in the Old Covenant, the Temple imaged heaven with only the attending Cherubim, in the New Covenant, our Temples image heaven with the great cloud of witnesses that now reside in glory there.

OK, granted that there are Icons of sorts in Scripture, but where were the Israelites told that they should venerate them?
The Scriptures do command the Israelites to bow before the Ark, which had two prominent images of cherubim on it. In Psalms 99:5, it commands: "bow before the footstool of His feet...." We should note first of all that the word for "bow" here, is the same word used in Exodus 20:5, when we are told to not bow to idols. And what is the "footstool of His feet"? In 1st Chronicles 28:2, David uses this phrase in reference to the Ark of the Covenant. In Psalm 99 [98 in the Septuagint], it begins by speaking of the Lord who "dwells between the Cherubim" (99:1), and it ends with a call to "bow to His holy hill"—which makes it even clearer that in context, this is speaking of the Ark of the Covenant. This phrase occurs again in Psalm 132:7, where it is preceded by the statement "We will go into His tabernacles..." and is followed by the statement "Arise, O Lord, into Thy rest; Thou and the Ark of Thy strength." Interestingly, this phrase is applied to the Cross in the services of the Church, and the connection is not accidental—because on the Ark, between the Cherubim was the Mercy Seat, upon which the sacrificial blood was sprinkled for the sins of the people (Exodus 25:22, Leviticus 16:15).

What about the Bronze Serpent? Wasn't it destroyed precisely because the people began venerating it? If you look at the passage in question (2nd Kings 18:4), you will see that the Bronze Serpent was not destroyed simply because people honored it, but because they had made it into a serpent God, called "Nehushtan."

How is an Icon Used? Many old and even recently-made icons have been considered miraculous and the church is honors the church's patron saint icon by placing it in a central location. The faithful pray, make the sign of the cross and display profound reverences such as bowing, kneeling, kissing and touching the forehead to the icon. Icons are venerated but they are never worshipped. These demonstrations of respect are handed down from ancient traditions and still survive alive in the Orthodox Church. Icons can be given as gifts or on occasions of marriages, baptisms or saint's name days (commemorating the saint after whom a Christian is named). They also are donated to churches and monasteries as memorial gifts or acts of thanksgiving. . In Orthodox homes icons are displayed on Eastern walls or corners, called the "beautiful corner." To the Orthodox Christian, an icon is a constant reminder of God's presence in their life whether at home or in Church.

Do icons need to be blessed? This question has a simple answer, but often lengthy. In short, no. Why? Because no where in the tradition of the Orthodox Church, whether by the Holy Father's or Canons is there to be found a requirement to bless icons. It would be redundant. They are holy unto themselves simply because of what they are. The Spirit of the Saints live in them and they are a dwelling place for the persons represented. Only through the Spirit-guided hands of an iconographer can this be so. Iconography is a mystery of the Church, for which reason, also, the iconographer is expected to be a member of the Church, to hold the true Faith, and, while painting, to pray and fast.

Who Can Paint Icons? Iconography is a calling, not a chosen profession. It is a special office of the Church. Not everyone may paint icons. No more than just anyone may be a priest. God appoints the iconographer as he appoints his priests. It is a privilege, not a right. He has the Grace to do what God has called the iconographer to do. In other words, what brings the icon to life is the Grace of God through the iconographer. Just as the icon is painted when the brush is used by the iconographer and can not become a reality without the iconographer which uses the paint and brush as his tool, the reality becomes a living thing through the iconographer [Gods tool] by Gods Grace. The icon then need not be blessed by a priest, it is a blessing. itself. The hand of the iconographer is guided by the Holy Spirit just as the iconographer guides the brush. What he produces is the Will of the Spirit. Once the name of the Saint is written on the icon the spirit of the saint enters into it. Therefore, an icon need not be blessed by a priest nor, as some do, place it on the altar for 40 days. The icon is sanctified by the very "writing" of an icon. Lastly, you must ask yourself, if the "icon" is not actually an icon, and does not possess the Grace given to it unless blessed by a priest, then what is it before a priest blesses it, and what is special, if anything, about the iconographer?

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