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1st Sunday of the Great Fast - Defense of Icons

By Kathy Anderson

Icon is a Greek word meaning image. It is the same word used in the Bible in Genesis 1:27 : 'God created man in His image', and again in Colossians 1:1 5 : 'Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation'. To Eastern Christianity, an icon is specifically a sacred image which represents biblical stories or personalities, painted in accordance with Church traditions. The Eastern Church is responsible for forming and preserving the almost 2000 year old tradition of icon painting.

To the untrained observer, many icons look somber and almost repulsive. There is a holy and mysterious language to icons that must be learned before true depth of understanding takes place. This leaflet attempts an introduction into the special language of icons, their history, and their various relations to humanity.

Icons are art and prayer combined under a set of technical rules evolved by the Eastern Church. They are usually painted on hardwood, sometimes elaborately framed, sometimes encased in precious metals and stones. In ancient times egg tempera was the primary medium--water colors mixed with egg yolk. Pigments in melted wax--encaustic painting-was also used. In current times, many icon artists use the modern acrylic paints. Gold leaf is often used as a background, representing a heavenly aura to signify the sacred character. The gold also symbolizes divine light coming through or surrounding the key figures.

Most icons are two-dimensional, which represents a mirror or window surface into the celestial world. Some are painted on two sides; historically these were used in processions of the faithful, or carried into war as a sign of divine protection. Shapes and sizes are varied--probably the most common shape is long rectangle. Icons that fold are called diptych (2-piece) or triptych (3-piece). Many church icons were done in mosaics and frescoes.

Throughout history icon painting was done predominately in monasteries. The traditions were carefully passed on from one generation of monks to the next. Sometimes the icons were painted in a sort-of assembly line style: one monk would paint eyes, another painted the hair, a third painted the clothing, and so on. Traditional icon themes evolved, and although the themes are prescribed, no two icons are exactly alike. Many look similar, but details are vast and varied. The icon repertory is ever-expanding.


Eastern Christianity records the beginning of icons as St. Luke the Evangelist painting the first images of Christ and His Mother. During the era of the Roman Empire, portraiture flourished-, images of persons were commonly painted onto flat boards. It was the age of Byzantium (300-1400 AD) that developed the fine points of sacred iconography. By the 6th century, Byzantine influence on the style of icon art was widespread.

In the 8th and 9th centuries a strong opposition movement rose up against icons. The charge was idolatry, and the force succeeded in destroying most primitive icons. Defenders of iconography made their stand, and were able to dissipate the movement. An early Church council defined veneration of icons based on the sacred mystery of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. The Person of Jesus reveals not only the Word of God (Jn. 1: 1 - 1 4), but the image of God (Jn. 1 4:9). Pre-Christian scriptures defined idolatry as worshipping of false gods; Church leaders defended images of Christ Who is True God. They also clarified the difference between veneration and worship: venerate/honor the image; worship due to God alone. After the Iconoclasm was over, devotion of icons spread to Serbia, Bulgaria, and to distant Russia.



It is important to emphasize that without the Eastern Christian tradition, icons would simply be religious pictures. It is the tradition surrounding this art that creates their elevated nature. Religious and theological value of icons cannot be separated from the art of iconography. Eastern tradition preserves the pure form of icon art; it is strictly defined to maintain fundamental characteristics. A central belief among Eastern Christians is that since man is created in the image of God, he thus carries the icon of God Himself within his soul. The holy images, painted in accord with scriptural tradition, feed the soul as does passages of sacred scripture.

Early Church theologians defined icons as a window into heaven. They realized that divine realities became more accessible by the presence created through sacred icons. Their writings expressed the illumination of spirit experienced by believers who contemplate the transcendent prototype of the sacred image. The Church exists to perpetuate the participation in divine life by Christians, and icons are a testimony to this reality. Icons came to be visual images of the religious faith which embodies the ultimate hope of salvation and victory over death. Thus Eastern Christian theology holds up the icon as a true key to understanding its doctrine.


Icons also have a powerful role in teaching; their symbolic language brings theology into visual expression. Religious theology isn't always easy to grasp, the use of icons brings the "unknowable" closer, serving as vehicles of education and enlightenment. Icons speak to the heart through intuition, making a direct communication into the viewer who allows this relationship. Thus icons are a catalyst of mystical communion between believer and the Divine. The mysteries of an Infinite Creator, upon which theologians have spent countless lives in attempt to explain, become a concrete glimpse to mortal eyes.


Many icons show scenes and characters of the Bible. Special Church feasts evolved from events in the Bible, and the corresponding icon became part of the celebration. Images of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels, of the apostles and disciples. of the Mother of Jesus, and of angels are all important in Eastern iconography.

Madonna and Christ Child icons are very common. Throughout Christian history humanity experiences a gentle compassion from this powerful maternal image. Mary is called the . eternal prototype of beauty', and is reflected in many different expressions of joy and sadness, serenity and agony, protection and vulnerability. There are endless variations on the Madonna and child iconography.

Throughout the history of Christianity men and women have been inspired by Jesus Christ to lead lives of heroic holiness and nobility. Some receive recognition by the Church's canonization process. Historical saints are also common subjects for iconography. From biblical times to the current era, the Church recognizes saints as women and men who achieve a special role in the salvation of humanity. They are regarded as true images of Christ, deserving of emulation by believers. Icons of saints are venerated because ultimately the veneration returns to Christ whom they serve. Icons of saints reflect this high honor.


The art of icon painting is bound to a religious tradition which disallows loose alterations. This preserves the pure form and protects the specific theological and religious concepts being presented through the icons. A special discipline is prescribed for icon painters in conformity to ecclesiastical requirements. The icon is a consecrated object, thus demanding the painter to pray and fast for divine inspiration. Even materials are blessed before they are used. The icon becomes, in a very real sense, the work of the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 12:4-1 1).

Traditionally painters do not sign their name to icons. In more recent times, the inscription 'by the hand of ------' is used, thus giving God the credit for guiding the hand by which form is given to His sacred mysteries. The disciplines ensure greater spiritual truth to come through the icon painter, who is limited and thus realizes only some of the religious depth contained within the art.

Icon painting is a special vocation. The icon painter is expected to live a holy life so to be better able of expressing the spiritual realities of God. The painter is aware of his unworthiness, of his need for the grace of God and for the prayerful intercession by His holy ones. He keeps in mind the true Source of his works.


In Western art forms, the artist's creativity and expertise are of primary value. In Eastern Byzantine Iconography, the value is in essence over appearance. The vast difference between styles seems to create a sort of language barrier between them. Ultimately each has its own place and purpose; truly understanding various art forms takes specific effort. Western art has often aided in greater appreciation of God's creation. Eastern Iconography serves to express the glory of God Himself.

To those newly interested in icons: allow the icon to speak to your heart through quiet contemplation. Icons are a doorway into closeness with God, leading beyond itself to the Eternal Creator. Through God's love, icons are created to aid seekers into spiritual holiness.

The author of this leaflet highly recommends research on icons. Community and university libraries usually have listings under Icons and/or Byzantine Art Happy seeking!





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