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What are Orthodox Icons?

Orthodox Icons - Christ

The word Icon, which derives from the Greek word “Eikon”, is a religious work of art in Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism. The term is used in a number of contexts and means an image or representation of something or someone of greater significance, but in the more restricted sense in which it is understood, it means a sacred image representing Christ, the Virgin Mary, saints and angels, as well as narrative scenes from the Old and the New Testament.

Even though today the term is mostly associated with the wooden panel paintings, in Byzantium the word “Eikon” applied to all kinds of religious images that could range in size from the miniature to the monumental and could be crafted in all media, cast in metal, carved in stone, embroidered on cloth, painted on wood, included mosaic or fresco work, printed on paper or metal.

Christianity originated as a movement within Judaism, a religion that traditionally did not tolerate figurative religious art, which could explain the reason that for the first centuries of its existence, the new religion, probably affected by its Jewish roots and the Second Commandment “Thou shall not make unto thee any graven images”, objected to representational sacred art and, particularly, to any representation of the Deity. The first Christian images appeared around the 2nd century in the catacombs, especially in Rome, where painters with the extended use of new and old familiar pagan symbols tried to clarify the abstract notions of the new religion, to protect and conceal the new ideas from their persecutors and to spread the basic principles of Christianity. In other words, the main aim was to distinguish the spiritual Christian religion from idolatry. During the first centuries, Christians used art as an educational-catechetical means to aid them in the promotion of religion, in that they incorporated various and distinct elements from a number of sources, i.e., the gracefulness and clarity of composition was borrowed from Hellenic art, the hierarchical placement of figures and symmetry of design was from Roman art, the dynamic movement and energy of the represented characters were based on Syrian art and the large almond-shaped eyes, the long thin noses and small mouths were in turn borrowed from the Egyptian funeral portraits. After the adoption of Christianity as the only official religion in the Byzantine Empire in the 4th century, the presuppositions were created for the development and spread of a pure Christian art which would become the official and dominant art of the Empire. Therefore, for the first time, Christians were free to express their faith openly without any fear of persecution by the state. Subsequently, Christian art began to change not only in quality and sophistication, but also in its nature. Gradually, the distinction, in one way or another, from the Greek-Roman Classic tradition begins. The three-dimensional perceptive, the autonomous existence, the interest in the figure itself and its symmetrical and natural connection-link with the surroundings are no longer the first priority. The figure becomes two-dimensional, frontal, flat and static. Byzantine iconographers are more interested now in exhibiting in every possible way the spiritual and divine nature than depicting and glorifying the human aspect of the flesh. As a result, they no longer emphasized the precise depiction of the natural characteristics of the figure or the idealization of nature, but rather the face and especially the eyes that reflect the spirituality of the figures that are stylized in a manner that emphasized their holiness rather than their humanity, the permanent and stable value of the person and the unchangeable and immutable essence of its existence. Subsequently, Byzantine art becomes a type of expressionist art that shows the inner-spiritual life of the depicted figure and immaterializes its existence without denying the nature itself.

Christianity teaches that the immaterial God became human “flesh” in the form of Jesus Christ, making it possible to create depictions of the human form of the Son of God. Consequently, Byzantine iconography developed rigorously and the basic compositional schemes became well-established, resulting in an increase in the representations of holy figures and holy events. Yet, suspicions of traditionalists who inflexibly obeyed the second commandment and feared that any deviation from it would lead to heresy or idol worship arose. These fears were partially justified, since not only the illiterate believers but also the Churchmen themselves could not understand how the three hypostases of God as the One and only God, and the divine and human nature of Christ can be reconciled.

In the 726 AD, a theological debate involving both the Byzantine state and church, known as Iconoclasm, began. The Emperor Leo III and a group of overzealous traditionalists arguing that misinterpretation and misuse of religious images usually leads to heresy, barred the production and use of figural images and began a systematic destruction of holy images in the Empire. The iconoclastic debate which spanned roughly a century, during the years 726-787 and 815-843, centered on the appropriate use of Orthodox Icons in religious veneration and the precise relationship between the sacred personage and its image. The fear that the believer misdirected his/her veneration towards the image rather than directing that veneration to the holy person represented in the image lay at the heart of the controversy. Old Testament prohibitions against worshipping graven images provided one of the most powerful arguments for the Byzantine iconoclasts.

The iconodules (the defenders or lovers of Orthodox Icons), who opposed to iconoclasts, attempted to prove that Icons were not worshipped but venerated and that such veneration was not idolatry. They based their defense of Orthodox Icons on the Doctrine of the Incarnation and on the dogma of the two natures of Christ. St. John of Damascus and St. Theodore Studites wrote extensive treatises explaining the reasons for and the importance of Orthodox Icon veneration. The Damascene argued that “it is not divine beauty that is given form and shape, but the human form that is rendered by the painter’s brush. Therefore, if the Son of God became man and appeared in man’s nature, why should his image not be made?”

St. Theodore Studites, his turn, defended the Orthodox Icons on the basis of the ideas of identity and necessity: “Man himself is created by God after the image and likeness of God; therefore, there is something divine in the art of making images…as perfect man, Christ not only can but also must be represented and worshipped in images…let this be denied and Christ’s economy of the salvation is destroyed..”

The iconoclasts, by wanting a religion freed from all contact with what is material, for they thought that what is spiritual must be non-material, failed to fully take into account the Incarnation and fell into a kind of dualism. If, however, we allow no place for Christ’s humanity or his body, we betray the Incarnation and forget that our body and soul must be saved and transfigured. The Empress Irene suspended the iconoclastic persecutions in 780 AD. Seven years later, the seventh Ecumenical Synod of Nice reaffirmed the veneration of the Orthodox Icons: “We salute the form of the venerable and life-giving Cross and the holy relics of the Saints, and we receive, salute, and kiss the holy and venerable Icons…These holy and venerable Icons we honor and salute and venerate…..To these Icons should be given salutation and honorable reverence, not indeed the true worship of faith, which pertains to the divine nature…To these also shall be offered incense and lights, in honor of them, according to the ancient pious custom…For the honor which is paid to the Icon passes on to that which the Icon represents, and he who reveres in it the person who is represented…”

In 815 AD, Leo the Armenian renewed attacks on the Orthodox Icons. However, the iconoclasts were defeated for good in 843 during the reign of the Empress Theodora; the day of their defeat is celebrated every year on the first Sunday after Lent as the Triumph of Orthodoxy.

Undoubtedly, the iconoclastic controversy had a profound effect on the production of Byzantine Icons after their reintroduction in 843. After the triumph of Orthodox Icons, iconography developed at an unprecedented rate and changes shaped by this controversy included the evolution of distinct portrait images, the growing popularity of certain subjects such as Christ’s Resurrection from the harrowing depths of hell and the Dormition of the Virgin Mary. By the end of the 10th century the majority of iconographic formulae had been firmly established and exported to other Orthodox countries (Bulgaria, Serbia and later, Russia) where they were further developed and elaborated on.

Christian painting is an illustrated yet sacred version of the Bible that anyone, even the most Illiterate of people can read and understand. The Byzantine and Post-Byzantine iconography especially, has been characterized as the heart of the Orthodoxy as a sacred-religious art that praises harmony, love and especially God’s love for humanity. The sacred Orthodox Icons have a silent and secret language that perfectly expresses faith and the dogma, and appeal not only to the senses, particularly vision, but also speak directly to the heart, thereby adding to the religious experience. These Icons show and promote sacred and eternal role models that should serve as models for our daily lives. Consequently, they have their own unique character, laden with a holy purpose and content.

It is worth noting that Christian and Byzantine iconography has always stood by the religious inquiries of its believers and the constant increased liturgical and dogmatic needs of the Church. From the beginning until the 6th century it started as a decorative, symbolical, educational, narrative or historical art and in the centuries that followed, iconography became mostly a sacred worshipping, liturgical, dogmatic and theological form of art.

According to the Orthodox Christianity and the whole liturgical life of the Church, the Holy Orthodox Icons are an important and necessary means of worshipping that are directly associated with the Holy Service and particularly with the Holy Communion. Orthodox Icons are always associated with the prayer that can take place not only in Church but also in the privacy of our house as long as worshippers are aware of the fact that these Icons are not a mere depiction or representation of holy figures or an esthetic-decorative means, but something more. It is a sacred liturgical object that we honor via kisses, candles, burning incense and prayers and the honor that is paid to the Icon passes on to the represented figure. It is believed that the holy figures depicted in Orthodox Icons assist and comfort the believers whenever the latter are in need of assistance. Thus, Greek Orthodox believers tend to offer Orthodox Icons as a gift on special occasions as a way of protecting and blessing the people involved or an event.


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