Growing up in church I was used to our Protestant worship space consisting of blank walls, a stage, and pulpit. While I didn’t know anything about icons, I remember how much I loved stained-glass windows when we visited a more liturgical church. Depictions of Christ performing miracles and the Last Supper spoke volumes to me as a kid.
When you visit an Orthodox Church one of the things that immediately stands out is the ascetic beauty. The walls and ceiling are adorned with imagery of Jesus, Mary, and Christian saints who inspire us to follow God. Sometimes these icons may cover every square inch of usable wall and ceiling space.
As a seminary student exploring this tradition I had a lot of questions. Why are there icons? What do they mean and what are their place in worship? Perhaps the most sobering issue, how do you deal with God’s commandment against imagery?
Old Testament Examination
In Deuteronomy 5:8 we find one of the recitations of God’s commandments to the Israelites. “Do not make for yourself an idol any likeness that is in heaven above or on earth below or that is in the water under the earth.”
That clears it up, no images at all, ever… right!? Many Orthodox Christians have been accused of idolatry so I take this passage very seriously.
I believe these accusations are based on a false reading of this commandment. Perhaps some Protestants have forgotten that they also have images. You may only display it once a year but that cute little manger scene of animals, people, and Christ constitutes imagery. Does that break God’s Law? What about statuary, paintings, and other depictions in stained-glass?
One must examine the Second Commandment within its context. The Israelites certainly lived in a time of prevalent idolatry. They were surrounded by pagan nations that crafted gods from common materials and precious medals, bowing down and serving them. But YHWH is different! He is Spirit and cannot be depicted. One thing you will notice as you examine the Old Testament is that Israel’s identity and calling are closely linked with YHWH and an evangelistic mission. In short, they are called to be different and reveal the uniqueness of God to the nations (see Deut. 4).
The Israelites are a holy people because of their relationship with God. This separates them from all other people. The Hebrew word “segullah” is most often translated as prized and describes this special relationship between the Lord and his people. Therefore, setting up an idol in any form to represent one who is unrepresentable is an affront to God’s identity and uniqueness.
Let us also consider whether the Second Commandment is a universal and timeless abolition of imagery. If this is the case then what happened when God commanded Israel to adorn the ark with cherubim and “icons” were allowed in the temple for worshiping YHWH (see Exodus 36:35- 37:9)?
Based on our findings I believe we can conclude that in Israel’s context YHWH could not be depicted; however, the commandment in question is not a total ban on all imagery, in all places, and for all time. I believe God is abolishing Israel’s ancient Near East tendency to create and worship idols (false gods that would “inhabit” these objects) in place of God. Their God is different and following his commands reveal his uniqueness to the nations. Placing YHWH in any form would be insufficient because he is spirit, unrevealed in any form, and neither animal nor human form could suffice.
What was once concealed has now been revealed. When Jesus, the second person of the trinity, became man everything changed (John 1). The God who could not be seen is now present and visible to human eyes. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched–this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (1 John 1:1).
Paul tells us that “the Son is the image (icon) of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” (Col. 1:15). God is now revealed in Jesus Christ, hence the use of Christo-centric iconography where the unrevealed God has in fact been revealed in the God-man.
Since God is revealed in Jesus there are many examples of icons depicting Christ. But also those who exemplified the Christian faith and are worthy of admiration. Mary, the disciples, and other Christian saints are often depicted.
Eusebius tells us, “This statue, which was said to resemble the features of Jesus, was still there in my own time, so that I saw it with my own eyes” (Church History, Book 7, Chapter 18). He tells us also that portraits of the Savior and of Peter and Paul had been preserved, and that he had examined these with his own eyes as well.
Saint Gregory of Nyssa was deeply moved by an icon of the sacrifice of Isaac. He says, “I have seen a painted representation of this passion, and have never passed by without shedding tears, for art brings the story vividly to the eyes.”
For early Christianity, Icons are common in spaces of worship. An examination of house churches provides some remarkable findings.
As a Protestant I looked at the New Testament’s use of “house church” and often used it to promote a modern de-centralized view of church. Meeting in the homes of various individuals scattered throughout the city seemed contrary to a formal church structure. I think this a pretty common misconception among Protestants and yet not the model we find in scripture (1 Cor. 1:11, 16; Rom. 16:5; Col. 4:15).
These houses were usually the homes of wealthy individuals with a lot of space for a large assembly of people and it was a formal worship service.
Often times, an entire floor of the house was dedicated to this worship space. These house churches ultimately developed into the basilicas and larger church structures when the faith was no longer forced underground by persecution.
Dura Europas is an amazing archaeological discovery and helps us understand some of the earliest forms of iconography in the Christian Church.
Judean Synagogue in Dura Europos. Murals date back to 235 A.D.
Scene from the Book of Esther.
The most ancient of all Christian churches is preserved at Duro Europas. Sections of the iconography can be seen on the wall. Opposite the entrance stood the elevated Altar. Archaeologists tell us this is where the liturgies took place, on this altar, by the Bishop (230- 260 A.D.).
Dr. Despina Iosif at the University of London tells us, “the edifice had initially been built at the beginning of the 3rd century, in close proximity to other houses and temples. It was not, however an ordinary, humble abode. Its owner must have been affluent and prominent member of the community. In the year 232- 233, the house underwent alterations, with the intention that a section of it was to be used as a meeting place and a house of worship for Christians. This is the earliest example of an above-ground Christians temple that we know of to this day.”
Dura Europos is a fascinating discovery that yields abundant examples of iconography throughout the house church structure (there are frescoes of Christ as the Good Shepherd, him walking on water, the Samaritan woman at the well, and the myrrh-bearing women at the empty tomb). In these structures we also have evidence of Hebrew fragments that reveal a continuity between the Eucharistic liturgy of the first century Didache and the more developed (fourth century) Apostolic Constitutions.
If iconography was prevalent in the early Church why was the practice not codified until A.D. 787? The early Church met in seven Ecumenical Councils with the purpose of affirming the faith “which has been believed everywhere, always, by all”. Just as earlier councils affirmed the divinity of Christ, the trinity, and a host of other core doctrines under attack by waves of heresy, the seventh Ecumenical Council confirmed the Church’s stance on icons as a result of persecution from the iconoclasts.
The controversy essentially began as the birth and influence of Islam in the region increased pressure to condemn images. In 726 Emperor Leo III outlawed the veneration of icons. The conflict was brewing for decades. Bowing and kissing icons was culturally acceptable to show respect. The question went much deeper. According to Islamic belief, one would never depict Jesus or the Prophet Muhammad. As Islam spread so did the condemnation of images which increased pressure on Christianity to rid their worship spaces of icons.
In A.D. 730 Leo commanded the destruction of all religious likeness including icons, mosaics and statues. The iconoclasts (image-smashers) went on a destructive rampage attempting to rid the Empire of nearly all icons.
One of the most vocal defenders of Christian iconography was John of Damascus. From the Holy Land he challenged the iconoclasts. He argued that icons should not be worshiped, but they could be venerated.
In A.D. 787, the leadership of the entire Christian Church convened the Seventh Ecumenical Council. After a thorough and lengthy examination of the Scriptures and a consideration of Church tradition the body decreed:
“We, therefore, following the royal pathway and the divinely inspired authority of our Holy Fathers and the traditions of the Church (for, as we all know, the Holy Spirit indwells her), define with all certainty and accuracy that just as the figure of the precious and lifegiving Cross, so also the venerable and holy images, as well in painting and mosaic as of other fit materials, should be set forth in the holy Churches of God, and on the sacred vessels and on the vestments and on hangings and in pictures both in houses and by the wayside, to wit, the figure of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, of the honorable Angels, of all Saints, and of all pious people.”
John of Damascus tells us that “the icon is a true image, a window to heaven and a light which guides us there. In that sense it takes the same role as the pillar of fire which guided Israel through the wilderness to the Promised Land and the star which led the Wise Men to Christ. The icon is not intended to serve as a photograph of an earthly scene. Nor does it merely awaken in us the sense of ages past. Rather, the icon is there to lead our hearts to the King of Kings, to the brilliant glory of the Age to Come.”
Orthodox Christian Worship Space
The Orthodox Church sees an indispensable continuity over the course of Church history. The early Church emphasized the importance of maintaining sacred space, special liturgy, and the use of iconography in their worship space. The Orthodox Church’s use of icons today is an affirmation of the incarnation and our role as icons, which is confirmed by tradition and history.
As Orthodox Christians we are not simply entering a local building of believers. Our thoughts and attention are drawn to the reality of the Church as a whole (past and present, near and far). We join the saints and angels in one voice of worship, just as John depicts in Revelation.
As John of Damascus points out, veneration of icons is acceptable. But what is veneration? When you walk into an Orthodox service you will see people venerating, or kissing icons. Veneration is an act of respect and love that glorifies the Creator. Just as Paul tells the Church in Rome to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (16:16), we also greet one another with a kiss and venerate icons. The point is not to honor the piece of wood, but the one depicted and ultimately God. This is similar to saluting a soldier as a sign of respect or a soldier in war kissing a photo of his wife.
Icons are also deeply theological. They are full of symbolic meaning to convey truth and our core doctrine. From the colors to the stances of the people, to the scenery and lighting, icons teach us who God is, and who we are in relation to Him. Examine the festal icons of Christ (Nativity, Theophany, Crucifixion, Resurrection). You’ll see Christ wearing a red tunic with a blue cloak, showing us that he was divine (red) but took on humanity (blue).
This picture shows some of the symbology located in an icon. There are entire books written on the theology of icons. This blog is insufficient to examine them all, but I do encourage further study for those interested.
Icons are also important because they communicate to all people of all ages and education levels. There was no official New Testament canon for over 300 years, very few copies of the Scriptures since there was no printing press, and not all Christians were literate. Even today, we have a huge contingency of Christians who do not read, including many of our children. Icons teach us the stories of Scripture and the lives of the saints. They reveal the whole story of salvation and invite us to be a part of that history.
Icons are not simply for the Church, but also our homes, vehicles, and workplace. Having a prayer corner or wall to gather for family studies and prayer is an important way to transform your home into a small church.
Overall, I can’t say that it was easy for me to accept icons as a former Protestant, especially venerating icons. I’m not naturally an outwardly affectionate person and the practice of kissing to show honor is eastern rather than western.
As an Orthodox Christian I have grown to love the beauty, meaning, and significance of icons in my life and the life of the Church. I can’t help but admire the role and example of Christian saints. They inspire me toward a more holy life. When you enter an Orthodox Church you enter sacred space and you can visually see the gospel story along with the saints and angels currently in his presence. These ‘windows into heaven’ are rooted in our tradition and faith. They are beauty and theology. Just as God is truly beautiful so our worship with the saints and angels in heaven is made to reflect this reality.
“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.” -John of Damascus