Over the years many people have asked me about the use of Icons in the Eastern church. What are Icons? Why do we have them? What is their purpose? Do we worship them? Don’t they go against the ban of idols? Every year at our annual festival I teach a basic introduction to Icons, and I’m always surprised at the makeup of the people who attend, I’ve had people from just about every faith, and non-faith, under the sun; Icons just seem to capture the interest of everyone (of course, having world-class cooks at the festival helps as well). What I present here is a brief synopsis of that class (the class itself is an hour, without questions), enjoy it, and feel free to ask questions afterwards.
(There will be a part 2, where we will take one of the most popular Icons and do a more in-depth look into the theology behind Icons.)
The first thing people notice when they enter an Eastern church are the Icons, Icons adorn the walls and ceilings of an Eastern church, some even have Icons as part of their exterior structure.
So, what are Icons? Simply put, Icon is a Greek word meaning image, it is a pictorial representation of something. In the Eastern church Icons are used to represent people or events from Sacred Scriptures (ex: Jesus or the Annunciation). Any Icon used in a church must have its’ root in the Old or New Testament, or must represent a Saint or Martyr of the church. Icons cannot represent parishioners, priests, secular leaders or events. Icons must also be created by a trained, and approved, Iconographer, no one can simply pick up a paintbrush and start painting an Icon (at least not one for church use). Also, the materials used must be acceptable to the church, they must be natural materials (wood, paints, glass, marble) that have not been previously used for other purposes. Wood has long been used as the surface on which to create the Icon, although, lately, I have seen particle board being used. There has been much debate over this, as to whether particle board is a natural material, I will not delve into that discussion, but leave it for the Iconographers to work out.
Why do we have Icons? What is their purpose? Icons are more than decorative art, as most Westerners seem to think. In fact, calling them art is offensive as art implies a purely aesthetical purpose. Icons serve two major purposes in the Eastern church – inspiration and contemplation. We gain inspiration from the lives of those who have gone before us, contemplating their struggles, and how we might succeed as those before us have.
Eastern Saints and Martyrs, unlike most Western counterparts, are people who lived real, difficult, lives, and had to struggle and overcome hardships. Mary of Egypt, as an example, was a prostitute who had an encounter with the Theotokos (Mother of God) so strong that it caused her to give up her former ways. She entered into a life of solitude in the desert having contact with only one other person. It is in the desert where she died, alone, forever repenting her former life. What can we learn from her life? How can we draw strength from her example? What of our struggles to overcome addictions, sexual and otherwise?
Do we worship Icons? No! I cannot emphasis that strongly enough. People see someone standing in front of an Icon and assume they are worshiping the person or image. Worship is something reserved solely for the Trinity. What is being done can best be described as petitioning (asking for help or assistance) or thanking (for help already given).
In the East we have a different view of Saints than in the West. We are all a part of the same congregation, living or dead, there is no distinction made. You would think little of asking a friend or pastor to pray to God for some need…health, courage, strength to overcome hardship; to us there is no difference between those here and those who have passed on, except that we believe that those whom we refer to as Saints (with a capital S) have achieved something that the rest of us still struggle for…righteousness. In the East we do not have designated Saints (Saint of travelers, poor, lost causes, etc.), rather we have Saints who have struggled, or succeeded, in certain areas. For example, Seraphim of Sarov was strong in prayer, he achieved such righteousness through prayer that those who encountered him would marvel of the light that shown from him, especially from his face. Those of us who struggle with prayer might ask of him to pray for us that God might help us to become stronger in our prayers.
Don’t they go against the ban of idols? No. And that was a hotly debated issued for over 100 years (730-843 AD, the Iconoclasm), with actual wars fought, and many people killed on both sides of the issue.The final determination was that Icons were only created using people who actually lived on earth, or were physically described in Sacred Scriptures. So, the Saints and Martyrs are allowed, as are the Patriarch’s (Moses, Abraham, Isaac, etc.); angels, seraphim, and cherubim are described in Sacred Scripture; and Jesus was human so is allowed. The Father is not, and you will never see a depiction of God, even his hand, in an Icon. The closest is in the Icon The Hospitality of Abraham, where three angels are depicted. Tradition states they they represent (not are) the embodiment of the Holy Trinity. It is understood that the angels are not the Father, Son, and Spirit, but that the three angels represent the Trinity, much as an ambassador is not the president, but merely represents him to foreign dignitaries.
Devices – I will go into greater depth on devices in part 2, but for now I just want to touch on the subject. Various devices are used in an Icon to help direct the meditation and understanding of the Icon. These device include, but are not limited to: the colors used, objects appearing in the Icon, gestures and directions (where are the eyes looking, how is the head turned), clothing, even the proportions of people and objects are used to direct attention or to represent something. As an example, bodies (faces, hands, etc) are never drawn to actual human proportions.
Placement – Icons are not placed in a church randomly, there are guidelines, though not fixed rules, about where and how an Icon is to appear in a church, based on the Icon itself, and its’ purpose for being in the church (you cannot have one simply because you like it). I was in a Ukrainian Orthodox church once that had hundreds of Icons all over the church, in locations that totally befuddled me. I asked father why the one Icon I admired was placed in such an odd location, he said, jokingly, it was there to cover up a hole in the plaster. He quickly let me know it wasn’t the real reason, and went on to explain why it was placed there. Again, more on this in part 2.
I hope this clarifies any misconceptions, and answers more questions than it creates. In part 2 we will delve into the Icons themselves, hopefully leading to a better understanding of these mysteries of the Eastern Church. Please, feel free to ask any questions you may have, though I may put some answers off until part 2 is posted.
Glory to Jesus Christ,
The Modern Theologian