What is an icon? To owners of computers, it’s that little picture you double-click on to open up a web page or an application or a folder or a file. For others, icons are cultural: Frank Sinatra, Steve Jobs, Frank Lloyd Wright (insert the name of someone successful and famous). Even buildings such as the Golden Gate Bridge and the Empire State Building have been described as “iconic”. “Icon” is one of those words whose meaning has expanded fast within the last thirty years. However, its original meaning was rather narrower – it was the name given to religious images seen mostly in ancient and Orthodox Christian churches.
The word is Greek – eikon – and means simply “image”. The beginning of our understanding of icons rests on that word “image”. It also underpins the theology behind the creation of icons. God made humans in his image; not only that, he gave to human beings the power to be image makers themselves. Icons are therefore works of human beings imitating the creator of images, who is God himself.
Icons are important for the community of believers because they have spiritual value. Icons were not painted to be works of art but to be works of liturgy. That’s not to say that icons in themselves are not works of art – some obviously are. But they are not painted as “art”. A artistically bad icon may in fact be a good icon. An artistically accomplished icon is not necessarily an authentic icon.
Icons belong primarily in churches, rather than in homes or galleries. That is because an icon forms part of the liturgy of the Church, along with the reading of scripture and the offering of the Eucharist. The Church where you will find icons in abundance is the Orthodox Church, by which I mean the eastern Church of Christendom, a church as ancient as the Roman Catholic church. The Orthodox Church is found in Russia, Georgia, the Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Serbia, Albania, Moldova, and Greece, and it is from these countries that most of our icons come. The Eastern Orthodox Church is distinct from the Western Churches which come under the Church of Rome or the Church of England, or one of the reformed churches.
The Orthodox and Western Churches both believe in the same Lord, Jesus Christ, as the Savior of the world. But their manner of expressing that belief in worship – their respective liturgies – is different. In the Orthodox liturgy the icon has a place of honor that is not shared to the same degree in our Anglican churches. That is because the Orthodox Church has a particular theology and dogma concerning icons. To them, icons are not pictures; they are reminders of what is termed a “prototype”. The icon reminds us of God as the “prototype” in whose image and likeness every human being is created.
In the fourth century St Basil the Great claimed that people should respect icons because “The honor given to the image passes over to the Prototype.” The icon does not represent what the painter sees before him. Icons are not portraits – they are not painted from life – not like an Andrew Wyeth painting, for example. The icon painter does not “invent” his subject. Instead he or she follows an iconographical type. There are rules laid down by the Church which govern the painting of icons.
It might be useful here to draw a comparison with film. The filmmaker Werner Herzog described film as “not the art of scholars but of illiterates.” That is an echo of the words of S. John of Damascus, who wrote: “The image is a memorial, just what words are to a listening ear. What a book is to the literate, an image is to the illiterate. The image speaks to sight as words to hearing; through the mind we enter into union with it.” Icons are therefore theological – that is to say, they lead us to a deeper understanding and knowledge of God.
The letter to the Hebrews states: “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” What is invisible cannot be depicted but what is visible can be since it is no longer the product of one’s imagination but an actual, material reality. Having assumed fallen human nature, Christ restored in human beings the image of God in which we were created.
There are those who think that to make any holy image is to create an idol. I would say that an image is not necessarily an idol. It can be an idol, just as the written word can be an idol. But the function of the written word, the function of the Bible, is to lead us to God, to bring us to a deeper understanding of God’s being and purpose, and to involve us in the work of the kingdom. This is what icons do, except instead of words they use images. Icons act as mediators between God and people. The Bible does something similar: it mediates God’s word. What gives power to both is the action of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and minds as we either read the scriptures, or allow ourselves to enter into the mystery of the icon.
Icons have a long history in the Church. The 4th century church historian Eusebius writes: “I have seen a great many portraits of the Savior, of Peter and of Paul, which have been preserved up to our times.” Which leads one to speculate that icons or paintings of our Lord and the saints existed perhaps even as early as the end of the first century AD. According to legend, the earliest icon was one of the Virgin Mary and Christ painted by the Evangelist Luke. Sadly, neither this icon nor any paintings as described by Eusebius have survived or yet been discovered. It is certain that many have been lost as a result of iconoclasm, the destruction of icons at the order of either the church or the government.
Father David Beresford