Sources of Orthodox Tradition: The Icons

The Triumph of Orthodoxy

The Triumph of the Holy Icons

One of the distinctive features of Orthodoxy is the place that we assign to icons. An Orthodox Church today is filled with them: dividing the sanctuary from the body of the building there is a solid screen, the iconostasis, entirely covered with icons, while other icons are placed in special shrines around the church; and perhaps the walls are covered with icons in fresco or mosaic. An Orthodox prostrates himself before these icons, he kisses them and burns candles in front of them; they are censed by the priest.

The depiction of Christ, the Mother of God, and the Saints was not always universally accepted. Iconoclasts, suspicious of any religious art, which represented human beings or God, demanded the destruction of icons; the opposite party, the Iconodules, vigorously defended the place of icons in the life of the Church. The struggle was not merely a conflict between two conceptions of Christian art. Deeper issues were involved: the character of Christ’s human nature, the Christian attitude towards matter, the true meaning of Christian redemption. The Iconoclasts may have been influenced from the outside by Jewish and Moslem ideas, and it is significant that three years before the first outbreak of Iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire, the Mohammedan Caliph Yezid ordered the removal of all icons within his dominions.

The Iconoclast controversy lasted some 120 years. The final victory of the Holy Images in 843 is known as “the Triumph of Orthodoxy,” and is commemorated in a special service celebrated on “Orthodoxy Sunday,” the first Sunday in Lent. During this service the true faith is proclaimed, its defenders are honored, and anathemas pronounced on all who attack the Holy Icons or the Seven General Councils.  The chief champions of the icons were Saint John of Damascus (675-749) and Saint Theodore of Studium (759-826). St. John was able to work the more freely because he dwelt in Moslem territory, out of reach of the Byzantine government.

Leontius said Icons are, “opened books to remind us of God.” (P.G. xciv, 1276a)

St. John of Damascus said, “Of old God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was not depicted at all. But now that God has appeared in the flesh and lived among men, I make an image of the God who can be seen. I do not worship matter but I worship the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who through matter effected my salvation. I will not cease from worshipping the matter through which my salvation has been effected.” (On Icons, i, 16, P. G. xciv 1245a)

Do Orthodox worship icons?

Wall icons and artwork appeared in Jewish temples early in ancient history (note: Duros Europos Temple destroyed in the mid 200’s) even before their use in Christian churches. Because the Son of God took on human flesh and became incarnate as man in Jesus Christ, the Church decreed (not without much debate!) it was appropriate to portray the glory of God incarnate visually through icons. Icons are NOT idols or graven images (which depicted images of false gods), and their place in Christian worship and piety was clearly articulated, defended and approved at the Seventh Ecumenical Council of the Church in the 8TH Century. Byzantine icon style may seem austere and strange at first. They are not meant to depict the natural beauty of the material world, but rather the spiritual beauty of the Kingdom of Heaven and its inhabitants. Icons are venerated, but not worshipped, by Orthodox Christians. This is a misunderstanding by some in modern Christendom, especially those who have been influenced by Puritan and Anabaptist traditions, and the Islamic tradition, which rejects any and all images.

The traditional Orthodox icon is not a holy picture. It is not a pictorial portrayal of some Christian saint or event in a “photocopy” way. It is, on the contrary, the expression of the eternal and divine reality, significance, and purpose of the given person or event depicted. In the gracious freedom of the divine inspiration, the icon depicts its subject as at the same time both human and yet “full of God,” earthly and yet heavenly, physical and yet spiritual, “bearing the cross” and yet full of grace, light, peace and joy.

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