Icons are customary in all Eastern Orthodox Churches, and are often called “windows to heaven,” because they offer us a glimpse of what awaits us in eternity with Christ.
The word icon is derived from eikon, the Greek word meaning “image.” An icon can be defined as an image created for religious veneration that provides a space for the mystical encounter between the person before it and God.
Icons usually represent Christ, the Virgin Mary, the saints, and angels. Since the sixth century, they have been considered to be a means to assist the worshipper in making his prayers heard by the holy figure represented in the icon.
The icon developed from the mosaic and fresco tradition of early Byzantine art. Unfortunately, early examples of this art have been lost mainly because of their destruction during the iconoclastic controversy (726-843).
Iconoclasm—that is, the opposition and destruction of icons-- began in 726, when Emperor Leo III and a group of traditionalists believed misinterpretation of religious images could lead to heresy. Consequently, the iconoclasts banned all pictorial representations and began a systematic destruction of holy images.
To counter the iconoclasts, the iconodules (defenders of icons) argued that icons were not worshipped, but venerated, and that veneration was not idolatry. The most influential spokesman for the support of icons, St. John of Damascus (627-749), argued that icons of Christ may be made because of the incarnation of the Son of God. Therefore, to prohibit icons is in effect a denial that God became man in Christ.
Although St. John’s argument appeared to be persuasive, the attack on icons continued. Finally, the iconoclasts were defeated once and for all in 843 during the reign of Empress Theodora. The day of their defeat is celebrated in the Orthodox Church each year on the first Sunday of Great Lent known as the Triumph of Orthodoxy.
Following the triumph of the icon defenders, Byzantine icons were produced at a rapid pace. This was the case until 1453 when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire.
Thereafter, Russia became the center of iconography until 1917 when the Bolshevik Revolution occurred. This Revolution resulted in a godless communist government ruling Russia, until its collapse in 1991.
Icons are a glorification of the incarnation of the Lord, since they remind us that Christ rescued man from his sins and death. Because Christ took on human flesh, we can see Him. His face can be portrayed on wood with paint.
Iconography is a sacred art created with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Painting an icon requires prayer, humility, repentance, fasting, humility, and Holy Communion on the part of the iconographer. An iconographer is usually a pious monk and devout Christian whose primary objective is to serve the Lord and to glorify His Church.
The creation of an icon is a stylized art based upon Holy Tradition. St. Luke is credited with painting the first icons of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Each subsequent iconographer has used the original icon as a guide. Therefore, even today an iconographer may not change the shape of Christ’s face.
The painter of an icon must abide by certain rules and regulations concerning the execution of his work. These guidelines have been established by the Orthodox Church and one is not allowed to deviate from the norms which the Church has sanctioned.
Almost everything painted on an icon has a symbolic meaning. Christ, the Virgin Mary, the saints, and the angels all have halos which represent the presence of the Holy Spirit. Color also plays an important part. Gold represents heaven and eternity; red, divine life; blue, purity; and white, the divine energies used only for the Resurrection and Transfiguration of Christ.
As links between Heaven and earth, icons continue to evoke for Orthodox Christians the invisible presence of the Kingdom of Heaven. Indeed, icons are “windows to Heaven,” because they allow us to venerate Christ and His saints and to look forward to His Kingdom.
(George Patsourakos of Billerica, MA retired as an education specialist for the United States government. He received a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in education, both from Northeastern University. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org)