[To understand what this blog is, read this first. If you would rather just listen to discussion on icons, look for links down at the end.]
Here’s my first attempt to explain one of the common struggles of protestants with Orthodoxy. Icons are the most visible difference when a protestant walks into an Orthodox church. They cover almost every square inch of the sanctuary, it seems. Here’s an example [to the right]. In that picture you’ll see icons covering a large wall, called an iconostasis, which is in the sanctuary. You’ll also find icons in the Orthodox home. Since they are present all around the Orthodox, it’s worth taking a second to understand what they are, and are not.
The icon can be loosely defined as sacred art, but that really mischaracterizes what an icon is. The icon is a picture of a person, but it is not intended merely for appreciation, and so I would not call them art. They aren’t meant to be decoration. Their use is mostly functional, though they are often beautiful. Icons are the products of a very controlled process of a trained iconographer. They are seen as visual theology, or a visual depiction of the Word. The styles and symbols are laid out ahead of time. Iconography is not a place for innovation, so much as imitation. This is important, as icons are meant to be instructive as part of their use.
The most important set of icons would be those of Christ. The icon of Christ is always seen directly to the right of the central door in the iconostasis. In the picture above you can see the icon of Christ holding the book of life, hand raised in blessing, wearing a robe of red indicating divinity, covered by a robe of blue indicating humanity. Christ’s halo will almost always have greek letters inside it. They will either be the alpha and omega, with obvious symbolism, or a set of omicron-omega-nu, which means “He who is”. The rest of the icons will be depictions of saints and angels, sometimes revolving around Biblical scenes, but many are from post-biblical time periods.
Finally, icons are seen as “windows into heaven”. They are always two dimensional, rather than 3d art such as statues. The idea is that icons are depictions of the reality of God’s existence and the saints with Him. Since they are in a different, higher type of reality (heaven) the icon is flat so as to give the viewer the clear idea that this person isn’t in “our” space, but that we are seeing into their space. A window indeed.
That’s a basic idea of what an icon is. Physically, it’s just a picture. Spiritually it is considered something more. Let me quickly run down some historical notes, and then I’ll address the common complaints against icons.
First, there’s a common misconception that goes like this. Jewish religion was rabidly anti art, or at least religious art, and in particular any depictions of God. They never had any depictions in their synagogues, and would have considered them idols. The Christians would have clearly continued this practice as they were practicing Jews. It must have been a later corruption of Christianity from paganism that added in icons. This was the assumption of the Reformers that instituted the mostly shared Protestant iconoclasm, based on archaeological knowledge at their time, but more recent archaeology has shown that synagogues closer to the time of Christ have been found with quite extensive iconography. So it’s likely that at the time of Christ this was normal practice. There have also been Christian churches found from the ante-nicene period before Constantine that also showed extensive iconography, and iconography has been found in the underground churches of the Roman catacombs. You can see some of the iconography at http://www.sacred-destinations.com/syria/dura-europos. From this we know that iconography was in use at least by the 200s. There’s not any particular reason to believe it wasn’t in use prior to that, but we just don’t have any data prior to that. The earliest known Christian church that has been excavated had icons. That’s all we can say from the strict historical record.
Theological objections to icons
The Reformers may not have been privy to our archaeological information, but they mostly based their renewed iconoclasm (there was an iconoclast movement in the 700s) on theological grounds. Calvin was the originator of protestant iconoclasm it seems. Luther didn’t seem to have any particular objections to pictures in the church, but Calvin would have none of it. Today protestants mostly follow his lead. Calvin saw God as unknowable, and said that putting any form in connection with God necessarily made it a lie. He also had the impression that Judaism was completely imageless, following hard on the prohibition against graven images, but completely ignoring the many instances of images in the Old Testament that were commanded or approved by God, and the full context of God’s prohibition against making an image of Him. Certainly at the time God had no revealed form. Imaging Him at that time would have been false in any case.
But there were plenty of images in the Old Testament: the cherubim on the Ark and on the walls of the tabernacle curtains, among others. See Exodus 25 & 26, 1 Kings 6 & 7, and Ezekiel 41:18. So Scripture itself demonstrates a different interpretation of the second commandment. A look at Deut 4:11,15-18 can clarify that the second command had a good reason, and one that made perfect sense at the time, but points at a change when Christ comes. God wasn’t to be depicted because He wasn’t known in visible form. When Jesus came this was no longer the case, and the Orthodox would argue that in fact it becomes necessary to depict Christ. If depictions of Christ are not allowed then there is an implicit denial of the incarnation. Can he be said to be truly human if you can’t depict Him? At the least it leaves the door open to question His true humanity. Allowing for physical depictions safe guards our understanding of who Christ is.
I think most Protestants, like myself, are not terribly upset about depicting Christ at all. They don’t follow as closely with Calvin in insisting on completely removing any depiction of Christ. If you were to talk into a Church and see a painting of Jesus, you wouldn’t be upset I suspect. I wouldn’t normally think twice about it. It’s not common, but not unheard of. What about seeing the same painting of Jesus in the sanctuary. Now it gets a bit more odd, but probably still not too concerning. What if the painting is at the very front? What if when the pastor prayed he turned to face the icon. Now most of us are going to be uncomfortable. Here’s where our iconoclastic tendencies will surface. Have we just made the painting of Christ into an idol?
The Orthodox say no, and after some thought I have to agree. The worship shown toward an icon of Christ is worship of Christ, not the icon. The same holds true of veneration shown toward a saint, but I’ll address saints in a different email. You can see how this worship or veneration is going to the depicted, not the depiction. Ask yourself, am I ever confused when I look at a picture hanging on my wall and believe the photo is the person, or did it merely allow me to make a mental connection with that person? If the soldier in war pulls out a picture of his family during a moment of peace and gives it a kiss, has he suddenly fallen in love with a piece of paper with ink on it, or did he feel love for his actual family? I’ve seen people talk to a photo of a dead relative. I don’t think they were conversing with the paper. Personal experience and a minimum of understanding towards other people is enough to show that when you look at an icon of Christ and pray, your prayer is directed at Christ, and the icon serves as an aid. I’m confident that if Jesus had been incarnated today every Christian in the world would have a photograph of him, and copies of all the video they could get their hands on. We would want the pictures hanging in our house, and wherever we would pray.
So, to recap the whole argument, the historical data indicates that as best we know both ancient Judaism and Christianity were both using icons in their worship environment. This use continued without interruption until the 700s, when the Emperor tried to have icons removed, and the people revolted. Christians all used them until after the Reformation, when Protestants largely dropped their use based on the belief that historically Christians and Jews hadn’t used any images and tied this to the second commandment, ignoring other Scripture that both expanded the 2nd commandment, and clear indications that the 2nd commandment did not prohibit the use of any images in worship due to counter examples in the construction of the tabernacle. Depictions of Christ are not excluded by the second commandment, because He has been incarnated into a true human form, and that form can and must be depicted. Depictions of God the Father and Holy Spirit would still be off limits, and indeed the Orthodox do not depict them. Reverencing an icon is true reverence to the person depicted in the icon, and so is not inappropriate unless it is inappropriate to reverence that person. Finally, use of icons protects our understanding of who Christ is, and has a great utilitarian function in worship and prayer.
[My local priest had this to add: The Orthodox Church does depict the Holy Spirit, but only in two specific instances — the Baptism of Christ as a dove and Pentecost as tongues of fire. Otherwise, you are absolutely correct that we don’t have icons of the Holy Spirit. There is also an icon of Christ which is called Almighty — a title given to the Father in the Nicene Creed. Using Christ’s words from John that those who have seen Christ have seen the Father, this particular icon of Christ is our icon of the Father. Technically, though, you are correct that we do not depict the Father in icons.]
Perhaps the last practical objection, which you mentioned, is that icons could become objects of worship themselves, rather than being “windows into heaven”. While I can see the possibility I have never heard of this occurring in actuality, seen it in my experience with Orthodox Christians, or been at all confused in my own experience with icons. Now having been around them its is hard to see how this could actually happen. I could see how they might become objects of superstition though. A person might treat them as if they were magic objects, imparting good luck or deflecting bad events. That’s possible, but the same issue is present in the Protestant use of cross necklaces or even Bibles, which sometimes become objects of superstition. A clear understanding of what icons are, and a consistent use in the life of a Christian is the antidote.
Here’s my personal experience. When you walk into an Orthodox church you know that you are in the great cloud of witnesses. It’s so real that it is palpable. I have found myself MUCH more connected to Christians who lived in times past now that I have been surrounded by their faces whenever I go to worship God. It’s great to feel like the Body of Christ is present with you. Hopefully reading this you can make sense of the basic argument. I have personal experience now with icons, as does [my wife], and we can both affirm that icons are not disruptive to our faith. On the contrary, I’ve found icons of Christ to be deeply moving and very helpful in prayer. At one point in the liturgy the people are told to bow their heads to Christ. We all bow our heads toward the icon in the iconostasis. No one is bowing their head to paint and wood.
There’s much more to be said, or read, and I’ve included some links below to more full explications of icons. Some of the issues around icons are really issues with veneration of dead saints. I’ll deal with that separately, since this email is already long enough.
I’m still a little uncertain how to best approach these topics. I want to be respectful and not argumentative, but the only way to present my reasoning in a way that shows HOW I made my peace with these various struggles requires that I be somewhat apologetic in tone. Hopefully this doesn’t cause a problem. If you find that this is frustrating or angering, let me know and I can ease back. Again, I don’t expect that you will necessarily agree with me, but hopefully you can at least see a soundness in the reasoning.
For more reading on this subject see:
And if you just want to listen: