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ICONS

We decree with full precision and care that, like the figure of the honored and life-giving cross, the revered and holy images, whether painted or made of mosaic or of other suitable material, are to be exposed in the holy churches of God, on sacred instruments and vestments, on walls and panels, in houses and by public ways; these are the images of our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ, and of Our Lady without blemish, the holy God-bearer, and of the revered angels, and of any of the saintly holy men.” 

— Second Council of Nicaea (Seventh Ecumenical Council) - 787 A.D.


Christianity teaches that the immaterial God took flesh in the form of Jesus Christ, making it possible to depict in human form the Son of God. It is on this basis that the Old Testament proscriptions against making images were overturned for the early Christians by their belief in the Incarnation. Also, the concept of archetype was redefined by the early church fathers in order to better understand that when a person shows veneration toward an image, the intention is rather to honor the person depicted, not the substance of the icon. As St. Basil the Great says, "The honor shown the image passes over to the archetype." He also illustrates the concept by saying, "If I point to a statue of Caesar and ask you 'Who is that?', your answer would properly be, 'It is Caesar.' When you say such you do not mean that the stone itself is Caesar, but rather, the name and honor you ascribe to the statue passes over to the original, the archetype, Caesar himself." So it is with an Icon.

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, only flat or bas relief images are used. The Greeks, having a long, pagan tradition of statuary, found the sensual quality of three dimensional representations did more to glorify the human aspect of the flesh rather than the divine nature of the spirit and so prohibitions were created against statuary. The Romans, on the other hand, did not adopt these prohibitions and so there is still statuary among the Roman Catholics to this day. Because the Greeks rejected statuary, the Byzantine style of iconography was developed in which figures were stylized in a manner that emphasized their holiness rather than their humanity. Symbolism allowed the icon to present highly complex material in a very simple way, making it possible to educate even the illiterate in theology. The interiors of Orthodox Churches are often completely covered in icons.

Miraculous icons

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Our Lady of St. Theodore, a 1703 copy of the 11th-century icon, following the same Byzantine "Tender Mercy" type as the Vladimirskaya above.

In the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition there are reports of particular, Wonderworking icons that exude myrrh (fragrant, healing oil), or perform miracles upon petition by believers. When such reports are verified by the Orthodox hierarchy, they are understood as miracles performed by God through the prayers of the saint, rather than being magical properties of the painted wood itself. Theologically, all icons are considered to be sacred, and are miraculous by nature, being a means of spiritual communion between the heavenly and earthly realms. However, it is not uncommon for specific icons to be characterised as "miracle-working", meaning that God has chosen to glorify them by working miracles through them. Such icons are often given particular names (especially those of the Virgin Mary), and even taken from city to city where believers gather to venerate them and pray before them. Islands like that of Tinos are renowned for possessing such "miraculous" icons, and are visited every year by thousands of pilgrims.

 

Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic teaching about icons

Icons are used particularly in Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Eastern Catholic churches.

The Eastern Orthodox view of the origin of icons is quite different from that of secular scholars and from some in contemporary Roman Catholic circles: "The Orthodox Church maintains and teaches that the sacred image has existed from the beginning of Christianity", Léonid Ouspensky has written.[29] Accounts that some non-Orthodox writers consider legendary are accepted as history within Eastern Orthodoxy, because they are a part of church tradition. Thus accounts such as that of the miraculous "Image Not Made by Hands", and the weeping and moving "Mother of God of the Sign" of Novgorod are accepted as fact: "Church Tradition tells us, for example, of the existence of an Icon of the Savior during His lifetime (the "Icon-Made-Without-Hands") and of Icons of the Most-Holy Theotokos [Mary] immediately after Him."[30] Eastern Orthodoxy further teaches that "a clear understanding of the importance of Icons" was part of the church from its very beginning, and has never changed, although explanations of their importance may have developed over time. This is due to the fact that iconography is rooted in the theology of the Incarnation (Christ being the eikon of God) which didn't change, though its subsequent clarification within the Church occurred over the period of the first seven Ecumenical Councils. Also, icons served as tools of edification for the illiterate faithful during most of the history of Christendom.

Eastern Orthodox find the first instance of an image or icon in the Bible when God made man in His own image (Septuagint Greek eikona), in Genesis 1:26-27. In Exodus, God commanded that the Israelites not make any graven image; but soon afterwards, he commanded that they make graven images of cherubim and other like things, both as statues and woven on tapestries. Later, Solomon included still more such imagery when he built the first temple. Eastern Orthodox believe these qualify as icons, in that they were visible images depicting heavenly beings and, in the case of the cherubim, used to indirectly indicate God's presence above the Ark.

In the Book of Numbers it is written that God told Moses to make a bronze serpent, Nehushtan, and hold it up, so that anyone looking at the snake would be healed of their snakebites. In John 3, Jesus refers to the same serpent, saying that he must be lifted up in the same way that the serpent was. John of Damascus also regarded the brazen serpent as an icon. Further, Jesus Christ himself is called the "image of the invisible God" in Colossians 1:15, and is therefore in one sense an icon. As people are also made in God's images, people are also considered to be living icons, and are therefore "censed" along with painted icons during Orthodox prayer services.

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A somewhat disinterested treatment of the emotional subject and painstaking attention to the throne and other details of the material world distinguish this work by a medieval Sicilian master from works by imperial icon-painters of Constantinople.

According to John of Damascus, anyone who tries to destroy icons "is the enemy of Christ, the Holy Mother of God and the saints, and is the defender of the Devil and his demons." This is because the theology behind icons is closely tied to the Incarnational theology of the humanity and divinity of Jesus, so that attacks on icons typically have the effect of undermining or attacking the Incarnation of Jesus himself as elucidated in the Ecumenical Councils.

The Eastern Orthodox teaching regarding veneration of icons is that the praise and veneration shown to the icon passes over to the archetype (Basil of Caesarea,On the Holy Spirit 18:45: "The honor paid to the image passes to the prototype"). Thus to kiss an icon of Christ, in the Eastern Orthodox view, is to show love towards Christ Jesus himself, not mere wood and paint making up the physical substance of the icon. Worship of the icon as somehow entirely separate from its prototype is expressly forbidden by the Seventh Ecumenical Council; standard teaching in the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches alike conforms to this principle. The Catholic Church accepts the same Councils and the canons therein which codified the teaching of icon veneration.

The Latin Church of the West, which after 1054 was to become separate as the Roman Catholic Church, accepted the decrees of the iconodule Seventh Ecumenical Council regarding images. There is some minor difference, however, in the Catholic attitude to images from that of the Orthodox. Following Gregory the Great, Catholics emphasize the role of images as the Biblia Pauperum, the "Bible of the Poor," from which those who could not read could nonetheless learn. This view of images as educational is shared by most Protestants.

Catholics also, however, accept in principle the Eastern Orthodox veneration of images, believing that whenever approached, images of the cross, saints, etc. are to be reverenced. Though using both flat wooden panel and stretched canvas paintings, Catholics traditionally have also favored images in the form of three-dimensional statuary, whereas in the East statuary is much less widely employed.

 

Eikon in the Septuagint

The Greek word eikon means an image or likeness of any kind. Anything that represents something else is an eikon. Nothing is implied about sanctity or its absence, or veneration or its absence by the word itself.

The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures used by the early Christians, and Eastern Orthodox consider it the only authoritative text of those Scriptures. In it the word eikon is used for everything from man being made in the divine image to the "molten idol" placed by Manasses in the Temple.

  1. Genesis 1:26-27;
  2. Genesis 5:1-3;
  3. Genesis 9:6;
  4. Deuteronomy 4:16
  5. 1 Samuel (1 Kings) 6:11 (Alexandrian manuscript);
  6. 2 Kings 11:18;
  7. 2 Chronicles 33:7;
  8. Psalm 38:7
  9. Psalm 72:20;
  10. Isaiah 40, 19-20;
  11. Ezekiel 7:20;
  12. Ezekiel 8:5 (Alexandrian manuscript);
  13. Ezekiel 16:17;

Ezekiel 23:14; Daniel 2:31,32,34,35; Daniel 3:1,2,3,5,7,11,12,14,15,18; Hosea 13:2

Be aware that Septuagint numberings and names and the English Bible numberings and names are not uniformly identical.

 

Eikon in the New Testament

In the New Testament the term is used for everything from Jesus as the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15) to the image of Caesar on a Roman coin (Matthew 22:20) to the image of the Beast in the Apocalypse (Revelation 14:19). Here is a complete listing:

  1. Matthew 22:20;
  2. Mark 12:16
  3. Luke 20:24
  4. Romans 1:23
  5. Romans 8:29;
  6. 1 Corinthians 11:7;
  7. 1 Corinthians 15:49
  8. 2 Corinthians 3:18;
  9. 2 Corinthians 4:4;
  10. Colossians 1:15;
  11. Colossians 3:10;
  12. Hebrews 10:1;
  13. Revelation 13:13;
  14. Revelation 13:15;
  15. Revelation 14:9;
  16. Revelation 14:11
  17. Revelation 15:2
  18. Revelation 16:2
  19. Revelation 19:20;
  20. Revelation 20:4.

 

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