Icons, literally images, depict holy persons or events from every era of the life of the Church. Customarily, the interior, and in some cases, exterior, of an Eastern Orthodox Church will be adorned with the holy images (icons). They may be painted, printed, tiled in mosaic or frescoed. They may be large and permanently affixed to church walls or ceilings, or they may be small and portable, such as those carried in processions or used in homes.
More than being just religious art for the purpose of decoration, icons serve to impart the less visible, spiritual or mystical meaning which the saint or even depicted embodies, or in other words, theology. It is for this reason that icons are often referred to as being “written,” since they are theology inscribed with paint. Traditionally, icons are not concerned with sentimental illustrations of saints or feasts but rather incorporate symbol-rich imagery for the purpose of relating to the viewer the God-inspired truths relevant to the saint or feast depicted thereon. Icons help to focus one’s prayers. More than this, icons have proven themselves over the ages to be channels of grace, sources of healing and of other such miracles.
Just as the prologues of the Church record the lives and the memory of the saints over the ages, their heroic battles with the evil one, their struggles against the passions, their great faith and dedicated fulfillment of the Gospel commandments, their abundant miracles, their long-suffering, their love for God and His creatures, etc., so too the icons, surrounding us like a cloud of witnesses inspire a bolstered faith within us, preserving the memory of the Church gone before us, though not disconnected from us.
Icons were a traditional fixture of worship in the early Christian Church and still are in the Eastern Orthodox Churches. According to ancient tradition, the Holy Apostle Luke was the first iconographer, or painter of holy Christian images, having produced at least twelve icons, some of which are still in existence today.
Even now there are active monasteries dating from the early period of the Church that still bear remnants of their original iconography. Additionally, archeologists have in many cases unearthed lost Christian churches of the early era whose aged wall, to no surprise of the Orthodox, still retain evidence of their holy frescoed images.
Despite the known history concerning the use of holy images by our pious Christian forebears, many of our contemporaries will protest that the veneration of saints via the holy icons constitutes idolatry, even though idols are understood to be carved depictions of deities not of and contrary to divine revelation. Yet, if this were the case, the holy ones of old, many of whom were martyred defending the icons and destroying idols, would not have accepted the practice but heartily rejected it as contrary to the commands of God.
What’s more, the early Church as a whole had already dealt with this controversy and resolved it over the course of two ecumenical councils. Only those without knowledge of this celebrated even question the truth regarding the veneration of the holy Icons and their place in the church. The Church still observes the prohibition against idol worship but understands that Christian icons are not idols. In fact, the early church fathers have actually anathemized as unchristian those who do not accept or show reverence to the holy images, as this lack of reverence toward the icon carries over to the Lord or the saints depicted thereon, not to mention those holy men, women and children who suffered and died on their behalf.
To forget the icons is to forget the holy ones who image they depict. May we always have their holy example before us.