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Ask About Orthodoxy: Are Icons Idolatry?

This entry is part 4 of 9 in the series Ask About Orthodoxy Series

On the first and third Mondays of each month, I will be answering readers’ questions about Eastern Orthodoxy. Today’s question is: Can you explain the Orthodox practice of using icons? Don’t some people consider that idolatry?

{First of all, I need to apologize that this post is two days late. After a busy Holy Week and Pascha (Easter) weekend, I had to hit the ground running for work on Monday morning, and found that I was still super exhausted from Pascha. In addition, I have been battling terrible allergies the past couple of days, plus I attended ball games both Monday and Tuesday evening. Life is busy!}

Today’s question is one I get a lot. The word “icon” seems to be taboo in a lot of Christian circles. For some reason, many people are wary of breaking that “no graven images” rule.

An iconostasis
An iconostasis

First of all, what is an icon? An icon is a pictorial representation of Christ, Mary, a saint, or an event in Bible or in the life of a saint. Most icons are made with egg tempera paint on wood. In addition, gold leaf is usually applied to halos on icons. All Orthodox churches have icons. There is the iconostasis, or a panel of icons in the front of the church, as well as icons adorning the walls and even the ceiling of the church. You will also find icons in Orthodox homes. At our house, we have a home altar with icons of each family member’s patron saint, as well as icons of Jesus and Mary. You will also see a few other icons scattered throughout our home.

photo
Home altar – our paper chain was names of people to pray for during Lent.

I answered the question “What is an icon?” above, but I merely answered the surface level question. To an Orthodox Christians, icons are far more than just paintings. Icons are images of the kindgom of God. Icons reveal our beliefs. Icons are windows to heaven. We don’t just look at them; we look through them, that we might see the meaning of living in God’s kingdom. Icons represent that “great cloud of witnesses” who have gone before us and are worshipping God with us from heaven. Icons represent our theology. Icons represent imperfect people who lived lives for God. Thomas Merton said, “We are living in a world that is absoutely transparent and God is shining through all the time . . . God manifests Himself everywhere.” An icon, then, is not just a painting of a person on a piece of wood. It is the image of God shining through from heaven to earth.

christ-resurrection-icon

Let’s look at this icon of the resurrection. The resurrected Christ is grabbing the hands of Adam and Eve, which represents that death has been conquered and they will join him eternally. Mankind has been redeemed. The gates of Hades have been torn down, and the assortment of chains and locks have been broken. Christ is surrounded by a mandorla that seems to be emanating light – this represents heaven or the glory of God. John the Baptist is to the left of Christ (the one with the halo), dressed in green (which usually represents asceticism), holding his hands out to show the way to Jesus. Some of the other people are the Old Testament righteous, or heroes of the Old Testament, who now can have eternal life with God. The young shepherd boy on the right is probably Abel. So you can see that this icon reprents a great depth of theology and belief.

I think what bothers people is when they see Orthodox Christians crossing themselves in front of an icon, bowing in front of an icon, praying to an icon, or kissing an icon. That seems like worship, and worship is reserved for God and God alone. Orthodox Christians agree with that. Worship is only for God. Still, when I first began attending an Orthodox church, the kissing of icons bothered me. I loved the idea of praying with icons, but watching people kiss them triggered a warning in my head. Is this wrong? I remembered thinking. It took me a while for my Protestant sense of alarm about icons to dissolve into a mystical, spiritual understanding of them.

We use icons in prayer as a way to focus, but also as a way to recognize that we are in the midst of kairos time – God’s time, time out of time. Therefore, even though the person in the icon is not physically alive on earth, he/she is alive in eternity, and is able to intercede on our behalf. When we say to “pray to” a saint, that means we ask that saint to pray for us, just as we might ask a friend to pray for us. The bounds of time and space can be crossed in kairos time. We kiss icons just as a young wife might kiss a photograph of her military husband away on deployment – to show love and affection for the person and his/her life. It is not a kiss of worship; it is a kiss of adoration and love. Revering an icon is both showing love and respect for the Christian role model and is acknowledging that we are all a part of this enormous body of faith, which includes the past, present, and future.

Triumph of Orthodoxy icon
Triumph of Orthodoxy icon

There have always been people in Christian history who disliked the use of icons. I will not try to tell you that there are no Orthodox Christians who have crossed the line between revere and worship; I’m sure there are. Since idolatry was part of secular life in the time of early Christianity, there were Christians who were afraid that iconography would descend into idolatry. One of the debates was also whether or not Jesus should be depicted in an icon because he was divine. In the eighth and ninth centuries, the iconography debate reached its peak, and Emperor Leo III ordered the destruction of all icons. Finally, in 843, the late Emperor Theophilus’ wife, Theodora, convened a council which ultimately affirmed the use of icons. The Orthodox Church actually celebrates this victory on The Sunday of Orthodoxy, which is the first Sunday of Lent. When icons were affirmed, a distinction was made about making an image of the invisible God. There are icons of Jesus, or God in his human form, but there are not icons of God in his divinity.

For me personally, icons were something that largely drew me to Orthodoxy. I love the spiritual practice of focusing on a face rather than closing my eyes during prayer. I love the beauty of an icon, the glow of the halos in candlelight. Though icons are more than just art for Orthodox Christians, I do believe that beauty speaks to something deep in our souls. It moves us. Icons move me toward God. I find much solace and encouragement in praying with icons and even simply looking at icons.

Icons ultimately remind me of the Incarnation: God became flesh, earthly, human. And yet that divine light flooded through him. Icons remind us that that divine light can flow through us, too. Though we are human and earthly, we can be made holy.

For further reading on icons, check out my friend Susan Cushman’s essay, “Icons Will Save the World.”

Here are some of my previous posts about icons:

Why We Need Images of Jesus

Where is Joseph in the Birth of Christ?

Lenten Reflections: Icons

 

Do you have question about Orthodoxy? Email it to me at karissa.k.sorrell@gmail.com, tweet it to me at @kksorrell, or leave it in the comments.

 

*Iconostasis image source

*Resurrection icon image source

*Triumph of Orthodoxy icon image source

 

Series Navigation<< Ask About Orthodoxy: Why All the Rituals?Ask About Orthodoxy: Why Confess to a Priest? >>

4 comments

    • kksorrell says:

      Thanks, Susan. I’m sure I didn’t do it justice. I struggled with what exactly to write for this because I think iconography is a huge topic. I appreciate your support!

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