Artistic representation has always been part of the worship of God. From statues of angels on the Ark of Covenant (Exodus 25:18) to elaborate carvings in the Temple (1 Kings 6:29), to stained glass of cathedrals, to the Nativity sets and crosses we display in our homes, artistic beauty helps us to experience and express the beauty of the Ultimate Creator.
Icons are a particular style of religious painting that comes from the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Today, many Christians, including Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Anglicans use icons as aids in worship.
Icons are richly symbolic, and are created to point to a spiritual reality beyond themselves. They remind us of the events of the life of Christ, of the saints that have gone before us, and that we are part of a great communion, a cloud of witnesses to the glory of God.
Icons are not to be worshiped, of course (after all, they are only wood and paint) but like crosses, candles, and even altar linens, they are used to express the worship of God. In some traditions, Christians venerate icons by bowing or kissing them. While this does have potential for abuse, it should be stressed that properly understood, one is not paying respect to the icon itself, but to that which it represents. We see a parallel in our patriotic culture. Many of us pay the American flag a certain measure of respect (not letting it touch the ground, and so on). Not because we respect the actual cloth and dye, but because of the values it represents.
We do not pray to an icon, but rather in the presence of icons.
Icons are commonly said to be “written”–not “painted”–because they express truths from the Bible, and for many in pre-literate societies they functioned as an essential way to teach the Bible. Those that write icons are called iconographers.
Our own DMAC member Dennis Maloney is a gifted iconographer who has written many beautiful icons. Each one takes about 30 hours of work from start to finish!
Traditionally, icons are placed in the church during the liturgy before they are put into to regular use to symbolize their place in the communal life of the church and as a form of blessing.
I hope you are drawn to pray in thankfulness to the Lord for all his faithfulness and goodness as you see icons in our church and elsewhere.