Icons of the Saints

Orthodoxy today is impossible to imagine without its icons. Indeed, the service commemorating the restoration of icons in the Church is not called “the Triumph of Iconography,” but “the Triumph of Orthodoxy.” One sees how apt the title is after walking into Orthodox churches where the entirety of the interior walls is covered with icons. The verbal image of Hebrews 12:1, about being surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, has become a visual image.

Church interiors were of course not always so adorned. But the Church has always maintained a tradition of sacred art. One sometimes encounters the view that first century Judaism was steadfastly opposed to images and was iconoclastic, and that therefore apostolic Christianity inherited this Jewish antipathy to images. It is not so. First century Judaism used images of some kind (witness the images of the synagogue preserved in the Dura Europos synagogue in Syria1), and the church used images in its funerary art. Given the church’s persecuted state in the first two hundred or so years of its existence and the comparative poverty of its members, it is not surprising that few artistic artifacts should survive from that period. Art was expensive to produce, and furthermore, Christians had every reason not to advertise their presence to the persecuting state. Accordingly, much of its art was symbolic, or at least capable of other interpretations: in one image, for example, a pagan might see a simple shepherd, while a Christian looking at the same image would see the Good Shepherd, Christ. Despite the paucity of evidence, what survives confirms that Christians were never opposed to the use of images.

This is hardly surprising, given that Christ Himself was described by St. Paul in Colossians 1:15 as the eikon, the image of the invisible God. In the Incarnation, the invisible God whom no one had seen or could see became visible in the man Jesus Christ (John 1:18). Thus, iconography became one more way of proclaiming the good news of the incarnation. As the kontakion for the first Sunday of Great Lent says,

No one could describe the Word of the Father, but when He took flesh from you, O Theotokos, He accepted to be described, and restored the fallen image to its former state by uniting it to divine beauty. We confess and proclaim our salvation in word and images.

The journey from minimal adornment in the early church to our present rich adornment of the Church temples was a long one, leading through the fires of the iconoclastic revolt. The time leading up to the revolt provided those opposed to images with certain ammunition, such as the action of St. Epiphanius when he became incensed upon seeing a curtain in church bearing an image of Christ or a saint and indignantly tore it down.2 One hears of other later abuses as well. Icons were sometimes used as sponsors at baptism, and some priests would rub off the paint from an icon and mix it with the Holy Gifts for Communion. Other clergy would serve the Liturgy on an icon, rather than on an actual altar.3 It was abuses of these kinds that provoked or at least furthered the iconoclastic revolt, so that they threw out the iconic baby with the bathwater of iconic abuse. Eventually, however, the older apostolic acceptance of Christian art prevailed, as icons were restored to the church through the tireless work of their defenders and the help coming from a sympathetic State.

The iconoclastic revolt did, however, provide a valuable service for the Church, in that it led it to sustained theological thought regarding icons and the theology undergirding them. For the Orthodox, icons are not simply decorations on walls. And they were not simply visual stories, the “books of the illiterate,” though they did of course function in that way too. Icons were sacred windows into heaven, portals to a higher reality, and means of communing with the saints portrayed on them.

The principle here was that the veneration offered to an image passed to its prototype, so that the veneration offered to (for example) an icon of St. Paul passed to St. Paul himself. In kissing an icon of St. Paul, we are not venerating wood and paint, but the apostle. But though this may sound a bit technical and difficult, it is a principle we see in action around us all the time.

For example, when a soldier about to go into battle kissed a photo of his sweetheart before leaving the trenches and going up over the top, he was not showing love for the paper the image was on, but for his sweetheart. Other less happy examples can also be found. When the Communists destroyed the churches of Russia by shooting out the eyes of icons, throwing them down and trampling them, they were not showing their hatred for artwork, but for Christ and his saints. The veneration (or in this case, the lack of it) passed to its prototype.

Ultimately, the reason the Church has many icons on its walls is the same reason that your grandmother has many photos on hers: love for family. Grandma’s house has many photos of her husband, children, nephews, nieces, and grandchildren because these are her family, and the human heart finds comfort in the sight of the faces it loves. It is the same with the Church—the icons are not merely pictures of historical figures, but members of our family in Christ, a family stretching back over centuries and around the world. And the saints are not dead but alive, and through our prayerful connection with their icons, they are active in our lives even now. The Church’s iconography is an expression of its love for family and its determination to keep the saints we love in our lives.


Footnotes

  1. P.C. Finney, The Invisible God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 100. “Before 1932, the complete absence of figural art from pre-Byzantine Judaism was taken as a sign that the so-called normative form of this ancient religion was strictly aniconic. Then came Dura. The discovery of the synagogue with its rich complement of biblically inspired wall paintings forced a re-evaluation.”

  2. St. Jerome, Letter 51.

  3. Leonid Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978), 128.