According to the teaching that the Holy Fathers handed down to our Church, the first Sunday of the Holy Lent is dedicated to the holy icons and to those who suffered for them during the iconoclastic persecution. It reminds us of the victory of Truth over all the heresies that have shaken Christ’s Church throughout the history and particularly over those who despised the icons, stating that God cannot be represented in any way through the mere colours of a painted image.
Through His Incarnation, God gave humans the possibility to reach theosis; He gave all of those who believe in Him the power to become sons of God (John 1:12). Thus, by making Himself seen and felt, our Saviour can be represented in an icon, as a human. Today, icons are always present in any Christian’s life. Any prayer – whether it is done in church or in the peace of one’s own home – is accompanied by the holy icons. They accompany the Christian’s life everywhere.
The Tradition of the Church tells us that icons date back to the first centuries of Christianity. Eusebius of Caesarea, the most important historian of the Church of the first centuries, also states in his “Church History”: “I have seen many portraits of the Saviour, of Peter and Paul, which have been preserved until today” – which proves that icons were an integral part of Christianity ever since its foundation.
Christian teachings were carried out from the very beginning by the Church through word and icon. It is for this reason that by the decisions of the 7th Ecumenical Council, the Holy Fathers were able to say: “The tradition of icon-making has existed ever since the times of Christian preaching by the Holy Apostles. Iconography is in no way the painters’ invention, but, on the contrary, an established law and a tradition of the catholic Church”. This is how their presence in the Church is explained and the way in which it has silently taken its natural place in the Christians’ lives. Already, in the 4th century, several Holy Fathers such as St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. John Chrysostom, and others refer to the icons in their writings as to a natural practice in the Church.
In Christ’s image as a Man we find His entire divine nature
When we honour an icon, we do not worship the painting per se, nor the material of which it was made, but we worship the Truth that is represented by the face depicted in the icon, as the Truth that has always been handed down by the Church. That is what Christians have always done, without needing a full theoretical formulation, initially; it was only later, during the 7th Ecumenical Council, after the heresies and false teachings had disappeared, that the teaching took on a more precise shape. “Nobody has ever seen God; yet His Only-Begotten Son, Who dwells in the Father’s bosom, He has made Him known” (John 1:18). By His Incarnation, Christ reveals to the world, through His divine nature, the Father’s Image, as “Whoever has seen Me, has seen the Father” (John 14:9). We do not know how God is as Himself, but we know that God the Son, after His incarnation, is no longer separated from his human body and appearance and therefore, in Christ’s image as a human we find His whole deification – we find God Himself. By depicting the Saviour, the icon does not only depict His divinity and humanity, but also His Person, in which both natures unite — undivided and unshared. Christ did not reveal the Father only by His words, which we find in the Scriptures, but also by His Face, the Face of God. Rumanian Father Petroniu Tănase, recently gone to the Lord, used to say very beautifully in one of his speeches that “the icon is an opening towards the age to come, through which we see God with our bodily eyes. That is why, when we look at an icon, our eyes do not stop at the matter of which it is made of – wood and colour – but our mind goes beyond it and rises to a mysterious knowledge of the unseen things”.
The icon is “our window to Heaven” – is a phrase that is often quoted and very true. Blessed Kallistos Ware, well-known Bishop of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople and Professor of Orthodox theology with Oxford University, says that the icon is more than just a window. It isn’t only a window through which you can see the beauty of the things which it overlooks, but it is also “a door to Heaven”, because as we pass through it, we become part of Heaven and we meet the one who is represented in it, face to face. The icon makes a direct connection between us and the person represented in it and gives us the possibility to commune with that person and to know him/her. Because of that connection, as the Holy Fathers say, our honouring of the icon gets transmitted to the person depicted in it.
Icons use images and shapes taken from the material world in order to transmit the revelation of the divine world and make it accessible for knowledge and contemplation. We can state without any doubt that the current image of Christ in the Orthodox Church renders elements that are characteristic to His Face, that have been preserved ever since the times of the Apostles, through the Church Tradition. This is precisely why the Church art books give meticulous instructions as to the details that one must observe when painting the Face of the Saviour Jesus Christ. Since not all icon-painters are gifted with a great talent and neither are they always worthy of supernatural inspiration, the Church has set the rules based on which one should paint all icons, so that they always express the Truth that has been handed down by the Holy Scripture and the Holy Tradition. The agreement that must exist between the word and the icon was particularly clearly expressed in the decision of the 7th Ecumenical Council. Through the voices of the Holy Fathers of the Synod, the Church decided then that the worship of icons should be similar to the one shown to the Holy Cross and the Holy Scripture: namely, just as for the Holy Cross, as a distinctive sign of Christianity and of the Holy Scripture, because of the complete correspondence between the word and the image. “We preserve, without any innovations, all the traditions of the Church that were established for us, whether they are written or not, including the painting of the icons, according to what the Holy Scripture preaches and tells about […]. Because if one is depicted by the other, then one is also justified by the other”, said the Holy Fathers of the 7th Synod. Hence, we understand that the Church does not see the icon as a mere form of art that serves for illustrating the Holy Scripture, but a complete correspondence between the two – and that is the reason why the icon receives the same honouring as the Holy Scripture.
Denying the icon is denying the reality of the Incarnation
Christ’s image is a testimony of His coming and living in a human body; therefore, in the eyes of the Church, denying Christ’s icon appears like denying Truth and the fact that He became man. Upon defending the icon during the iconoclastic times, the Church not only defended its educational role – much less its aesthetic value – but the very bases of Christian faith, the visible proof that God had become man, as a foundation for our salvation. “I have seen the human face of God and my soul was saved”, said St. John the Damascene. If we understand the icon that way, we will no longer wonder at the firmness and the complete dedication of its defenders, who faced torture and death during the dark ages of the iconoclasm.