Orthodox Worship

Icons: Grace, Beauty, and the 
Life of the World to Come
by Euphemia Briere

The Grace of the Holy Spirit lives in the image 
which sanctifies the eyes of the faithful.
Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon, Synodicon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. p. 201

         The general endeavor of the art of traditional iconography is to be a spiritual art, lifting the onlooker from the natural, material world to the spiritual realm. Lines and shapes are non-naturalistic. The colors are suggestive of a higher realm. They are modest, sober, and radiant with spiritual joy. The saints are depicted in a way to show their spiritual beauty their inner state of purity, peace, and harmony.

         Icons are not made according to individual imagination but according to the tradition of the Church. They are a pictorial representation of the teaching of the Church. They represent concrete events in sacred history and indicate their Inner meaning.

         Icons are meant not only to be seen but also to be venerated (proskynesis). This practice is in accord with the decision of the Seventh Ecumenical Council which met in 787 in Nicaea to defend the holy icons.

         Those opposed to the use and veneration of icons were called "iconoclasts". They quoted from the Old Testament as follows: Thou shalt have no other gods before me Thou shalt not make unto thyself an image.

         In the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the fathers of the Church decided that God forbade making idols and worshipping idols as gods, but God did not forbid images in the worship of the true God. The Book of Exodus (25:18), for instance, says: And thou shalt make two Cherubim, graven in gold and thou shalt put them on both sides of the mercy-seat.

         The New Testament also deals with the matter of icons. In the Gospel of St. John (14:9), our Saviour says: He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father. The teaching of the Orthodox Church is that the Only-begotten Son and Word of God is the only perfect icon of the Father, since Christ is not only perfect man but also perfect God. Indeed, if one denies the human image of God, one denies the very meaning of our salvation. 

         The Seventh Ecumenical Council also decreed that God the Father should not be depicted since He was not incarnate and therefore is invisible and non-representable. We represent only what has been revealed to us the incarnate person of the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

         The Holy Spirit is represented as He showed Himself in the shape of a dove at the baptism of Christ in the River Jordan by St. John the Forerunner, and in the form of tongues of fire at Pentecost as the Mother of God, the apostles, and the disciples met in the upper room.

         God the Father is indicated symbolically in icons, usually by a semicircle or quarter circle at the top of an icon with a shaft of light emanating from it, thus in general indicating the divine presence.

         Man was created "in the image and likeness of God." As man fell away from this image and likeness through the fall of Adam, so he is restored to this former beauty through Holy Baptism and the Orthodox Christian way of life. Through this way of life, which includes receiving the holy Mysteries, we are reunited with Christ, a process the Church calls "deification." The representation of the holy Mother of God and the saints in icons is in accord with this teaching of the Church and makes visible to us the spiritual beauty of the soul which has been deified, i.e., reunited with God. The Mother of God is the most perfect of the saints, since she actually bore God Himself within her.

         The Seventh Ecumenical Council decree states that icons of our Saviour, the Mother of God, and the Saints should be given proper reverence, honor, and veneration, just as one would reverence, honor, and venerate those whom the icons represent.

         By gazing upon the icons, the worshiper is lifted up in his memory and longing for heavenly things, and thus receives the gift of God's grace. We, as Orthodox Christians, as members of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church are also called to be icons of Christ. As members of the Church, we are members of the Body of Christ.

         The holy icons are an invaluable aid to us in our struggle for salvation. Through them we receive instruction concerning our faith, an awareness of the constant presence of God, and an ever-present reminder of the purpose of our life. As we gaze upon and venerate the holy images of saints, we call upon their intercession for us and for our salvation. As we worship our Saviour in His holy image, we are united more closely with Him Who is our true life and hope and only door to the kingdom of heaven.

         Glory be to God for all things! Amen