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The Icon FAQ

Q: What is an Icon?
A: An Icon is an image (usually two dimensional) of Christ, the Saints, Angels, important Biblical events, parables, or events in the history of the Church.

Icons also lift up our minds from earthly things to the heavenly. St. John of Damascus wrote, "we are led by perceptible Icons to the contemplation of the divine and spiritual" (PG 94:1261a). And by keeping their memory before us through the Icons, we are also inspired to imitate the holiness of those therein depicted.

Q: Do Orthodox Christians pray to Icons?
A: Christians pray in the presence of Icons (just as Israelites prayed in the presence of Icons in the Temple), but we do not pray to the image.

Q: Do Orthodox Christians Worship Icons? What's the difference between "worship" and "veneration"?
A: Orthodox Christians do not worship Icons in the sense that the word "worship" is commonly used in modern English. In older translations (and in some more recent translations in which the translators insist on using this word in its original sense), one finds the word "worship" used to translate the Greek word proskyneo (literally, "to bow"). Nevertheless, one must understand that the older use of "worship" in English was much broader than it is generally used today, and was often used to refer simply to the act of honoring, venerating, or reverencing.

Orthodox Christians do venerate Icons, which is to say, we pay respect to them because they are holy objects, and because we reverence what the Icons depict.

Q: What are the functions of Icons?
A: Holy icons serve a number of purposes.
(1) They enhance the beauty of a church.
(2) They instruct us in matters pertaining to the Christian faith.
(3) They remind us of this faith.
(4) They lift us up to the prototypes which they symbolize, to a higher level of thought and feeling.
(5) They arouse us to imitate the virtues of the holy personages depicted on them.
(6) They help to transform us, to sanctify us.
(7) They serve as a means of worship and veneration.

Q: What Orthodox Iconography Is?
A: The religion of Christ is the revelation, by Him, of the truth. And this truth is the knowledge of the true God and of the spiritual world. But the spiritual world is not what men used to—and still do—call "spiritual." Christ calls His religion "new wine," and "bread that cometh down from Heaven." The Apostle Paul says, "Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creation. The old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”

In a religion like this, one that makes the believer into a “new man," everything is "new." So, too, the art that gradually took form out of the spirit of this religion, and which it invented to express its Mystery, is a "new" art, one not like any other, just as the religion of Christ is not like any other, in spite of what some may say who have eyes only for certain meaningless externals.

The architecture of this religion, its music, its painting, its sacred poetry, insofar as they make use of material media, nourish the souls of the faithful with spirit. The works produced in these media are like steps that lead them from earth up to heaven, from this earthly and temporary state to that which is heavenly and eternal. This takes place so far as is possible with human nature. For this reason, the arts of the Church are anagogical, that is, they elevate natural phenomena and submit them to "the beautiful transformation." They are also called "liturgical" arts, because through them man tastes the essence of the liturgy by which God is worshipped and through which man becomes like unto the Heavenly Hosts and perceives immortal life.

Ecclesiastical liturgical painting, the painting of worship, took its form above all from Byzantium, where it remained the mystical Ark of Christ's religion and was called hagiographia or sacred painting. As with the other arts of the Church, the purpose of hagiographia is not to give pleasure to our carnal sense of sight, but to transform it into a spiritual sense, so that in the visible things of this world we may see what surpasses this world. But just as those theologians were wading around in the slimy swampwaters of philosophy, and were in no position to taste and understand the clear fresh water of the Gospel, "drawn up to life eternal," so, too, the painters who brought about the Renaissance were in no position to understand the mystical profundity of Eastern liturgical iconography, the sacred art of Byzantium. And just as the theologians thought that they could perfect Christ's religion with philosophy, since for them it seemed too simple, they being in no position to penetrate into the depths of that divine simplicity; just so, the painters thought that they were perfecting liturgical art, more simply called Byzantine, by making it "more natural".

So they set to work, copying what was natural - faces, clothes, buildings, landscapes, all as they appear naturally - making an iconography with the same rationalism that the theologians wanted to make theology with. But the kind of theology you can get out of rationalism is exactly the kind of religious iconography you can get out of copying nature.
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