This week’s campus question:

What’s up with all the pictures? Isn’t that like idol worship? Doesn’t the Bible forbid that?

Explaining iconography to someone who doesn’t pray with icons can be a little daunting. For us Orthodox, it’s as natural and normal as reading the Gospel, and we all sort of instinctively know that we’re not worshiping the icons. So what does the Bible say about images, and why do we have icons?

First off, typically when people try to say that the Bible forbids icons or images they are referring to the Ten Commandments:

You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Some Christians throughout history have interpreted this passage to mean that no religious images or visual art are allowed by God. In fact, the Church struggled with this issue throughout the eighth and ninth centuries finally defeating iconoclasm and upholding the use of icons in worship, a day we celebrate every year on the Triumph of Orthodoxy. The Church made clear the position of images in the worship of the Church and their relationship to the second commandment:

The Triumph of Orthodoxy. We even have an icon about icons. Image from Wikimedia

The Triumph of Orthodoxy. We even have an icon about icons. Image from Wikimedia

  1. The Incarnation is a game-changer. Christ made visible the invisible God, and thus it is allowed that images of Him be depicted.
  2. Icons depict real people. The second commandment protects us from creating fantastical creatures that replace the true God. Icons depict real people and events that draw us to the true God.
  3. Worship and veneration are not the same. Worshiping an idol is the equivalent of replacing God with a created thing (or ideology or passion). Venerating an icon is an act of respect and love that glorifies the Creator (sort of like saluting to a soldier is an act of respect and honor that shows your loyalty to your country).
  4. God instructed Moses to create images. Just in case anyone thought God’s commandment to Moses excluded all visual images of anything as idols, check out Exodus 36:35-37:9 where, per the instructions of God, Moses has images of cherubim embroidered into the curtains of the tabernacle and statues of the same cast for the Ark of the Covenant.

Obviously, then, it is not images that are an issue, but our relationship to images. So what do icons do for us and why do we love them?

  1. Icons teach us our history. In the early Church, never mind the fact that there was no official New Testament canon for almost 400 years, there were very few copies of the Scriptures (no printing press), and not all Christians were literate. Even today, we have a huge contingency of Christians who do not read–you know, everyone under the age of five. Icons teach us the stories of Scripture and the lives of the saints–the whole story of salvation–and invite us to be a part of that history.
  2. Icons teach us our theology. Icons are no ordinary paintings. They are full of symbolic meaning to convey the theological truths of the True Faith. From the colors to the stances of the people, to the scenery and lighting, icons teach us who God is, and who we are in relation to Him. For example, in most of the festal icons of Christ (Nativity, Theophany, Crucifixion, Resurrection), you’ll notice that Christ is the Light emerging from the darkness (of the cave, the water, Golgotha, Hades). Or you’ll typically see Christ wearing a red tunic with a blue cloak, showing us that he was divine (red) but took on humanity (blue), and his mother is typically dressed opposite as she–and we–are human (blue) who take on Christ’s divinity (red).
  3. Icons draw us near to the saints. We believe in a Church that is united across both space and time. In other words, the saints that have preceded us are just as much a part of the Living Body of Christ as our own friends and family. Just as we might cherish an image of a loved one who is no longer physically with us (and we might carry that image with us or even kiss it when we miss them), we cherish the images of Christ, His mother, and the saints as images of those we love and who guide us in our own lives.
  4. Icons call us to be still and worship. Unlike other forms of visual art, Orthodox iconography is specifically created with worship in mind. There is a stillness and a peace about the figures, even when they are shown “in action.” What seems to be a reverse in perspective is a message to us that it is we who vanish in the distance when we move away from God. Icons help us focus our prayers to God and help us dispel the distracting images that flit through our minds at the prompting of the demons.
  5. Icons call us to the heavenly realm. Everything about icons that we’ve already mentioned–their themes, their symbols, their characters, their artistic style–seek to draw us toward Christ and His holy ones. This is another reason that icons are not painted realistically; they are meant to draw us not to themselves, but beyond the images to the heavenly reality they depict. Unlike other art and certainly unlike idols, icons do not allow us to get stuck in the beauty of this world but call us to be a part of a world transfigured by God’s grace and love.

Image from Wikimedia

Having icons is not about having beautiful churches, though icons are certainly beautiful. They are not about worshiping wood and paint, though they are integral to how we worship. Icons are meant to give us glimpses of the world to come and who we can become in Christ. I am reminded that Bishop Thomas of the Antiochian Archdiocese once said to us at a College Conference

The walls of this church are lined with icons. The empty spaces are yours.