|Icon of Panagia and Christ
People sometimes ask if we worship Icons. The answer is simple,
it is an emphatic No!
No Christian worships an image. Christians worship God. We do not
worship Icons, but we do venerate them. That means we show special
respect for the Icons. We do this because the Icons are a way of
joining us to the goodness and holiness of God and His Saints.
When an Orthodox Christian goes into Church he lights a candle,
makes the sign of the cross then kisses the Icons of Christ, His
Mother the Theotokos, and the Saints.
A screen separates the Altar from the rest of the Church. This
screen is known as the "Icon Screen" or "Iconostasis"
because it supports a series of Icons. The North and South aspects
of the Iconostasis is divided by central double doors known as the
"Royal Doors" or "Holy Doors". Characteristically
in Orthodox Churches, the first Icon to the right of the Holy Doors
is the Icon of Christ, the Creator of All Things. To the left of
the Holy Doors is an Icon of the Mother of God with Christ cradled
in Her arms. The Icon depicted on the Holy Doors is that of the
Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, where the Archangel Gabriel brings
to Her the news of the impending Miraculous Conception. Icons of
the four Evangelists are also often found on the Holy Doors.
The Holy Doors show us the way heaven and earth are reunited by
Christ. The Icon of the Annunciation reminds us that God came down
to us as a person. Mary was a doorway for Christ to enter this world,
and for us to enter heaven. The Icons of the Four Evangelists remind
us that we come to God through the teachings of the Gospel.
To the right of the Icon of Christ on the Iconostasis is the Icon
of the Forerunner St John the Baptist. To the left of the Icon of
the Virgin and Christ Child is the Patron Saint of that particular
Every orthodox home has its Icon shelf, and family Prayers are
The meaning of Icons
Images have always played a part in teaching Christians about their
faith. Icons are much more than religious pictures. They are a way
of telling people about some complicated Christian teaching in a
simple form that anyone can see and start to understand -- even
a tiny child. Icons in the earliest days of the Church were a means
of depicting Gospel events to Christians who may not have been able
to read the Gospel themselves.
Christians of the Orthodox Church say that it is both wrong and
impossible to make a picture showing what God looks like. We have
never seen Him, we hardly know Him, We cannot draw Him. However,
God came into this world as a person. He became flesh and blood
as Jesus Christ. This is what Christians call the "Incarnation".
This belief that God became a man is one of the most fundamental
of Christian teachings. We can paint a picture of Christ because
He lived here as a person. The word "Icon" means a picture
or image. In simple terms an Icon of Christ is a picture of Christ
which tells everyone that God became a man.
The meaning of Icons goes even further than this. In Icons of the
Saints, the pictures do not look like pictures of ordinary flesh
and blood. They look strange. The Church teaches that Christ had
a human body in order to save our bodies as well as our souls. At
the end of time, when Christ comes again, everyone will rise from
the dead. We will not look the same as we do now. We will be utterly
changed, and we will shine with the glory of God. Icons show people
with that sort of body -- a Resurrection body. The Church also teaches
that all people are made in the image and likeness of God. In a
way then, the Saints are living 'Icons' of Christ. Because Christ
was God and Man at the same time. He was able to show us just what
that image and likeness of God can actually look like. The Gospels
tell us that once, at a place called Mount Tabor, the Apostles saw
that Christ was shining with light. (Matt. 17. 1-13; Mark 9. 2-13;
Luke 9. 28-36) The same thing sometimes happens to people who live
a very holy life. When they are deep in prayer they shine with a
mysterious light. Their bodies have been changed so that they show
the image and likeness of God. They are holy flesh. Not all of the
Saints show this sort of holiness on the outside in their lives.
More often they grow into the likeness of God in a hidden way, but
all Icons of the Saints show that they have already changed from
ordinary flesh and blood. Saints are depicted with a halo of light
around their head.
There are many examples of miraculous Icons throughout time. Some
even today. Orthodox Christians believe firmly that God can use
thing's of this world [such as wood and paint] to help us to share
in the heavenly world. We use water in Baptism or bread and wine
in Holy Communion. We ask God to bless these ordinary things so
that they can bring us to Him. Similarly, we ask God to bless Icons
as well, so that the paint and wood and the artist's skill can be
used in His service. Icons are blessed to bring us to God. This
is the reason why we call them "Holy Icons".
Windows into heaven
In an ordinary picture things seem to get narrower as they go into
the distance. This gives the picture its feeling of depth. It is
called "perspective". Icons are different. On many of
them the picture seems to get wider as it goes into the distance
-- the perspective is back to front.
In an ordinary painting you can often see the sun, or else you
can see light and shadow. You can tell the time of day, or you can
see that it is night. You can not see these things in an Icon. There
are no shadows, or ways of showing day and night. An Icon shows
a view of heaven, so it is lighted by the unchanging light of God.
Icons are painted this way on purpose. An Icon is a window into
Heaven. The veneration granted to the Icon is said to pass on to
Heaven and the person depicted therein.
adapted from "Explaining Icons"
Stylite Publishing Ltd.
The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia