"Icons are a window to heaven," teaches Frederica Mathewes-Green, one of my favorite Christian writers. A former Anglican priest turned Eastern Orthodox, Frederica writes about her conversion and experience in the Orthodox Church. I first met her years ago at Point Loma Nazarene University's Writers Symposium by the Sea when she gave a wonderful talk about worship through icons, my first real introduction to these sometimes odd-looking pictures that somehow hold me spellbound. Their painted eyes speak to me, beckoning me into their world of otherliness and mystery.
I now own two: The Tree of Life (including the twelve disciples) and Resurrection of Christ. They hang on the wall above my bed table which serves as my prayer corner. They bring me into worship, these windows to heaven. I kneel before them, in no way worshiping wood and paint and human talent, but bowing before Jesus Christ. These icons help me to recall His gentle and not-so gentle) teaching of The Twelve and the power of His glorious Resurrection. I fall to my knees in awe of Him who is Creator, King, Savior -- and pray to Him who gave Himself for me, for us.
But many Christians, evangelicals especially, look somewhat (or very much) askance at the use of icons in worship. I did, too, at first, but learning about icons from Frederica and reading her subsequent book on icons shifted my thinking.
As a child, I remember the Russian icon room at the Timken Gallery, next to the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park. As an adult, I still return to that room in awe, marveling at the ancient Byzantine art that reaches out to me, inviting me to worship even in a crowded art museum. First in strollers, then held tightly by the hand, my kids have often walked the room with me under the careful, ramrod-straight, watchful eyes of the elderly guards -- as if they expected my children to run off at any moment to touch the artwork -- sacrilege! But these childhood memories remain in the back of my mind and the center of my heart, tugging on me.
I found a great source on icons from "Icons and Their History" from Saint Ignatius of Antioch Orthodox Christian Church:
Holy Icons -- Theology in Color
One of the first things that strikes a non-Orthodox visitor to an Orthodox church is the prominent place assigned to Holy Icons. The Iconostasis is covered with them, while others are placed in prominent places throughout the church building. The walls and ceiling are covered with iconic murals. The Orthodox faithful prostrate themselves before Icons, kiss them, and burn candles before them. The are censed by the clergy and carried in processions. Considering the obvious importance of the Holy Icons, then, questions may certainly be raised concerning them: What do these gestures and actions mean? What is the significance of Icons? Are they not idols or the like, prohibited by the Old Testament?
Icons have been used for prayer from the first centuries of Christianity. Sacred Tradition tells us, for example, of the existence of an Icon of the Savior during His lifetime (the "Icon-Made-Without-Hands") and of Icons of the Most Holy Theotokos immediately after Him. Sacred Tradition witnesses that the Orthodox Church had a clear understanding of the importance of Icons right from the beginning; and this understanding never changed, for it is derived from the teachings concerning the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity -- Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The use of Icons is grounded in the very essence of Christianity, since Christianity is the revelation by God-Man not only of the Word of God, but also of the Image of God; for, as St. John the Evangelist tells us, "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14).
"No one has ever seen God; only the Son, Who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known" (John 1:18), the Evangelist proclaims. That is, He has revealed the Image or Icon of God. For being the brightness of [God's] glory, and the express image of [God's] person (Hebrews 1:3), the Word of God in the Incarnation revealed to the world, in His own Divinity, the Image of the Father. When St. Philip asks Jesus, Lord, show us the Father, He answered him: Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father (John 14:8-9).
Thus as the Son is in the bosom of the Father, likewise after the Incarnation He is constubstantial with the Father, according to His divinity being the Father's Image, equal in honor to Him. The truth expressed above, which is revealed in Christianity, thus forms the foundations of Christian pictorial art. The Image (or Icon) not only does not contradict the essence of Christianity, but is unfailingly connected with it; and this is the foundation of the tradition that from the very beginning the Good News was brought to the world by the Church both in word and image.
St. John of Damascus, an eighth century Father of the Church, who wrote at the height of the iconoclastic (anti-icon) controversies in the Church, explains, that because the Word of God became flesh (John 1:14), we are no longer in our infancy; we have grown up, we have been given by God the power of discrimination and we know what can be depicted and what is indescribable. Since the Second Person of the Holy Trinity appeared to us in the flesh, we can portray Him and reproduce for contemplation Him Who has condescended to be seen. We can confidently represent God the Invisible -- not as an invisible being, but as one Who has made Himself visible for our sake by sharing in our flesh and blood.
Holy Icons developed side by side with the Divine Services and, like the Services, expressed the teaching of the Church in conformity with the word of Holy Scripture. Following the teaching of the 7th Ecumenical Council, the Icon is seen not as simple art, but that there is a complete correspondence of the Icon to Holy Scripture, "for if the Icon is shown by Holy Scripture, Holy Scripture is made incontestably clear by the Icon" (Acts of the 7th Ecumenical Council, 6).
As the word of Holy Scripture is an image, so the image is also a word, for, according to St. Basil the Great (379 AD):
By depicting the divine, we are not making ourselves similar to idolaters; for it is not the material symbol that we are worshipping, but the Creator, Who became corporeal for our sake and assumed our body in order that through it He might save mankind. We also venerate the material objects through which our salvation is effected -- the blessed wood of the Cross, the Holy Gospel, Holy Relics of Saints, and, above all, the Most-Pure Body and Blood of Christ, which have grace-bestowing properties and Divine Power. Orthodox Christians do not venerate an Icon of Christ because of the nature of the wood or the paint, but rather we venerate the inanimate image of Christ with the intention of worshipping Christ Himself as God Incarnate through it.