Why are Orthodox Churches Full of Icons? May 21 2014

My first experience in an Orthodox Church was visiting a Russian Chapel in Darmstadt, Germany. It was a small Orthodox chapel, which had been built by the Czar of Russia for his daughter, who married the Grand Duke of Hessen. I was struck with awe at the fact the small church was full of iconography and there was a wall separating the church from the altar. I asked the priest how the people attending liturgy in the church could know what was going on if this wall was in front of the altar and his response was “they can hear the prayers being offered.” About a year and a half after this first experience I was in the process of converting from Roman Catholicism to Orthodoxy, which included a year long stop in the Byzantine Catholic Church. I took my Roman Catholic parents to visit a Byzantine Catholic Church in Columbus, Ohio, and they asked the same question I asked while visiting Germany years earlier: What was that wall of icons doing in front of the altar and why was the church so full of icons? The answer to the question at first appears simple but is actually quite full of tradition, history and scripture. Back in Darmstadt, I had failed to realize that the wall of icons was just as much an integral part of worship as the Liturgy performed behind it.


The development of iconography and of the style of the Orthodox Church has gone hand in hand with the development of Orthodoxy itself. The churches existing before the Edict of Milan, the Roman declaration that legalized Christianity, were very simple and had very simple “iconography.” This was a historical necessity as these churches were simple and hidden to avoid persecution. “Catacomb churches” show primitive, yet intricate iconography, as is the case with the cave
churches in the Goreme Valley in Cappadocia. Another early church, St. Serge Church in Maaloula, Syria, which dates from the early fourth century, has a solid wall with a simple open door in the place where the iconostasis would later develop. By the time of the Iconoclast Heresy in the eighth and ninth centuries, there already existed Orthodox churches full of beautiful iconography.


To the non-Orthodox Christian the presence of the iconostasis seems foreign and obtrusive. However, it strengthens the communion of saints, gives call to worshippers to contemplate the eternal, and
solidly demarcates the sacred space of the altar from the rest of the church. The iconostasis does this in a way that invites and yet firmly reminds us of the reverence needed for holy things and holy spaces. The
reverence for sacred space has been lost in Western Christianity with devastating consequences for those who are not Orthodox.


After the Orthodox victory over iconoclasm, the iconostasis began its centuries-long development. As the faithful brought their own icons to hang on the wall or lattice screen that separated the sanctuary from the rest of the church, they would gradually fill the wall, row by row. Slowly, the rows of icons took on an organized form, giving meaning to the place of each icon on the iconstasis. It is not until the middle ages in Russia that we find the completed development of the iconostasis in it’s classical form. From there it slowly spread to the rest of the Orthodox world. Historically, the placing of icons in the sacred spaces of churches is a movement that was begun and continued by the Orthodox faithful, not something forced on the faithful by the Church. Indeed, the placing of sacred images in sacred spaces dates back to the Old Testament.


Though the presence of images in sacred spaces dates back to the Old Testament, the veneration of icons was not always easily accepted by all Christians. By the eighth century, an iconoclast controversy began, which would plague the church for the better part of a century. The iconoclasts opposed the use of holy images based, in part, on the second commandment, but also on the belief that the spiritual is far superior to the material, and therefore a material image couldn’t possibly be sacred. There were many powerful influences on the iconoclasts, including the Moslems and a number of the Byzantine Emperors. Orthodoxy tends to not define dogmas until it becomes absolutely necessary for the good of the Church to do so. As a result, the responses to iconoclasm were not yet fully developed at the time of the iconoclast outbreak. It took the writings of St. John of Damascus, St. Theodore Studite and an ecumenical council, to solve the problem. In fact, it took two councils to resolve the controversy as the first council agreed with the iconoclasts. Several decades later a second, true council was called to refute the first council. It was only after the second council that iconoclasm began to wane.

Because of the Iconoclastic heresy, the church developed a stronger belief in the veneration of icons and a deeper understanding of why we are able to venerate them. The Sunday of Orthodoxy is celebrated as a reminder of the triumph of Orthodoxy over iconoclasm. Why is iconoclasm such a problematic heresy in the first place? Does it really matter if we have iconostases and icons in our churches? There are many Christian denominations that seem to get along fine without them. And yet, to deny that icons are venerable is to misunderstand the nature of the words “veneration” and “adoration,” to not understand the dual nature of Christ, and to not understand the Old Testament. If you say God alone can be worshipped, you must differentiate between adoration, which can only be given to God and veneration which can be given to holy things. If, however, you argue that we may not venerate holy icons because the spiritual is superior to the material and thus an icon made of wood and paint cannot be sacred, then you must remember that the uncircumscribed Son of God took on human flesh and in doing so sanctified all matter. To deny this is to deny the Divinity of Christ and the incarnation. Denial of the incarnation is a denial of the very basis of Christianity itself. Finally, to argue that having icons of the saints in our churches misplaces our emphasis is to forget that the whole reason we honor the saints: They bore witness to Christ. St. Nicholas takes a prominent place on the iconostasis not because of who St. Nicholas was, but rather because of the extreme witness he bore to Christ. When we honor St. Nicholas, we are really honoring Christ. Thus iconoclasm ends up denying Christ.


The fact that the Old Testament supports the use of iconography is often overlooked. Many non-Orthodox theologians and ministers see the Old Testament as being iconoclast. The third commandment declares that man is not to make graven images of creation and fall down before them. The book of Exodus also tells man that he can make no image of God, for man has never seen the Father. However, a deeper study of the Old Testament will reveal, contrary to the iconoclast claims, that the Old Testament commands man to make a beautiful temple in which to worship God. God did in fact command man to make images to be placed on the Ark of the Covenant and in the Temple, which was built by Solomon. Two cherubim, each ten cubits high, were placed in the inner sanctuary of the temple, each overlaid with gold and both the inner and outer sanctuaries of the temple were carved with palm trees, flowers and cherubim (1 Kings 6:23-35). Exodus, chapters 35-37, discusses the intricate detail put into the construction of the Ark of the Covenant, including the two gold cherubim which sat on top of the ark. These things were done in order to facilitate the adoration of the then unseen God by the Israelites. They could not make images of the face of Christ, for the Word had not yet become flesh, and yet God still commanded them to make holy images to adorn his temple and his ark. The Old Testament is not iconoclast, it simply insists that adoration be given to God alone and that veneration be given only to those sacred things which God ordained.


Just as the law changed because of the Incarnation, so did the scope of the second commandment change: “And the WORD was made flesh and dwelt among us.” Before the incarnation it was impossible to depict the Logos in images as God is an incorporeal spirit and the Son had yet to take on human flesh. To make an image of the invisible God is idolatry and the worship of a graven image. With the incarnation, matter is no longer corrupt by nature, as the invisible God had taken on human flesh and had redeemed creation. If the incarnation was not proof enough of this, Christ proved this to us again at the Transfiguration when he gave the Apostles a glimpse of his Heavenly glory while still in his human flesh. Christ further showed the change in scope of the second commandment when He pressed the Holy Napkin to His face and sent it to King Abgar of Edyssa with His image imprinted on it. Upon seeing the Holy Napkin and having faith, Abgar was cured of his leprosy. These are not the actions of a God who is offended by the veneration of Holy Images, but rather works out our salvation, in part, through the veneration of Holy Images


The early Church knew and understood these events for what they were meant to be. The Fathers and the councils also had much to say about the use of iconography in Orthodox Churches. The earliest Christian defense of iconography was that of the icons use as a teaching tool. Through different periods in the history of the Church, people have not always been educated and literate. Thus a church full of icons served as a method to teach the Gospel to the masses. The images of the saints and feasts were preferential to the plain cross because with their colors the icons effectively communicated to the masses what was otherwise unreadable. However, these arguments did not hold any weight with the iconoclasts and so the Seventh Ecumenical Council, Nicea II, was called in 787 to answer the iconoclast charges and put a theological end to the heresy by outlining the reasons why icon veneration is possible and commendable. Its decisions were not fully put into place, however, until 843 when the Empress Theodora took power and restored the proper veneration of icons. The Council took seriously the charges of the iconoclasts because the iconoclasts saw all matter as corrupt and wanted a religion free of all material things. The fathers of the Council saw the denial of the sanctity of matter as a denial of the Incarnation of Christ, which echoed earlier debates over the nature of Christ’s person. Thus the eventual Triumph of Orthodoxy was not merely a triumph of sacred images over those who opposed them, but a further profession of the Incarnation of Christ and the salvation of all creation.


Among the Church Fathers, Sts. John of Damascus and Theodore the Studite were the most vocal in their defense and support of icon veneration. St. John wrote in the late seventh and early eighth centuries and discussed in several treatises the nature of adoration versus the nature of veneration. He used Platonic philosophy to discuss the nature of type and prototype and explained that veneration shown to the prototype is passed on to the type. Thus this veneration is not idolatry. Further, St. John discussed the nature of the Incarnation in regard to the Second Commandment. St. John’s conclusion was that if salvation could come through the Holy Mountain of Calvary and the Cross, and if we were instructed in the Old Testament to give honor to the holy things, and we give honor to the Gospel book and the Chalice, then it is proper and just to give honor to icons. “Either do away with the veneration and worship due to all these things, or submit to the tradition of the Church in worship of images, honoring God and his friends and following in this the grace of the Holy Spirit.” (St. John of Damascus, On Holy Images, pp 10-17). St. Theodore the Studite wrote in the ninth century and further explored the veneration of the icon in Orthodox worship. St. Theodore was the abbot of a monastery and spent a great deal of his work reviewing the earlier arguments regarding iconography and explaining them in further detail. In three, treatises St. Theodore argued that if Christ truly had a human nature then he must be able to be portrayed like any other human being. In the view of St. Theodore, to deny this truth is a serious error which alienates oneself from God as much as any other heresy.

As mentioned earlier, one of the practical reasons for the use of icons in Orthodox life are as a teaching tool. As a window into Heaven, the icon allows us a physical means to gaze upon eternity. In doing this, icons are a physical reminder of the communion of Saints. Icons remind us of the saving work of the Holy Spirit in the scriptures and of the presence of our brothers and sisters, the saints, and the whole of the Heavenly host each time we pray at liturgy. The colors in the icons, the various clothing styles, the scenes in the festal icons, the icons of the cherubim and seraphim and those of the Theotokos all serve to teach Orthodox Christians about different aspects of their faith. The church understands that we forget those things that we are not constantly reminded of. In seeing the various icons on a regular basis, Orthodox Christians become comfortable with them and begin to recognize the importance of them in the role of our salvation. In this role of education, the uniform style of iconography does much to assist with its teaching function. Western Christianity has many, many different styles in its art and it is often very difficult to know who the subject of a painting or sculpture is without looking at the artist’s inscription. I remember an experience in Roman Seminary where we spent a large amount of time contemplating a painting. After a long debate, we finally realized the scene was a depiction of the Wisdom of Solomon. This would not have been the case with an icon of the Wisdom of Solomon because of the uniform style of the icon. An icon of the Wisdom of Solomon would appear similar no matter if it were written in 15th C Novgorod or 21st C America.


Orthodox Churches are full of icons in order to form a bridge between the spiritual world and the faithful. Attending liturgy every Sunday, the icons become very familiar, and in doing so they teach us, comfort us and help us keep our minds focused on the liturgy itself. This familiarity helps establish an ease with praying before the icons and allows the Orthodox Christian’s mind to be brought to the eternal every time he sees an icon. It also serves to remind the faithful of the presence of the angels and saints at the liturgy and remind us that we are not praying on our own but rather in communion with the entire Kingdom of God.

While there are a lot of scriptural and patristic reasons for having icons, the practical reason for having icons in our churches is the teaching function which they serve as. Orthodoxy refers to as icons as “Windows into Heaven” because icons form a bridge between the spiritual world and the faithful. I often think the term “Windows into Heaven” is lacking though, because it implies that we are simply looking into Heaven, as if this were a one way stagnant process. I have thought about saying the icon was similar to a two way radio but that implies that we are communicating with Heaven from a far distance, which is not the case. The icon is much more like a love letter or better yet a face to face conversation with God himself. When done properly, the prayer before the icon becomes dynamic, even transforming. As we pray in front of icons we are taught about the saint or feast they represent, but in a much deeper way we are quietly called to a closer communion with God and all that is eternal. The philosopher Peter Kreeft once said that orthodoxy begets orthopraxis and orthopraxis begets orthodoxy. If we believe correctly we will begin to live correctly and if we live correctly it will teach us to believe correctly. I remember a time at a workshop when I prayed in front of the icon of the Trinity for hours and slowly the icon started to speak to me about the love of each person of the Trinity for each other. The process of icon painting will over the life of the iconographer bring about a serious movement to deeper holiness. Likewise, a lifetime of devout and frequent prayer in front of holy icons will do the same for the Orthodox faithful. Everything about the icon is there to teach us about Christianity and make us more comfortable with it. The colors in the icons, the various different clothing styles, the scenes in the festal icons, the icons of the cherubim and seraphim and those of the Theotokus all serve to teach Orthodox Christians about different aspects of their faith. The church understands that we tend to forget those things which we are not constantly reminded of. In seeing the various icons on a regular basis Orthodox Christians become comfortable with them and begin to recognize the importance of them in the role of our salvation. In this role of education, the uniform style of iconography does much to assist with its teaching function.

The Incarnation of Christ and thus the sanctification of matter made the use of icons in Christian worship possible. Our faith and worship have been enriched by the visual and tactile presence of Christ and the individuals who have pointed to Christ and the Trinity throughout the age. We have learned the history and traditions at the knees of these sainted ones through even the details of color and dress. We should not be ashamed of these love letters, but rather embrace them with the encouragement of Holy Scripture. When done properly, the prayer before the icon becomes dynamic, even transforming. As we pray in front of icons, we are taught about the saint or feast they represent, but in a much deeper way we are quietly called to a closer communion with God and all that is eternal. It is this call to communion with God which is the very essence of why Orthodox Churches are full of icons.

Copyright 2005 Michael Goltz.