Iconography in the Orthodox Church is something most Christians are unfamiliar with and some strongly object to. Some churches have stained glass images of Jesus and perhaps a few biblical characters, or a cross. There are congregations that have a popular tapestry or painting of the Lord. But it is more for decoration rather than to be considered a part of a worship experience. Most Protestants held to the staunch ideal that worship should consist of nothing more than “four bare walls and a sermon.” If Orthodox Christians read the Bible, why do we clearly break the second of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:4-6) by having so many graven images in our churches (and homes)?
Reading Exodus 32:1-6, Aaron and the Israelites acted out of impatience instead of waiting for Moses to return to them with the Lord’s directions on what the symbols of God’s presence should look like. Furthermore, this priest erroneously called the golden calf, “The gods, O Israel, that brought you out of Egypt” and dedicated a feast day to the Lord.
In the midst of their mistaken minds, God was directing Moses to create the Ark of the Covenant with two golden cherubim, which would symbolize the Lord’s presence among His people on the Mercy Seat (Ex. 25:17-22). He also told Moses that the curtains of the Tabernacle were to have artistic images of the cherubim as well (Ex. 26:31). When we make images to worship for ourselves out of impatience, we make idols. When we make images as a part of worship according to faith, the images are symbols of God’s holiness and presence.
The use of holy images became a part of Christian worship almost immediately. According to tradition, the Evangelist Luke painted (wrote) the first icon and it was approved by the Virgin Mary. For over 600 years, no one raised any opposition to their use in the church buildings, homes, or even public places. A wide variety of images of Christ and saints could be seen anywhere where Christians lived. When the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire began to lose battles to Islamic armies, the emperor feared that it was because Christians had angered God by worshiping icons as graven images. This was the beginning of the iconoclast movement where Christian holy images were destroyed.
In the Seventh Ecumenical Council of 787 AD, Church leaders gathered to study the issue and rule if it were fit for icons to be used in Christian worship. Led by the monk John from Damascus (a city controlled by iconoclastic Muslims) they decided that Christians should have icons as a part of worship. Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. As He was fully human, he could be depicted by paintings. No one saw the face of God in Judaism nor was it possible to paint the Holy Spirit as a man. But, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John1:14). The paint and wood of the icon has no holiness in themselves. However, the icon has a deeper meaning than the material elements. We reverence not the icon as it’s self as a god. We revere the God whom the holy image represents. We honor the saintly men and women who lived exemplary lives in the Christian faith.
The author of Hebrews reminds us that we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” (12:1). Christ, Mary, and the saints are in the icons in an Orthodox Church. They are also in the homes of believers, like myself, in a corner that we devote to prayer and worship. Modern society gives us millions of images of entertainment, information, propaganda, and temptation driven by technology that keeps them in motion and forces us to think and decide one way or the other in a split second. Orthodox Christianity offers windows to heaven, simple images of holiness that call us to stillness and the presence of God.