It is well known that in
the Old Testament the fashioning and worship of idols is
«You shall not make
for yourself an idol or likeness of anything whatever is
in heaven above and whatever is in the earth beneath and
whatever is in the waters beneath the earth. You shall
not do obeisance to them, nor are you to serve them, for
I am the Lord your God..." (Exod.20:4-5).
You shall not
follow after idols, and you shall not make gods of cast
metal for yourselves; I am the Lord your God." (Levit.19:4).
"I am the Lord your
God. You shall make for yourselves nothing made by hand
nor carved, neither erect a stele of your own, nor shall
you place a stone as a landmark in your land, to do
obeisance to it; it is I who am the Lord your God" (Levit.26:1).
How must we interpret
Some heterodox distinguish
between the first segment of the verses and the second,
and thus misinterpret them. Nevertheless, it is
obvious that the weightiest point of significance is
precisely in the words: "it is I, who am the
Lord your God"
In other words, these
verses wish to state that the only true God is the God
of Israel, and not the false gods of the Gentiles: "...because
all the gods of the nations are idols, but our God made
as the Old Testament characteristically underlines (1
"...because all the
gods of the nations are demons, but the Lord made the
heavens." (Psalms 95,5).
"Thus says God, the
king of Israel who delivered him, God Sabaoth: I am
first and I am after these things; except for me, there
is no God." (Isaiah 44:6).
After a statement such as
this, it was impossible for the Israelites to
manufacture and worship the gods of the Gentiles: "You
shall not do obeisance to their gods nor serve them. You
shall not act according to their practices, but with
demolition shall demolish and by smashing shall smash
their (idol) steles.
And you shall serve the Lord your God, and I will bless
your bread and your wine and your water, and I will turn
away sickness from you."
as characteristically stressed in the Holy Bible (Exod.23:24-25).
Any transgression of this
commandment had very severe consequences for the entire
Israelite nation (3 Kings 9:6-7) and it was considered a
crime punishable by death (Exod.22:20; Deut.17:2-7),
even for those who would prompt another person into this
kind of worship (Deut.13:6-11).
Worship of the one and
only true God leaves no margins for other gods and cast
idols (3 Kings 9:6-9; 14:9-10; Joshua 23:15-16; 1 Kings 7:3,
8:8; Jerem.1:16, 2:27; Malach.2:11).
The God of Israel is
"zealous" - that is, the one and only. "They made
me zealous with what is no god, provoked me with their
idols" - that is, they were the cause of My
becoming zealous, because they worshipped a nonexistent
god; they aggravated Me to anger, because they
worshipped idols (Deut.32:21. Cmp. Exod.20:5; 34:14;
Deut.4:24; 5:9; 6:15).
This uniqueness of God is
also stated by His name, which God Himself had given to
Moses: "I am the One Who Is" (Exod.3:14). In the Hebrew
text there is the phrase "I Am He Who Is"
) which is related
to the verb
’eh-yeh, which means «I
«I exist», «I become», «I happen».
Hence, this name declares
the absolute existence of God. He is the true
existence, the true life (Jerem.2:13). He is the
One Who brought His people out of Egypt and to Him
belongs glory and worship. He is the one and only God.
All the other "gods" are in actual fact "not gods"
(Deut.32:21; 1 Kings 12:21; 19:18. 2 Chron.13:9; Jerem.2:11; 5:7);
in other words, nonexistent. They must not be glorified,
nor be worshipped. "I am the Lord God
(Jahwe); this is my name; my
glory I will not give to another, nor my praises to the
graven images" God had said to the Prophet
Elijah (Isaiah 42:8)
In spite of all the
extremely strict measures, the danger of idolatry (for a
nation that was surrounded by idolaters) is surprisingly
a big one. We must not forget that Israel had often
fallen into apostasy, had fashioned idols and worshipped
them instead of the true God. Examples of such
apostasies are described in the Old Testament (Exod.32:4-5;
3 Kings 12:28; Judges 2:13, 3:6,
4:1, 10:16; 1 Macc.1:15 e.a.) and in particular by the Prophets, who had
forewarned about terrible punishments as a consequence
of such an apostasy (ref.Hos.2:7-15; Isaiah 40:10-20,
46:1-7; Jerem.2:5-13, 27:28, 10:1-16, 16:20 e.a.).
This is the reason it was
imperative to be reminded each time of the danger, and
the duty to worship the one and only God be underlined:
"3Now hear, O Israel, and be watchful to perform
so that it may be well with you and that you may
multiply greatly, just as the Lord, the God of your
fathers, has spoken, to give you a land flowing with
milk and honey. 4 And these are the statutes and the
judgments, which the Lord commanded to the sons of
Israel in the wilderness as they were coming out from
the land of Egypt. Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is
one Lord. 5And you shall love the Lord your God with the
whole of your mind and with the whole of your soul and
with the whole of your power. 6And these words that I
command you today shall be in your heart and in your
soul. 7And you shall teach them to your sons and talk on
them while sitting at home and going on the road and
lying down and rising up. 8And you shall bind them as a
sign on your hand, and they shall be things unshakable
before your eyes, 9and you shall write them on the
doorposts of your houses and of your gates. 10 And it
shall be, whenever the Lord your God brings you into the
land that he swore to your fathers, to Abraam and Isaak
and Iakob, to give you large and fine cities that you
did not build, 11houses full of all sorts of goods that
you did not fill, dug cisterns that you did not dig out,
vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant. And
when you eat and become full, 12take care for yourself,
lest you forget the Lord your God, who brought you out
of the land of Egypt, out of a house of slavery.
13The Lord your God you shall
fear, and him you shall serve, and to him you shall
cling, and by his name you shall swear. 14Do not go
after other gods from the gods of the nations around
you, 15because the Lord your God, who is present with
you, is a jealous god. Lest the Lord your God, being
angered with wrath against you, destroy you utterly from
the face of the earth…"
"Be ashamed with
shame, you who trust in the graven images, who say to
the cast images: “You are our gods"."
"20 Instead, as a
woman is faithless toward her mate, so the house of
Israel was faithless toward me, says the Lord. 21 From
lips was heard a voice of weeping and of pleading of
Israel’s sons, because they did wrong in their ways,
they forgot their holy God. 22 Return, o sons who are
given to turning, and I will heal your fractures. “We
here will be yours, because you are the Lord, our God.
23 Truly the hills and the power of the mountains were a
delusion, but through the Lord, our God, is the
salvation of Israel"." (Jerem.3:20-23).
The venerated objects in the Old Testament
In spite of the above,
there did also exist in the Old Testament certain
objects that were manufactured on God's command, upon
which the Israelites bestowed honour. It is in the
written word of God (Exod.34:1). They are various
"likenesses", for whose manufacture God had given very
specific instructions: The Ark of the Covenant
(Exod.25:9-21), the table of offerings (Exod.25:22-29),
the sacrificial altar (Exod.27:1-8; 30; 1-10), the
bronze washbasin (Exod.30:17-21), the tent of witness
(Exod.26:1-37) and other items (cmp. also Exod.35:11
However, that which is
most impressive is God's instruction for the manufacture
of various other "likenesses": of angels, of animals, of
plants, and in fact likenesses intended for a space of
worship. Thus, we notice that upon God's instructions,
two Cherubim with open wings spread above the
Propitiatory are fashioned (Exod.25:17-19; cmp.
Hebr.9:5), as well as two more giant Cherubim, that were
placed in the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Solomon (3
Kings 6:23-28; cmp. 2 Chron.3:10-12, 5:8; Ezek.9:3, 10:2
etc.). Also fashioned were various other
representations, such as the bronze likenesses of 12
oxen (3 Kings 7:13), carved representations of lions and
other bas-relief representations
(3 Kings 7:16, 22, 28, 30; 2 Chron.4:3 etc.).
All of the aforementioned
prove to us that with His command "you shall never make
for yourself any
idol or image", God does not forbid the use of
objects that are intended for worship. Idols are
forbidden, but not the symbols and objects used during
worship, to which one does not bestow worship or
honour per se; that is, if they are entirely independent
of any association with the living God. Our worship
belongs to Him alone.
"Be ashamed with
shame, you who trust in the graven images, who say to
the cast images,“You are our gods.”" (Isaiah 42:17).
Photograph of the Judean
Synagogue in Dura Europos.
The murals date back to 235 A.D..
It was discovered in 1921.
The Christological basis of Holy Icons
In the Old Testament God
was revealed through His uncreated divine energies, and
especially through the mouths of the Prophets (Acts 3:21;
2 Tim.3:16; 1 Pet.1:10-12; 2 Pet.1:21). However,
during the New Testament period, the Logos of God "became
flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld His glory" (John 1:14).
The Father Himself was revealed to mankind, through the
Person of the Son (John 14:9) and thence embarked on a
personal relationship with us. This is why we can now
depict God, in the Person of Christ.
"In older times", Saint
John of Damascus tells us, "God could not be depicted at
all, because He had not received a body or a form.
But now that God revealed Himself with flesh and
associated with humans, I can depict whatever I can see
of God: Him, who became matter and condescended to dwell
within matter. And I shall never cease to respect
matter, by which my salvation was accomplished."
What we do depict,
however, is not Christ's divine nature, but - as Saint
Theodore the Studite says - His hypostasis, the fact of
Christ's Person, Who is the "image of the
invisible God" (Colos.1:15; 1 Cor.4:4;
Wisd.Solom.7:26). Accordingly, the image is a visible
sign of God's invisible presence, verifying that very
presence among people (cmp. John 14:9). The veneration,
therefore, of images (icons) hinges on the most basic
and salvific dogma of our faith: the incarnation of
Christ and His actual presence among us. By believing in
the actual incarnation of Christ and His presence as a
human, we also proclaim this fact, by venerating icons.
An icon constitutes a
confession of faith in the God-human status of Christ,
and directs us to the original: to Christ Himself. At
the same time however, an icon also expresses man's
profound inner desire to reach the height of the
God-human Christ and is an excellent motive for man's
inner turnabout towards the God-man Jesus.
The aforementioned help
us to better understand the immense danger that one can
encounter when denying the veneration of Holy icons. It
is the danger of denial of Christ's incarnation as well
as the entire event of Divine Providence. For that
person, who denies the depiction of Him who "dwelt
among us" and Whose "glory we have seen"
(John 1:14), the Church - the Body of Christ - ceases to
have a God-human character and consequently is unable to
offer salvation to mankind. The denial therefore
of icons - which are the visible and palpable witness of
the incarnation of Christ and of the fact of man's
salvation within His Body - has catastrophic
consequences for mankind. This is the reason that our
Church relates the Orthodox Faith to the veneration of
icons and why She names the first Sunday of Great Lent
the "Sunday of Orthodoxy", on which day we celebrate the
restoration of Holy icons. No-one can be called an
Orthodox Christian if they do not honour the Orthodox
But all of the above do
not imply that we Orthodox regard an icon as the per se
subject being depicted on it, and that we worship the
wood and the paints which comprise the image, in place
of God, Who is the original. An icon is a "point of
reference"; it is not the original subject. But,
as Saint John of Damascus mentions, "wherever the point
of reference is, there too is the one being portrayed"
That is the reason we honour the icon, but without
bestowing on it the status of the person being
portrayed. The Saint himself characteristically
mentions that whoever deifies an icon is anathematized.
(cmp. Isaiah 42:17)
This is, after all, the
teaching of our Church, as formulated in the 7th
Ecumenical Council: that is, we afford the icons
"salutations and honorary veneration, but not actual
worship, which is befitting only to the Divine nature."
Whosoever affords worship
to Holy icons and does not intend it for God, he does
not remain faithful to that decision of the Ecumenical
Council and is condemned by the Holy Bible, because he
is worshipping "idols of gold, silver, brass,
stone, and wood, which can neither see nor
hear nor walk (Revel.9:20); "...works
of human hands. A mouth they have and will not speak;
eyes they have and will not see. Ears they have and will
not hear; nostrils they have and will not smell. Hands
they have and will not feel; feet they have and will not
walk about; they will not articulate in their throats.
May those who make them become like them,and
all who trust in them!" (Psalms
113:12-16. Cmp. Psalms 134:15-21).
The icons of the Saints of our Church
The Orthodox Church does
not only venerate the icon of Christ, but also the icons
of the Saints.
In the Old Testament
there is no mention of this matter. Throughout that
entire period, it was not possible to depict the true
nature of man, who was created in accordance with the
image of God. No-one at the time could see the
image of God - man - in all its purity. This was because
all humans had inherited Adam's nature - that is, the
image of God in its fallen and deteriorating state,
wretched and changed...
In order to acquaint
ourselves with how a true human is, in the person of
those who bear the image of God unspoiled, it was
necessary first of all that Christ be incarnated - that
is, He had to "vacate Himself" by taking on a servile
form, and making Himself alike to humans (Phil.2:7); the
"first-born brother" (Rom.8:29,
Coloss.1:18; Psalms 88:28), in order to render them once
again "according to the image of" Himself
The Saints of our Church,
who had responded to God's call, had become "conformant
to the image of the Son"; they donned once again the "image
of the Heavenly one" (1 Cor.15:49) and
thus reflected His glory (2 Cor.3:18).
Therefore, the icons of
the Saints of our Church do not depict the fallen state
of man, but the "new man" (Ephes.2:15, 4:24) and to the
reality of man's entry into the "new aeon" (cmp.Isaiah
65:14-17, 66:22; 2 Pet.3:13; Revel.21:5). Holy
icons refer to the world of God's new creation (2
Cor.5:17; Gal.6:15), the transformation that one cannot
perceive with one's bodily senses. It is the
sanctified world by God's grace, as Saint John of
Damascus says; the witness and the true presence of the
transformed world and the guarantee of its total
transformation according to the promise of the Lord (2
The person who has been "Christified"
reflects - as we mentioned - "the Lord's glory" and is
transformed "into the same image as His, from glory to
glory" - a fact that originates from the sanctifying
power of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor.3:18). That is why
the Saints of our Church were radiant figures even in
this lifetime - except that not all people could
perceive with their senses the glory of the Saints. It
is the holy icons of our Orthodox Church that testify to
that world. Those who do not live the life of the Spirit
within a perpetual Pentecost cannot -of course- perceive
the meaning of Holy icons and discern in them the
metamorphosis of man and of the entire world. This
reality is experienced by the faithful within the
Church, and no-one has the right to deprive their senses
of their participation in a spiritual joy.
"The Apostles had beheld
the Lord with their physical eyes and others had seen
the Apostles, while others also had seen the martyrs",
as Saint John of Damascus characteristically says.
"And I too desire to see them, with the eyes of my soul
and my body... it is because I am a human and am
enveloped by a body that I desire to communicate with
holy things and see them", he adds.
The continuing presence
of Holy icons is an excellent means of communication
with the Saints, who are no longer regarded as
personalities from a distant past, but as our
contemporaries and personal friends of the faithful.
The iconographers of our Church
When planning to draw an
image of Christ or the Most Holy Mother, sacred
iconographers had to previously fast and had to live a
life of intense ascesis, complete dedication and prayer.
That way, they acquired the necessary spiritual
experiences, which they then expressed with colours -
something reminiscent of Moses' revelation:
As we have seen, Moses
remained for forty days and nights on the mountain; he
lived with intense ascesis and with closeness to God
(Exod.24:15-18); then, having been illuminated by the
Uncreated Light of the Triadic Godhead, he descended the
mountain in order to fulfill God's commands
With the above, we can
understand why we cannot call just anyone an
iconographer if they do not have those inner spiritual
experiences; which is why their works are mere paintings
or imitations of sacred icons that were created by
others, who had been guided by the Spirit of God.
On the other hand, the iconographers of our Church were
well aware that the icons were not their own works, but
works of the Holy Spirit. All they did was to lend
their hands. This is why they do not inscribe their
names on Holy icons, but instead, write "by the hand
of......" - in other words, with their hand, which they
had loaned to the Holy Spirit to direct it. They
believed that the grace of God, which restores man's
corroded image, also guides their hand so that it can
depict the restored image of the living God.
They also believed that
the icons that were produced as a result of inner
experiences did not express the states pertaining to
this life, but states of the transformed world. This is
the reason the manner in which the Saints, the animals,
the vegetation and all of creation are portrayed in
icons is not a "natural" one. Holy icons do not
express the "natural" states of this world, but rather
the spiritual experiences of our Church for a
transformed world, which returns to its original
splendor - to the "glorious liberty of the
children of God" (Rom.8:21).