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An Orthodox Handbook

by Fr. Anthony Alevizopoulos


Chapter 23 - The Holy Icons

1. The prohibition by the Old Testament

It is well known that in the Old Testament the fashioning and worship of idols is strictly forbidden:

«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 these verses?

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 the sky.", as the Old Testament characteristically underlines  (1 Chron.16:26).

"...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" (’eh-yeh אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה ’ă-šer  אֲשֶׁ֣ר ’eh-yeh אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה ) which is related to the verb ’eh-yeh, which means «I am», «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…" (Deut.6:3-15).

"Be ashamed with shame, you who trust in the graven images, who say to the cast images: “You are our gods"." (Isaiah 42:17).

"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).


2. 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 etc.)

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.


3. 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 icons!

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).


4. 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 (Rom.8:29; cmp.Phil.3:21).

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 Pet.3:13; Revel.21:5).

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.


5. 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 (Exod.34:30).

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).


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Article published in English on: 20-12-2013.

Last update: 20-12-2013.