2. THE HOLY ICONS
The icons of the Almighty and of the Holy Mother Theotokos - which we spoke of previously - are not the only ones portrayed in holy temples. They are accompanied by a multitude of other icons, which, depending on the style of portrayal, are found in mosaics, in murals and in portable icons. They portray the forms of the apostles and high priests, saints and martyrs of the faith, scenes from the life and the miracles of the Lord, the life of the Holy Mother, and in general they portray the life and tradition of the Church.
The use of icons appeared during the apostolic era and is as old as the preaching of the gospel. From that time onward, their propagation increased rapidly. This has been verified by historical and archaeological finds, directly or indirectly; the historian Eusebios of Caesaria (dec. 339) writes in his Ecclesiastic History that he had seen icons of the Saviour Christ and the apostles Peter and Paul, which had been preserved to his day. He even mentions a bronze statue of the Lord (it bore His icon on its base), which had been erected in Paneas of Palestine (Philip's Caesaria) by the hemorrhaging woman mentioned in the Gospel, as her token of gratitude for being cured by the Lord (Ecclesiastic History, 7, 18,1-4).
The statue and the icons witnessed by Eusebios did not survive. Statues did not prevail in the Eastern Church. Wherever they are encountered -exceptionally- it is only as representations in bas-relief, which was acceptable by the Church. However, despite the polemics by anti-iconers (we shall refer to them, later on), icons asserted themselves in Church worship, and their presence strengthened and nurtured the piety of the faithful.
It is exactly because icons related to divine worship and the people's piety, that they followed the life and the tradition of the Church; depending on the potential and the media of expression during the passage of time, they were the means of an expressive portrayal of the Church's teachings.
Thus, during the years of persecution, iconography used symbols and allegories in order to teach the faithful, with simplified representations. In catacombs one can see symbolic presentations of biblical scenes, depicted in a simple manner. Among the first are: the sheep and the good shepherd, the fish, Orpheus, the grapevine (all symbols of Christ). Then there are other symbols, such as: the anchor, the laurel bush, the dove, peacocks, deer, etc. In the secondary ones, i.e., the biblical scenes, we find themes from both the Old and the New Testaments: the ark, Daniel among the lions, Moses striking the rock, Lazarus' resurrection, events of magisterial feasts, the Cross, the Beseechers, Christ's monograms ? , the A and the W etc.
Under Constantine the Great, the Church gains its independence. The faithful multiply, and new demands arise. The truths of the Faith seek new ways of being expressed. Symbols and allegoric presentations no longer satisfy. Thus, during the 4 th and 5 th centuries, the biblical scenes that were now being spread over the interior walls of churches, portrayed in a more vivid way the events attributed to divine providence, and gave a meaning to most of the major feasts that were instituted in remembrance of those events.
In view of the fact that heresies appeared during those centuries, and that attempts were made to pollute the Christian faith and to demote it to the level of a pagan religion, certain icons served the following purpose of the Church: they shielded the faithful from heretics' attacks, by acting as reminders of the Church's dogmas.
Thus, the letters A (Alpha) and W (Omega) during the catacomb years symbolized the eternity and the divinity of the Lord (Revelation 22, 13: " I am the A and the W , the first and the last, the beginning and the end "). By placing them on either side of the Saviour's image, they proclaim that the Son is consubstantial with God the Father, and is not a creation of God the Father, who came into being at a specific point in time, as the leading heretic Areios had asserted in those days. These two letters are indicative of the dogma pertaining to the consubstantial, as defined during the First Ecumenical Council in 325 A.D.. This same dogmatic truth is stated by the words « Ο W Ν » ("He Who Is" - this is the name of God - as revealed by God Himself to Moses - and it is these three Greek letters that are inscribed on the three points of the Lord's halo). It is likewise stated by the abbreviated form of Christ's name ( IC XC - Christ, the Anointed) that is written on the upper part of the icon.
When, in 431 A.D., the Third Ecumenical Council in Ephesus condemned Nestorius who had disavowed the title of "Theotokos" (God-Bearer) that was bestowed by the Church on the Holy Mother, again orthodox hagiography came to the aid of the Church. Its service was to thereafter advertise what the Church believed with regard to the person of the Theotokos. Just as we portray Christ's image after His incarnation, " in the same way do we depict the image of the Theotokos, evidencing that, albeit a woman by nature, and not alienated from our own breed, she conceived in her womb the invisible God " (Third Ecumenical Council).
It was mentioned above, that the Theotokos is portrayed in the conch overlooking the Holy Altar (as the "Platytera"). She is in fact the "heavenward ladder by which God descended to earth".
This mural declares that the Holy Mother gave birth, not to Christ the human - which was the Nestorian assertion - but to the incarnated Logos of God. In order for the depiction to stress this truth more emphatically, Christ is not portrayed as an infant, albeit the Holy Mother is holding Him to her bosom. The Lord is not depicted as an infant, because He is Emmanuel, ( the name is interpreted to mean "God is amongst us" ); He is the Human God. The Lord is the head, Who has no head above Him; He is the Logos who became incarnate; the incarnate God, according to the Christmas feast psalms.
Furthermore, the three stars that normally adorn the Holy Mother's robe - one above her brow, and one on each shoulder - symbolize her ever-virginal status, which certain heretics do not acknowledge. The Mother of God is ever-virginal; that is, she was a virgin before, during, and after the birth of her Son ( pic.No.3 ).
The place of the Holy Mother in the Church and the worship of her person are well known. Portraits of the Holy Mother holding her Son or positioned next to Him, are of essence; it has been beautifully observed, that " Jesus Christ is the Head of the Church, however, the Holy Mother is its heart " (Mark Siotis, academic).
In order to appreciate the place of icons in the Orthodox Church, we must necessarily refer back to the anti-icon ("Iconomachy") period, during which the issue of holy icons had been brought up.