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Byzantine Iconography

The orthodox icon as a place and way of multiple encounters

On the Divine Images I.16-17

Orthodox Art and Architecture

The honor and veneration of the holy icons

Byzantine Athens



Christos Krikonis, Professor of the Theological School of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

The basic and essential characteristic of the Orthodox Church is the use, honor and veneration of the holy icons of Jesus Christ, the Theotokos and the Saints because through them both its secular and numinous character is expressed. This is the reality that the church fathers, who named the first Sunday of Lent "Sunday of the Orthodoxy", wanted to stress. This Sunday celebrates the decision taken in 843 about the restoration of the holy icons according to the decision of the 7 th Ecumenical Council.

There are various reasons, of course, that impose and stress the need for the honor and veneration of the holy icons.

The first one is related to the need of the faithful to apply their minds and focus their souls to the receivers of their prayers, supplications and invocations, as well as their hymns and thanks, that is, the portrayed Saints. When praying in front of the holy icons, the faithful acquire a state of spiritual rest by seeing the specific forms of the portrayed Saints, even, as Apostle Paul says, "in a mirror and in enigma"; they feel, thus, the presence of the Saints in intercession and deputation to God and trust them in their supplications and the requests in their prayers.

The second essential reason is the great instructive value of the holy icons due to their positions in the churches and divine worship. All Christians are taught through the icons how much God and his Church reward all the people who stayed on the earth faithful to His will and became worthy of the death on the Cross and the salvific acts of Jesus Christ. This reward is mainly expressed with the Saints' halo in the icons.

The third reason is the multilateral holiness of the holy icons which arises from various factors, the most important amongst which are: the position of the holy icons in the churches and divine worship, the theological teaching of the Church that the honor and reverence of the holy icons "passes over to the prototype" and the various historical miracles that were attributed to them.

The people praying in front of the icons feel that they are engaged in a live personal dialogue with the portrayed Saints of God. The icon can be paralleled as the God-loving interpreter of this dialogue and the intermediary riveting the attention of the person praying.

This is why the 7 th Ecumenical Council characterized the honour and veneration of the holy icons as "an approved, God loving institution and tradition of the Church, a respectful request and need of its flock."

These icons do not violate, nor divest the indescribable character of the Divinity but simply describe the historical God-man presentation of the presence and life of Jesus Christ on Earth. Given the fact that all the portrayed saints are created "in the image of God", representatives of the one and only Divinity, the holy icons are representations of their spiritual perfection in the world and, according to the words of Basil the Great, "the honour shown to the icon passes over to its prototype."

The first iconoclasts, systematically incited by the accusations of the Judaists that the Christians were idolaters because they venerated and paid honour to the holy icons, exaggerated some deviations and extremities and took advantage of some isolated events carried out by simple, illiterate and sometimes Christian bigots who were prone to exaggerations and extravagances in relation to the honour shown to the holy icons. The Church dealt with these isolated phenomena of occasional extravagances with the orthodox teaching, which was developed for the honour and veneration of the holy icons. This sound teaching had already been formulated by Basil the Great. According to the spirit expressed by the decisions of the 7 th Ecumenical Council, icons teach the equalisation by grace of the portrayed Saints with God due to the holiness of their lives and this is why it is proper to show honour and venerate them. St. John Damascene writes : " the person who refuses to venerate an icon is the enemy of Christ , the Blessed Theotokos and the Saints and is an upholder of the Devil and his demon host showing by his act grief that God and the saints are honoured and glorified and the devil put to shame. The image is a canticle and manifestation and monument to the memory of those who have fought bravely and won the victory to the shame and confusion of the vanquished."

The faithful by "seeing the depictions", that is the icons, "understand and honour the portrayed person". The icon, therefore, is not an end in itself but the means through which the faithful understand and pay tribute to the life of the portrayed saint and in this way they are urged to lead a similar life; this is the honour shown to the depicted saint or martyr.

In conclusion , the similarity , relevant or absolute , between the historical , real form of the prototype and the portrayed one on the icon, is something secondary in the ecclesiastical icons. The primary and main issue is their ability and attribute to make the reference to their prototypes; the inscription, that is the writing of the name of the depicted saint, greatly contributes to this. The form of each portrayed saint does not stem, of course, from the imagination of the painter, but, as Holy Fotius observes "the sacred art of icon painting is a tradition of the Ecumenical and apostolic Church based on its own principles; working according to the sacred institutions, it properly elaborates and presents the forms of the saints and not of the material indecorum or human curiosity. The work of this art receives and impresses on the sacred icons purely and without falsity the forms of the prototypes in a way which is suitable to the sanctity."

According to St. Fotius the icon is "at the same time an archetype" in the form, inclination and the representations of the archetype; but mainly in the deeper theological content, in which the holy grace and blessing of the portrayed saint exist continuously, as in the archetype, and are communicated to the ones who show honour to the prototype and venerate the prototype's icon.

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