Eyes of Compassion

An icon is a pictorial replication and a spiritual representation of a saint, biblical scene or historical religious event. A held object, a style of dress, a color or scene in the background is duplicated so the identity is instantly recognizable, despite barriers of language, distance and time. The word is derived from the Greek "eikon", which means to resemble. The icon seeks to reveal the divine through visible and familiar content. In this sense, the icon has been called "a meeting between heaven and earth". For through them we receive a vision of the spiritual world. The stylized character of the icon shows man and nature restored to their original beauty as reflections of the celestial glory. Icons have played a role in Christianity since the days of the Apostles. St. Luke has traditionally been known as the first iconographer. An art form that has resisted change, modern icons have evolved very little. Today they still bear a strong resemblance to icons of the Byzantine period.

The word icon is used in the Old Testament where it says, “Then God said, let us make man in our image ..., so God created man in His own image, in the image of God he created” [Genesis 1:26-27]. This word is also used in the New Testament in the Epistle of St. Paul to the Colossians, “He is the image of the invisible God” [Col 1:15].

Religious paintings are not necessarily icons. The icon must tell the story of the life of the saint, if a martyr, they are covered with a red robe indicating the blood that was shed, if Virgin Mary she must be in white or royal blue representing her purity and ever virginity. When depicted with Christ, Virgin Mary must be on the right hand side (Christ’s right hand side our left) to fulfil the psalmist prophecy about her… “At your right hand stands the queen in gold.” When depicting the holy family at the birth or fleeing to Egypt, Joseph must be represented as an aged man, depicting the reality of their relationship. St John the Baptist must be depicted at the baptism of Christ. Archangels must not have belly buttons.

The veneration of the icon should not be misinterpreted as being made to the physical picture itself. These gestures pass over from the icon to the person depicted, thus the honor, which is given to, the icon, passes over to the “prototype”, the person himself. In Orthodox tradition, icons are not intended to be realistic paintings of people and events, but rather are symbolic interpretations of the great spiritual qualities of the saints - such as sacrifice, humility, devotion, faith and love. Every element and detail in the icon, from color choice to hand position to the placement and size of secondary figures, has symbolic meaning based upon the Scriptures, the writings of the Fathers, and other theological sources. Thus the Holy Icons are one more piece of that which the Church calls Holy Tradition. They are truly the Gospel message in line, form and color.

Historians date the appearance of the iconographic style to the first three centuries of Christianity. Some archaeologists believe that icons were first popular in people’s houses and later began to appear in places of worship, probably at the end of the 3rd century. By the 4th and 5th centuries A.D. their use was widespread. The idea behind the use of icons in the Early Church is due to the unique experience the Church faced. Most Christians converts came from pagan cultures and most of them were illiterate. Many of them had difficulty understanding Biblical teachings and their spiritual meanings, as well as the historical events that took place in the Bible and in the life of the Church. Therefore, the leaders of the Early Church permitted the use of religious pictures (icons) because the people were not able to assimilate Christianity and its doctrine unaided by visual means. Therefore, these presentations aided the faithful in understanding the new religion and, at same time, illustrated it. With the conversion of the Emperor Constantine (307-337 A.D.) to Christianity, the situation changed radically. The Emperor hastened the triumph of Christianity over paganism by forbidding idolatry. The statues of the pagan gods were removed from the capital. Icons were used to decorate churches and state buildings.

With the spread of icons in the centuries after the Emperor Constantine, Christians began to use icons in ways that were never intended, becoming more concerned with the art itself rather than as a tool for prayer or Christian instruction. Icons were never meant to be worshiped or venerated as something holy in themselves. The reverence shown to an icon must be done with the understanding that it is not the icon or artwork itself we are respecting, but rather the person or event it portrays. An icon is meant to be a window into the spiritual world, used to help us contemplate spiritual matters or to put us into a prayerful frame of mind, as a reminder of events in the Bible, the life of Christ and the Saints, but never as an object of worship.

A movement arose in the 8th century opting for the elimination of icons from churches on the grounds that they were being worshiped as graven images. They based their ideas on the Biblical verse, “Thou should not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in the earth beneath, or that in the water under the earth, thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them” [Exodus 20:4-5]. Destruction of many icons during this period, which is known as the Iconoclast (icons-destruction) controversy. It is interesting to note that during the reign of Emperor Leo III in the 8th century, the Iconoclast Controversy began and became a serious conflict in the Church. This coincided with the Moslem invasions of Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Persia. The Christian holy places in Jerusalem fell into Moslem hands. During this conflict the two most prominent theologians who stood to defend the use of icons in the Church were St. John of Damascus (675-749 A.D.) and St. Theodore of Studios (759-826 A.D.) at the 7th Ecumenical Council of the Eastern Orthodox Church in 787 A.D.

Although Christianity prohibited the worship of idols, the use of icons in the proper way was not banned due to the reasons mentioned before. History relates that the use of icons in the Church has its Christian roots from the time of Christ. There is a number of historical documents for these.

First, it is known that the Evangelist Luke was a talented painter as well as a physician. He painted an icon presenting the Virgin Mary holding the Child Jesus, which many churches all over the world later on copied.

Therefore, an icon can be used in the service of the Gospel and the Holy Tradition of the Church, not a mere artistic device. Icons are windows into heaven. A believer meditates on the person whose portrait is on the icon. In this way an icon may play a role in enhancing the spiritual life of the believer through the imitation of the life of the person in the icon. An icon is not merely a piece of art, but it carries a lot of spiritual meaning.

The art of making Orthodox icons follow certain symbolism that carries a meaningful message. Some of these characteristics are: First, large and wide eyes symbolize the spiritual eye that look beyond the material world, the Bible says “the light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be simple, thy whole body shall be full of light” [Matthew 6:22]. Second, large ears listen to the word of God; “if any man have ears to hear, let them hear” [Mark 4:23]. Third, gentle lips to glorify and praise the Lord “My mouth shall praise thee with joyful lips” [Psalm 63:5]. The eyes and ears on a figure in an icon are disproportionately large, because a spiritual person spends more time listening to God’s word and seeking to do God’s will. On the other hand, the mouth, which can also be often, be the source of empty or harmful words is small. The nose, which is seen a sensual is also small. Also, when an evil character is portrayed on an icon, it is always in profile because it is not desirable to make eye contact with such a person and thus to dwell or meditate upon it. Figures in icons often have large heads, meaning that these are individuals devoted to contemplation and prayer.

Icon artists deeply understood the meaning and benefit of icons on the spiritual life of the believers. It is interesting to note that the majority of the icons’ artists did not sign their names. They were not looking or self-glorification and fame, even the few who signed their names did so in the form of a prayer; such as “Remember O Lord your servant (name)”.

Some icons portray Saints who suffered and were tortured for their faith with peaceful and smiling faces, showing that their inner peace was not disturbed, even by the hardships they endured, and suffered willing fully and joyfully for the Lord. Although the artistic style of iconography varies a little from one culture to another, all Orthodox icons have the same meaning, usage and symbolism (this includes the Eastern Orthodox Churches; Greek, Russian, Serbian, Bulgarian, ... etc, as well a the Oriental Orthodox Churches; Armenian, Syrian, Ethiopian, ... etc).