There is a renewed interest and appreciation of iconography among Byzantine Catholics in the United States. It is an encouraging indication of a return to our centuries-old traditions. Our ancestors, accepting Christianity in the Byzantine Rite, also accepted the practice of venerating holy icons. Without them our liturgical worship becomes sorely mutilated and loses a great deal of its solemnity and splendor. Let us then become acquainted with the history, the meaning and the true spirit of the veneration of icons.
1. Strictly speaking , an icon (Gr. eikon-image, picture) is a portable sacred image, painted on a piece of wood according to the style and techniques of Byzantine art. But in its broader sense, as it will be considered here, an icon is any sacred image painted, or otherwise reproduced, for the purpose of veneration. The holy icon should not be considered as an object of art or decoration, but rather as a sacred object, fostering devotion and piety. Through the veneration of icons we should feel closer to God and to things divine.
Icons were used in the first centuries of Christianity, first as an object of decoration or private devotion, and later exposed in Christian churches for public veneration. Apocryphal writings of the second century relate that the icon of the Blessed Mother painted by St. Luke was the first icon.
According to another legend, Jesus himself gave an ” image of His sacred face,” called the Icon Made Without Hands (” Nerukotvorennyj Obraz” ), to the Apostle Thaddeus, who used it for miraculous healing and the conversion of the Chaldean King Abgar of Edessa (cf. Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. I, 13). Although these are only legends, nevertheless they confirm an historical fact that in the East the veneration of icons originated in the SyroPalestinian region, the cradle of Christianity.
It seems that the fi rst icons were of the Holy Martyrs and their deeds which were painted in their oratories, as indicated by the homilies of st. Basil the Great (d. 379) and St. Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394). Only later, some time during the fifth century, were the icons of Jesus Christ and of the Blessed Mother introduced. By the sixth century Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, became a great center of sacred art.
It was in Constantinople that a special style of icon-painting was developed which became known as the Byzantine style, and eventually becoming the pride of Byzantine art.
The golden age of Byzantine art and iconography began in the middle of the ninth century and ended with the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204. Unfortunately, due to the iconoclasm (violent opposition against the veneration of icons and sacred objects) of the eighth and ninth centuries, almost all primitive icons were destroyed. Today, the best collection of holy icons (the 6th-15th centuries) is preserved at the Greek Orthodox monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai , which was built by Emperor Justinian I in the sixth century.
2. The ancestors of the Ruthenians received Christianity at the end of the ninth century when Byzantine art was in its golden age and iconography became a generally understood language in the Byzantine Church.
Byzantine art, reaching various peoples and cultures, necessarily became subject to some changes according to the needs and genius of the particular countries. Thus, throughout the centuries, we can recognize various schools of icon-painting which constitute the national heritage of the given places.
In the Carpathian region we have holy icons dating from the sixteenth century when the Ruthenian local iconographers (educated mostly in Kiev and L’viv) started to ” nationalize” their style in order to make them more “popular.” The oldest icon, painted by an unknown local artist, is the icon of the Blessed Mother in the village of Izki, Volove County (end of the 16th c.) . In the opinion of contemporary art-critics this icon is the “highest achievement of Carpathian painting .”
An icon does not represent the Divinity. But, by its symbolic pictorial language, it testifies to the participation of Christians in the divine life.
Thus the icon becomes a “manifestation of divine life” among men, a “transfigured vision” of divine mysteries, a ” vision of the invisible” (Hebr. 11 :1), -indeed, a true ” theology in color.” The icons representing the saints, also, to some extent, share in their sanctity and glory. Consequently, they become “vessels of grace,” present and working as in their relics. st. John Damascene offers the following explanation:
“The Saints, during their earthly life, are filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit. After their departure the same grace remains in their souls as in their bodies (relics-: Cor. 6:19). The very same grace is present and active in their sacred images and icons.” (P.G. 94, 12490).
In the Subcarpathian region there are several miraculous icons of the Blessed Mother, the most important of which are in Klokochovo (from the middle of the 17th c.), in Mariapovch (by artist S. Papp, 1676), and in Krasnyj Brod (by the Basilian artist, M. Spalinskyj, 1769). The miraculous icon at the Basilian Monastery in Mukachevo is not of local origin. It was painted in Constantinople, 1453, and was donated by Pope Pius XI to the Eparchy of Mukachevo in 1926.
3. In the Old Testament, due to the danger of idolatry, God forbade the Jews to worship the ” carved image or likeness” of any creature (Ex. 20 :4-5 ; expl. Deut. 4:15-20). In the first centuries the Christians, too, in the face of paganism and idolatry, adhered to these Mosaic ordinances. The frescoes from the second and third centuries found in the catacombs served only as decorations.
But after the victory of Christianity over paganism (313 A.D.), when Christian theology was sufficiently developed, the Fathers of the Church gradually admitted the public veneration of icons.
The Fathers explained that the veneration of icons, theologically, was based on the mystery of Incarnation, since in the person of Jesus Christ we received revelation not only of the ” Word of God” (In. 1 :1-14), but also of the ” Image of God,” as attested by St. Paul saying that Jesus is the “image (eikon) of the unseen God.” (Col. 1 :15) Jesus Himself testified: “To have seen Me is to have seen the Father!” (In. 14:9)
The following is the teaching of the Church on holy icons :
1) The Mosaic Law (Gen 20 :4-5) was a temporary provision against idolatry which, in time, lost its relevance.
2) Jesus, by taking human flesh (by His incarnation), revoked the prohibition of the Old Testament, since He became the ” visible image (eikon) of God,” manifesting ” God’s glory” on His face. (II Cor. 4:4-6)
3) Jesus Christ, by His glorious resurrection, also glorified His human nature, which reflected His divinity. (comp. Transfiguration, Mt. 17:2)
4) God created man to His own ” image (eikon) and likeness” (Gen. 1 :26) and, after the fall of Adam, our Savior Jesus Christ restored our human nature to its pristine glory. (II Cor. 3:18)
5) The honor given to an icon is only veneration (proskynesis) and not adoration (douleia), which is given to God only.
6) The honor extended to an icon by a bow, a prayer, a kiss, incense or the burning of a candle is relative, i.e. it ” passes on to him who is represented on it (to its prototype) ” (cf. St. Basil, On the Holy Spirit, 18).
4. Our ancestors venerated holy icons not only in their churches, but also in their homes. These were called-devotional icons, believed to protect their homes and to secure for them the continuous flow of God’s blessings. These icons usually occupied a prominent place in every home and were decorated with an embroidered cloth and flowers. A hanging vigil lamp or votive candle added to the spiritual atmosphere of the room.
Any visitor entering the home was expected to take off his hat and to pay homage to the icon before he would greet the host.
The ancient rules of Christian house-keeping from the sixteenth century, entitled “Oomostroj” (House-keeping) , reminded our ancestors : “The Christian should have, in every room of his house, a holy and venerable icon or image, decorated with a veil (embroidery), and provided with a votive lamp (candle). The lamp should be burning as prayers are said as a sign of veneration and proper respect.”
This traditional and praiseworthy devotion to the home icon is being recommended in our religious education classes throughout the Metropolitan Province of Pittsburgh in the form of an ” Icon Corner.” Hopefully, it will win the support of parents and become a prayer shrine for the entire family.