Using Icons – a Powerful Tool or Graven Images

The oldest icon of Christ Pantocrator, Saint Catherine's Monastery Mount Sinai

The oldest icon of Christ Pantocrator, encaustic on panel, c. 6th century (Saint Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai

Icons are an integral part of orthodox worship and serve a variety of functions:

(1) They enhance the beauty of a church. (2) They instruct us in matters pertaining to the Christian faith. (3) They remind us of this faith. (4) They lift us up to the prototypes which they symbolize, to a higher level of thought and feeling. (5) They arouse us to imitate the virtues of the holy personages depicted on them. (6) They help to transform us, to sanctify us. (7) They serve as a means of worship and veneration. I shall discuss briefly each one of these functions  Read more on the function of icons at the Orthodox information centre

In recent years icons have been rediscovered by growing numbers of followers of Jesus from other traditions too.  For many, icons contribute to the beauty of worship and are like windows that connect us to the realities of the Kingdom of God, bringing these into our prayer on earth.  I love the idea that entering into church is meant to give us a glimpse into the kingdom of God and the icons are reminders of that great cloud of witnesses who have gone before.  They can be a refreshing focus for both personal and group meditation.

Icon used in worship Community of the Transfiguration Geelong Australia

Icon used in worship Community of the Transfiguration affiliated with the Baptist church in Geelong Australia

Unfortunately there is probably more dispute circulating about the use of icons than of any of the other tools I have mentioned.  When Tom and I were in Lebanon some years ago we were invited to lunch by an orthodox priest.  What we did not realize until we arrived was that we were supposed to settle a long standing dispute between he and a friend as to whether or not the use of icons of Christ was acceptable.

The friend thought they were satanic, graven images that were expressly denounced in the Old Testament.  Our orthodox friend explained that early Christians felt that the Old Testament proscriptions against making images was overturned by their belief in the incarnation. They believed that because God took on flesh in the human form of Jesus it was permissible to create depictions of the human form of the Son of God.   Although icons are images, they are not simply illustrations or decorations. They are symbols of the incarnation, a presence which offers to the eyes the spiritual message that the Word addresses to the ears.

Why we worry so much about iconic images of Christ and not at all about images of Christ in other forms of art I am not sure, but then of course I am no expert.  So I at least want to present this as one of the options that you might like to explore.  For those that want to learn more obviously a google search will provide lots of resources.  However one book you may like to start with is Windows to Heaven: Icons for Protestants and Catholics by Lela Gilbert and Elizabeth Zelensky


And to round off your education, I some of you may appreciate this video using icons in association with the litany of the saints song by Matt Maher



12 Responses

  1. Yes. Icons can still arouse the passions of the Iconoclasts or the Reforming Christians in England and Scotland, destroying the images in our churches, and yet I like what Roger Scruton said, “Icons stand at the border of forbidden things”, they a gateway to the reality of God. So though they are not often used in my former tradition of Anglicanism, or my current Quaker tradition, I use them, finding them beautiful and an aid to contemplation.

  2. Abigail, maybe it is just my Australian rebellious spirit or something but I love that thought – icons stand at the border of forbidden things.

  3. Hi Christine- Thanks for this beautiful video and really informative post. I
    I have just returned from a holiday to the Baltics and we visited St Petersburg( a beautiful city that blew me away) .
    Russian Orthodox churches we visited were crammed with icons and their abundant beautiful candles ( very thin and long) really impacted on the sacred space. Young and old people were very much in evidence in the churches and the reverence they showed in church was an eye-opener even when no services were taking place. the orthodox church is undergoing a revival in Russia.
    I have become interested in icons since the visit and this post on my blog may be of interest and use to others.
    It incorporates icons in the second part of the post and features work by Sister Wendy Becket

    (Hope it is OK if I use your video a some point in the near future)

  4. Thanks for this Phil – more great information. I particularly appreciated your link to the Let The Children come Unto Me series

  5. Phil – I meant to add. Please feel free to use the video. As far as I am concerned resources like this are meant to be shared

  6. What a thought provoking post, and it brings to mind many ‘images’ discussions I’ve had with friends and family over the years. I believe it is the heart, not the things of human hands, that makes the difference. It is our love and hearts God wants and if icons help focus that, if they remind us of something greater than ourselves then I’m all for it. They are also a very important historical part of our faith and need to be in the very least respected for their place and the craftsmanship of them.

  7. Thanks Shanyns. I think you are right that the heart is the important thing and if something draws us closer to God then it certain has a place in our worship

  8. Just discovered your blog–thanks for some great recent posts. Will be referring to your visio divina in a future post of my own. Here is a link to a post that contains one of my favorite icons that I found on a retreat and finally remembered to take a picture.

  9. […] Using Icons – A Powerful Tool or Graven Images? […]

  10. […] = ''; } WHAT THE BIBLE TEACHES ABOUT OUR WORSHIPQuestions about Images and StatuesSexUsing Icons – a Powerful Tool or Graven ImagesI said NO GRAVEN […]

  11. Lovely post I am really interested in. I love icons, and their message. I get a bit cross about this controversy about them. It clearly says in the bible that we are not to worship anything/one other than the Holy Trinity. As a Catholic I bear these teachings and we were taught to adore (but categorically, not to worship) Our Lady. Human beings make paintings and drawings. I can’t see the problem of praying to Christ with the aid of looking at an idealised image, or asking our Lady for help in the same way…. or for thinking about God by admiring beautiful artwork. If we were to start worshiping artwork or statues then this would be wrong, but I think the use and admiration of icons is largely misconstrued by those who do not really understand them.

  12. I confirm. And I have faced it. Let’s discuss this question. Here or in PM.

    By the way, what do you think about this icons site?

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