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Icons in the Orthodox Church

One of the unique characteristics of the Orthodox Church is its use of icons (i.e., holy images). Icons have been in use since the earliest days of the Christian Church. Icons, in their simplest forms, were found in the catacombs, grave sites and other places of ancient Christian worship. They included: the cross, the fish, the lamb and other symbols that represented Jesus Christ. By the fifth century, iconography began to be widespread. Beautiful paintings, mosaics, frescoes and other media of art were used to depict Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints. The Church felt quite comfortable in depicting our Lord and His saints, for they felt the media of art was just another way to praise and teach about God-just as the Church used music and poetry. Icons were depicted on churches, homes and public buildings.

Icons served a many-fold purpose in the Orthodox Church. They were used to help teach the faithful about God. A person can walk into an Orthodox Church and see the whole Bible story unfolded on its walls. Icons of Old and New Testament people and events were used to teach the faithful-keeping in mind that many could not read- about the Christian Faith.

Another purpose of icons was to aid the faithful in prayer and meditation on the person or the salvific significance of the event depicted. Icons kept the mind from wandering and helped focus one's attention on prayer. They also served as a reminder to all the Orthodox of God's omnipresent and immanence in the world.

There was a brief time in the Church's history when civil and ecclesiastical leaders renounced the use of icons as idolatrous. As a result, many priceless icons were destroyed and people who were found possessing them were persecuted; yet, many people continued to use icons in secret. This prompted the Church to defend the use of icons for liturgical and didactic purposes.

The Church defended its use of icons by stating that if God became man in the person of Jesus Christ, then He can be depicted. To say that He cannot be depicted is saying that Jesus was not fully human (the Church believes that Jesus Christ was fully human and fully divine; to say otherwise is heretical). And, if Jesus can be depicted, His holy Mother and saints can be depicted as well.

Against the charge of idolatry, the Church made it quite clear that the faithful do not worship the wood and paint, but deeply respect and venerate the person depicted. The Church made a clear distinction between adoration (i.e., worship, due to God alone) and veneration (i.e., deep respect). The pagans worshiped idols because they believed that the deity was present in the stone or wood. The Orthodox make no such claim concerning icons. Icons are only images of the person depicted; therefore, do not venerate the wood but the person whose image it bears. Thus, by the end of the eighth century, icons were restored in the Orthodox Church and have served their proper purpose ever since.

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