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Icons and frescoes

Icons and frescoes ó artistic representations of our Saviour, the angels, the saints and biblical subjects ó form an important part of an Orthodox church. Icons serve to remind us of God, of His deeds of goodness and of the realm of heaven. They convey in lines and colors what the Sacred Scriptures describe in words. These holy images create a prayerful atmosphere in the church. Without them the church would resemble a secular meeting hall.

When we pray before an icon, we must remember that we are not praying to the material of which it is made but to the Lord, the Mother of God and the saints who are depicted on it. Everything that we see and hear has an effect on our thoughts and our mood; thatís the way our human nature works. For this reason we find it much easier to concentrate on prayer when we see the image of God before our eyes than if we just look at a bare wall or some object unconnected with prayer.

Those who are not Orthodox often condemn the use of icons, out of a wrong idea of the meaning of the Old Testamentís Second Commandment, which forbids the worship of false gods. We know from Bible history that, while the Lord forbade idolatry, He also commanded Moses to fashion golden cherubim for the cover of the Ark of the Covenant, where He promised to appear to him. "Make one cherub on the one end, and the other cherub on the other end .... There I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony" (Exod. 25:18-22; 26:1-37).

In the same way, in the Temple of Solomon sculpted and embroidered images of the cherubim were found at the place where the gaze of the priests was directed when at prayer (1 [3] Kings 6:27-29; 2 Chron. [2 Paral.] 3:7-14). The restored Temple of Jerusalem, in which our Lord Jesus Christ, His Apostles and the first Christians prayed, also contained similar figures of the cherubim.

One of the most ancient icons is that called the image of the Saviour "Not Made by Hands." Tradition tells us that our Lord Jesus Christ sent a linen cloth bearing a miraculously imprinted image of His face to Abgar, Prince of Edessa, who was suffering from leprosy. After he had prayed before this image, Abgar was cured of his disease.

St Luke the Evangelist was an artist; he painted a number of portraits of the Blessed Virgin Mary. These served as models for subsequent icons of her; many of them have also worked miracles.

The catacombs, those places hallowed by the prayers of the ancient Christians, have preserved the sacred art of their times to the present day. In comparison with present-day iconography, these ancient images are more symbolic in nature; nevertheless, their purpose is one and the same: to remind us of God. Among the images used in ancient Christian art we should mention the following: the lamb, symbolizing the Lord Jesus Christ in His sacrificial suffering for us; the lion ó a symbol of His might; the fish ó the Greek word for it, ichthys, is an acronym for "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour;" the anchor ó a symbol of Christian hope; the dove ó a symbol of the Holy Spirit; the rooster and the phoenix ó birds which are symbols of the Resurrection; the peacock ó a symbol of immortality; the grapevine and the basket of bread ó symbols of the Sacrament of Holy Communion; and many more. Also found in the catacombs are other, more complex, artistic compositions, illustrating biblical events and the parables of the Gospels: Noah in the ark; the adoration of the Magi; the raising of Lazarus; the Prophet Jonah in the whale; the Prophet Moses receiving the tablets of the Law; the parables of the sower, of the wise and foolish virgins, etc. With the passage of centuries these early Christian symbols and compositions developed into finer and more varied works of art.

In icons God is represented in the images in which He revealed Himself to man. For example, the Holy Trinity is portrayed in the image of three angelic travellers seated at a table. This is the way in which the Lord appeared to the righteous Abraham. On some icons, each of the Persons of the Most Holy Trinity receives a particular symbolic depiction. God the Father is shown as an old man, because He appeared to the Prophets Isaiah and Daniel thus. Jesus Christ is depicted in human form, just as He appeared when He came down to the earth and became man ó as an Infant in the arms of the Virgin Mary, or teaching the multitudes and working miracles, or transfigured, or suffering on the Cross, or lying in the tomb, or risen from the dead, or ascending into heaven. God the Holy Spirit is depicted in the form of a dove, as He revealed Himself at our Lordís Baptism in the Jordan, or in the form of tongues of fire, as He descended visibly upon the holy Apostles on the fiftieth day after the Resurrection of Christ.

Icons are meant to be different from ordinary pictures or photographs. The images on icons must conform to the iconographic tradition, which has been worked out over the centuries. A newly-painted icon should always be blessed in church, sprinkled with holy water. After this it becomes a sacred object, through which the grace of the Holy Spirit acts invisibly. It is well-known that there are many miracle-working icons, which have brought about numerous healings.

Surrounding the head of the Saviour and of the saints on icons there is depicted a radiance, a circle of light, called a nimbus. The nimbus symbolizes the grace of God, which abides in the one whom it surrounds. The radiance of the light of God is ordinarily invisible to the physical eye, but there have been times when, by Godís will, it has become visible to man. Thus, for example, the Prophet Moses had to cover his face with a veil, so as not to blind people with the light which shone from his face. On Mount Tabor the Apostles were allowed to see the radiance of Christís Divinity.

During a conversation with Motovilov the face of St Seraphim of Sarov became like the sun. Motovilov himself wrote that he was unable to gaze upon the saintís face at that time. Such accounts can be found in the lives of many other saints as well.

On icons of the Saviour, the Greek words ho _n, meaning "He Who is," are usually written in the nimbus, because He, being God, always is. On icons of the Mother of God, the Greek letters MP ΘΥ are written. They form an abbreviation for M_t_r Theou ó Mother of God.

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