What Are Holy Icons?

IconIcon” means “image” in Greek. At the most basic level, holy icons are like computer icons — graphic art, information concentrated in visual form. And both are meant to lead you elsewhere. A computer icon takes you to the Internet or a document. A holy icon is a door to Heaven. In one direction through the door comes the holy person or event depicted, made present to us in a real way (the icon “partakes of the nature of the original,” as the ancient church said). We are then meant to respond, to go through the door in the other direction. Everything about an icon — its physical form, perspective, components, and symbolism — is designed to draw us out of ourselves and direct both our minds and our hearts toward God. Holy icons in this way serve as vehicles for prayer and worship, either in private contemplation or public liturgy.

Icons have been revered through most of the church’s history because they honor in a physical way the physical incarnation of God in Christ. Following the fierce debate about icons in the previous decades — whether or not they were forbidden “graven images” — in 787 AD the church gathered in full ecumenical council to decide once and for all what icons were and what they were not. The Council’s most important conclusion was that such pictorial representations are useful “so the incarnation of the Word of God is shown forth as real and not merely fantastic.” If an icon is a vehicle for prayer and worship, then “the honor which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and whoever reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented.” But the Council also clearly stated that icons are not idols and are not themselves to be worshipped.

After the church divided between west (Rome) and east (Constantinople and later Moscow) in 1197 AD, icons became increasingly associated with what became known as the Orthodox tradition. More recently the western churches have experienced a revival of interest in icons, recognizing them as part of the common heritage of the church universal.

We invite you to spend time with these icons⎯in prayer, in silence, in contemplation. Allow them to open a door for you. What, or Whom, will you find?