The Holiness of Icons

Close-up of Christ's Icon

On another page, I wrote:

An icon is literally an image (Gr. eikon), nothing more or less than that. The worth of an image depends entirely upon who or what is being depicted. Thus Jesus Christ, being an image (icon) of the Father – the invisible God, is worshiped as the firstborn over all creation. This site is devoted to images worthy of more than a cursory glance. This site is devoted to images which portray eternity.

And so icons are called “holy”, to distinguish them from other images that portray earthly things, or else those images which portray fantastical, unreal things. Holy Icons, by contrast, depict eternity: something which is neither completely earthly, nor unreal. But “Holy” is just a word. In practical terms, what is it that sets an “Icon” apart from a mere “image”?

The first, and significant, difference is that the Icon is not naturalistic; it does not represent something ephemeral, but rather it represents something eternal. Even when an icon is depicting a Saint – a man or woman who walked this earth – it does not depict them as a temporary resident of this earth, but as an eternal resident of Heaven. Thus saints in icons are thin (not heavy and of the earth); their senses are either deemphasized (small ears, small mouth, thin and elongated hands) because they are turned inward to the heart; or overemphasized (large eyes and enlarged forehead) representing heavenly vision and wisdom. They have halos of light around their heads, depicting their holiness. They are presented to us face-to-face, for the truth of who they are is only to be known personally in relationsip, never as a merely existing object.

Part of the reason of this site is to explain some of the stylistic shorthand of icons, and to explain what these un-natural, yet profoundly real, depictions mean. Yet the presentation of Christ, His Mother, His angels, and His Saints, as persons looking directly at us is the most striking, and most important stylistic detail of an icon.

The Icon refers to inexpressible Truth by encouraging our personal relations with Truth; a proper Icon creates true personal relationships.

That is why an Icon is indivisibly linked with Love: we cannot speak about Truth without Love, and we cannot speak about an Icon that does not lead us to Love.

For Orthodox Christians, this means that the Icon leads us to the Church. There we will meet the other in his or her true state.

– Bishop Maxim of Western America

St. Justin Popovich said, “in the Church we are taught to see (iconically) in every man our future brother as he is in Paradise.”

That is why icons are called “Windows to Heaven”

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