Iconography began on the day our Lord Jesus Christ pressed a cloth to His face and imprinted His divine-human image thereon. According to tradition, Luke the Evangelist painted the image of the Mother of God; and, also according to tradition, there still exist today many icons which were painted by him. An artist, he painted not only the first icons of the Mother of God, but also those of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul and, possibly, others which have not come down to us.
Icons are precisely the union between painting and those symbols and works of art which replaced icons during the time of persecution. The icon is not simply a representation, a portrait. In later times only has the bodily been represented, but an icon is still supposed to remind people of the spiritual aspect of the person depicted. An icon is an image which leads us to a Holy, God-pleasing person, or raises us up to Heaven, or evokes a feeling of repentance, of compunction, of prayer, a feeling that one must bow down before this image. The value of an icon lies in the fact that, when we approach it, we want to pray before it with reverence. If the image elicits this feeling, it is an icon.
In calling to mind the saints and their struggles, an icon does not simply represent the saint as he appeared upon the earth. No, the icon depicts his inner spiritual struggle; it portrays how he attained to that state where he is now considered an angel on earth, a heavenly man. This is precisely the manner in which the Mother of God and Jesus Christ are portrayed. Icons should depict that transcendent sanctity which permeated the saints.
By Saint John of San Francisco,
appeared in Orthodox Life, Vol. 30, No. 1 (Jan-Feb 1980), p. 42-45