How not to be an accidental Iconoclast

Damaged Icon of the Mother of God

Following on from the post What makes an Icon Holy?, it is clear an image is holy when it truly depicts someone who is holy, rather than through any magical way it was produced. It also means that a completed image is not made holy, or rendered “unholy”, through the way we behave toward the image. This raises an important point. If we are careless or unaware of an image’s sanctity, then the image does not suddenly become unholy or “just a picture”: instead we end up profaning the image of a holy one, whether a Saint, an angel, or Jesus Christ Himself.

This post offers some advice on avoiding such “accidental iconoclasm”.

Holy images in ordinary places

Icon of the Mother of God "Gorgoepikoos" (Quick to Hear)

Icon of the Mother of God “Gorgoepikoos” (Quick to Hear)

Usually it is relatively easy to pay proper respect to icons of Christ and His Saints when they are particular places: in churches, on icon stands, or our own prayer corners at home. Such places predispose us to a prayerful attitude, so we will look upon a picture of Christ, and will naturally pray to Him. Yet icons can be placed elsewhere, away from places set aside for prayer or worship. It is common for pious Orthodox Christians to place icons throughout their house: in the living room, the kitchen, and by the side of the door. One reason behind this is so that in all aspects of our lives we are reminded of God and the Saints. However, what happens when, despite the icons’ presence, we forget the Holy Ones and behave as though their image is not with us? An illustrative story of the Icon of the Mother of God “She Who is Quick to Hear”:

[The icon was] hung in a niche on the outside of the walls of what used to be an Athonite monastery refectory. Before the icon was a passageway, through which the fathers generally passed on their way to the Refectory. The steward also passed that way in the performance of his duties, not only by day, but also by night. Sometimes, in the night, he would pass before this icon while carrying a burning torch. Once, in 1664,this steward, Nilos, while passing by as usual, with the torch giving off soot, heard a voice coming from the icon, which said, “In the future, do not come here with a lighted torch and do not blacken my Image with soot.” At first, Nilos was afraid of these words; but then, telling himself that one or another of the brothers had spoken to him, he wentback quickly to his cell, passing on as before. A voice came to him a second time from the icon, saying, “Monk, unworthy of this name! Will you go on much longer carelessly and shamelessly blackening my Image?” At these words, the Steward went blind, and then only did he understand whose words these were; and, sincerely confessing his sin, he deemed himself worthy of such punishment for his inattention to the words of the Most Holy Virgin Theotokos. The brothers of the Monastery learned what had happened, and consequently they placed a sanctuary lamp before the icon, and had it censed every night, while praying diligently that Nilos might receive back his sight. One day, while he was praying and weeping before the holy icon, he heard a voice: “Nilos! Your prayer has been heard. I forgive you and shall give back sight to your eyes…. for which reason My icon shall be called “She Who Is Quick To Hear;” for I shall speedily show mercy and fulfill the petitions of all who hasten to it.” Following these joyful words, Nilos received back his sight.

The “punishment” of the steward was clearly given in order for the healing to take place, and for the glorification of God who continues to work miracles through this holy image. Nevertheless, it is a cautionary reminder of the importance of honoring images of Christ and the Saints, even though they might not be in an “ordinary” or “by-the-way” place.

Picture of St. John with an icon

St. John of San Francisco with the Kursk Root Icon

In what way should we honour icons hung in corridors, kitchens, utility rooms etc? St John the Wonderworker of San Francisco did indeed venerate all the icons he could see upon entering a house, even doing so before addressing the occupants! This displays a proper understanding of holy images, as their prototype – Christ and His Saints – are indeed worthy of attention before anything else. Nevertheless, in the example of the “She Who is Quick to Hear” icon, punishment came because of neglect that was damaging the image of Mary and Jesus, rather than because the steward failed to bow and kiss the icon each time he passed. Therefore it is enough to say that being aware of the holy images around us, wherever we may be, is enough – as awareness of the icon leads to awareness of the Saints, and a right heart, should, come from this.


Care of paper icons

Hawaii's Myrrh-Streaming Icon

Hawaii’s Myrrh-Streaming Icon (a mounted print)

Early on as an Orthodox Christian, I was under the false notion that printed icons were not “as good” as icons painted onto wood. This was because I felt that holy images that had been produced after hours and hours of painstaking care, using the “proper” materials, were somehow holier than images that are printed en masse. This is false, of course. The ascetic care taken by an iconographer is a greater labour of love on her part, and when producing “new” images such care ensures the image is a true one, but otherwise the way in which an icon is produced does not effect its holiness: the “content” of the image does.

As if to demonstrate this, in modern times God has granted that a number of printed icons be revealed as wonder-working. Paper icons, particularly prints mounted on thin pieces of wood, are produced in vast quantities, allowing anyone to have their own holy image for a relatively small cost. Among the printed icons revealed to be miracle working (usually myrrh-streaming) are the Iveron Icon from Hawaii, an icon of St Nicholas the Wonderworker, and one of his namesake, the Royal-Martyr Nicholas II.

A book using an Icon of the Holy Mandylion as its frontispiece

A book using an Icon of the Holy Mandylion as its frontispiece

A print icon bought specifically to be placed in a church or icon-corner will generally be kept with care. However, if recent miracles confirm the sanctity of mass-produced mounted print icons, then what of icons printed in books, Orthodox greetings cards (something which is increasingly popular), or even church bulletins? The pious custom of all corners of the Orthodox church appears to be that printed icons should be treated with respect. Not wanting to sound like a stuck-record, but the holiness of the image is derived from its prototype, not the material it is printed on, nor its intended use.

In the case of books, which increasingly have icons printed on the front, then care should be taken so as the images are not neglected as the Mother of God’s image was by the torch-bearing steward. This means not using them as doorstop, or as a coaster for our cup of tea etc. Indeed, such respect should be shown to all holy books (e.g. writings of the Holy Fathers; not just the Bible) regardless of their front cover, as the content of the book is holy and worthy of respect. Where it is difficult to keep the front cover in good condition, then the whole book can be covered in paper (wrapping paper, wall-paper, brown paper…) as exercise books at school used to be covered; and for the same reason: to protect them.

As for images printed on disposable items, such as leaflets or periodicals, the holy images can be cut out before the rest is thrown away or recycled. The images can be kept, of course, and used for veneration themselves. However, they can also be disposed of, which lead on to…


Disposal of holy images

Most icons will reach a point when they are beyond restoration and need disposing of. This has long been something the Church has had to deal with, as has the disposal of other sacramental items like vestments (which are also often decorated with icons), and so there are canons regarding the correct disposal of them.

Sacramental items that are combustible, which includes icons painted on wood, are burned, and the ashes buried in an out of the way place. Non-combustible items, which would include glass icons found in parts of Romania, are broken up (they may be already broken which is why they need disposing of) and then the pieces either buried or thrown into moving water, to be carried away. However, it is the spirit of the law that should be remembered, rather than strict adherence: the intent in these canons is to prevent an image of Christ or His Saints being trampled, dirtied, or in other ways defaced. Hence icons are generally burned so the image is gone, and the ashes buried where they are not trampled; the materials, not in themselves holy, then return to the earth.

Disposing of paper icons is done in the same way: burned, then buried. This is also true of holy images printed onto flyers or other ephemera, where there is no intention of keeping them.


The above is not intended to make any believers beholden to rules and regulations regarding icons. The actual intention can be summed up the words of St John of Krondstadt:

The icons of the Lord, of His mother and the saints also possess the power of God for believers and may accomplish miracles upon them. Why? Because, by God’s grace the Lord, the Holy Virgin and the saints are present in them. They are nearer to us than the images. This is true, as experience often confirms this.

The holy icons remind us of the intimate closeness of those represented in them. Therefore seeing all images of the holy as Icons, regardless of where they are or what they’re made from, means we are more often reminded of the presence of Christ and His Saints in our midst. Our respect for holy images benefits us more than it benefits them, or those represented in them.

Corruption of Orthodox Iconography, an article covering much of the same subjects, but also mentioning icons on jewelry, and the commissioning of “suspect” icons.

Accidental Iconoclasm, by Fr John Hopko.

Taking Care of Holy Things, by Fr David Moser. Deals with the disposal of icons and other sacramental items.


This entry was posted in Apologia, Iconography, The Theotokos and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to How not to be an accidental Iconoclast

  1. I enjoyed your post and the links. The link to the additional post on the Corruption of Orthodox Iconography was informative, but also unfortunate in that it was unclear on what the Orthodox iconographer Nick Papas was saying about Roman Catholic beliefs (I may be wrong on what he was trying to say because he was in the middle of a mutually abrasive argument with John Sanidopoulos, and made this comment that I am referring to as somewhat of an aside) . Papas gives the impression that the Roman Catholic belief is that the Mother of God – the Holy Theotokos – did not have free will. The Latin Rite of the Church believes that Mary certainly did have free will and reason and used them in complete obedience to God. As the angel Gabriel states “Hail Mary, full of Grace.” The angel recognizes who Mary is, that she is full of God’s grace, and will use her will in union with God’s grace to be the New Eve, and the New Ark of the Covenant, as the Mother of the Redeemer. Mary is no different from you or I in this issue of free will and the use of human reason. She is not a goddess, Roman Catholics do not worship her, we venerate her as the Mother of God. She is the best of all women – the purest of all women – sinless, a pure vessel, but a human being, nonetheless. A human being made perfect by the Father’s Divine Will and Grace to be the Mother of His Son.
    I do not wish to be rude and turn your blog into a place for theological arguments and debates. But, for the sake of clarity, I felt I had to state, in a very abridged form, the Roman Catholic belief about the Blessed Mother. I am not trying to convert anyone; I am visiting your site because, in Christian charity, I believe that we both have a deep love for sacred iconography, this, and our mutual Holy Baptism in water and the Spirit, makes us brothers in the Lord.

  2. Pingback: Saints who destroyed religious images | A Reader's Guide to Orthodox Icons

  3. Mrs. Mutton says:

    Ummm, as a former Roman Catholic I must say that the notion that the Mother of God was without free will is actually supported by the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception – if she herself was conceived in an unusual manner, i.e., without sin, then doesn’t it follow that she really didn’t have a choice as to whether or not to become the Mother of God? (Many Orthodox will say that they also believe in the Immaculate Conception, but that is because they think it refers to the conception of Christ in her womb – when you explain that it refers to her own conception, they are shocked.)

  4. Thanks for this. It raises a point that has come up in our household: we are NOT fans of using reproductions of icons for “throwaway” material, such as Christmas cards, calendars, flyers, marketing pieces, newsletters, etc. Most people are not aware of the proper manner for disposing of such items, and the result is, a lot of images of the holy saints, Theotokos and God Himself wind up in the trash (or, recycling) bin.

  5. eebelz says:

    Thank you for this! I had an amazing experience with a 3×5 cardstock reproduction of somebody’s recent drawing of Rublev’s famous Trinity icon. That was enough to convince me! But also when I took a class on icons, we learned that through history, many types of images, produced in many different ways, were revered as icons. I’ve also read an article about snapshots of apparitions of the Virgin being revered as icons (the photos, that is). It all makes sense to me, and is one more way in which we see divine condescension to be part of our everyday world.

  6. medwyn ap robert says:

    When viewing icons on my computer should i kiss the screen?

    • iconreader says:

      There is no compulsion in Orthodoxy. I do not, personally, kiss icons on my screen although if you chose to have an icon as your desktop background (I don’t) then it might at least serve as a reminder to be careful in what activities you do online! One of the things described above that can lead to “accidental iconoclasm” is inattentiveness of who is depicted in icons; that you would ask this question at least shows that you are not inattentive or forgetful of God and His Saints when you see an icon, digitally or otherwise.

  7. Elizabeth White says:

    So quick question from a person wh is responsible for producing church bulletins, and has included icons in the past. Do you consider it a rev to include icons in the church bulletin, given that it is impossible to control what other people do with the images after distribution?

    • Elizabeth White says:

      Apologies, it should read “irreverent” not “a rev”! (Typo)

    • iconreader says:

      Hello, sorry for the extremely late reply. In short: yes, that is what I was trying to suggest in the article without being overly dogmatic about it. It is something certainly worth considering.

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