A Beginner’s Guide to Icons

Woven throughout the Gospels is the interplay between faith and seeing. Is seeing believing? Or do we first have to believe in order to see? That theme rests at the heart of much preaching and biblical teaching. If we are honest with ourselves, most of us might simply say along with the father in Mark 9:23: “I do believe, Lord: help my unbelief.” As with so many other issues, Holy Mother the Church supplies us with help for our dilemma. In this case? The Church offers us holy icons, perhaps the greatest gift of Eastern Christianity to the Body of Christ.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2557): “‘I want to see God’ expresses the true desire of man.” Humans are visual learners and seekers. But because God is beyond our natural perceptual abilities, we first had to get hints about Him through the prophets of the Old Testament because “thou canst not see my face: for man shall not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). Pagans made idols in both human and animal forms to depict their gods, but the Israelites were forbidden to do so. The Incarnation of Christ changed everything.

Without trying to be flippant, let’s put this in twenty-first century terms. Before Christ’s appearance on earth, we could never “take a selfie” with God; however, because Jesus was and is both God and man, he shared our flesh and blood physical reality in time and space—God (in the second Person of the Trinity, the Word made flesh) could be seen. And if He could be seen, he could be depicted. Thankfully, our long-ago Christian brethren had a well-developed sense of the holy and were careful about how they visually presented Our Lord. That understanding resulted in icons and iconography.

But not everyone was ready to embrace this development. Some looked back to the prohibitions under the old covenant and perceived idolatry in the use of icons. Those two competing ideas led to more than a hundred years of actual violence and competing official edicts in the Byzantine Empire, with peace only coming after vigorous theological debate and the Second Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in A.D. 787, and culminating in the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” over iconoclasm in A.D. 843. The two main theologians defending icons were Ss. John Damascene and Theodore the Studite. They showed that icons are venerated, not worshiped, and that the veneration is not for the material (paint, wood, etc.) of the icon, but for the holy person portrayed. As the Catechism puts it, “Christian iconography expresses in images the same Gospel message that Scripture communicates by words. Image and word illuminate each other” (1160). While in the Latin West we have stained glass and statutes to help us focus on God, the East uses icons for that divine purpose.

The “rules” about icon painting, display, and veneration arose in the Christian East. Iconographers have “canons” to guide them in painting—or “writing,” as many prefer to put it—covering everything from proper materials (egg tempera on board is preferred) to arrangements of figures and scenes. Because icons are primarily works and objects of devotion, iconography never developed in the way Western painting did. But like the famous icon of the Theotokos we now know as Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Eastern sacred art is increasingly appreciated in the West. One leading Catholic artist and teacher with much to say about icons is David Clayton, whose writing can found at the New Liturgical Movement and his own site, The Way of Beauty. Clayton has made it his mission to help the curious understand art and its relationship to faith.

Those new to icons should not be intimidated. Here are some (hopefully) useful tips and answers to FAQs.

  • Where can I buy icons? Most reputable Catholic bookstores and supply stores will carry sacred art, including icons. Eastern Catholic church supply stores will certainly carry them. Keep in mind that technically most icons on the market are reproductions or prints. Hand-painted icons cost quite a bit more. Original icons can be found on places such as eBay and Etsy and, as always (especially with icons coming from overseas) caveat emptor.
  • What do I “do” with my icons? The first thing is to get it blessed by a priest. (Unless you are sure this has already been done.) Icons are sacramentals, just like rosaries, scapulars, etc. Then you have to discern how the icon might fit into your devotional life. You can hang a vigil lamp or put a candle near it, and you can put together an “icon corner” which becomes a focus of your prayer, meditation, and contemplation. Usually icons are kissed, which could also mean kissing one’s fingers and then touching the icon. Don’t get hung up on “doing everything right.” Think of the icon as part of your conversation with God. Be respectful. And maybe having God or a saint “watching” you will be helpful in keeping your resolutions!
  • Are there different styles of icons? Yes. While there are parameters iconographers generally follow, there are different schools of iconography as well as cultural expressions. For instance, icons from Egypt and Ethiopia often depict figures with oversized eyes.
  • What should I look for in an icon? Let God speak to you. Is there a saint you feel especially drawn to? Maybe an icon will help you meditate on her life, virtues, and charism. Perhaps a particular style will draw you, or a scene from the life of Christ or Our Lady. Icons help us conform ourselves to God, but they are not one-size-fits-all.
  • Can I paint my own icons? Like any spiritual endeavor, it is advisable to get training and guidance from someone accomplished in the art. The interest in icon painting has grown in recent years, and there are now many workshops and retreats on iconography.

With all this in mind, let’s return to our opening theme: Is seeing believing? St. John Damascene wrote: “The beauty of the images [icons] moves me to contemplation, as a meadow delights the eyes and subtly infuses the soul with the glory of God” (CCC 1162). Is believing seeing? The Catechism answers that for believers: “sacred images [icons] in our churches and homes are intended to awaken and nourish our faith in the mystery of Christ” (1192). Whether an icon sparks belief, or by coming to faith we can fully appreciate the spiritual lessons of icons, we should be thankful for another gift from heaven.

Image by Anna Davidovskaya on Shutterstock

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Greg Cook Bio: Greg Cook is a writer living in New York’s North Country with his wife. He graduated from Plattsburgh State College and The Evergreen State College. He is the author of two self-published books of poetry, Against the Alchemists and A Verse Companion to Romano Guardini’s ‘Sacred Signs’.

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