The tradition of placing Orthodox Icons in the church and home developed mainly from the necessity in the early second century to counteract the false Gnostic teaching that Christ was only a shadow and not really and fully human. The Christians countered this incorrect teaching by emphasizing the reality of Christ as the God-Man, for:
…the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.
The Christians emphasized the human nature of Christ in pictures, writings, hymns, and prayers, and thus the portrayal of Christ developed in the course of time into the Orthodox Icon. The Christians began to place the icon of Christ in the church, where it was later joined by Orthodox Icons of the Theotokos and all the saints.
The tendency of people to honor their beloved ones in pictures was reflected in their desire to have the pictures of Christ and the Saints out of respect and honor, for “the honor which is given to the icon passes over to the prototype“, the person himself. The lighting of a candle, the making of the sign of the Cross, and the kissing of an icon should not be misinterpreted as being made to the physical picture itself. These gestures pass over from the Icon to the person depicted. Among other things, the Orthodox Icon should remind us of the person depicted, that, since death does not end life, the person depicted is “alive in Christ”, and should help us to “imitate their virtues and to glorify God.”
The practice of keeping Orthodox Icons
The practice of keeping the Holy Orthodox Icons eventually led to great controversy in the Church. In the Eighth Century, a group called the Iconoclasts, under pressure from the encroaching Turks made a move to have the Holy Icons banned and destroyed, causing a great division amongst the Christian Church. This controversy led to the convening of the 7th Ecumenical Council in 787. That Synod decreed that the Holy Icons are to be used to render honor (veneration) to the person honored, but not worship, since worship is due to God alone. This Ecumenical decision is the source of the annual celebration of the Triumph of Orthodoxy on the First Sunday of Great Lent. At the same synod, the use of statues, the use of which had become perverted over time, was banned.
Kissing the icon, bowing towards it, and making the sign of the cross, while they all seem foreign to the western mind are all simple means of showing love, honor, and respect to the one portrayed. These customs all represent proper forms of greeting one’s superiors in the cultures that are the home of Orthodox Christianity. In doing these things, we are reminded of the high spiritual values and virtues of the holy ones depicted and encouraged to pursue those same values and virtues ourselves.
In Orthodox tradition, Orthodox Icons are not intended to be realistic paintings of people and events (though they cannot do violence to the physical reality), but rather are symbolic interpretations of the great spiritual qualities of the saints… such as sacrifice, humility, devotion, faith, and love. In all cases, the Icon will tell the rank and something of the deeds of the person depicted in the icon.
Since Orthodox Icons are symbolic representations that tell the story of The Saint’s life, it is helpful to know something about the language of the icon. Suffice it to say here that virtually every element and detail in the icon, from color choice to hand position to the placement and size of secondary figures, has symbolic meaning based on the Scripture, the writings of the Fathers, and other theological sources. Thus, the Holy Orthodox Icons are one more piece of that which the Church calls Holy Tradition.