The word “icon” is an adaptation of the Greek eikon , “image”. Strictly speaking, the word covers all forms of representation, but it gradually came to denote a specific form of sacred painting on wood in the Byzantine tradition. The basic theological principles are the same for all other forms of visual sacred art (frescoes, mosaics, etc.) as for icons.

From early times Christians have used images along with the verbal proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ. At first, they were mainly symbolic: Christ as the shepherd, the lamb, a fish (Greek ichthys , acronym for Iesous Christos Theou Hyios Soter = Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour), although according to some traditions, the figurative representation of the holy face of Christ goes back to Christ’s own times (cf. the legend of Abgar, king of Edessa, and the “image not made by human hands”, as well as the legend of the linen or shroud of St Veronica, a name that means “true image”).

From the time Christianity became the official religion of the empire, Christian art played a role in all parts of the oikoumene, with images of Christ, the theotokos , martyrs, saints and scenes from the Old and New Testaments playing a part in worship and as objects of veneration for the faithful. Such veneration came under severe attack during the iconoclastic crisis in the 8th and 9th centuries. Iconoclasm (the breaking of images) began in Byzantium in the first quarter of the 8th century with Emperor Leo III the Isaurian and was finally overcome only in 843 under Empress Theodora. During that time, images were destroyed, and many who venerated images were persecuted.

Two aspects of this crisis deserve mention from the ecumenical point of view: the theological issue at stake, and the repercussions in the West. The first was in a sense a continuation of the Nestorian and the monophysite controversies. The adversaries of images began by asking which of Christ’s natures is represented on the icon of Christ: the human or the divine? If it is the human, then it amounts to a form of Nestorianism in that it implies two separate persons in Christ; if it is the divine, it is either monophysitism, in that the human is absorbed in the divine, or it is plain blasphemy, since the divine nature or essence is ineffable, invisible, unknowable and therefore cannot be represented. To this was added the argument that the veneration of a material object amounts to idolatry.

The Orthodox, or upholders of the catholic faith (John Damascene, the fathers of the seventh ecumenical council, Nicea II 787, Theodore of Studios), replied to the first set of questions that an icon of Christ represented neither his human nor his divine nature but his divine incarnate Person, or his hypostasis . Since the Word became flesh, the uncircumscribed became circumscribed, all matter is assumed in the mysterious process, and the invisible Word who made himself visible can be visibly represented.

In the view of the church expressed in the second council of Nicea, such a theological view is a direct consequence of Christ’s incarnation,* and if the incarnation is to be taken seriously, it is by no means a secondary matter, for it concerns the participation of the flesh and the material universe in salvation.* On the charge of idolatry, the texts of Nicea II are very clear. They take up (after John Damascene) a formula used by Basil in the 4th century to the effect that the honour rendered to the image goes to the prototype, so that when an icon is venerated, the honour goes to Christ, his mother or the saint represented, not to the actual icon. Besides, the texts draw a very clear distinction between the “veneration” of the icon and “adoration”, which is due only to God.

When in 843 iconoclasm was finally overcome and the feast known as the triumph of Orthodoxy was appointed to be celebrated on the first Sunday in Lent (it is still solemnized each year in the Orthodox church), the implications were deeply Christological. Liturgical texts show that the veneration of images is the outward expression of taking seriously the consequences of the incarnation.

The repercussions of the iconoclastic crisis in the West were complex. The papacy remained faithful throughout to the catholic faith and practice. Pope Hadrian I sent legates to the seventh ecumenical council, and the council was received in Rome . Meanwhile Charlemagne and his theologians, basing their case on a totally corrupt translation of the acts of Nicea II, attacked it violently and rejected its decisions concerning the veneration of icons in the early 790s. They accused the “Greeks” of enjoining the “adoration” of images (exactly the opposite of what the council had said) and altogether of being heretics. These accusations and rejections are expressed in the Caroline Books (Libri Carolini) and were repeated solemnly at the council of Frankfurt in 794.

Although Pope Hadrian I and his successor, Leo III, resisted Charlemagne’s requests to reject the second council of Nicea and defended the Greeks’ orthodoxy, Carolingian theologians continued to regard the Eastern practice as suspicious well into the 9th century. Vestiges of this suspicion have remained in the Christian West, where the tendency became widespread to accept images, icons, frescoes, mosaics and statues merely as decoration and visual aids for the illiterate. It is of interest ecumenically to recall that some of the Reformation “iconoclasts” referred to the Caroline Books to denounce the “superstitions” of the medieval West in the realm of veneration and that in reply the council of Trent* referred to Nicea II.

In spite of the undeniable diversity due to the peculiar genius of each place and each epoch, there is a striking unity of spirit in the visual sacred art of the Christian church throughout the period of the 3rd to the 12th centuries. Certain features characteristic of what today tends to be described as Byzantine art (stylized features, figures and landscapes, absence of naturalistic representation, inversed perspective, etc.) are to be found all over Christendom (in the West, until the Romanesque period on the European continent, the Norman period in England). After the separation between East and West, there appeared a tendency in the Christian West to depart from these features and go for more and more “realism” in the naturalistic sense and towards more and more freedom from the theological principles expressed by Nicea II. In the Christian East, the manner of representation of the divine continued unchanged until “decadence” set in roughly in the 17th century. The 20th century saw a resumption of “traditional” art.

In the ecumenical context, the 20th century witnessed another striking phenomenon whose consequences are yet to be measured: icons, which for obvious historical reasons have long been associated with Byzantium and the Orthodox church, began to become more and more common in Roman Catholic places of worship and many homes, as well as in some Anglican and even Protestant churches, to say nothing of ecumenical gatherings and centres. What is more, they are very often appreciated by non-Christians. Icon painting is being practised both within and outside the Orthodox world.

Whether this is only a passing fashion, no one can say. But from the ecumenical point of view, this trend obviously presents an opportunity to recall what visual sacred art (and sacred art in general) means within the Orthodox context, where it has never completely died (in spite of periods of decline).

Icons in the Orthodox perspective, which strives to be faithful to the seventh ecumenical council, are “theology in colour”. In other words, all the responsibility which rests with the theologians, whose service in the church is an endeavour to express for the contemporary world the truth of Jesus Christ “the same yesterday and today and for ever” (Heb. 13:8), rests also and in the same measure with the icon painter (and other artists). Iconography is a liturgical art. It is part of worship where the truth of the kingdom is not only preached but, in a mysterious way, experienced as a foretaste. All visual representation therefore refers to the transfigured reality of all things called to salvation. Hence the stylized, non-naturalistic manner of representation.

The decision of Nicea II says that iconography (and therefore sacred art in general) “is in accord with our preaching of the gospel”. Therefore there can be no contradiction between the gospel preached (which is true theology) and what the eyes contemplate (and the other senses perceive). More important still for the ecumenical situation is another statement of the council concerning iconography (and sacred art, i.e. liturgy in general): it is “useful to strengthen our faith in the truly real, non-fictitious incarnation of the Word of God”.

It is to be hoped that the present generalized use of icons in prayer by many Christians may serve precisely this purpose of a united confession of the true consequences of Christ’s incarnation for the whole of creation.


n F. Boespflug & N. Lossky, Nicée II , Paris, Cerf, 1987 n P. Evdokimov, L’art de l’icône (ET = The Art of the Icon, Redondo Beach CA, Oakwood, 1990) n Icons: Windows on Eternity. Theology and Spirituality in Colour , G. Limouris comp., WCC, 1990 n C. Kalokyris, Orthodox Iconography , Brookline MA, Holy Cross, 1985 n L. Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon , Crestwood NY, St Vladimir’s Seminary, 1978 n L. Ouspensky & V. Lossky, The Meaning of Icons , Crestwood NY, St Vladimir’s Seminary, 1952 n C. von Schönborn, L’icône du Christ , Paris, Cerf, 1986.

The text above is extracted from “ Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement ” 2 nd Edition , published by World Council of Churches (courtesy of World Council of Churches)

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