Many people are intrigued by Orthodox icons - ancient portrayals of Christ, Mary, the saints and biblical scenes. We have over 150 individual icons in our parish collection which we bring out on pertinent feast days and hang on the walls of our church and hall. These can be viewed by request and we have a handy database to find them easily.
We are commencing a new, parish icon project which will refurbish the interior our church sanctuary with newly painted icons which are to be arranged in the normative Orthodox schema. We anticipate the iconography project to be an occasion for educational lectures, and possibly workshops for those interested in pursuing iconography as a skill and ministry.
Many of the earliest icons go back to the age of the Catacombs in Rome, when Christians were persecuted and were unable to build churches, so they worshipped in the catacombs and adorned their space with images of Christ, Mary, the martyrs and biblical scenes (sound familiar?) Some of these ancient catacombs are still intact. One of the earliest churches known today is the ancient church of Dura Europa in Syria (3rd c) which has icons prominent on the walls.
Once the Church was set free through the Edict of Milan by Constantine (318AD), the construction of new
churches was a primary goal, and the use of iconography was common. Great examples dating to the fifth and sixth centuries, such as the ancient basilicas of Rome (such as . St.Maria Maggiore) When the heresy of iconoclasm (image-smashers) arose in the seventh century, due in part to the influence of Islam, church images were destroyed throughout the East, however, the Churches in the West were often untouched by the political violence and destruction of churches by the iconoclasts.
In the eighth century, with the pronouncements of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (and the Triumph of Orthodoxy in 814), the icons were restored to their rightful place in Church life. With this restoration, a golden age of iconography emerged, as the theology of the Church shed light upon the depiction of
the gospel in holy, sanctifying ways through the use of images. Recall that in the vast reaches of Christianity in the first millennium, most people were illiterate - reading the gospel impossible and understanding the gospel very difficult. The icons have always served to bring gospel truth to people through the eyes, not just the ears of the human person.
However, after the Great Schism of 1054, the Roman Church began to adapt forms of images that were 'religious art', more 'realistic' in style depicting scenes in a material and sensual, rather than spiritual way. This became the norm of western religious art and grew expansively during the Renaissance until the present time. The Reformers rejected images (not unlike the iconoclasts) in part because they could no longer see the spiritual meaning and character of the religious art of their day.
In Christianity today, there is a rediscovery of iconography, even as many Protestants are now questioning their rejection of iconography, seeing the depiction of the gospel in our contemporary 'age of images' as being a new spiritual need, and searching for ways to assure that the holy character of those depictions is retained.
Much of the primary fear of icon use was based in a misunderstanding of our actions toward them. We never, never worship an icon. An icon is not a god - that is the type of idolatry that the Old Testament sternly warned about. Yet even the Old Testament did not forbid images themselves, and even prescribed them to be fashioned -in the Temple itself. To fashion an image of God is idolatry! But, the Church, in reaffirming the true human nature of Christ (Who also is divine in nature), found that a depiction of Christ to actually be an important statement about His humanity - not an attempt to somehow 'capture' His divinity through matter. This teaching, masterfully presented by the Fathers of the Church (like St. John of Damascus) and the Councils, gives us an important, balanced approach to how we see not only icons, but other spiritual things as well - which come to us through our human experience (sight as well as all of the senses). The icons become a powerful means of not only experiencing the Gospel, but also seeing dimensions of the Faith, and, as through a window, God Himself, just as we 'hear' God through the words of the Gospel announced every Sunday
We at St. Nicholas are undertaking a new iconography project at our church. Here is a local news article detailing our future plans..