Icons and Christian Worship

I love learning about icons.  The stories  hidden inside of these precious and sacred works of the Holy Spirit, never cease to fill me with wonder. Icons have been around since St. Luke wrote the first ones and brought them to the Mother of God for her blessing.  They have been around longer than the Bible.  Holy icons and holy tradition were how the stories of Christ were passed along for hundreds of years before the Bible was put together at the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.

Yet even today, these holy images are being attacked by iconoclasts, or people who refuse to accept the place icons have in Christian worship.  Some even go as far as to say icons are idols.  This type of thinking is based on a complete misunderstanding of what icons are and how they are supposed to be used.  Icons are not worshipped.  We do not pray to icons.  We venerate them.  There’s a significant difference.  This is it.

Icons told the stories of Christ and His saints long before even the Bible existed.  Christianity traveled through the ages through tradition and word of mouth and iconography.  To look at an icon, one might see a beautiful piece of art, others may see something holy and revere it, but nothing more.  Others, sadly see nothing.  But we, as Orthodox Christians should look deep into the spirit of the person being depicted.  We should ask ourselves, “What is this icon trying to tell me?”

Icons are images. The reverence and veneration shown to icons, however, is not directed to mere paint, wood, or stones, but towards the saints depicted. Even when a miracle-working icon is highly venerated, it is the true source of the miracles (God, through the intercessions of that specific saint) that is respected.

People hang photographs of loved ones (both alive and dead) on the walls of their homes and they tuck them in their wallets and purses.  It is perfectly acceptable for them to hold the photos and kiss them.  Why not a saint, then?

From OrthodoxWiki:  Veneration (gr. doulia) is a way to show great respect and love for the holy. It is to treat something or someone with reverence, deep respect, and honor. Veneration is distinct from worship (gr. latreia), for worship is a total giving over of the self to be united with God, while veneration is showing delight for what God has done. There can be confusion because one may venerate what one worships as well as venerate others. Veneration is part of worship to the Orthodox faithful, but they show love and respect to more than the God they worship.

Acts of Veneration


The kiss is an action firmly rooted in Orthodoxy. When they enter into the church, it is customary that Orthodox Christians venerate or kiss the icons. This shows love and respect. The faithful may also kiss the Priest’s right hand from time to time. This, too, is an act of veneration. The people are venerating the High Priesthood of Christ, of which the parish priest is simply a participant.

Honorific bow

Bowing can be a sign of worship as when bowing to Christ at his icon, or his cross. More often bowing is veneration as when bowing to each other, or to the saints at their icons.

This is simply a sign of respect.  Many Asian cultures bow to each other, is it to say that they worship each other?   Of course not.

This paragraph on why we use icons in the Orthodox Church explains it well.  It’s very brief, it can certainly be expanded upon, but I found it to suffice.  It was taken from St. Elizabeth’s (Murfreesboro, Tennessee) website and can be found here.

Icons – sacred art portraying Christ and those persons made holy by faith in Christ – flow from a proper understanding of the Incarnation.  God, who is Spirit, became Man, who is Flesh, and the material world will never be the same again.  If God used material creation to reach for us, we can use material creation to reach for Him (John 1:1,14; Colossians 1:15-20; Hebrews 1:1-4).  Icons have been part of Christian worship since the beginning, as they helped spread the faith “in pictures” to those who had no access to written Scriptures.  Icons are NEVER worshiped, only venerated.  Worship is reserved for God alone, and the veneration offered to an icon “passes through” the icon to the person depicted, a person who himself or herself depicted Christ in word, deed, and thought.  Why are icons special to those who venerate them?  Imagine if a dearly-loved one passed away, and the only thing by which to remember him or her was a photograph.

We mentioned that St. Luke wrote the first icons; three of the Theotokos and one of Saints Peter & Paul.  (When referring to icons, we often use the term written instead of painted, because the word eikonographia literally means image writing.  Another reason is because they tell us a story, they are scribal writings of the Scriptures.  We see in ancient cultures all over the world, the use of drawing  instead of writing.  Obviously, this was because most of the population in those days was illiterate, but it is also because images are a very resourceful way of telling a story and recording history.

St. Luke was one of the Seventy and accompanied the Lord with Cleopas on the way to Emmaus. (Luke 24)  It was there that he became a fellow laborer with St. Paul.  After St. Paul’s martyrdom, he traveled preaching the word of God.  He was eventually hung from an Olive tree at the age of 84.  His wonderworking relics were transferred to Constantinople by the Emperor Constantius.

So, briefly, I want to touch upon two icons; one of Christ and one of the Theotokos.

In most icons of Christ, we notice He is dressed in a red robe on the inside and a blue outer robe. The symbolizes divinity and the blue symbolizes human nature.  He was divine before He took on human flesh, so the red is on the inside. These colors are not intermingled, signifying that He is both fully human and fully God and will remain so forever.

Halos are a universal symbol of holiness.  We see that the halo around His head is different from the others because it is separated into four parts, symbolizing the cross.  Only three of the arms are shown, symbolizing the Trinity.  The letters Omicron, Omega and Ni are written inside and literally mean I AM.  This is a direct reference of Christ’s divinity, as I AM was the name God revealed to Moses (Ex. 3:14). Jesus attributed this title to Himself when He said: “Before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58), attesting to His divinity and His eternal existence (two ways of saying the same thing). These revelations of Jesus Christ’s nature and the Holy Trinity are preserved in Christ’s Halo.

The arrangement of the hand, repeated by clergy when blessing others, is also rich in meaning. The fingers spell out the four-letter Christogram “IC XC”, as it is by the name of Jesus that we are saved and receive blessings. “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;” (Phil 2:10). Not only that, but the three fingers of Christ – as well as spelling out “I” and “X” – confess the Tri-unity of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The touching finger and thumb of Jesus not only spell out “C”, but attest to the Incarnation: to the joining of divine and human natures found in the body of Jesus Christ.

He holds a book in His left hand which is sometimes adorned with the cross, identifying it as the Gospels. In this icon, the book is shown open with words from the Gospels visible symbolizing the Gospel is Truth.

The Theotokos is generally depicted wearing opposite colors; blue on the inside and red on the outside, as she was human before becoming divine.  The three stars on her robe (both shoulders and her forehead) tell us she was a virgin before, during and after the birth of Christ.

There is a beautiful homily written by St. John of Kronstadt that I’ll have to find that explains how the spirit of the person depicted lives inside the icon; that the eyes of the icon see what is before them.   This is why many icons weep or myrrh.

Click here to see some of my other favorite icons.  What are some of your favorite icons?

9 thoughts on “Icons and Christian Worship

  1. Thank you for the excellent explanation of icons. I’ve often heard them called”windows to heaven,” as we venerate the saints through them. I plan on using your words in a Church School lesson, if you don’t mind. I’m teaching the high school class this year, and I want to show them all the wonderful Orthodox resources on the internet that they can use to grow in the Orthodox faith,

    1. Lynne, I’m glad you enjoyed this post. I, too, have heard them referred to as “windows to heaven”, and indeed they are. Feel free to use whatever you need, all is for the glory of God! Hope all is well!

  2. I loved your essay here. As a fairly new Orthodox Christian, I must admit that Icons were hard for me at first. I did not find them beautiful, but sad and forlorn. Learning about the lives of the Saints that have gone on before us was the first step in learning to admire and venerate the Icons. Once I learned about their lives, I began to see their beauty, feel their pain, and respect and admire what they have done for others and for Christ. Accepting Icons as part of Christian worship, is to accept the Incarnation of Christ Himself…I love our Icons so much now, and am thankful that they are part of our daily lives!

    1. Christa, you are absolutely right in saying that learning about the lives of the saints depicted is the first step in understanding them. I can certainly understand how you felt at first, I can understand a lot of what people say about them. Luckily, I also understand their feelings to be because of a lack of knowledge of what icons really are. It’s easy to misinterpret how they are used, especially when so many Orthodox people “misuse” them. But, if you have an open mind and an open heart and truly start at the beginning with them, it’s easy to see their role in the big picture.

  3. I am new to Orthodoxy…. well, we were Christmated 4 1/5 years ago (but it still seems so new to me!) and I came from a back-ground that taught against icons. In fact, when my husband and I were leaving our Protestant church in search of the Orthodox faith, we were told that we were idolators. I’d admit to having a bit of a difficult time venerating…. anything, but I’m thankful for a change of heart.
    I love our parish’s icons and learn so much from my time viewing them. The Church’s icons not only strengthen my own faith, but are an amazing resource when explaining a
    feast or story to my children.
    We are so blessed to have the icons as a part of our worship. What a rich faith we’ve been given!

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