ICONS – ‘Their history and Spiritual Significance’

By Dr. Zakaria Wahba

Icon is a word which  describes a religious  picture, which is  used to depict the  image of God. Today,  the word “icon” is   primarily  associated with the paintings of the Orthodox Churches. Icons have prominent place in the life and worship of the Orthodox Church.

The word “icon” is  derived from the  Greek “eikon” or  from the   Coptic word “eikonigow” both of which are similar in  their  pronunciation. The word icon is used in the Greek Bible in the Old Testament where it says, “Then God said, let us make man in our image …, so God created man in His  own image, in the image of God he created” [Genesis 1:26-27]. This word is also  used in the New Testament (the Greek Bible) in the Epistle of St. Paul  to the Colossians, “He is the image of the invisible God” [Col 1:15].

Painting has  been  known since the dawn  of the history. The ancient Egyptian artists   were famous  for their art  of painting  and carving.   One of their famous works are frescoes  representing  stories and mythological  subjects in the  tomb of  the priest   Pet Osiris at  Tuna   el-Gebel near  Mallawi in the province of Al-Menia, Egypt. This is also  evident in the elaborate sarcophagi designs,  where   Pharaohs were  buried. The  covers of  these sarcophagi were carved and  painted to  display a portrait  of the buried Pharaoh, for example King Tutankhamen.  Some of the rich people of pharaonic times were buried with their portraits iconified  on  a board.  The  ancient  Greeks  and  Romans had similar customs.

Historians date the  appearance of the iconographic  style to  the first three centuries of Christianity.  Some  archaeologists believe that icons were first popular  in  people’s houses and  later began to appear  in places of worship, probably at  the  end of the  3rd century. By  the 4th  and 5th centuries A.D. their use was widespread. The idea behind the use of icons in the Early Church is due  to the unique experience  the  Church faced. Most  Christians converts came from pagan cultures and most of them were  illiterate.  Many of  them had difficulty understanding Biblical  teachings and their  spiritual meanings, as well as the historical events that took place in the Bible  and in the life of the Church. Therefore, the  leaders of the  Early Church permitted the  use of religious pictures  (icons) because the  people were  not able  to  assimilate Christianity   and its doctrine   unaided  by  visual means.  Therefore, these presentations  aided the faithful in understanding  the  new  religion and, at same time,    illustrated it.   With  the  conversion   of the   Roman Emperor Constantine (307-337 A.D.) to  Christianity, the situation  changed radically. The Emperor hastened the triumph of Christianity  over paganism  by forbidding idolatry. The statues of the  pagan gods were removed  from the capital. Icons were used to decorate churches and  state buildings. It  is important to point

out the role of the Patriarch Cyril I (404-430 A.D.), (also known  by the name of Kyrillos the Pillar of faith), the 24th Coptic Pope. He  permitted icons to be hung in the Patriarchate and all the churches in Egypt.

With the  spread of  icons in  the  centuries  after the Emperor  Constantine, Christians began to use icons in ways that were  never intended, becoming more concerned with the art itself  rather than as  a  tool for prayer or Christian instruction. Icons were never meant to be worshiped or  venerated as something holy in themselves. The  reverence  shown to  an  icon  must be done with  the understanding that it is not the icon or artwork itself we are respecting, but rather the person or event it portrays. An  icon is meant to  be a window into the spiritual world,  used to help us  contemplate spiritual matters or to put us into a prayerful frame  of mind, as a reminder  of events in the Bible, the life of Christ and the Saints, but never as an object of worship.

A movement arose in the 8th  century opting  for the elimination of icons from churches on the grounds that they were being worshiped as graven images.  They based their ideas on the Biblical verse, “Thou  should not  make unto thee any graven image, or any  likeness  of anything that  is in the earth beneath,  or that in the water  under the earth,  thou shalt not  bow down thyself to them, nor serve them” [Exodus 20:4-5]. One of the key  figures “Lawon el-Esafry” and his followers  were  involved in  the   destruction of many icons  during this period, which is known  as the  Iconoclast (icons-destruction) controversy. It is  interesting to note  that during the reign  of Emperor Leo III in  the 8th century, the Iconoclast Controversy began and became a serious conflict in the Church. This coincided with  the  Moslem invasions of Syria,  Iraq,  Egypt and Persia. The Christian holy places in Jerusalem fell into Moslem hands.  During this conflict the  two most prominent theologians  who stood to defend the use of icons in  the Church  were  St. John  of  Damascus  (675-749 A.D.) and  St.

Theodore of Studios  (759-826  A.D.) at the  7th Ecumenical   Council  of  the Eastern Orthodox Church in 787 A.D.

Although Christianity prohibited the worship of idols, the use of icons in the proper way was not banned due to the reasons mentioned before. History relates that the use of icons in the Church has its Christian  roots from  the time of Christ. There is a number  of historical  documents for  these.  First, it  is known that the Evangelist Luke was a talented painter as well as  a physician. He painted an icon presenting the Virgin  Mary  holding the Child Jesus, which many churches  all over  the world later   on copied.  Also,  in  a  reference mentioned that the historian  “Van  Celub”  found  an icon of   the  Archangel Michael during  his visit to a  Cathedral in Alexandria, that  was made by the Apostle Luke. Second, an icon the Savior made without hands,  goes back to the first  century  when king  Abagar of  Edessa (located  between the two rivers, Euphrates and Tigris, an area in eastern Iraq)  sent a message with  his envoy Ananius to the Lord Jesus Christ to  ask if  He  could  visit the king to heal him. The king suffered from diseases and he wished  to the Lord would come and live in  his kingdom. Ananius the envoy  was a talented artist,  and  tried to paint a picture of the Lord, however the glory  and the perfect  appearance of the Lord was so great that he was unable to do  so.  The story  says  that the envoy went back to   the king with  a piece   of cloth that  had  an image  of Christ’s face. The image of the Holy  Face  of Christ  healed the  king of his diseases in the absence of Christ himself, the Holy image  had power to effect the healing of  the king. The  legend is saying virtually  the same as St Paul says “But we  all, with open face beholding  as in  a glass of   the Lord, are changed  into the same image from  glory  even as by  the spirit of  the Lord” [2-Cor 3:18]. This story  and the two  letters were copied  word for  word and published (in pages 56 and 57) in the book of “The History  of the  Church” by the  early Christian historian Eusebius  of   Caesaria  [264-340 A.D.]. Third, another story of early icon use  involves the woman in  [Luke 8:43] that Jesus Christ healed from a twelve year bleeding. The woman had drawn  on the door of her house (in village of  Banias, near   the source of   the  Jordan river)  a representation of Christ and another  of herself lying prostrate at  his feet. The historian Eusebius of Caesaria has cited this in his book “The  History of the Church” after he saw the image at the woman’s house which was still intact at the time of his visit in the 3rd century.

Therefore, an icon can  be used  in  the service of the  Gospel and   the Holy Tradition  of the Church, not a  mere artistic device.  Icons are windows into heaven. A believer meditates on  the person whose portrait is  on the icon. In this way an icon  may play a   role in enhancing  the  spiritual life  of  the believer through  the  imitation of  the   life  of the  person  in  the icon. Therefore, icons can be a blessing in our lives if we use  them in a spiritual way. An icon is not merely a piece of art,  but it carries  a lot of spiritual meaning in our lives.  The centre of Christian faith, is that “the Word became

flesh” [John 1:1].  It is not surprising to see  that  the loving and merciful face of our Lord Jesus Christ is the subject of most icons.

The art  of  making Orthodox  icons  follow certain  symbolism that carries  a meaningful message. Some  of these characteristics are: First,  large and wide eyes symbolize the  spiritual eye  that  look beyond  the material  world, the Bible says  “the light of  the body is the eye:   if   therefore thine eye  be simple, thy whole body shall be  full of light”  [Matthew 6:22]. Second, large ears listen to the word of God; “if any man have ears to  hear, let them hear” [Mark 4:23]. Third, gentle lips to glorify and praise the Lord “My mouth shall praise thee with joyful lips”  [Psalm 63:5]. The eyes and  ears on a figure in an  icon are disproportionately large, because  a spiritual person spends more time listening to God’s word and seeking to do God’s will. On  the other hand, the mouth, which can also be often be the source  of empty or harmful words is small. The nose, which  is seen a sensual  is  also small. Also, when  an evil character is portrayed on an icon, it is always in profile because  it  is not desirable to make eye contact with such a person and thus to dwell or meditate upon it. Figures in Coptic  icons  often have  large heads, meaning that these are  individuals devoted   to contemplation and   prayer. Icon artists  deeply understood  the meaning and  benefit  of icons on  the spiritual  life of  the believers. It  is interesting to note  that  the majority of the Coptic icons’

artists did not sign their names.  They were not looking or self-glorification and fame, even the few who signed their names did so in the  form of a prayer; such as “Remember O Lord your servant  (name)”. Some icons  portray Saints who suffered and were tortured  for their  faith with peaceful and  smiling faces, showing that their inner peace was not disturbed,  even  by the hardships they endured, and  suffered willingly  and joyfully  for the Lord.  Although the artistic style of iconography varies a little from one  culture to another, all Orthodox icons  have the same meaning,  usage and symbolism (this includes the Eastern Orthodox Churches;  Greek,  Russian,  Serbian, Bulgarian, … etc,  as well  a the Oriental  Orthodox Churches; Coptic, Armenian,  Syrian, Ethiopian, … etc).

There  are a few  names that  have been important   in the Coptic iconography.

They are arranged chronologically:

(1) St. Luke the Evangelist, who was a talented painter and is credited with painting the first icon.

(2) Pope Macari I, the 59th Patriarch (931-95O A.D.)

(3) Abu Yusr ibn Yalg of the 12th century.

(4) Pope Gabriel III, the 77th Patriarch (1261-1263 A.D.)

(5) John el-Nassikh, Baghdady Abu el-Saad and John the Armenian of the 17th and 18th centuries,.

(6) Anastasy the Greek of the 19th century.

Nowadays, the art  of Coptic iconography is been  revived by dedicated artists who are both professional and amateurs. The icon artist Dr.  Ishaq Fanous, who is the professor of Coptic art at  the Higher Institute  for Coptic Studies in Cairo, has done a  lot  of  work for  many churches  in Egypt and abroad.

It  is  interesting  to note that  from  time   to  time, we  witness miracles performed by God through icons. For instance, in the last few years there have  been Icons that  have “wept” oil. This phenomenon  has lead to the  healing of many, the conversion  of some  non-Christians,  and the  renewal of  faith for Christians. This has happened in Cleveland, OH,  Houston, TX, in  Egypt and in other churches such  as the Albanian  Orthodox  Church in Chicago,  IL.  These happenings have attracted the attention of the National and International News Media.

In conclusion, icons in the Orthodox tradition are not  to be taken as art for art’s sake but  rather, they are to be  used as  windows into spiritual world, designed to help us achieve a prayerful mind set and  lead  us into a  life of prayer and contemplation.

By Dr. Zakaria Wahba – Adapted for Copt-Net from “The Orchard” monthly review – Published by St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church, Washington DC, USA.  January 1993

Source: http://www.coptic.net/articles/copticicons.txt

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