Christian art has its origins quite early in the life of the Church. Symbols found in the catacombs testify to the use of art to convey theological statements as early as the beginnings of the second century.
The above symbols were used for identification between Christians but also as a statement of their faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Saviour. The lamb is an early symbol which was finally forbidden by the fifth ecumenical council.
We do not know exactly how early Christ and the saints began to be portrayed in icons, although there is a tradition in the Orthodox Church of four icons of the Virgin Mary holding Christ regarded to have been painted by the hand of St. Luke himself. There is also the Holy Mandelion which is an imprint of the face of Jesus on cloth which was considered to have been miraculously created by Jesus himself after the request of King Abgar of Edessa who was ill and wanted to see Him.
Holy icons depicting Jesus, the Virgin, and other saints seem to have proliferated by the beginning of the 8th century. What is also apparent is that a wrong approach to the use of icons in worship accompanied this increase of the presence of holy images in the life of Christians. This abuse of images by ignorant Christians eventually sparked a reaction against holy images, which we know as iconoclasm1, during the reign of Emperor Leo III (717-741) which continued with vigor under his successor, Constantine V (741-775) and into the ninth century.
The Iconoclastic Controversy was not just about images, however, but was closely associated with the Christological controversies of previous centuries.2 Eventually, the 7th Ecumencial Council in 787 upheld the veneration of holy images as an extension of the doctrine of the Incarnation.3 Since God assumed human form and lived among us we are allowed to depict him on icons.
One of the main defenders of holy images was St. John of Damascus who lived in the monastery of St. Savvas in Palestine, under Moslem rule at the time, away from the politics of Constantinople and safe from the imperial persecutions of the iconophiles and defenders of icons.
St. John of Damascus wrote several treatises in which he answers the iconoclastic theologians who based their opposition to images on: (a) the Old Testament condemnation of idolatry, and (b) on the philosophical presupposition that an image is one in essence with its prototype – hence an image of God will be taken to be God Himself – hence idolatrous. St. John of Damascus addressed the weakness of the theology of the iconoclasts with regard to the Incarnate Jesus. They spoke of a divinity who absorbed humanity and united with it making it devoid of its human characteristics, thus approaching the heresy of Eutyches and the monophysites. St. John emphasized along with Necephorus of Constantinople and Theodore the Studite that through the Incarnation God entered human history and established a special relationship between the divine and the human, between divinity and matter, between the creator and the creation.
St John pointed out that: “In former times, God, being without form or body, could in no way be represented. But today, since God has appeared in the flesh and lived among men, I can represent what is visible in God. I do not worship matter, but I worship the creator of matter who became matter for my sake … and who, through matter accomplished my salvation. Never will I cease to honor the matter which brought about my salvation.”
St John makes a distinction between worship or adoration (Latreia) which is offered only to God and veneration (Proskynesis) or bowing down before something, that in the Old Testament is offered even by the prophets to kings or other human beings.
He also demonstrates that it is wrong to identify every image with its prototype except only in the case of the Son, Who is the image of the Father because they are of the same essence to start with.
Hence, the icon is a theological statement of the Incarnation of God and not God himself. His main point was that we venerate icons, but give worship and adoration to God alone.
Praying with the Icons
Every home has a corner for prayer where they keep their icons. Our mind is destracted by the cares of life, the duties and concerns of every day and the noise of the world. We need to withdraw from everything into a peaceful room and create a prayerful, serene atmosphere by lighting a candle or an oil-lamp in front of the icons, burning incence, cleaning of all thoughts we may begin to pray with the Jesus Prayer until the soul comes to stillness and the heart tastes the sweetness of the presence of God. The mind eventually descends into the heart and the prayer becomes “prayer of the heart.”