What is it you do again? You mean those little pictures on the computer??
Often when people hear the word “icon”, they think first of computer graphics. This is, in fact, an apt analogy. A computer icon is a 2D image which represents something else. Click on it, and it opens up into another “world”, with deeper and deeper layers. Likewise, the art of the religious icon is flat and stylized at first glance, yet when contemplated, opens up the viewer to another reality. It is a glimpse into Paradise, the glory of God, and our future as faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Prayer and contemplation of the icon leads one deeper and deeper into faith and holiness.
The religious icon is the liturgical art of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It was created by the early Christian church–an expression of doctrine, witness and prayerful contemplation of our beginnings as a people and a church. The first iconographer is said to be St. Luke the Evangelist–who made an image of Mary with hands uplifted in prayer as the first icon. Most icons from the first 8 centuries have been lost over time–including this first one by St. Luke–but an important tradition had begun: successive iconographers faithfully interpreted the original images for new nations and generations, thus passing down to us the same images and same teachings that our earliest church founders established. Any changes in the image would imply a change in doctrine, thus canons were established during the early ecumenical councils. Approval and blessing from the bishop was required before a new icon was started. Appearance, details, symbols and interpretations were preserved through this tradition. The icon is integral to liturgy, sacraments, and worship in the church.
Over the centuries, a schism developed between the Eastern and Western churches. The Western church moved towards an artistic aesthetic of individual self-expression typified by the Rennaissance period. Religious images were primarily decorative. The Eastern church continued to preserve and develop the original Christian artistic tradition of doctrinal liturgical images.
To this day, icons remain central to Eastern Orthodox worship and prayer life. Icons are regarded as the Gospel in line and color, and as such, are “written” as the word of God, rather than painted as a picture. They are expressions of essential doctrine of the church rather than the subjective interpretations of an individual artist. Icons are not signed pieces of art. Instead they are written by the Holy Spirit through the hand of an iconographer, who lives a prayer-centered, simple life.