What are icons? Are they just paintings? Are they only effigies of saints of the past? Or do they point to a greater reality than just wood and paint?
Some have called icons windows to heaven. Symbols pointing to reality. What are symbols? Symbols are objects, figures, paintings, images that point toward reality. The object, such as bread and wine are not Jesus Christ but point toward the reality of Christ and his sacrifice. Yet, at the same time, in sacramental theology, these symbols contain the reality and presence of what they represent.
So the image on an icon is not the saint himself (or herself). When one contemplates an icon the image points us in the direction of the reality of that person, who is still alive in the presence of God.
Here are some things that an icon is and is not according to the book Windows to Heaven:
An icon is not intended to be a work of art illustrating an incident from Christ's life or a theme.
An icon, in a sense, is like anamnesis. It is a remembering that takes you to the presence of a certain moment in time.
An icon brings a person to the moment of happening in a mysterious way.
An icon is not simply a material reflection of a spiritual reality.
An icon is not an accessory to the act of worship.
An icon is not an idol.
Some have claimed making an image of God goes against the Law and the Ten Commandments. And some mistake veneration for worship. A person does not worship an icon. The icon points to the reality of that person. And the person reveres that person as one to be highly honored. And Christ is the one perfect God-man who ought to be revered.
An icon is an instrument through which the knowledge of God, in his mysterious human incarnation, becomes accessible to humankind.
An icon is the physical witness to the sanctification of matter.
All matter is good because in the beginning, God created all things good. Then man fell and corrupted matter. But in Christ, all material has been redeemed. The incarnation shows that material things can be sanctified and redeemed. That all matter is not lost into final corruption. In Christ, when matter is redeemed in Christ, it is declared good again. Man was redeemed in Jesus Christ. Christianity is not a gnostic religion claiming that material is evil. Matter matters to God. He wants to redeem all things. And does so through Jesus Christ.
An icon is a means by which both iconographer and worshiper can participate in the realm of eternity.
An icon brings one to the reality of eternity where the great cloud of witnesses is present. Where all Christians who have fallen asleep are alive and well. That the great hope of all things redeemed in Christ is present. An icon brings us to that place.
An icon is not painted, it is written. The iconographer fasts and prays and begins working. The iconographer writes down a text using images rather than words. Every image and color means something in an icon. For instance, blue is the color of divinity. Red the color of blood and flesh. Wings mean the willingness to quickly obey God's word.
Like Christ coming into the world in flesh (being fully human and fully divine), the icon portrays a divine reality within a temporal context. Through material things, through matter, icons point to the divine reality of the saint or person who is alive. The image is not to be worshipped. But these material representations of the reality of saints, point us outside space and time. That there are intercessors for our souls who have gone before us and who are just beyond the veil praying for us.
When one venerates an icon, one uses the body and the mind. We see with our eyes, we genuflect with our body, we kneel, we make the sign of the cross. We contemplate the image in our mind. We ask for help or ask for their prayers. We are not asking the piece of wood and paint for prayers (these are not talismans). We are asking the saint himself or herself to intercede. It is like asking a friend to pray for us.
Images are all around us. We have physical bodies and we see with them and walk in them. We are not ghosts in the machine yearning to escape. We worship with our minds, but also with our bodies. The incarnation is very important because it emphasizes the importance of the physical, the goodness of all creation. The importance of the body. The importance of the whole person: body, mind, spirit. But the incarnation also stresses the reality and importance of the divine. When we pray, we are not exercising our mind or speech, we actually pray to someone who is God or are asking for prayers from someone who is still alive in paradise.
Icons bring us into the presence of the divine through a material image. Jesus Christ is the perfect divine being who is man and God and brings us to the presence of God the Father. The iconostasis and the icons that adorn the altar of an Orthodox church and are a picture into the divine. They bring us into heaven in a mysterious way. The icon reminds us that all matter is being redeemed in God and the God in three persons, yet one God. The icon draws us toward the reality of heaven and teaches us to pray. We pray: pray thou thyself within us. That we may become more like Christ, more like the saint whom one contemplates in the image of the icon. We too are icons. We are human beings made in the image and likeness of God and have the greatest dignity and are to be highly respected because of who our Father truly is. We are not images to be cast away. But we are icons to be respected, loved, and made more like Christ.