Know Your Story: Church Traditions
If you were to enter the sanctuary of a Roman Catholic cathedral, or an Easter Orthodox church, you would most likely be met with many beautifully ornate images of people and symbols all over the place. These images are called icons, and they are sacred images that have added to the faith and story of Christians for centuries. They are viewed as an image of another reality, of a person, a time, and a place that is more real than here and now. More than art, icons have an important spiritual role; an icon is “theology in imagery, the icon expressed through color what the Gospel proclaims in words.”
They may seem foreign to Western Christians, but for millions of Christians throughout history, icons function as an aid to worship. Everything about the design on icons has an order and a purpose. Through lines and colors, the iconographer (the person painting the icon) conveys the awesomeness of the invisible, divine reality of God. An important element to remember when considering icons is that they were never intended to be a portrait of an individual, nor where they ever meant to become an idol. The purpose of icons is to point to a greater truth.
Symbolism is very important in iconography, whereas details are not of great importance. What a person actually looked like, shadows, or emotions are not important nor encouraged when crafting an iconographic image. Colors and specific symbolic elements are of great importance. Elements such as the dove, fire, the golden halos, scepters, even body position all symbolize greater truths than the elements themselves. The dove and fire often represent the Holy Spirit. A golden halo around a person’s head signifies that God has worked in and through them and they have received glory. Scepters and royal robes designate authority and power. Scrolls represent the Word of God being brought, while a Bible signifies the complete Gospel.
Just as colors have important symbolic meaning with regard to the colors used during the seasons of the Christian Calendar, the different colors used in icons are very significant. Blues are intended to reveal heaven and mystery. Green is the color of youth, fertility, and the earth’s vegetation. Red, the color of blood, suggests life, vitality, and beauty. White is purity, the divine world, and innocence. Gold indicates sanctity, splendor, and the glory of God and life in the heavenly kingdom. Purple reveals wealth, power, and authority.
First and foremost, icons are a constant reminder of the incarnation of Christ. They are intended to remind believers that God sent His only begotten Son to rescue us from sin and death. In icons, you will not see Jesus depicted as a baby, but often as a young child with the face of an older child or of a full grown man. This is to remove any emotionality from a baby picture, and remind the viewer that Jesus was fully man. Those who utilize icons in worship believe that surrounding themselves with icons helps them to acknowledge the constant presence of Christ and the saints in their lives.
When a Christian shows respect to an icon by kneeling or bowing before it or by kissing the icon, they are not giving honor to simply wood and paint (as an idol). Instead, they acknowledge that the icon represents much more and that the link between the icon and the person in heaven is real. They believe that, in some mystical fashion, the veneration given to the icon will be received by the person it portrays. Basically, honoring the image upon the icon gives honor to the person them self. So, honoring an icon of Mary would be to pay respect to the woman God chose to deliver salvation to the world. Praying to an icon of Jesus allows the believer to see through the image and pray directly to Jesus Himself.
Iconography has been a very important element in worship for many believers throughout history, especially in times when literacy was limited and even discouraged. When people were not able to read the Scriptures, they were still able to learn the stories through the images and symbolism depicted on the icons. Even though we live in an age where illiteracy is less prevalent, sharing the story through images and symbols is effective and adds a beautiful element to our faith lives. I encourage you to look at icons, to begin studying them and seeing the deeper meaning and greater reality they point to. Let this tradition of the Church add to and deepen your own faith journey!