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May - June 2004

ORTHODOX LIFE:
The Meaning of Icons

We are often confronted in Orthodox icons with images of Christ, His Holy Mother the Theotokos, and the saints, bearing cryptic Greek acronyms or images in styles that can confuse the modern observer.

One must always bear in mind that the images in iconography are never intended to convey realistic "photographs" of history, although many will do this. The primary intention of iconography is theological, to teach about and facilitate an encounter with the True God, unimpeded by artistic style and variation. For this reason, all images of holy personages bear a "halo", familiar to observers of Western style holy pictures, but with an important difference: the holy light reflecting the faces of saints in Orthodox icons does not stand above the heads of the holy ones, but rather settles on them, as part of them.

Just as Christ humbled Himself to become man, so too does the uncreated light of God surround the images of His holy ones, who bear the likeness of Christ - the very reason most icons "all look the same", since they bear the likeness of the same Lord.

Most holy images bear the name of the feast or saint which they depict. Icons of the Lord usually bear the letters "IC XC" - a shorthand form of the name "Jesus Christ" in Greek. The halo of the Lord always bears lletters denoting the Holy Name of God given to Moses: "He Who Is", or "He Who Exists", or again, "The Existing One" ("I Am That I Am"). Similarly, icons of the Mother of God bear the letters meaning literally, "Mother of God".

Icons are usually depicted in an outdoor, natural setting; if the historical setting of an event depicted in an icon is indoors, small towers or simple tapestries provide an "indoors" backdrop without separating from the natural Creation the holy persons depicted. Those who are not yet fully reflecting the Image and Likeness of God - such as Adam and Eve in the icon of the Resurrection - are not depicted with icons (unless this is done in ignorance), and evil images - such as demons or Judas - are depicted obliquely, in darkened tones and in smaller stature, usually showing only profiles.

Orthodox icons are often appreciated for their beauty, and indeed, they reflect a beauty that is not of this world. More importantly, icons are a depiction of the Truth - Jesus Christ and His holy ones - and as such teach the faithful about Him and them, and bring us intimately closer to the holiness of Christ.

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