Icons, their veneration, and why it’s NOT idolatry! Generally speaking, icons are a bit less contentious for those converting from Roman Catholicism due to their occasional use in that tradition to supplement statuary representing saints; for protestants, however, the use of icons can come as something of a shock as they’re not typically encountered, and are thought by some to be instances of idolatry. Here’s the thing though - icons have been part of the Church since before there was the Church, even during the life of Christ as in the Icon-Not-Made-With-Hands. Immediately following the life of Christ, the Apostle Luke (Gospel and Acts author) painted icons of the Theotokos. Furthermore there are icons in the Old Testament, as the Cherubim were depicted on the Temple walls and doors in Kings. You will sometimes hear that icons are “written” rather than “painted,” but this comes largely from the ambiguity of the Greek word εικονογραφία (image writing) - the suffix of the work, graphia indicates something either written or painted, but don’t be pretentious - if you’re painting an icon, it’s sufficient to say that. Icons were briefly disputed during the Iconoclast controversy of the 8th and 9th centuries, but as we’re reminded on the Triumph of Orthodoxy (the 1st Sunday of the Great Lent), the 7th Ecumenical Council declared icons central to our worship. Icons are important because they teach us our history and our theology, conveying truths of the Orthodox Faith through symbolism and beauty, calling us to a world transfigured by God’s love for us in the heavenly reality they depict rather than attempting to be a realistic depiction of the natural world or getting us to focus on the skill of the artist. Icons help us to slow down and focus on worshiping God free of distraction - even “action” scenes in icons have a stillness to them, drawing us to Christ, the Theotokos, and the saints.
Now, on to the part you’re most likely to be asked about - why it’s decidedly NOT idolatry to use icons in both our public and private devotional lives. The first and most obvious thing to point out is that Christ Himself, as the Incarnation of God, i.e., making visible that which is invisible, would tend to indicate that He is okay with the depiction of Himself in icons. Furthermore, the icons depict real people and events in their lives that exemplify being perfected in one’s faith in God; this differentiates them from things like the golden calf that are false idols to replace God. On a related note, we’re not worshiping the icons as the Hebrews did the golden calf; rather, we are venerating them - showing respect and love in a manner that glorifies God. For example, Christ is most often depicted in a red tunic (symbolizing His divinity) covered in a blue cloak (symbolizing His humanity); the Theotokos is most often shown with this reversed - a human who took on the Divinity of Christ within her womb. In short, icons are meant to give us all a “sneak preview” of how we might similarly become in Christ, and how through the Church, we might take part in the world to come.