Orthodox Icons: History & Meaning

What are Eastern Orthodox Church icons? In a nutshell, they are specific works of religious icon art (in most cases, represented by paintings depicting Jesus Christ, the Mother of God, saints, archangels, events from Church history, scenes from the Bible, holy traditions, and theological concepts) that play an essential role in Orthodox Christian faith.

History

The first religious icons, or rather the first images with common symbols of Christian meaning, date back to around 150 – 200 A.D. These unique antique icons were discovered by archeologists in the catacombs of Rome. However, the history of religious icons goes back even further, as very similar images were also found in the Holy Temple and some synagogues in Jerusalem. According to Church tradition, the first Orthodox icon, depicting the Virgin Mary and Christ, was painted by Evangelist Luke, the author of the Book of Acts and the Gospel of Luke. For today, it is known as the Theotokos of Vladimir and located in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, Russia.

Importance of incarnation

Eastern Orthodox Church icons are probably the most important statement about the God’s nature. The fact is that before Jesus Christ came to earth as a flesh-and-blood person, God couldn’t be depicted. Thus, His incarnation into a human being gave people an opportunity to depict God Himself. For today, Orthodox Christianity icons of Jesus Christ are another proof that He became one of us.

Theology

Hand-painted Orthodox icons are usually called “windows into heaven.” The fact is that it is believed that religious icons connect us with the spiritual world. They don’t just depict holy persons or some facts and scenes from the Bible but also reveal the spiritual truth about the depicting subject via numerous meaningful symbols inherent to the religious icon art. This is directly related to the tradition of kissing Orthodox icons. This action is not an expression of love for the religious icon – it is an expression of love for the holy person depicted.

Orthodox icons are not idols

As it is written above, Orthodox Christians don’t worship religious icons. Moreover, they don’t worship the saints. What they do is they honor and venerate them, as well as ask for their prayers. All love directed at the saints is ultimately love aimed at God. 

Destruction and restoration of religious icons

The first period of iconoclasm (the destruction of religious icons and monuments) began around the year 730 A.D. However, after the Seventh Ecumenical Council that took place in Nicaea in 787 A.D., the icons were recognized as essential to the Christian faith thanks to Iconodules, who defended the place of religious icon paintings in the Church and fought against those laws. The second period of iconoclasm (813 – 843 A.D.) ended with Triumph of Orthodoxy when the religious icons were finally restored. This event is currently celebrated on the first Sunday of Great Lent each year.

Nowadays, Eastern Orthodox Church icons are still a very important part of Orthodox Christian faith. They are truly sacred images, not for nothing called “windows into heaven.” Therefore, at RussianIcon, we are very proud to present you our unique collection of rare museum-quality Russian icons and other essential religious artifacts for sale!

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