One of the things that strike a non-Orthodox visitor on the first visit to an Orthodox Church is the icons. Icons are everywhere. They lie on stands and are hung on walls.
There may be frescos or mosaics. Orthodox Christians kiss icons, light candles around them and pray to the person depicted on them. Icons are an essential part of Orthodoxy.
Icons go back quite early in Christian history, although not many early icons survive because they were destroyed by iconoclasts, as we shall see in a moment.
According to tradition, St. Luke, author of the third Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, painted icons of the Virgin Mary.We are not sure how many icons of her he painted but he is usually credited with at least two. He is said to have painted an icon Hodightria (the Directress, or the one who shows the way). These icons show the Mother of God pointing to the infant Jesus who is sitting on her lap. The point is that she is directing us to her Son, who is “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6).
Another icon by St. Luke is the Eleousa (Merciful, Tenderness). This icon shows St. Mary embracing the Christ child and the Christ child embracing or caressing His mother.
It makes sense that St. Luke should have painted an icon of the Mother of God. St. Luke appears to have written the part of his Gospel that describes the circumstances of Christ’s birth from her point of view. We are not sure where the originals of St. Luke’s icons are now, but icons in these styles are found everywhere in the Orthodox world.
Another icon from the early days of the church is the icon ‘not made by human hands’. The story behind this icon is as follows: King Abgar of Edessa was suffering from leprosy. He heard that Jesus Christ was a great healer so he sent a servant to Jesus to ask him to come to Edessa and cure him. Christ told the servant that He could not come to Edessa. However, Christ took a piece of cloth and pressed it o his face and his face miraculously appeared on the cloth. The servant took the cloth to King Abgar who put it on his body and was healed. This icon of the Holy Face is called the Mandylion and the icon ‘Not Made by Human Hands’ because it was not painted by an artist. This icon eventually ended up in Constantinople, from where it was stolen by a crusader in 1204. Its current location is uncertain.
These narratives of St. Luke’s icons and the Mandylion would be difficult to ascertain historically but they show that the memory of the church knows that icons go back to the earliest period of the church.
In spite of this, in the early 8th century the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) emperor Leo III banned icons. He ordered the icons to be taken out of churches, monasteries, public places, and homes. This is known as iconoclasm or the smashing of icons. This is the first iconoclast period which lasted from 730-787AD. Many Orthodox Christians suffered arrest, torture, and death in defense of icons. No one is quite sure why Leo began this campaign against icons. One theory is that he was influenced by Islam, which is against icons. Some say that he was influenced by the Old Testament which forbade the making of images of God (Ex 20:4). This prohibition made sense in the Old Testament period because no one had seen God, so the image of God would have been a product of human imagination and fantasy and so would have been an idol.
However, things changed radically in New Testament times when Jesus Christ, the eternal Son, and Word came into the world. Jesus Christ is God in the flesh. As St. John writes “Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, `Show us the Father’?; (Jn 14:8-9)
“Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied,” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, `Show us the Father’?; (Jn 14:8-9)
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God;” (Jn 1:1-2)
So because Jesus is God in the flesh He can be depicted in icons.
In any case, Emperor Leo was succeeded by his son Constantine V, who continued his father’s policy as did the next emperor Leo IV. However, when he died his son Constantine VI was still a child so his mother Irene became regent, ruling in place of her young son. Irene was a supporter of icons and so called a council which later was known as the 7th Ecumenical Council or Nicaea 2. During the lifetime of Empress Irene and the next two emperors, icons were venerated, but a new campaign against icons was begun by Emperor Leo V. This is the second iconoclast period which lasted from 814-843AD. This policy was continued by his son Michael II. But when Michael died Empress Theodora became regent for her young son Michael II and she ordered icons to be restored on the first Sunday of Great Lent in 843AD. From this time to the present the day is celebrated as the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy.