Icons (from the Greek eikona) are sacred images representing the saints, Christ, and the Virgin, as well as narrative scenes such as the Nativity or Christ's Crucifixion. They can also be crafted in a variety of materials including marble, ivory, ceramic, gemstone, precious metal, enamel, textile, fresco, and mosaics.
Icons can be found in many sizes, from the miniature to the monumental. Some are suspended around the neck as pendants, others (called "triptychs") have panels on each side that can be opened and closed. Most common are panel icons used in homes and churches for private and liturgical devotions. Fresco and mosaic iconographic images are also found decorating church interiors.
Iconography does not seek to express an artist's personal point of view, but expresses the teachings of the historical church, its traditions, and Scripture. Icons are made and used in an atmosphere of prayer. Contemplating the visual representation of the icon the faithful are brought into contact with the presence of God.
The artist is not so concerned about the exterior resemblance of the subject, but attempts to capture the essence and spirit of the person or event portrayed. Strict rules of subject and technique fosters a timeless and universal quality of the icon which expresses the mystery of the divine. Since authenticity is essential in an icon, there are a few classic forms which are repeated, and yet one cannot claim that icons are only copies. The aim of painting/writing an icon is not how to be different, but how to be better.
The theology of the icon is based on the Incarnation, the revelation of the Image of God in the human form of Jesus Christ. Tradition tells us the first icon was one made without human hands and revealed to us His sacred creation. By imitating the divine artist, the iconographer not only participates in this creation, but theologically asserts the reality of Jesus' humanity.
Made in God's image the icon of God exists in each of us. Through this existence, man has the ability to be in communion with God, to be transformed by his presence, and become like God (Theosis), participating in His divine character. As a bridge of prayer between God and the human person, an icon allows the viewer the occasion to be in the Divine presence. Icons of the sacred not only set an atmosphere for prayer, but by contemplating the holiness of the person represented in the icon, one can experience the presence of God.
Icons are used to enhance the beauty of the church, to teach us about our faith, and to remind us of this teaching. By bringing us in contact with these holy persons, we are invited to imitate them as we strive for transformation and sanctification. The icon is a means of worshipping God and venerating his saints.
The painted wood or wall has no value in itself if the believer is not put in a relationship with God. The icon is not just a symbol or reminder of a holy person, but manifests the presence of God through the transfigured subject. This subject is shown as redeemed and participating in God's light. As the saints lived a life in Christ they invite us to enter into the same communion. As the sacred images of the icon brings the viewer into a living encounter with the person represented, an icon becomes a door to sacred time and space.
An iconographer attempts to portray the Christian dogmas of his faith. He does not reproduce what he sees but what he understands about the essence of life. The artist has to be a person transformed by prayer in order to perceive a universe that has been transfigured through Christ. He asks God to inspire and guide his hand. Understanding that God is the true artist, icons are not signed by the iconographer.
"We have returned to rediscovering the icon with its very strict rules. . .Thus, we too can once again resume our journey of the humble rediscovery of the great images, towards an ever new liberation from too many words, too many images, in order to rediscover the essential images we need. God himself has shown us his image and we can rediscover this image by means of a profound meditation on the Word that will regenerate the images."
- Pope Benedict XVI
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