'Their history and Spiritual Significance'
By Dr. Zakaria Wahba
Adapted for Copt-Net from "The Orchard" monthly review
Published by St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church,
Washington DC, USA.
Icon is a word which describes a religious picture, which is used to
the image of God. Today, the word "icon" is primarily associated with the
paintings of the Orthodox Churches. Icons have prominent place in the life and
worship of the Orthodox Church.
The word "icon" is derived from the Greek "eikon" or from the Coptic word
"eikonigow" both of which are similar in their pronounciation. The word icon
is used in the Greek Bible in the Old Testament where it says, "Then God said,
let us make man in our image ..., so God created man in His own image, in the
image of God he created" [Genesis 1:26-27]. This word is also used in the New
Testament (the Greek Bible) in the Epistle of St. Paul to the Colossians, "He
is the image of the invisible God" [Col 1:15].
Painting has been known since the dawn of the history. The ancient Egyptian
artists were famous for their art of painting and carving. One of their
famous works are frescoes representing stories and mythological subjects in
the tomb of the priest Pet Osiris at Tuna el-Gebel near Mallawi in the
province of Al-Menia, Egypt. This is also evident in the elaborate sarcophagi
designs, where Pharaohs were buried. The covers of these sarcophagi were
carved and painted to display a portrait of the buried Pharaoh, for example
King Tutankhamen. Some of the rich people of pharaonic times were buried with
their portraits iconified on a board. The ancient Greeks and Romans had
Historians date the appearance of the iconographic style to the first three
centuries of Christianity. Some archaeologists believe that icons were first
popular in people's houses and later began to appear in places of worship,
probably at the end of the 3rd century. By the 4th and 5th centuries A.D.
their use was widespread. The idea behind the use of icons in the Early Church
is due to the unique experience the Church faced. Most Christians converts
came from pagan cultures and most of them were illiterate. Many of them had
difficulty understanding Biblical teachings and their spiritual meanings, as
well as the historical events that took place in the Bible and in the life of
the Church. Therefore, the leaders of the Early Church permitted the use of
religious pictures (icons) because the people were not able to assimilate
Christianity and its doctrine unaided by visual means. Therefore, these
presentations aided the faithful in understanding the new religion and, at
same time, illustrated it. With the conversion of the Roman Emperor
Constantine (307-337 A.D.) to Christianity, the situation changed radically.
The Emperor hastened the triumph of Christianity over paganism by forbidding
idolatry. The statues of the pagan gods were removed from the capital. Icons
were used to decorate churches and state buildings. It is important to point
out the role of the Patriarch Cyril I (404-430 A.D.), (also known by the name
of Kyrillos the Pillar of faith), the 24th Coptic Pope. He permitted icons to
be hung in the Patriarchate and all the churches in Egypt.
With the spread of icons in the centuries after the Emperor Constantine,
Christians began to use icons in ways that were never intended, becoming more
concerned with the art itself rather than as a tool for prayer or Christian
instruction. Icons were never meant to be worshiped or venerated as something
holy in themselves. The reverence shown to an icon must be done with the
understanding that it is not the icon or artwork itself we are respecting, but
rather the person or event it portrays. An icon is meant to be a window into
the spiritual world, used to help us contemplate spiritual matters or to put
us into a prayerful frame of mind, as a reminder of events in the Bible, the
life of Christ and the Saints, but never as an object of worship.
A movement arose in the 8th century opting for the elimination of icons from
churches on the grounds that they were being worshiped as graven images. They
based their ideas on the Biblical verse, "Thou should not make unto thee any
graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in the earth beneath, or
that in the water under the earth, thou shalt not bow down thyself to them,
nor serve them" [Exodus 20:4-5]. One of the key figures "Lawon el-Esafry" and
his followers were involved in the destruction of many icons during this
period, which is known as the Iconoclast (icons-destruction) controversy. It
is interesting to note that during the reign of Emperor Leo III in the 8th
century, the Iconoclast Controversy began and became a serious conflict in the
Church. This coincided with the Moslem invasions of Syria, Iraq, Egypt and
Persia. The Christian holy places in Jerusalem fell into Moslem hands. During
this conflict the two most prominent theologians who stood to defend the use
of icons in the Church were St. John of Damascus (675-749 A.D.) and St.
Theodore of Studios (759-826 A.D.) at the 7th Ecumenical Council of the
Eastern Orthodox Church in 787 A.D.
Although Christianity prohibited the worship of idols, the use of icons in the
proper way was not banned due to the reasons mentioned before. History relates
that the use of icons in the Church has its Christian roots from the time of
Christ. There is a number of historical documents for these. First, it is
known that the Evangelist Luke was a talented painter as well as a physician.
He painted an icon presenting the Virgin Mary holding the Child Jesus, which
many churches all over the world later on copied. Also, in a reference
mentioned that the historian "Van Celub" found an icon of the Archangel
Michael during his visit to a Cathedral in Alexandria, that was made by the
Apostle Luke. Second, an icon the Savior made without hands, goes back to the
first century when king Abagar of Edessa (located between the two rivers,
Euphrates and Tigris, an area in eastern Iraq) sent a message with his envoy
Ananius to the Lord Jesus Christ to ask if He could visit the king to heal
him. The king suffered from diseases and he wished to the Lord would come and
live in his kingdom. Ananius the envoy was a talented artist, and tried to
paint a picture of the Lord, however the glory and the perfect appearance of
the Lord was so great that he was unable to do so. The story says that the
envoy went back to the king with a piece of cloth that had an image of
Christ's face. The image of the Holy Face of Christ healed the king of his
diseases in the absence of Christ himself, the Holy image had power to effect
the healing of the king. The legend is saying virtually the same as St Paul
says "But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass of the Lord, are
changed into the same image from glory even as by the spirit of the Lord"
[2-Cor 3:18]. This story and the two letters were copied word for word and
published (in pages 56 and 57) in the book of "The History of the Church" by
the early Christian historian Eusebius of Caesaria [264-340 A.D.]. Third,
another story of early icon use involves the woman in [Luke 8:43] that Jesus
Christ healed from a twelve year bleeding. The woman had drawn on the door of
her house (in village of Banias, near the source of the Jordan river) a
representation of Christ and another of herself lying prostrate at his feet.
The historian Eusebius of Caesaria has cited this in his book "The History of
the Church" after he saw the image at the woman's house which was still intact
at the time of his visit in the 3rd century.
Therefore, an icon can be used in the service of the Gospel and the Holy
Tradition of the Church, not a mere artistic device. Icons are windows into
heaven. A believer meditates on the person whose portrait is on the icon. In
this way an icon may play a role in enhancing the spiritual life of the
believer through the imitation of the life of the person in the icon.
Therefore, icons can be a blessing in our lives if we use them in a spiritual
way. An icon is not merely a piece of art, but it carries a lot of spiritual
meaning in our lives. The center of Christian faith, is that "the Word became
flesh" [John 1:1]. It is not surprising to see that the loving and merciful
face of our Lord Jesus Christ is the subject of most icons.
The art of making Orthodox icons follow certain symbolism that carries a
meaningful message. Some of these characteristics are: First, large and wide
eyes symbolize the spiritual eye that look beyond the material world, the
Bible says "the light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be
simple, thy whole body shall be full of light" [Matthew 6:22]. Second, large
ears listen to the word of God; "if any man have ears to hear, let them hear"
[Mark 4:23]. Third, gentle lips to glorify and praise the Lord "My mouth shall
praise thee with joyful lips" [Psalm 63:5]. The eyes and ears on a figure in
an icon are disproportionately large, because a spiritual person spends more
time listening to God's word and seeking to do God's will. On the other hand,
the mouth, which can also be often be the source of empty or harmful words is
small. The nose, which is seen a sensual is also small. Also, when an evil
character is portrayed on an icon, it is always in profile because it is not
desirable to make eye contact with such a person and thus to dwell or meditate
upon it. Figures in Coptic icons often have large heads, meaning that these
are individuals devoted to contemplation and prayer. Icon artists deeply
understood the meaning and benefit of icons on the spiritual life of the
believers. It is interesting to note that the majority of the Coptic icons'
artists did not sign their names. They were not looking or self-glorification
and fame, even the few who signed their names did so in the form of a prayer;
such as "Remember O Lord your servant (name)". Some icons portray Saints who
suffered and were tortured for their faith with peaceful and smiling faces,
showing that their inner peace was not disturbed, even by the hardships they
endured, and suffered willingfully and joyfully for the Lord. Although the
aristic style of iconography varies a little from one culture to another, all
Orthodox icons have the same meaning, usage and symbolism (this includes the
Eastern Orthodox Churches; Greek, Russian, Serbian, Bulgarian, ... etc, as
well a the Oriental Orthodox Churches; Coptic, Armenian, Syrian, Ethiopian,
There are a few names that have been important in the Coptic iconography.
They are arranged chronologically:
(1) St. Luke the Evangelist, who was a talented painter and is credited with
painting the first icon.
(2) Pope Macari I, the 59th Patriarch (931-95O A.D.)
(3) Abu Yusr ibn Yalg of the 12th century.
(4) Pope Gabriel III, the 77th Patriarch (1261-1263 A.D.)
(5) John el-Nassikh, Baghdady Abu el-Saad and John the Armenian of the 17th
and 18th centuries, and
(6) Anastasy the Greek of the 19th century.
Nowadays, the art of Coptic iconography is been revived by dedicated artists
who are both professional and amateurs. The icon artist Dr. Ishaq Fanous, who
is the professor of Coptic art at the Higher Institute for Coptic Studies in
Cairo, has done a lot of work for many churches in Egypt and abroad.
It is interesting to note that from time to time, we witness miracles
performed by God through icons. For instance, in the last few years there have
been Icons that have "wept" oil. This phenomenon has lead to the healing of
many, the conversion of some non-Christians, and the renewal of faith for
Christians. This has happened in Cleveland, OH, Houston, TX, in Egypt and in
other churches such as the Albanian Orthodox Church in Chicago, IL. These
happenings have attracted the attention of the National and International News
In conclusion, icons in the Orthodox tradition are not to be taken as art for
art's sake but rather, they are to be used as windows into spiritual world,
designed to help us achieve a prayerful mind set and lead us into a life of
prayer and contemplation. The interested reader might want to check the icons
scanned and stored in Copt-Net Archives.