Updated: Feb 15
One of the first things to notice about Orthodox practice is the place and role of icons. They are, simply, everywhere.
Icons are such an important feature of Orthodox life and practice that an entire council of the Church was dedicated to defending them in AD 787.
“In the Orthodox Church an icon is a sacred image, a window into heaven. An image of another reality, of a person, time and place that is more real than here and now. More than art, icons have an important spiritual role…. The primary purpose of the icon is to aid in worship.” Antiochian Christian Archdiocese of North America
Icons are pictures either of Jesus Christ, His mother Mary - called the Theotokos (or God-bearer), the angels, or the saints. The figures depicted are rendered in a way not to reflect things like emotion and the sorts of passions we associate with a human being living in the here-and-now, but life in God after the here-and-now, where pain and sorrow and other such passions do not pertain.
Icons are sometimes said to be 'written, not painted', which is not entirely accurate, but does refer to the fact that icons are meant to communicate realities about the Orthodox Faith that the idea of 'mere' painting might not be able to. That is, icons invite the worshipper into a heavenly reality via a visual experience of a person, being (such as an angel), or event that has been painted to communicate the true and blessed state of the subject. By this means, the icons are often said to be 'windows into heaven', and Orthodox Christians use them as tools for prayers, and instruments of worship.
Veneration NOT worship
It is important to understand that we do not worship icons. They may be blessed items that assist us in our worship, but they are not objects for worship themselves. Indeed, the Church has been emphatic in its distinction between veneration (which we can render a person or a thing) and worship (which belongs to God alone.
For this reason, Orthodox Christians will often walk into an Orthodox church, go up to an icon, cross themselves, then kiss the icon. They know when they do this, though, that their kiss is not for a piece of wood with paint on it, but rather for the person depicted upon it; earthly material changed by skill and prayer into a beloved image of a holy person.
For Orthodox Christians, icons have the wonderful power of conveying that love to person to whom it is directed, while acting as a strong visual reminder of their living reality in Christ.