Icons are different from other forms of religious and devotional art, such as statues and holy cards, paintings, or medals, which usually aim at showing an historic resemblance to the saint. An icon is more than a religious picture. It is a vehicle for the sacred, the holy… a link between the concrete world as we know it, and the spiritual world that we know by faith. As a form of sacred art, the icon does not show the actual, physical or historical resemblance of a saint, but rather their transformed person as they live now in the glory of God. From the Greek word, “eiken,” meaning image or likeness, the icon is regarded as a sacred image that has already brought us into the Holy Presence of the one being contemplated. An “eikon” dares to portray a heavenly being, because Christ is the “eikon” of the Invisible God, enfleshed.
Leontius of Cyrus (c. 695) called icons “open books that remind us of God.” Stephen the Younger (c. 764) saw an icon as “a door.” St. John Damascene (c. 730), Doctor of the Church, said that icons “are on a par with Sacred Scripture.” They are a source of divine revelation. God is revealed in the icon in line and symbol and color, as God is revealed in printed words on a page. St. John Damascene questioned, “What do we do with mystery?” And he answered, “Iconographers ‘write’ the mystery revealed to them in color and symbol.” The making of an icon is called “a writing” because the artist “writes down the vision,” often using calligraphy brush strokes. The Russian words for “writing” and “painting” are similar. The iconographer presents theology in visible form, and “writes” the Word of God in color.
The Seventh Ecumenical Council (c. 787), or Second Council of Nicea, explained that “what the word says, the image shows us silently; what we have heard, we have seen.” It explained that an icon shares in and participates in the glory and the holiness of the person it depicts, becoming a vessel of the grace that the Saint has received. The Catholic Encyclopedia, quoting that same Council, tells us that an icon is “a place where we can touch grace. The grace is present and active in the image as much as it is in the relics of the Saint.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that: “the veneration of sacred images is based on the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word of God…Christian iconography expresses in images the same Gospel message that Scripture communicates by words,” and “image and word illuminate each other.” These sacred images “make manifest the ‘cloud of witnesses’ who continue to participate in the salvation of the world and to whom we are united… Through their icons, it is human beings ‘in the image of God,’ finally transfigured ‘into God’s likeness,’ who are revealed to our faith.”
Icons have also been described as windows into heaven, or as two-way windows into eternity. When we look out of a window, we see the reality that is present there. But someone standing on the other side of the window looking in, sees us looking out. When we contemplate an icon, we look into heaven, but heaven is also looking back at us. The one that we see is also seeing us. The Russian Orthodox have a tradition of putting an icon in every room of the home as a constant reminder that we are being looked at with love all the time. If we contemplate an icon long enough, we see ourselves being seen, “with the eyes of love,” says L. Oospensky.
William McNichols, a Jesuit priest and contemporary iconographer, believes that “icons are portals…meant to lead us out of ourselves. They glimmer with paradox and hold out complex layered invitations.” He adds, “The main purpose of the icon is to break your heart… to call you to compassion. The icon invites you to mimic it. If the icon has a compassionate face, and you gaze at it long enough, maybe you can gain some of that compassion. You gaze at the icon, and the icon gazes back at you. It’s a mutual process.”