Iconography (from Greek: εικoνογραφία) refers to the making and liturgical use of icons, pictorial representations of Biblical scenes from the life of Jesus Christ, historical events in the life of the Church, and portraits of the saints. Icons are usually two-dimensional images and may be made of paint, mosaic, embroidery, weaving, carving, engraving, or other methods. A person who practices the art of iconography is called an iconographer.
Images have always been a vital part of the Church, but their place was the subject of the Iconoclast Controversy in the 8th and 9th centuries, especially in the East. The Sunday of Orthodoxy, the first Sunday of the Great Fast (Lent) every year celebrates the reestablishment of the Orthodox veneration of icons. The use of iconography is considered one of the most distinctive elements of the Byzantine Rite.
From the first centuries of Christianity, icons have been used for prayer. Orthodox Tradition tells us, for example, of the existence of an icon of the Christ during his lifetime, the Icon-Not-Made-With-Hands, and of the icons of the Theotokos immediately after him written by the All-laudable Apostle and Evangelist Luke.
The Whole Person
We are both soul and body
Unlike angels, who are entirely spiritual beings, God has made each of us as creatures dwelling in a material world. To be whole, we must worship God both in body and soul. This teaching is central to our Christian faith and is an affirmation of the sacramental nature of this material world. Because of this truth icons have played a central role in Christian history, for they proclaim Jesus Christ’s physical reality as God Incarnate.
Our Lord told his disciples that “he who has seen me, has seen the Father”. Icons depicting the Holy Virgin show the Christ Child with bare feet, reminding us that he walked the earth among us. He (the Logos) through Whom all that is was brought into existence, condescended to take on our flesh and walk among us. He joined His divinity to our humanity, that we might become gods.
The Lord Jesus Christ was born, lived, died and rose from the dead in this material world. He broke bread with disciples, ate fish with his friends, and invited His disciple Thomas to feel the wound in his side, after His holy resurrection. Most of the miracles He performed were in the nature of physical healing.
Because of the Incarnation, our use of icons bring our whole nature, body and soul, into the material world. This physical aspect of prayer is what connects us to our true self, composed of body and soul. This is where God reaches down to embrace us.
Icons are wonderful aides in our communion with God because they serve as bridges to Christ and links with the Holy Virgin and the saints. They are by no means the only means , for sitting on the top of a mountain, or walking on the seashore, eyes open, allows us to behold the beauty of God’s creation, and His love for us. The icons, like the glory of creation, are windows into eternity, and invite us who live in this material world, into an encounter with God.
Icons are necessary and essential because they protect the full and proper doctrine of the Incarnation. While God cannot be represented in His eternal nature (“…no man has seen God”, John 1:18), He can be depicted simply because He “became human and took flesh.” Of Him who took a material body, material images can be made. In so taking a material body, God proved that matter can be redeemed. He deified matter, making it spirit-bearing, and so if flesh can be a medium for the Spirit, so can wood or paint, although in a different fashion.
I do not worship matter, but the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who through matter effected my salvation… —St. John of Damascus The seventh and last Ecumenical Council upheld the iconodules’ postion in AD 787. They proclaimed: Icons… are to be kept in churches and honored with the same relative veneration as is shown to other material symbols, such as the ‘precious and life-giving Cross’ and the Book of the Gospels. The ‘doctrine of icons’ is tied to the Orthodox teaching that all of God’s creation is to be redeemed and glorified, both spiritual and material.