Perhaps the first thing that a visitor might notice upon entering an Orthodox church is the abundance of artistic painted images called icons. The visitor will see a partition composed of icons and ornament separating the altar from the nave; he will observe individual icons painted on wooden panels resting on stands; he will note that the walls are covered with paintings of various scenes and personages and that even the ceiling and the adjoining vestibule and side-rooms of the church have iconic images. What are these painting-like images, and what is their meaning and function within the Church?

The word ‘icon’ simply means ‘image’ in the Greek language. Icons are images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, angels, saints, and important New and Old Testament events in the history of Christianity which involve these holy persons. Oil lamps are lit in front of the icons, and the faithful make the sign of the cross, bow down before, and venerate them with a kiss. Afterwards, they place candles on the candle stands before the icons. The subject of the icon or icons displayed on the stand in the center of the church depends on the specific Feast or Saint celebrated during that time. Icons are carried by the people during church processions.


Icons are painted according to specific guidelines and rules called canons, by iconographers, or icon-writers, who have studied the canons and carry out their work in a prayerful manner. The iconic style came about naturally, as a result of the many small contributions of people, often anonymous, who led holy lives completely centered on God, throughout the history of the Church. The icon reflects these people’s intuitive sense for expressing the Truth of the Church, as well as their conscious consideration of Church teachings. In this way, the icon is not an arbitrary picture painted according to the individual imagination of a single artist. Rather, the subject, pattern, and execution of an icon all draw on the collective experience of the Church, an experience of two thousand years.


The role of the icon in the Church is beyond that of simple decoration. The icon is a sacred object directly connected to the actual Presence of God, which it bears within the images of the saints depicted on it. The completed icon is ceremonially blessed by the priest, and the symbolic image on the icon is united with its heavenly prototype. Thus the image is not an illusion, but shares in the reality of what or whom it represents. As such, the icon is an integral, living part of the Church no less than the people of the church are, and cannot be removed as easily as an optional decoration.

How is the icon connected to a living presence inside it, and not a mere painting? To help understand, we can give an example of a window through which we see a person outdoors: the image of the person we see through the window is not a picture painted on the surface of the glass of the window by our imagination; it is the very person standing outside. The image we see is inseparable from that person. In the same way, and even more, the image we see on an icon is a direct link to the holy person whom it represents. This is partially because the "glass" of the icon has been refined by the long tradition of the Church, and does not distort the image.


Christ said, "My Kingdom is not of this world." Icons are the windows from our physical world into that Kingdom, which is invisible to physical eyes. The images of the holy persons we see on icons are not portraits of those people from the time when they lived on earth. Rather, they are the images of those people as they now and forever exist on the other side of the window which is the icon. The saint depicted on an icon is standing within that invisible Heavenly Kingdom and is made visible through the icon to us who are still on this side. The human form with which the icon presents the beholder is an image of holiness, spiritual strength, and restored beauty. It is an example of the state which the believer must attain to be able to meet God face to face.

In the church, the iconostasis, which is the partition between the altar and nave, is a screen of icons. We can visualize these large icons as windows into the altar. We view the iconostasis not as a wall, but as a screen. On it, that which is invisible to physical eyes during church services (the mystical action of the Holy Spirit), is made visible. This is valuable, because to truly be aware of what is happening during the service requires great concentration and faith. The icon screen helps the believer focus by "translating" the liturgical service into a language easily understood by all people: the language of image.