Russian Icons




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(7) Finally, the icon has a liturgical function, it is a means of worship and veneration. This is one of its primary functions, more important than the first. Like sacred hymns and music, the icon is used as a means of worshipping God and venerating His saints. As such, it is essentially symbolic, leading the soul from the visible to the invisible, from the material to the spiritual, from the symbol to the prototype or original which it represents. As every Orthodox Christian knows, the first act of the faithful upon entering a church is to take a candle, light it and put it on a candlestand that is placed next to the proskynetarion or icon-stand on which is set the icon representing the sacred person, persons or event specially celebrated by the particular church and after whom or which it is named. Then he bows before the icon, making the sign of the cross, and kisses the icon, saying a brief prayer. This series of acts is called veneration or ‘honorable reverence’ of the icon. It is not an act of worshipping the icon. The Greek Church Fathers distinguish very sharply between ‘honorable reverence’ (timetike proskynesis), which is accorded to icons, and ‘worship’ (latreia). Worship is accorded only to God. Further, they emphasize that the veneration which we give to a holy icon goes to the prototype which it represents, for example, to Christ, to the Theotokos, to some martyr or other saint. In the words of Basil the Great, which have been repeated by John Damascene and other defenders of the icons, “the honor which is given to the icon passes over to the prototype” (he time tes eikonos eis to prototypon diabainei). [10] The prototype honored is in the last analysis God, as God created man in His own image. [11]

Neither God nor the saints, of course, need the honor which we offer them, be it by means of icons, or by means of hymns and music. But it is only proper for us to do so, as the adoration of God and the admiration of saints are expressions of a soul that sees and loves the beauty of holiness, of spiritual perfection, and feels grateful to the Deity and to holy men for their many benefactions to mankind. Such a response is not merely something proper for us, but is also conductive to our salvation. The following remark of John Damascene calls attention to this point, and at the same time has a bearing on several of the functions served by icons: “I enter the common place-of-therapy of souls, the church, choked as it were by the thorns of worldly thoughts. The bloom of painting attracts me, it delights my sight like a meadow, and secretly evokes in my soul the desire to glorify God. I behold the fortitude of the martyr, the crowns awarded, and my zeal is aroused like fire; I fall down and worship God through the martyr, and receive salvation.” [12]

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