What are the icons?
As most people know, the Orthodox churches in the Middle East display a lot of icons. An icon is a religious painting, always with human figures in them, and all of them are highly symbolic. In fact, everything in an icon is symbolic, even down to the colors.
Do Orthodox worshipers worship the icons? Actually no. You should think of an icon as the same thing that it is on your computer screen. Literally speaking, an icon is something that stands in the place of something else. That’s what it is on your computer, and that’s what it is here.
It would be no different from you having a picture of Jesus in your home, or at a family altar. When you pray, a picture of Jesus may help you focus. You may feel a stronger connection to Jesus when you picture him, and having that picture in front of you may heighten that sensation.
This is what Orthodox icons do. They represent the person who is being pictured. Worship is not done to the icon, but through it. And the picture may not be realistic, but it’s not designed to be. Virtually everything about it is symbolic, because the icon itself is a symbol. Icon painters specialize in this craft. Because the painters are communicating through symbols to the viewers.
The icon is a point of contact for worshippers. It’s the same as a crucifix or a statue of Mary in the Catholic church. Protestants view these pictures as artwork - nothing more than that. However, the Orthodox don’t view icons as artwork. They are concrete contact points for worship.
How did icons get started?
The early church resisted the notion of making a physical representation of Jesus, or any other holy persons. To my knowledge there is virtually no record of any Christian human imagery until Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire. When Christianity did become the official religion the use of human imagery in Christian artwork was first introduced by pagan craftsmen who converted to the faith. Even though the first representation of Jesus shows up in the 6th century, we have mentions of such artwork early in the fifth century, which is when icon paintings were first made.
This wasn’t just due to the fact that a lot of pagan artists had now become Christians. It was also due to the fact that Christians were now free to use the talents of its members to use art to imitate life. The justification for all of this was because God Himself started this process of creating images when He Himself took on the likeness of the human form. Therefore, to draw a painting in the likeness of Jesus was essentially the same thing that Jesus did when He Himself became the image of God. The way the early church rationalized it was that the incarnation of Christ overturned the Old Testament prohibition against making images with a human likeness. All of this came as the virtual explosion of Christian art, where the likeness of Jesus, the Father, the Holy Spirit, Mary, the prophets, the patriarchs, every saint who has ever lived, and even the angels has continued until this day.