Many people, especially those in Protestant churches, believe that the second of the Ten Commandments prohibits icons. But does it really? The Commandment reads: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them.” (Ex. 20:4-5). If this interpretation is correct, that means all artistic representations of anyone or anything are expressly forbidden. However, the Scriptures themselves disprove this interpretation, along with the false accusation that icons are, in fact, idols. So what does the Second Commandment forbid, then, if not icons?
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Examples of holy images in the Scriptures
The Second Commandment is not a blanket ban on all holy images. Otherwise, the Scriptures would openly contradict themselves. In fact, a few chapters after Moses receives the Ten Commandments from the Lord, God commands Moses to make holy images, two fold cherubim (angels) “of hammered work,” and to place them at each end of the mercy seat on the ark of the covenant (Ex. 25:17-21). The Lord also stipulated that Moses weave images of cherubim on the ten curtains of the tabernacle (Ex. 26:1), and likewise the veil (Ex. 26:31).
Additionally, when King Solomon built the temple, he set the huge basin, or “sea,” upon twelve statues of oxen (3 Kg. 7:13, 30). And upon the ten bases of the sea he engraved “lions, oxen, and cherubim” (3 Kg. 7:16), as well as palm trees (3 Kg. 7:22). The Lord bestowed His blessing upon all these artistic representations first by filling the new temple with His Glory (3 Kg. 8:10-11), and then by declaring to Solomon, “I have consecrated this house which you have built to put My name there forever, and My eyes and My heart will be there perpetually” (3 Kg. 9:3).
Perhaps the most striking example of an image made at God’s command in the Old Testament is the bronze serpent (Nm. 21:4-9; see Jn. 3:14-15). Hundreds of years later, when the Israelites were offering incense to this same bronze serpent in a kind of idol worship, King Hezekiah, who “did what was right in the sight of the Lord,” had the serpent smashed into pieces (4 Kg. 18:3-4).
The Second Commandment forbids idol worship, not icons
The bronze serpent in the wilderness, along with the other holy images commissioned by the Lord, show us that it is not the image (icon) itself that is forbidden, but rather its improper use. Specifically, crafting images of false gods/idols and worshiping these “gods of silver, and gods of gold” (Ex. 20:23) instead of the One True God.
The Commandment forbids creating and worshiping images of false gods. But Christ is the True God, who became Incarnate of the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary. Certainly, before the invisible and limitless Lord God of Israel became incarnate, it was impossible to make an image of Him. However, after God the Son assumed a visible and tangible human body, we can now see the invisible God. Thus, it was natural and beneficial for the Church to create holy images of Him from the earliest times, to proclaim the truth of the Incarnation of the One who said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn. 14:8-9).
Therefore, any images/icons of Him, used to worship Him, are not forbidden. Neither are icons of His Saints, in whom He lives. According to tradition, the holy Evangelist Saint Luke himself “wrote” at least three icons of Christ and His Mother.
The Seventh Ecumenical Council: Iconoclasm condemned
From the earliest days of the Church, Christians had icons without causing much controversy; the theology behind this was not yet spelled out. This is quite typical of Orthodoxy: We don’t define matters carefully until they’re challenged. For putting things in words, while it may become necessary, is often limiting, inadequate, misleading. There is still much in the Orthodox Tradition that has not been (or cannot be) carefully explained.
Icons did not become the subject of controversy in the Church until the eighth and ninth centuries. At the Seventh Ecumenical Council in Nicea (AD 787), the Holy Fathers of the Church officially condemned the heresy of iconoclasm (the rejection, and sometimes destruction, of holy icons). At the Council, the Father articulated a critical distinction between the worship reserved for God alone, and the veneration/honor/reverence given to the holy icons. In addition, the Council declared that Christ’s Incarnation made it permissible that images be depicted of Him, and that “the honor given to the images passes on to that which the image represents”.
We celebrate the Church’s victory over iconoclasm every year on the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy.
Because most ancient icons were destroyed by the Iconoclasts, we know little about them. A few have been preserved at Saint Catherine’s Abbey at Mount Sinai, which was outside the Empire and never targeted by the Iconoclasts. These are in the same general tradition (or style) which continues in Orthodox churches today.
What do icons do for us?
- Icons teach us history. In the early Church, there was no official New Testament canon for almost 400 years. Nor were there many copies of the Scriptures. And not all Christians were literate. Even today, we have a huge contingency of Christians who do not read. Icons teach us the stories of Scripture and the lives of the saints – the whole story of salvation – and invite us to become a part of that story.
- Icons teach us theology. Every icon is filled with symbolic meaning to convey the theological truths of the True Faith. From the colors to the stances of the people, to the scenery and lighting, icons teach us who God is, and who we are in relation to Him. For example, in many icons Christ typically wears a red tunic with a blue cloak. This symbolizes His being divine and assuming our human nature (blue). His Mother, a human who took on Christ’s divinity, wears the opposite.
- Icons draw us near to the saints. We believe in a Church that is united across both space and time. In other words, the saints that came before us are just as much a part of the Body of Christ as we are. Just as we might cherish an image of a loved one who is no longer with us, we cherish images of Christ, His Mother, and the Saints.
- Icons call us to be still and worship. Unlike other forms of visual art, Orthodox iconography is specifically created with worship in mind. There is a stillness and a peace about them that many cannot explain. Icons help us focus our prayers to God and help us dispel the distracting images that flit through our minds at the prompting of the demons.
- Icons call us to the heavenly realm. Everything about icons seeks to draw us toward Christ and His holy ones, toward heavenly realities, not to the icon itself. This is why icons are not “realistic” depictions, in the sense that the people in them “look real”.
Having icons is not about having beautiful churches, though icons are certainly beautiful. They are not about worshiping wood and paint, though they are integral to how we worship. Icons give us glimpses of the world to come and show us who we can become in Christ. Through icons, we draw closer to God. A hymn sung the first Sunday of Great Lent, which commemorates the restoration of icon in AD 843, declares: “the icons that depict Thy flesh lead us to the desire and love of Thee.”
Keep Reading: Why The Orthodox Kiss Icons