An icon is a religious work of art in the cultures of the Orthodox Church.
Along with the Holy Scripture, the icon is a tool for the transmission of Christian tradition and faith. The Holy Spirit speaks to us through the use of images, images that are complementing the written words of the Scripture. It follows then that icons are educational and worshiping aids.
The most common subjects include Christ, Mary, saints and angels.
Icons are most often painted on wood; although it also be cast in metal, carved in stone, embroidered on cloth, painted on wood, done in mosaic or fresco work, printed on paper or metal, etc.
The word icon comes from the Greek word eikona, meaning image.
Though especially associated with “portrait” style images concentrating on one or two main figures, the term also covers most religious images in a variety of artistic media produced by Eastern Christianity, including narrative scenes.
Eastern Orthodox tradition holds that the production of Christian images dates back to the very early days of Christianity, and that it has been a continuous tradition since then.
Modern academic art history considers that, while images may have existed earlier, the tradition can be traced back only as far as the 3rd century, and that the images which survive from Early Christian art often differ greatly from later ones.
The icons of later centuries can be linked, often closely, to images from the 5th century onwards, though very few of these survive.
The oldest known surviving example of the icon of Christ Pantocrator was painted in encaustic on panel in the sixth or seventh century, and survived the period of destruction of images during the Iconoclastic disputes that twice racked the Eastern church, 726 to 787 and 814 to 842.
After the iconoclastic controversy which disputed the religious function and meaning of icons, the Eastern Church formulated the doctrinal basis for their veneration: since God had assumed material form in the person of Jesus Christ, he also could be represented in pictures.
Icons are considered an essential part of the church and are given special liturgical veneration.
They also serve as mediums of instruction for the uneducated faithful through the iconostasis, a screen shielding the altar, covered with icons depicting scenes from the New Testament, church feasts, and popular saints.
In the classical Byzantine and Orthodox tradition, iconography is not a realistic but a symbolical art; its function is to express in line and color the theological teaching of the church.
The icon’s purpose is to transport us into the realm of spiritual experience, to go beyond our material world, to show us the greatness and perfection of the divine reality that is invisible to us.
The icon is not meant to be a sentimental piece. There is no sentimentality or drama in an icon. The faces of those depicted in an icon are always devoid of their feelings, suggestive only of virtues such as: purity, patience, forgiveness, compassion and love.
For example, the icon of the Crucifixion does not show the physical pain Christ suffered on the Cross, but what led Him to the Cross: the voluntary action of giving His life for us.
Icons are also silent. A close observation indicates that the mouths of the characters depicted are never open; there are no symbols that can indicate sound. There is perfect silence in the icon and this stillness and silence creates, both in the church and in the home an atmosphere of prayer and contemplation. The silence of an icon is a silence that speaks, it is the silence of Christ on the Cross, the silence of the Virgin, the silence of the Transfiguration, the silence of the Resurrection.
Icons are not three-dimensional. Perspective in the icon does not exist. The attempt is made to suggest depth, but the frontal plane is never abandoned, because the icon is not a representation of our conscious world, but an attempt to suggest the beauty of the Kingdom of God.
In the Orthodox Christian tradition there are reports of particular, Wonderworking icons that exude myrrh (fragrant, healing oil), or perform miracles upon petition by believers.