Saint Larisa of the Goths icon, hand-painted, Russian Orthodox icon

In the most restricted sense an icon (Greek eikon: image) is an image of Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary or a saint, often taking the form of a wood painting or mosaic.

Icons are best known in the Orthodox church but they’re also found, along with statues, in the Catholic and Protestant churches.

Scholars talk a lot about the meaning of the iconic image and several lengthy works have been written about religious icons. But for everyday churchgoers and believers, it doesn’t have to be that complicated. For them, an icon or religious image’s purpose is to help focus the heart, mind, and soul on that which it represents. Ideally, this helps the viewer to experience the gift of divine graces but in Christianity, graces are never understood to emanate from the icon itself.

If the icon assists us in receiving graces, the fact that the icon’s appearance is culturally and artistically biased is of secondary importance, at best.¹ Again, the point is that the icon helps to facilitate our preparedness for grace, so if it’s “kitschy” as one of my non-religious acquaintances once put it, that is no reason to dismiss it.

Arguably one’s ability to appreciate so-called “tacky” religious icons depends on where they’re at. Are we blinded by the world and judge by its aesthetic standards or are we open to bigger and brighter things that cannot really be seen with the eyes but only with the spiritual eye?

The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light. ~ Matthew 6:22

St. Brigid of Ireland

Some icons of the Virgin Mary allegedly cry and even bleed. If these miracles are true and not money-making scams, the agency would be God.

The Christian icon is not imbued with any special quality of its own, nor is it supposed to be understood this way. However, sometimes the line gets fuzzy and some fanatical believers arguably spend too much time, energy, and even money on a particular icon.

Perhaps partly due to this preoccupation with icons among some believers, some fundamentalist Christians criticize Catholic and Orthodox Christians for the use of “graven images,” which is forbidden in the Old Testament. But the Catholic pamphlet, “Graven Images: Altering the Commandments?” outlines some of the problems with a simplistic, cherry-picked approach to scripture:

Now if God simply forbids the making of graven images, then there are problems elsewhere in the Bible. First, in Exodus 25:18-21, God commands Moses to make two statues of angels (cherubim) for the top of the Ark of the Covenant. Later in Numbers 21:8-9, God commands Moses to make a bronze serpent, so that the people who were bitten by snakes could look upon it and be healed.

Pop and cultural icons

Michael Jackon at his peak

In the everyday sense, an icon is a representation or symbolic understanding of some kind of charismatic, influential or respected cultural figure, such as Elvis Presley, Bob Marley or John Lennon.

After a pop star’s death, the realities of the actual person and their iconic gloss may further merge, transforming the star into a new type of mythic character. But this isn’t always the case. With Michael Jackson, for instance, the once adoring US media and general population turned on him with a ferocity that almost eclipsed his artistic legacy.³

Today, the most prominent cultural icon I can think of is George Floyd, who will probably remain important to BLM for many years to come.

¹ However, in her Divine Mercy Diary, St. Faustina Kowalska says she cried when an artistic rendering fell dramatically short of repeated visions she had of Jesus Christ. This arguably was a special case because St. Faustina was an uncomplicated, highly sensitive Polish ‘super-sister’ who apparently encountered Jesus on a near-daily basis. So her desire for others to see the imaginal beauty she saw was probably intensified by her sincere simplicity. Today, several versions of the Divine Mercy image are placed in Catholic churches around the world. So even if the image falls short of whom it represents, it still helps countless believers feel closer to Christ.

² This is a revised and updated article from the old Think Free. The link is now dead but I leave it “as is” to show the original source.

³ This actually seems to be an American thing. The media loves to set up idols only to knock them down. I guess it sells…

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