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The word icon comes from the Greek word eikon, meaning―image, likeness, or representation.
Icons of holy persons were an important part of the Byzantine Christian Church from the 3rd century onwards. Icons were venerated in Churches, public places, and private homes, they were prayed and bowed to, kissed, and had incense and tapers lit before them. Icons still play a major role in the theological traditions of the Melkite Catholic Church and in the spiritual and cultural life of Melkites.
Icons represent more than just religious art; they are windows to the divine. They were designed for devotional purposes and to help people better understand who they were praying to and bridge the gap between the divine and humanity.
The holy person in icons is usually portrayed full frontal, with either the full figure shown or the head and shoulders only. They stare directly at the viewer to facilitate communication with the divine. They often have a halo surrounding them to emphasise their holiness.
It is rare for an icon to depict a narrative scene.
Another type is the iconostasis, the tall wooden screen which stands in front of our altar and is decorated with many icons. It separates the Sanctuary, where the Holy Mystery (Sacrament) of the Eucharist is celebrated, from the central part, the nave, where the congregation stands. The iconostasis is a significant architectural feature of Eastern Christian Churches.
DISAGREEMENT & ICONOCLASM
The veneration of icons split the Christian world in the 8th and 9th century. This period in Byzantine history was known as Iconoclasm, which means the destruction of images. Two opposing views were held.
Those against the veneration of icons adhered to the instructions given to Moses by God that the people of Israel should not worship idols or sculptured images as written in the Old Testament Books of Exodus (20:4-5 and 34:17) and Deuteronomy (5:8-9). However, the Old Testament was written Before Christ and icons were produced after Christ, from the 3rd century and became popular from the 6th century.
The Popes supported the veneration of icons, insisting that God could never be captured in art and an icon is only ever an artist’s vision of God. Therefore, there is no danger of icons becoming universal idols. Also, they have a useful function in helping the illiterate understand the divine. Scholars, such as St John of Damascus also insisted that there was a difference between veneration and all-out worship.
Nonetheless, because of the fierce disagreement a huge number of icons were destroyed or defaced and the people who venerated them were persecuted.
The disagreement was settled by the Byzantine Emperor Michael III and Theodora, his mother who had the veneration of icons proclaimed Orthodox in 843. The ending of the Iconoclasm period is still celebrated by Eastern Christian Churches as the Triumph of Orthodoxy, on the first Sunday of Lent.
The most revered of all icons were those classified as acheiropoieton, meaning―believed to be created by a miracle rather than made by human hands.
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