When an Icon is not an Icon


When is an icon not an icon?

There are several answers to the question. Some of them would be technical, even somewhat argumentative as the strict canon governing icons gave way to more “Westernized” styles in the 17th century and beyond – but there have been notable “icons” among even very “Westernized” icons. St. Seraphim of Sarov prayed before such an icon – and some have been known to weep and many of them hold a deep place in the heart and devotion of Orthodox people in many places across the world.

The answer, as I said, could be technical. An icon, since it is like Scripture, has rules that govern its composition and content. Not every religious picture is an icon – even though it may easily inspire devotion and reverence. It has its place.

I spent better than two years working as a Hospice Chaplain in the mountains (mostly) of East Tennessee during the time after my conversion to Orthodoxy, while I was being trained for ordination in the Church. Most of the homes I was privileged to enter were rural, modest, and Baptist or Pentecostal. Most of the Baptists were not Southern Baptist, but Missionary Baptist, and some Primitive Baptist. Pentecostals covered a different spectrum (though they are much alike in this part of Tennessee). To my surprise, most homes had religious pictures. Among the most popular, interestingly, was the Sacred Heart of Jesus. There was no consciousness whatsoever of Catholic devotion to the Sacred Heart – but the picture said something about Jesus that was immediately recognized and cherished. I could not argue with the thought. I even recall one home that had a sizable statue of Mary – the family loved the Mother of God, though not particularly aware of Orthodox or Catholic doctrine about her.

That experience has always made me careful not to hurry towards criticism of religious art – as I said, it has it’s place.

I heard one comment this week, however, that struck me as the truth in the deepest sort of way. In a conversation about icons, a particular example, known to several of us, was raised. The master iconographer immediately said of it: “It is not an icon!” I was surprised – but the explanation went to the heart of things.

“The icon has hate in it and Orthodox icons cannot have hate.”

The example was an icon that contained some political content – I’ll not go into details – but the point was profound. An icon is a “window to heaven,” which cannot also be a window to hate. I am sure that some will point to icons of the Last Judgment and their portrayal of hell, etc., and ask how these are icons. They are icons just as Scripture describing such things are Scripture – but the Scriptures are not the bearer of hate unless they are being badly misinterpreted (which they often have been). A heart of hate will find hate wherever it looks, but will not see heaven no matter how hard it looks.

Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love (1 John 4:7-8).

When an icon does not agree with this – it is not an icon.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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19 responses to “When an Icon is not an Icon”

  1. Meg Avatar

    Let me guess, was it a Bridge Builders “icon”? 😉

  2. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’m not familiar with bridge builders. So it was not.

  3. Steve Hayes Avatar

    I’d be interested in seeing the example.

    A colleague at the missiology department of the University of South Africa once showed me an “icon” of Steve Biko (incidentally it is now about 30 years since his death) and asked me what I thought of it. I said it was not an Orhodox ikon. He asked me why not, and I said that it showed Steve Biko with heavy prison bars dominating the back ground. No Orthodox ikonographer would have painted such a thing, even if Steve Biko had been Orthodox, which he was not. If they had included prison bars, they would not have been dominant, but small, perhaps held in his hand. Compare St Catherine, either holding her wheel, or with her hand resting on it. The heavy prison bars showed that the prison had won, but an ikon shows the victory of the martyrs.

    And yes, I asked my colleague where he had got it, and it turned out it was a “Brdige Building icon”. I wrote to them and pointed out that it was far from Orthodox ikonography. They replied and said it wasn’t intended to be, which is fair enough. Evxept that my colleague’s question showed that it caused some confusion.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    Because an icon uses a certain “language” in its artistic composition, it is possible for many things to be portrayed in an “iconic” fashion, but this will not make them icons. Icons, in the Orthodox sense, must portray whatever is shown in accordance with Orthodox doctrine. Otherwise it is simply not an icon.

  5. AR Avatar

    Is an icon an icon if it is printed on some trivial object like a coffee mug or a key-chain trinket? I thought the seventh council said it had to be made with worthy materials…am I remembering that right? The G.O.C. congregation we are visiting has a bookstore that sells such things. They are also participating in some stewardship program, which disturbs us because of our evangelical background and knowing where such programs came from. Is American pop/political culture infecting American Orthodox churches?

    Also, I was talking about an imaginary monastery on my blog and someone said that all monastic communities have failed. But I said I thought the Orthodox ones were still fully functional. Isn’t that true? Isn’t Mt. Athos really different from say the Benedictine Order, etc.?

    Sorry I’m wandering off topic, I have so many questions.

  6. Sean Avatar

    Some iconographers are adament that traditional materials (fresco, wax, egg tempera, mosaic tesserae) be used. In your view, would the use of something like acrylic paint be a problem? Also, assuming the construction of the image was in accordance with tradition, does an icon only come to be after an official blessing or x days in the narthex?

  7. fatherstephen Avatar


    An icon might been an icon when printed on other items – and this can be abused. But I don’t want to act as the arbitrator of that here on the blog. I’ll leave it your local priest. I’m not sure what you mean about participating in a stewardship program. If it is teaching tithing, then it’s probably a step up from food festivals. Tithing is Biblical, not Protestant.

    Orthodox monasteries are alive and well. They have their own difficulties just as every parish community has its difficulties. How can you live the Christian life in this world without difficulties? Orthodox monasteries differ greatly from most Western monasteries in my experience.

    Is American pop/political culture effecting Orthodox Churches? Probably at certain points. You can’t live in a culture and not be affected by it. It’s the stuff we swim in. By the same token it’s also the arena in which we do spiritual battle. Orthodoxy will remain Orthodoxy. At times it will be stronger and more pure, at times it will be weaker and more subjected. This has always been the case. I would argue that certain things are becoming stronger today for the good, while other things are weakening for the worse, and need to be strengthened – without going into a lot of detail.

    It’s a good reason to pray, not to worry.

  8. AR Avatar

    Sean, I’m not sure if the first part of your question was addressed to me, but perhaps you can imagine the difficulty of venerating a saint through the walls of the coffee mug. It’s not the porcelain or the paint, but the triviality of it that bothers me, and that’s something that can only be sensed, not argued with precision.

  9. Kevin P. Edgecomb Avatar

    AR, even if a painting has been done perfectly according to Orthodox norms and traditions, intended to be an icon, it is truly only an icon once it’s been blessed.

    Coffee mugs, postcards, and the photographs of icons in books aren’t icons themselves, but just reproductions of them. And yes, many such things seem or can be irreverent, unfortunately.

  10. Sean Avatar

    AR, I addressed my comment to Father Stephen, but you posted before I was able to and my comment does appear to respond to your particular question. I CAN imagine the difficulty of venerating a saint through the mug. Though I tend to think of those things as advertising religious and other cultural affiliations and somewhat harmless. OTOH, I’m a Catholic and used to banal use of sacred images. There isn’t anything like the theology of the Icon in Catholic catechesis.

  11. Ed Darrell Avatar

    Maybe I’m missing something, and maybe it’s a trivial discussion you’ve already had. But I wonder: What is the difference between an icon and an idol? How do we know?

  12. papa_rod Avatar

    Don’t icons serve the purpose of drawing one’s attention to God? I personally think an icon on a coffee mug or on a computer screen as wallpaper is an excellent use of icons in this day and age. I quantify that statement with the idea that the icon image will serve it’s purpose and NOT serve as decoration only. Just my take on the notion of it being irreverent.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar


    Not a trivial question. We do not worship icons, first off. They are shown honor or veneration that is “relative” i.e., appropriate for a saint, or an icon, etc. There are Old Testament examples, such as the Cherubim God ordered placed on the mercy seat above the ark of the Covenant.

    An idol would be an image of something false that is not God, but is rendered worship as though it were – such as (in our modern world) a number of ideas I could think of (ideologies are very popular modern idols), and certainly Mammon, who has not lost his position since time immemorial among human beings. If we touch on the subject of money as Christians, but don’t reassure people that we’re talking about getting more of it, there can be problems occasionally, for example.

    But icons are not idolatry, when properly honored and venerated, according to the Seventh Ecumenical Council. This is part of the Orthodox faith, but has been disagreed with frequently in the West (by some Protestants and not accepted in the same way by Catholics, either). Although both Protestant and Catholic use images. They just do not use them in the same (theological) way as the Orthodox. For us they are highly theological.

  14. Ed Darrell Avatar

    Thanks. That helps me understand a lot more about your post and what you’re studying.

  15. Rdr Joseph Avatar

    Kevin said:

    AR, even if a painting has been done perfectly according to Orthodox norms and traditions, intended to be an icon, it is truly only an icon once it’s been blessed.

    Coffee mugs, postcards, and the photographs of icons in books aren’t icons themselves, but just reproductions of them. And yes, many such things seem or can be irreverent, unfortunately.

    But what exactly does it mean to be “blessed?” One priest I know is very Slavic, (formerly ROCOR) but says that he prefers the Greek monastic practice where icons are not blessed with holy water, etc., but simply by what they represent, bless us. In other words, the transformation from “matter” to “icon” is almost an organic/spiritual transformation caused by the writing of the icon. I’m sure this is to refer to those icons which are written according to Orthodox tradition, and not those icons by Bridge Builders or Bro. Lentz.

    Does a Bible have to be blessed before it blesses us with its words? The small blessings God sends us every day, are they blessed with holy water? The proper interaction between an icon and the person is sacramental, the grace of God present in matter and affecting spiritual change in the person participating in it.

    Perhaps icons on coffee mugs, key chains, Nativity ornaments, etc., are not icons, because they are seen much as what they are: mugs, chains, ornaments, etc. But icons, whether hand-written or mass-reproduced or printed off the computer and used in worship, serve as that window to heaven, and thus blesses us.

    I have an icon I found at a flea market. It is basically a print of the Czestochowa icon with a balsa wood riza over it. When I showed it to one woman in my mission, she haughtily remarked, “That is not an icon!” But when I see it, look upon it, meditate on the mystery it portrays, I can’t see it as anything but. It was obviously made with love and prayer. And it has asked not a small number of visitors to my house to ask, what is this? What does it mean? And I can tell them about icons, the Holy Trinity, and the Orthodox Church.

  16. nancy Avatar

    A story.

    A few years ago the traveling art exhibit of the Stroganovs rom Russia made the rounds in medium sized art museums. A friend of mine who is not Orthodox brought me a collection of coasters reproduced with images of Christ, the Theotokos and the Holy Trinity. I was horrified, didn’t want to offend my friend, but I explained that for Orthodox (or for that matter, any believing Christian) to place a coffee mug on a holy image was a profanity. What could those people who market gift items for such events as a traveling art exhibition could have been thinking?

  17. fatherstephen Avatar

    Nancy, unfortunately, they were likely looking to make money.

  18. Kevin P. Edgecomb Avatar

    Rdr Joseph, I’m sorry, I forgot to check back for any responses here until now. You ask a good question, of course. I’m not certain the “Greek monastic practice” that your priest friend mentioned is universal. I was told by an archimandrite (very much a Greek monastic indeed!) that icons, presumably even those properly made, need a blessing prior to truly being icons. I’ve also recently read that one method of this blessing is having the icon on the altar for 40 days. I’m not sure how widespread that is, but I think it was a Greek context. Of course, I’m not any sort of icon expert at all, nor do I study them. Someone like Fr Freeman’s icon instructor would be a better source for all that information. Mine is only hearsay, and I ask your forgiveness if I’ve misrepresented anything.

  19. Fr Rick Rodriguez, SJ Avatar
    Fr Rick Rodriguez, SJ

    I would like to view some of your icons. Thanks

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