What Is the Purpose of Icons in the Orthodox Church?

Icon St. Demetrios


My church, St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Camarillo, is in the process of adding an icon of the Mother of God with baby Jesus in the sanctuary behind the altar. Many, who are not Orthodox, have often asked me about the many icons we venerate. They do not understand why we “worship” idols. Perhaps, I can give you some history and a bit about the Orthodox perspective. Eusebuis, in his History of the Church (2nd Century), stated "I have seen a great many portraits of the Saviour, of Peter and of Paul, which have been preserved up to our own times." Based on this statement, icons were being made very early in Church history. “Eusebuis' testimony is believed to be all the more valuable, since he was personally against icons” (as cited by Lossky 1952)1.


Icons became more popular after Christianity was legalized by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century and as the church grew. The Greek word for icon, εἰκώνa, means image.  Because the great majority of people in that day were illiterate, icons were used to teach the Biblical stories of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. They were used much like we use photographs today. You might say it is because “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Icons of Christ and the saints were used to remind Christians of the people in the stories, but they were also treasured as we treasure pictures of our loved ones, especially those who have passed away. Orthodox Christians do not worship icons. Rather, we cherish them. We kiss icons as we would kiss a picture of a beloved parent, child, or grandchild. When my mother was alive, she often kissed the pictures of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren out of the love she felt for them. When those who were evacuated due to the fires, the first thing most took with them were their precious photographs, their memories.


When we say we venerate an icon, we mean that we show our reverence, respect, and love for those portrayed in the image. Christ is our precious Lord. The saints are our heroes and role models, many of whom were martyred for their faith. Some wrote the Bible of the Old and New Testament. Others lead the way for the freedom of worship we enjoy today. They were the pioneers who recorded our theology in writings, such as the Nicene Creed. They developed the hymns, liturgical prayers and worship we practice every Sunday and on feast days. They taught us how to understand our faith. Therefore, we admire them, love them, and so we choose to remember them. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ’s Church. Certainly, no Orthodox Christian would ever say that they worship an icon, nor would it even occur to him; this would be sacrilegious.


We also ask saints to intercede on our behalf, just as we may ask a friend to pray for us. You might think of it this way: saints are considered “experts” in the practice of prayer, and so we ask them to pray to God for us, to make our request known to Him. Saints are canonized because they led a life that glorified God, and we see in them the image of God. The Eastern Orthodox Church does not follow a formal process of canonization. For the Orthodox, “Canonization does not make anybody a saint. Canonization recognizes that someone already was, in his own lifetime, a saint.”2 Since we were created in the image of God, saints are those whose lives preserved that original image and can be imitated.


Miracles are often associated with saints and icons. For example, some icons miraculously exude myrrh. My mother told my siblings and me many stories of miracles she had heard or had seen, which involved icons. One story she told us was about a blind man who prayed for his sight to be restored. He prayed to the Virgin Mary in front of her well-known icon in Tinos. He promised that he would donate a silver sculpture of the first thing he saw when he received his sight. The first thing he saw was an orange tree, so today, you can find that silver orange tree at the Panagia Church in Tinos, Greece, alongside other offerings, such as arms, legs, eyes and human organs that were healed. Christ loves His mother, and therefore, her prayers are exceptionally influential.


James instructs us to “pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (James 5:16). The miracles associated with saints attest to their righteousness. Martyred saints have a special place in heaven, under the altar of God. “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given” (Revelation 6:9). Christ hears their voices, and so we ask them to pray for us.


Today, we do not have many real heroes worthy to be role models and admired by our children. Their heroes are athletes, celebrities, or comic book heroes. Icons of Christ and the saints can open the door to conversations about the attributes God finds pleasing in His saints, qualities such as humility, integrity, honesty and compassion. Christians should know the stories of the heroes of our church who deserve reverence and respect because of the way they lived their lives, and the way their lives glorified God.    


Lossky, V. and Oupensky, L. (1982). The Meaning of Icons (3rd ed.). New York: St. Vladimir Seminary Press. Retrieved on December 2018 from http://www.serfes.org/orthodox/icon.htm.

1970. Canonization of Saint Herman of Alaska. Kodiak, Alaska. Retrieved on December 2018 from https://oca.org/fs/canonization.

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