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Question 37.

Father your blessing!
I see many icons in Orthodox Churches either for veneration of the faithful or for purchase. What I notice with some (if not many) of these icons is that they have clearly been printed from a computer or a printing machine, and have then (usually) been glued onto a wooden plaque. I had always assumed that icons must be written by an iconographer (with paints) and, after the recommended ‘churching’ of forty days, they are made holy and genuine. Therefore, are these printed versions proper/holy icons?

With respect

Evangelos

 

Answer to Question 37

Dear Evangelos,
In a previous email you mentioned that you had read online the book I have on Icons on my website and you stated that “The book is truly a great source into understanding the Orthodox Icon.” The answer to your question is found in the book, but you probably passed it over without realizing so let’s start from the beginning.
The 7th Ecumenical council which was called together in defence of the Holy Icons issued the following statement:
“We define the rule with all accuracy and after thorough examination, that in a manner similar to the precious and vivifying cross, the venerable and Holy Icons, painted or mosaic, or made of any other suitable material, be placed in the Holy Churches of God, upon sacred vessels and vestments, on walls and panels, houses and streets, both of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, and of our undefiled Sovereign Lady, the Holy Mother of God; and also of the Holy Angels, and of all the saints.”

From the statement you can see that Icons were not only painted, but were produced by any suitable material available at that time. Thus Icons were painted, they were made of mosaic stones, they were carved in wood, they were engraved onto metal vessels and they were embroidered onto vestments. Similarly in those days, the Bible and any other book were copied by hand because they didn’t have printing machines.
An Icon is not only an image of Christ, the Mother of God, the saints, angels etc, it is also the Word of God (Bible) represented in images. There is a similarity between the Bible and the Icon – both expound the teaching of Christ and both are the image of Christ: one expounds it verbally while the other in images. The Bible is not holy because of the paper and ink, but because the words it contains are the words of God, written by men inspired by the Holy Spirit. In the similar manner, the Icon is not holy because of the wood and paint, but because it proclaims the Word of God. With the invention of the printing machines the Bible was made available to everyone, but because our copies are printed does that mean that the Bible that we read at home is not holy and genuine? If the printed Bible can be considered holy and genuine then a printed Icon can also be considered the same. Hand-painted Icons are of course preferable, but they can be very costly and not everyone would be able to purchase one for their personal use at home. Modern technology has made the Icon available to millions of people at an affordable price. In short, the Statement made by the 7th Ecumenical Council allows us to use any material available to produce an Icon. Whatever material is used it is still material. We do not venerate the material but the person represented by it. St. John of Damascus said: “I do not worship matter; I worship the creator of matter, who became matter for my sake, who willed to take his abode in matter, who worked out my salvation through matter.”
But in your question you mention the custom of ‘churching’ the Icon for forty days, which you say makes the Icon holy and genuine. This is an old custom and people do bring Icons to Church (usually on the Sunday of Orthodoxy) and leave them in the Church for forty days. The Russians on the other hand bring their Icons to Church and have it blessed by the Priest through a special prayer for Icons. In truth neither makes the Icon more holy than it actually is. What makes the Icon holy is the inscription of the name. An Icon must be a faithful interpretation of the prototype [original], showing a recognizable image and the name of the person it represents. The name identifies the person or persons and at the same time is a seal of sanctification, for as with the Cross and the Bible, the Icon does not need to have special prayers read over it or receive any other form of blessing by a priest to make it holy. As I have already mentioned, the Icon is the Word of God in images and as we don’t bless the Bible we don’t need to bless the Icon. It cannot receive any additional benefit from a priest’s blessing or any application of Myron [holy oil]. Some icons have no inscription, which is contrary to the theology of the Icon, for it is the inscription that brings about its sanctification: without it, the Icon remains a common work of art.
But this understanding of the Icon also produces a serious problem with printed Icons. They are not only printed for veneration, but they are freely printed on pamphlets, books, magazines and newspapers. After having been read, these are then discarded and thrown into the rubbish bin. If the Icon is Holy without needing a blessing of any sort, then these discarded images are also holy. We cannot control what non-Orthodox do with these images, but Orthodox people should learn to separate them from the articles and if they don’t want to keep them, then they should destroy them with fire. This can easily be done using a tin can outside to avoid any danger and the ashes can be thrown in a corner or buried in a suitable place where feet do not tread.

With love in Christ
Fr. Christopher