The Christian relationship to icons is very interesting. Over the centuries, there has been a controversy over if sacred images are effective in connecting the believer to the sacred. Other monotheistic religions do not have the same affinity for images as Christianity does. Judaism strictly forbids images in order to follow the Second Commandment, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth”. Islam is similar in that it forbids images of God and of the prophet in fear of idolatry. The fear is if images of the prophet were allowed, the believers would make Muhammad into a sacred being. Straying from monotheistic religions, Hinduism and Buddhism both support images with the idea that images provide access to the sacred. But these religions are so different from Christianity, so it is hard to say that these religions influenced the Christian love for images. Since icons are specific to Christianity, how did the idea of such images emerge? Why are icons sacred for Christians?
First, what is an icon? In our world there are many different icons that we do not notice in our day-to-day lives. There are icons on signs that tell us what to do, how to act, or what a thing holds. For example, there are icons, called WHIMIS symbols, on cleaning materials to tell the user how to use the product and what would happen if the product is not used properly. Icons are more than images in that an icon holds a specific meaning that can help to direct our actions. More often than not, the word icon is used in a religious perspective to describe a certain type of image. As Martin states, “The icon insists that we respond as much with the mind as with the emotions… they are the thinking man’s art”. Icons are different from images in that icons are more spiritual and can connect us to the sacred in a more effective way.
For example, Alain Besançon uses the comparison between Raphael’s Madonna del Granduca and the Theotokos of Vladimir Icon. Both represent Mary holding Jesus, but in very different ways. Raphael’s image is less severe compared to the Muscovite icon. In the image, the figures are life-like and the proportions are more realistic. There are faint halos and the figures are not looking at the viewer. In the icon, the figures look disapproving upon the viewer (as if the viewer has done something wrong). The Virgin in the former is less covered than the one in the icon and is holding Jesus in a less motherly way. To sum it up, the image is more carnal whereas the icon conveys a spiritual meaning. It is clear from this comparison that icons connect the viewer to the sacred in a way that images are not.
Icons are sacred because they build a gateway for the believers to understand the sacred. Since words can only go so far, icons reach into the deepest part of the soul and affect humans. This deeper aspect helps believers to be...