When we look back in history, we see that Christians venerated icons, sacred images of Christ and the Saints, very early on. Paintings of Christ and other religious figures and symbols adorn the walls and sarcophagi in Christian catacombs dating back to the first century. Much has been written defending the Catholic Church’s veneration of icons based on this historical evidence against those who accuse Catholics of idolatry, but why have icons at all? Why all of this fuss over art?
1 – Icons Show us the Face of God
“Previously God, who has neither a body nor a face, absolutely could not be represented by an image. But now that he has made himself visible in the flesh and has lived with men, I can make an image of what I have seen of God . . . and contemplate the glory of the Lord, his face unveiled.” (CCC 1159, quoting St. John Damascene) “Israel of old did not see God, but we see the Lord’s glory face to face.” (On Holy Images, St. John Damascene)
2 – Icons Remind us that the Word is Real
“We declare that we preserve intact all the written and unwritten traditions of the Church which have been entrusted to us. One of these traditions consists in the production of representational artwork, which accords with the history of the preaching of the Gospel. For it confirms that the incarnation of the Word of God was real and not imaginary, and to our benefit as well, for realities that illustrate each other undoubtedly reflect each other’s meaning.” (CCC 1160, quoting Council of Nicaea II)
3 – Icons are Beautiful
“‘The beauty of the images moves me to contemplation, as a meadow delights the eyes and subtly infuses the soul with the glory of God.’ Similarly, the contemplation of sacred icons, united with meditation on the Word of God and the singing of liturgical hymns, enters into the harmony of the signs of celebration so that the mystery celebrated is imprinted in the heart’s memory and is then expressed in the new life of the faithful.” (CCC 1162, quoting St. John Damascene)
4 – Icons Confirm that Matter is Good
“Do not despise matter! It is not without honor. For nothing that comes from God is without honor.” (On Holy Images, St. John Damascene) “Purple by itself is simple, and so is silk and the cloak which is made of both. But if the king put it on, the cloak receives honour from the honour due to the wearer. So it is with matter. By itself it is of no account, but if the one presented in the image be full of grace, men become partakers of his grace according to their faith.” Ibid.
5 – Icons Celebrate the Incarnation
By the Incarnation God has “deified our flesh forever.” (On Holy Images, St. John Damascene) God became flesh to save us by reconciling us with God, so that we might know God’s love, to be our model of holiness and to make us partakers of the divine nature. “‘The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.’” (CCC 456-460, quoting St. Thomas Aquinas)
Without physical representations of Christ in icons, Christ becomes invisible, a mere abstraction. Why would Jesus come to us in the visible flesh only to disappear from our sight? The Father comes to us in Jesus and Jesus comes to us in the Eucharist. These are visible signs of God’s grace, also called Sacraments. This is how God has chosen to reveal himself to us. Therefore, every icon of Jesus is a celebration of his Incarnation.