The Functions of Icons
by Dr. Constantine Cavarnos
Holy icons serve a number of purposes. (1) They enhance the beauty of a church. (2)
They instruct us in matters pertaining to the Christian faith. (3) They remind us of this
faith. (4) They lift us up to the prototypes which they symbolize, to a higher level of
thought and feeling. (5) They arouse us to imitate the virtues of the holy personages
depicted on them. (6) They help to transform us, to sanctify us. (7) They serve as a means
of worship and veneration. I shall discuss briefly each one of these functions.
(1) The most obvious function of icons is that they enhance the beauty of a church. Attention
to this fact is called by the following hymn from the Triodion that is chanted on
the eve of the Sunday of Orthodoxy, when the victory over Iconoclasm is commemorated:
The Church of Christ is now embellished like a bride, having been
adorned with icons of holy form; and it calls all together spiritually; let us come and
celebrate together joyfully with concord and faith, magnifying the Lord. 
The idea that icons are a means of enhancing the beauty of churches appears in many
writings of the Fathers. To give one example, Niketas Stethatos, the most famous disciple
of St. Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022), says that upon becoming abbot of the
Monastery of St. Mamas, Symeon "adorned its church with beautiful marbles on the
pavement, with holy icons, and other wonderful offerings." 
It may be added, that the very fact that the Orthodox in general speak of the
'decoration' (diakosmesis) of churches with icons shows plainly that they
recognize this function.
As a 'house of God' and a 'house of prayer,' the church should be rendered as beautiful
as possible, especially in the interior, where the faithful gather for worship. But the
beauty of the church must bear the impress of holiness; and the pleasure evoked by it must
transcend that of mere aesthetic experience: it must be spiritual.
(2) That icons serve to instruct the faithful is a point which is duly
emphasized by the Greek Church Fathers. Thus, St. John Damascene remarks that since not
every one is literate, nor has leisure for reading, the Fathers agreed that such things as
the Incarnation of our Lord, His association with men, His miracles, His Crucifixion, His
Resurrection, and so on, should be represented on icons.  And St. Photios, Patriarch of
Constantinople, says: "Just as speech is transmitted by hearing, so a form through
sight is imprinted upon the tablets of the soul, giving to those whose apprehension is not
soiled by wicked doctrines a representation of knowledge consonant with piety." 
Photios adds that icons not only teach, as do written accounts, but in some instances
they are more vivid than written accounts, and hence superior to the latter
as a means of instruction. He cites as an example the representation of the deeds of holy
We can also appreciate the effectiveness of icons as a means of instructing if we note
that in a composition, such as the Nativity, the Raising of Lazarus, or the
Crucifixion, the icon presents simultaneously and concisely many thingsa
place, persons and objectsthat would take an appreciable period of time to describe
(3) We have a tendency to forget, to forget even things that are of vital importance to
us, to fall asleep spiritually. So even though we may know many things about the
Christian faith, such as the commandment of love, the teaching about the spiritual realm,
the exemplary character and noble deeds of many holy personages, we tend to forget them,
as we become preoccupied with everyday worldly matters and pursuits. Icons serve to remind
us of these things, to awaken us with respect to them. The vivacity of icons,
which St. Photios points out, renders icons very effective in this regard. John Damascene
sums up this function when he calls them concise memorials (hypomneseis),  that
is, concise means of remembering. He gives the following example: "Many times,
doubtless, when we do not have in mind the Passion of our Lord, upon seeing the icon of
Christ's Crucifixion, we recall His saving suffering." 
(4) Icons also serve to lift us to the prototypes, to a higher level of
consciousness, of thought and feeling. This is their anagogic function. The
prototypes of the icons, i.e. Christ, the Theotokos, the Prophets, Apostles, Martyrs,
Saints in general, enjoy a higher level of being than we do in our ordinary, distracted
everyday life. When we see their icons, we recall their superior character and deeds; and
as we recall them, we think pure, sublime thoughts, and experience higher feelings. Thus,
for a while we live on a higher plane of being. As St. John Damascene remarks, "we
are led by perceptible icons to the contemplation of the divine and spiritual." 
In this function of the icon, its essentially symbolic nature is manifest. An icon is
not an end in itself; it is not merely an aesthetic object to be enjoyed for whatever
artistic merits it possesses, but is essentially a symbol, carrying us beyond itself. It
is designed to lead us from the physical and psychophysical to the spiritual realm. And
hence it is, as St. John Damascene says, a pattern (typos) of something
(5) By instructing us in the Christian religion, reminding us of its truths, aims and
values, and lifting us up to the prototypes, to holy personages, icons serve another
important purpose: they stir us up to imitate the virtues of such personages. Thus,
one of decrees of the Seventh Ecumenical Synodthe Synod that was convoked specially
to settle the dispute between the iconoclasts and those who defended the veneration of
holy iconssays: "The more continually holy personages are seen in icons, the
more are the beholders lifted up to the memory of the prototypes and to an aspiration
after them." 
(6) An additional function served by holy icons is to help transform our character,
our whole being, to help sanctify us. They effect this by instructing us, reminding
us, uplifting us, and stirring us up morally and spiritually. The function of the icon in
this regard is based on the principle that we become like that which we habitually
contemplate. True icons focus the distracted, dispersed soul of man on spiritual
perfection, on the divine. By dwelling steadily and lovingly on such perfection, we come
to partake of it more and more.
(7) Finally, the icon has a liturgical function, it is a means of worship and
veneration. This is one of its primary functions, more important than the first. Like
sacred hymns and music, the icon is used as a means of worshipping God and venerating His
saints. As such, it is essentially symbolic, leading the soul from the
visible to the invisible, from the material to the spiritual, from the symbol to the
prototype or original which it represents. As every Orthodox Christian knows, the first
act of the faithful upon entering a church is to take a candle, light it and put it on a
candlestand that is placed next to the proskynetarion or icon-stand on which is set
the icon representing the sacred person, persons or event specially celebrated by the
particular church and after whom or which it is named. Then he bows before the icon,
making the sign of the cross, and kisses the icon, saying a brief prayer. This series of
acts is called veneration or 'honorable reverence' of the icon. It is not an act of
worshipping the icon. The Greek Church Fathers distinguish very sharply between
'honorable reverence' (timetike proskynesis), which is accorded to icons,
and 'worship' (latreia). Worship is accorded only to God. Further, they
emphasize that the veneration which we give to a holy icon goes to the prototype which it
represents, for example, to Christ, to the Theotokos, to some martyr or other saint. In
the words of Basil the Great, which have been repeated by John Damascene and other
defenders of the icons, "the honor which is given to the icon passes over to the
prototype" (he time tes eikonos eis to prototypon diabainei).  The
prototype honored is in the last analysis God, as God created man in His own image. 
Neither God nor the saints, of course, need the honor which we offer them, be it by
means of icons, or by means of hymns and music. But it is only proper for us to do so, as
the adoration of God and the admiration of saints are expressions of a soul that sees and
loves the beauty of holiness, of spiritual perfection, and feels grateful to the Deity and
to holy men for their many benefactions to mankind. Such a response is not merely
something proper for us, but is also conductive to our salvation. The following remark of
John Damascene calls attention to this point, and at the same time has a bearing on
several of the functions served by icons: "I enter the common place-of-therapy of
souls, the church, choked as it were by the thorns of worldly thoughts. The bloom of
painting attracts me, it delights my sight like a meadow, and secretly evokes in my soul
the desire to glorify God. I behold the fortitude of the martyr, the crowns awarded, and
my zeal is aroused like fire; I fall down and worship God through the martyr, and receive
When the various important functions of icons are ignored and the crucial distinction
between honorable reverence and worship is lost sight of, iconoclasm, the condemnation of
icons, is a result. This is what happened in 726, when the Byzantine Emperor Leo the
Isaurian issued an edict which condemned the making and veneration of icons as idolatry,
and contrary to the second commandment. But the icon, as we have seen, is an image or
symbol, and is designed to lead us to that of which it is an image or
symbol, whereas an idol lacks this power of the authentic symbol; and the veneration of an
icon is not an act of 'worshipping' it. Hence the charge of idolatry shows gross
ignorance with regard to the nature and functions of icons.
In connection with the practice of according the reverence of honor to holy icons, it
should be remarked that this is deeply rooted in the sacred tradition of Christianity. St.
John Damascene would trace the tradition of honorable reverence of sacred objects back to
the Mosaic people, who "venerated on all hands the tabernacle which was an
image and type of heavenly things, or rather of the whole creation."  The cross
has always been venerated by Christians. The painting of the cross in the dome or apse of
the Church was not forbidden in Byzantium even by the fanatical enemies of the icons, the
Iconoclasts. Now the crucifix is itself an icon, an image of Christ's crucifixion, a
symbol of Christ Himself, Who is usually depicted upon it in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
1. Triodion, Venice, 1876, p. 123.
2. The Extant Works of Saint Symeon the New Theologian, trans. by
Dionysios Zagoraios, Syros, 1886, p. 6.
3. See the excerpt from St. John Damascene in Appendix A below.
4. Cyril Mango, The Homilies of Photius, p. 294. Cf. St. Basil:
"What the spoken account presents through the sense of hearing, the painting silently
shows by representations" (P.G., Vol. 94, col. 1401a).
5. Appendix A, below.
7. P.G., Vol. 94, col. 1261a.
8. See Appendix A.
11. St. Basil, Concerning the Holy Spirit, Ch. 18.
12. P.G., Vol. 94, col. 1268 a-b.
13. See Appendix A.
This is Chapter III from Orthodox Iconography (Belmont, MA: Institute for Modern Greek and Byzantine Studies, 1992 ), pp. 30-35. Reprinted with the kind permission of Dr. Cavarnos. His many excellent works can be
found in any good Orthodox bookstore. A catalogue can be obtained by contacting the
Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 115 Gilbert Road, Belmont, MA, 02178.