Ikons or idols?
Many Protestants, on visiting an Orthodox Church, are struck by the number of pictures, called ikons. In long-established churches, ikons cover just about all the available wall space and there are also stands with portable ikons. The visitor will notice that members of the church kiss these when they enter the building, and that many bow and touch the ground with their right hand before they kiss the ikons.
Some Protestants are shocked by this, and have been heard to say that Orthodox churches are full of "idols". And if they say this in the presence of Orthodox Christians, the Orthodox are inclined to dismiss the Protestants as heretics and iconoclasts.
During the first centuries of Christianity, Christians held different opinions about pictures of Christ and the apostles. Some rejected representational art, or were uneasy about it, believing that it was prohibited in the scriptures. Others accepted it, and ikons came to be used more commonly in churches. The issue was not resolved until he iconoclastic controversy of the 8th and 9th centuries.
The Iconoclastic Controversy
Those opposed to the use of ikons were increasingly drawn from the heretical fringes of Christianity: the monophysites, who downplayed the human nature of Christ; those with gnostic tendencies, who thought that all matter was evil, and later the possible influence of Islam. The emperor Leo III believed that the use of ikons was hindering the conversion of Muslims and Jews to Christianity, and ordered that they be destroyed. The church was divided, and those who retained ikons (the iconodules) were persecuted by those who destroyed the ikons (the iconoclasts). After the death of the Emperor Leo IV in 780 his widow, the Empress Irene, encouraged the calling of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (the Second Council of Nicaea), which met in 787. The Council finally settled the issue from the theological point of view, and defined the way in which ikons were to be used, and carefully distinguished between the proper use and the misuse of ikons (which would be idolatry).
Many of the theological contributions to settle the dispute came from outside the empire, one of the most notable being that of St John of Damascus. His contribution was all the more significant since he lived in a place under Muslim rule.
Though the Church had settled the matter theologically, there was still opposition to ikons from the secular power, and some of the later emperors also supported iconoclasm. One of the things that persuaded the Church to accept ikons was John 1:18: "No man has seen God at any time; the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has revealed him." When God became incarnate in human form, when the Word became flesh, then men could see the incarnate God in the flesh, and Christ was the image of God. A picture of Christ, then, was a picture of the incarnate God.
Not only was Christ himself depicted in ikons, however, but so were the saints of the past. When Christians gathered to worship, the ikons of the saints helped to make them aware that we are "surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12:1). The ikons therefore helped to make visible the invisible. They were also a reminder that the Church is a community not bounded by space and time. The ikons remind us that in Christ we have fellowship, communion, with Christians of other times and places.
This is perhaps seen most dramatically in the Paschal Vigil, where we celebrate the resurrection of Christ. Members of the congregation come forward to greet the priest with a kiss, and they also kiss the book of the gospels, the deacon, the ikon of the risen Christ, and one another. We greet the risen Christ and our fellow Christians, both those who are with us in the flesh, and those whose presence is seen through their ikons.
At this point some Protestants raise another objection. They object to the idea that we should either ask the dead to pray for us, or that we should pray for them. They see this as interposing dead saints as mediators between ourselves and God. Most Orthodox Christians find this objection very difficult to understand. St Paul insists that death cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39). Those who raise this particular objection seem to be revelling in being the most pitiable of all men (I Corinthians 15:18-19), for did not our Lord Jesus Christ himself say that "he who lives and believes in me shall never die"? Orthodox Christians therefore usually find such objections incomprehensible, and think that those who make them are denying the fundamentals of the Christian faith, yet still claiming to be Christians.
Windows into heaven
When Christians gather for the Divine Liturgy, they gather at a place on earth, but it is also a place where earth meets heaven. We have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, where millions of angels have gathered for the festival, with the whole church where everyone is a first-born son and a citizen of heaven, with the spirits of the saints who have been made perfect (Hebrews 12:22-23), and when we enter a temple where all the walls are covered with ikons of Christ and the saints and angels, this is made visible to our senses.
The ikons are not simply for decoration; nor are they purely didactic, to teach the scriptures to the illiterate (though they do these things). Their primary purpose is to enable us to see what is normally unseen, to make visible what is normally invisible. So ikons are an intrinsic part of our faith; they are evidence of things hoped for (Hebrews 11:1).
So when the iconoclastic controversy finally ended, Orthodox Christians celebrated the "Triumph of Orthodoxy", and still do so, on the first Sunday of Lent each year, going in procession around the church with ikons.
Veneration and worship
We honour the ikons and greet those depicted there. But the ikon is a window, not a solid statue. The honour given to the image passes to the prototype. We may keep a photograph of someone we love, and, especially when we are far away from that person, the photo reminds us of them. We might even kiss the photo, if the absence has lasted a long time, but it is not the photo that we love, but the person shown in it. So with the ikons. We do not love them for themselves (which would be idolatry), but for the ones depicted on them.
So the Seventh Ecumenical Council decreed that ikons may be venerated, with honour (proskinesis) but we may not give them the worship (latria) that belongs to God alone. That latria is the "latry" in "idolatry".
The veneration of ikons, therefore, is nothing like idolatry, because it is ikons that draw us to worship God. Idolatry, on the contrary, is offering worship (latria) to something other than God, to something that is a substitute for God in our mind. Idolatry is when we worship and serve creatures rather than the creator (Romans 1:25), the gift rather than the giver. Ikons are not idols (except to those who collect them as works of art or as investments). Idols are created things that we substitute for the creator in our minds and hearts and loyalties. Wealth, or a luxurious life-style, loyalty to or family or country, the love of power, these things can become idols. In the world in which we live, idolatry is all around us. Ikons, however, lead us out of idolatry and back to God.
Ouspensky, Leonid & Lossky, Vladimir. 1989. The meaning of icons. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press.
You can find out more about ikons and see more examples on the following sites:
Julia Bridget Hayes - ikonographer
The sanctification of art in Christianity