Orthodox icons are one of the most beautiful parts of the Eastern church. But they are more than decoration. They are a way of preserving the truth of the Gospel down through the ages. Orthodox icons are created only by those trained in the art, and their creation follows a prescribed set of rules.
Icons have been used from the earliest times of the Church, and have functions that are liturgical as well as instructive.
I love icons. Not only are they beautiful aesthetically, but they have a depth and history that rivals any great art. The more I learn about their purpose and their meaning, the more I understand the care that has been taken to preserve their purpose as an aid to teaching the Gospel. Their place in church reminds us that we too are icons of Christ.
Photios, Patriarch of Constantinople, said this about the use of icons as a teaching tool:
“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.”
A study by the University of Waterloo confirms the usefulness of art as a teaching tool. In tests, they pitted drawing against other known mental encoding strategies. Drawing consistently came out on top as a reliable strategy for retaining information that needed to be remembered.
“We believe that the benefit arises because drawing helps to create a more cohesive memory trace that better integrates visual, motor and semantic information.”
It’s no wonder that the Church has used iconography throughout the ages. Their use in preserving and transferring knowledge down through the ages is without dispute.
The Church uses music in the same manner. In the Liturgy almost the entire service is sung, not spoken. It took some time for me to get used to this, but it was an incredible learning aid for me. Through the simple use of melody, I’ve learned long passages of Scripture, ancient prayers, and the entire Nicene Creed by heart.
That’s not bragging. You use the same technique to learn. Think about how many songs to which you know all the words. How many commercial jingles. Many of my fellow Gen Xers learned a lot about politics and sentence construction by listening to Schoolhouse Rock.
Orthodox icons and hymns have been used to preserve the truth of Christianity from the very earliest times, and continue down through the present day. They tap into our basic abilities to learn through images and tunes, and teach us on a level much deeper than the written or spoken word.
Icons have been upheld as correct forms of worship for over a thousand years. They are a reminder that Christ is not a relic of the past, but a present reality.
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