“QUANDO UN’ICONA È SANTA?”: ECCO GLI INSEGNAMENTI DELLA CHIESA (4)

Holy Icons need to be blessed before use

Within all Orthodox churches there are traditions regarding the blessing of new icons, whether newly painted or newly bought. The traditions vary, but usually involve bringing the icon to a priest, who then places the icon on the altar during a Divine Liturgy. Sometimes the icon spends 40 days there; sometimes special prayers are read over the icons (here is an example of such a prayer); sometimes the prayers are accompanied by the sprinkling of holy water, sometimes they’re not. However, if the holiness of an image derives from its prototype, then it should not be necessary for an icon of Jesus Christ, for example, to be blessed before being venerated. This is in fact the case, as I know of no priest who would argue that an icon must be blessed before veneration. The custom makes more sense if it is seen as applying to newly painted icons. In this case, the bringing of the icon to a priest, and the 40 days placed on the altar, serves as a “vetting period”, whereby the newly painted image can be observed by the clergy to see if is a true image or not; in other words whether it is an Icon of Christ or a Golden Calf.
The prayers said over the icon can be understood more as asking God that the items be blessed specifically for veneration. Thus, in the prayer for the blessing of icons we ask God: “grant that this sanctification will be to all who venerate this Icon of Saint (N), and send up their prayer unto You standing before it”. And when we pray “Bless and make holy this Icon unto Your glory, in honor and remembrance of Your Saint (N)” we are praying that the Icon be “set-apart” (holy) for the glory of God, and in remembrance of the Saint depicted. In other words, we are not praying that the Icon be made holy, for it already is if it is a true image of a holy one, but that it be made acceptable for the specific purpose of veneration. Images of Christ and the Saints that appear elsewhere (on church walls, decorating vestments etc.) are not blessed in the same manner, though they are still considered holy, because they depict someone who is holy.

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Holy Icons come from an Orthodox source

It is certainly prudent for icons to be bought from an Orthodox source: a church, a monastery etc., because at least we know the money will be spent wisely (most of the time!). There is another reason, though it is not because icons made by the non-Orthodox are rendered unholy or without the grace of God. The other good reason for obtaining icons from churches or monasteries relates back to ensuring the image is a true image of a holy one, rather than a false image of the human mind (i.e. an idol). There is no such assurance when buying icons from companies who are not Orthodox, nor even Christian. Amazingly there is a company which specializes in painting and selling “Orthodox Icons”, that is closely associated with Hinduism! In such cases, being able to pick through the various images on sale, and sort out which are true images and which are false images becomes impossible and dangerous: either we fail and buy an image which is not holy, or we succeed but fall into spiritual pride in thinking we are able to decide what is “Orthodox” and what is not.

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So, the testimony of the Holy Fathers, particularly those who defended the veneration of Icons, is that an image is holy because of its prototype. With the caveat that the image is a true one, an icon of Christ is holy because Jesus Christ is holy. It is not to do with it being blessed, or coming from an Orthodox iconographer who fasted for 40 days, only using certain paints and the best cypress board as his materials. Yet I do not want to encourage anyone to declare images as Orthodox or non-Orthodox based on their own reasoning, and this “golden rule” of what makes an icon holy. God-forbid! How we sinners know an icon is holy is a different question altogether, and here we must return to the above rules, prayers and customs regarding icons. They are not superstitious rituals which confer holiness upon pieces of wood and paint. They are traditions which ensure that divinely revealed, holy, images are preserved within the Church and passed on to future generations. The rules for iconographers, the prayers of blessing, and so on are given to the faithful so that we can use these to preserve the images that are holy, and protect us from the false idols that are truly man-made. In these modern times innumerable groups claim divine revelation and even Christian revelation, presenting us with any number of contradicting images of truth and holiness. Only by trusting in the consensus of the Church regarding Holy Icons, a consensus formed by God from the works of countless Saints over the centuries, can we hope to steer ourselves through the morass of images presented to us as holy and true.

(da A reader’s guide to Orthodox icons)
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