Resurrection Church Virgin Mary Statue 2
Resurrection Church Virgin Mary Statue 2 by SliceofNYC via Flickr

In the most restricted sense an icon (Greek eikon: image) is an image of Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary or a saint, often taking the form of a wood painting or mosaic.

Icons are best known in the Orthodox church but they’re also found, along with statues, in the Catholic and Protestant churches.

Some Religious Studies scholars talk a lot about the meaning of the iconic image. Several scholarly books have been written on this topic. But for everyday churchgoers, it doesn’t have to be that complicated. For them, an icon or religious image’s purpose is to help focus the mind on that which it represents. Ideally, this helps the viewer to receive divine graces. But in Christianity, graces are never understood to emanate from the icon itself.

If the icon “works” in its assistive capacity, the fact that the icon’s appearance is artistically and culturally influenced is of secondary importance, at best.¹

Some icons of the Virgin Mary allegedly cry and/or bleed. If these miracles are true and not shams, the agency would be God. Again, the Christian icon is not imbued with a special quality of its own, nor is it regarded in this way.

Some fundamentalist Christians, however, criticize Catholic and Orthodox Christians for the use of “graven images.” But the Catholic pamphlet, “Graven Images: Altering the Commandments?” outlines some of the problems with a simplistic, cherry-picked fundamentalist approach:

Now if God simply forbids the making of graven images, then there are problems elsewhere in the Bible. First, in Exodus 25:18-21, God commands Moses to make two statues of angels (cherubim) for the top of the Ark of the Covenant. Later in Numbers 21:8-9, God commands Moses to make a bronze serpent, so that the people who were bitten by snakes could look upon it and be healed (Source: http://users.binary.net/polycarp/graven.html).

In the popular, everyday sense, an icon is a representation of some kind of charismatic cultural figure, such as Elvis Presley. After a pop star’s death, the realities of the real person and the icon may merge, and the new legend becomes a type of mythology. But this isn’t always the case. With Michael Jackson, for instance, the media aired all manner of Jackson’s dirty laundry, which almost eclipsed his artistic legacy.

¹ However, in her Divine Mercy Diary, St. Kowalska says she cried when an artistic rendering fell dramatically short of an actual vision she had of Jesus Christ. This arguably was a special case because St. Faustina apparently saw Jesus on a near-daily basis. So her desire for others to see his great beauty was intensified. Today, several versions of that image are often placed in Catholic churches. Despite the fact that the image falls short of that which it represents, it still helps countless believers feel closer to Christ.

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