Icons are used particularly in Eastern Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Oriental
Orthodox, and Eastern-rite Catholic churches.
The Eastern Orthodorx view of the origin of icons is quite different from
that of some secular scholars and from some in contemporary Roman Catholic
circles: "The Orthodox Church maintains and teaches that the sacred image
has existed from the beginning of Christianity" (Leonid Ouspensky, Theology
of the Icon," St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1978). Accounts that some
non-Orthodox writers consider legends are, within Eastern Orthodoxy,
accepted as history, because they are a part of Church Tradition. Thus
accounts such as that of the miraculous "Image Not Made by Hands," and the
weeping and moving "Mother of God of the Sign" of Novgorod are accepted as
fact: "Church Tradition tells us, for example, of the existence of an Icon
of the Savior during His lifetime (the "Icon-Made-Without-Hands") and of
Icons of the Most-Holy Theotokos [Mary] immediately after Hum." (These
Truths we Hold, St. Tikhon's Seminary Press, 1986). Eastern Orthodox further
believe that "a clear understanding of the importance of Icons" was part of
the church from its very beginning, and has never changed, although
explanations of their importance may have developed over time. This is due
to the fact that iconography is rooted in the theology of the Incarnation
(Christ being the eikon of God) which didn't change, though its subsequent
clarification within the Church occurred over the period of the first seven
Ecumenical Councils. Also, icons served as tools of edification for the
faithful during most of the history of Christendom when most couldn't read
Eastern Orthodox find the first instance of an image or icon in the Bible
when God made man in His own image (Septuagint Greek eikona), recorded in
Genesis 1:26-27. In Exodus, God commanded that the Israelites not make any
graven image; but soon afterwards, he commanded that they make graven images
of cherubim and other like things, both as statues and woven on tapestries.
Later, Solomon included still more such imagery when he built the first
temple. Eastern Orthodox believe these qualify as icons, in that they were
visible images depicting heavenly beings and, in the case of the cherubim,
used to indirectly indicate God's presence above the Ark.
Image of the Saviour Not Made by Hand: a traditional Orthodox iconography
in the interpretation of Simon Ushakov (1658).In addition to the legend
that Pilate had made an image of Christ, the 4th Century bishop Eusebius,
in his Church History, provides another reference to a "first" icon of Jesus.
He relates that King Abgar of Edessa sent a letter to Jesus at Jerusalem,
asking Jesus to come and heal him of an illness. In this version there is
no image. Then, in the later account found in the Syriac Doctrine of Addai,
a painted image of Jesus is mentioned in the story; and even later, in the
account given by Evagrius, the painted image is transformed into an image
that miraculously appeared on a towel when Christ pressed the cloth to his
wet face (Veronica and her Cloth, Kuryluk, Ewa, Basil Blackwell, Cambridge,
1991). Further legends relate that the cloth remained in Edessa until the
10th century, when it was taken to Constantinople. In 1204 it was lost when
Constantinople was sacked by Crusaders.
Today attitudes can vary even from church to church within a given
denomination, whether Catholic or Protestant. Protestants generally use
religious art for teaching and for inspiration, but such images are not
venerated as in Orthodoxy, and many Protestant church sanctuaries contain
no imagery at all.
Icons are often illuminated with a candle or jar of oil with a wick.
(Beeswax for candles and olive oil for oil lamps are preferred because
they burn very cleanly, although other materials are sometimes used.) The
illumination of religious images with lamps or candles is an ancient
practice pre-dating Christianity.
Historically and even today among conservative Eastern Orthodox there are
reports of miraculous icons that exude a fragrant, healing oil. When these
reports are verified by Orthodox clergy, they are still explained as miracles
performed by God through the prayers of the saint, rather than being magical
properties of the painted wood itself.