Icons and the Catholic Church


Around the time of the canonisation of Mary MacKillop last year, a considerable number of icons of Australia’s first saint were installed in churches and other places around the country. Icons of Mary MacKillop were commissioned by several dioceses, by the Australian Catholic University and by the Sisters of St Joseph.

This is the most recent and notable example of a remarkable growth of interest in icons in the Roman Catholic Church, as well as in other Christian Churches and in society generally. Art galleries have icon exhibitions and classes in icon painting are conducted regularly. Icons decorate the covers of books on theology and spirituality and religious goods stores sell colour prints of icons.

Icons are flat pictures usually painted in egg tempera on wood but can also be of mosaic, ivory or other materials. Sometimes the icon is partially covered by a metal shield which leaves just the painted face and hands showing.

The most common subjects for icon painters are Christ’s earthly ministry, his passion, resurrection and enthronement, St Mary and other popular saints. Prophets, kings, and scenes from the Hebrew Scriptures are also often depicted.

Icons are designed to express a “not-of-this-world” quality in graphic form. This is achieved through a variety of techniques, including stylisation of anatomical features, non-naturalistic use of colour- especially fields of gold as backgrounds, two-dimensionality, and inverse perspective.

While icons might seem like a recent innovation for Catholics, praying with icons was traditional practice in the Latin west from at least the 6th century. The infamous Iconoclastic Controversy (“iconoclast” means literally “image-smasher”) arose early in the 8th century when Emperor Leo III, believing that the veneration of icons was the chief obstacle to the conversion of Muslims and Jews, declared that all images were idols and ordered their destruction.

Although an ecumenical council of the Church held in Nicae 787 withdrew the earlier condemnation of icons and decreed their restoration, iconoclasm retained a strong following. The election of the monk Methodius as patriarch in 843 finally brought an end to the persecutions and a feast in honour of icons was celebrated on the first Sunday of Lent. This day has been kept in the Eastern Church as the “Feast of Orthodoxy”.

Vatican II called for restraint in the number and prominence of sacred images in churches. While the removal of religious art of questionable value has been a positive step, it has also left some faith communities without the visual supports of prayer that were so much part of their self-identity. Many individual Catholics and some parishes are attracted to icons an art form that is non-controversial and acceptable to a wide range of tastes.

Icons play an important part in public worship in Eastern Orthodox Churches where they are seen as the doorways to prayer, windows into the world of the Communion of Saints and into the world of the Divine. To turn icons into devotional images for private prayer, as seems to be happening in the West, deprives them of their power.

Why the rush to icons to meet today’s spiritual needs instead of employing contemporary art forms? Readers interested in this subject will enjoy reading “Icons and the West” by Pat Negri SSS in the March 2011 issue of Liturgy News.


Elizabeth Harrington