Icons in the Catholic Church


In recent years there has been 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.
Icons play an important part in public worship and in private devotions in Eastern Orthodox Churches. 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 until the Renaissance in the 13th century. For centuries the Church used icons to tell and celebrate its story.
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. This unleashed a systematic persecution against the monks who were the most ardent defender of icons, and a great number of them were martyred.
The seventh ecumenical council of the Church held in Nicae 787 withdrew the earlier condemnation of icons, defined the degree of veneration to be paid to icons, and decreed their restoration. However, iconoclasm retained a strong following, especially in the army. The election of the monk Methodius as patriarch in 843 finally brought an end to the persecutions and a great feast in honour of icons was celebrated on the first Sunday of Lent. Since then, this day has been kept in the Eastern Church as the “Feast of Orthodoxy”. The Iconoclastic Controversy is usually considered to be the last step towards the great schism between East and West before the actual breach in 1054.
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 as a deeply prayerful art form that resonates with traditional Roman Catholic piety.


Elizabeth Harrington