What Sacred Tradition Teaches on Icons
“The Church teaches that iconography, the painting of icons, has existed since the beginning of Christianity, and as we shall later explain in more detail, even the direct expression of the Incarnation. Iconography, in this respect, corresponds to revelation, which is not only transmitted through the Word of God, but also the image of God (Philippians 2:6-7, Galatians 3:24-25, 4:3). The formal Old Testament “banning” of making images indicates that the gap was redeemed by the holy images of the New Testament. This, as a confirmation and illustration, serves well the liturgical tradition of the so-called church icons ‘made without human hands’, i.e., icons that were painted by the person himself or someone else who bore his character. Such an icon of Christ was given by Christ Himself to King Abgar V of Edessa with the miraculous towel which embodied His image. This icon highlights the parallel existence of the church and iconography. The Church never existed without icons: as soon as the Church began to preach, the Church also began to paint. Even the Holy Apostle Luke was a painter and, according to tradition, painted images of Christ and the Virgin Mary.”
“Icons have been used in the church from the beginning of Christianity. The first icon was the image of the Lord Jesus Christ. Church tradition tells us that this icon came about in a miraculous way. King Abgar V of Edessa heard of Christ, his teachings, and miracles that he did. He desired to see the famous Miracle Worker, but serious illness prevented him from doing so. So he invited the Lord himself to visit Edessa. The Lord declined the invitation because He was about to fulfill the plan of redemption among the Jews in Palestine. Abgar V of Edessa then found painters whom he sent to Jesus with the task of painting His picture on canvas. The painter went to Jesus, found Him, and started to paint His portrait but had no success. The painting of the face of the Lord Jesus differed quite a bit from the actual Person and did not give a true representation. To comfort the frustrated painters and its sender, the Lord took a clean towel, wiped it on Himself, and left on the towel the image of His face. This towel bearing the image of Christ was made without human hands. The painters delivered the image to King Abgar V of Edessa who joyfully received it, kissed the image, and was healed of his maladies.
Christian tradition bears witness to another image of the Lord Jesus that was not made by human hands in the same manner, just under different circumstances. When Pilate convicted the Lord, he ordered Him to be crucified at Golgotha. As Jesus labored His way there, He stumbled and fell due to the heavy weight of the cross and pain from the previous torture in prison. He fell down on His divine face which gushed sweat and blood from the crown of thorns put on His head when He was beaten. One of the women on the street watched the sad procession. In compassion, she gave the Lord a clean towel to wipe his face. Her compassion was rewarded by the Lord, who left the imprint of His face on the towel. Tradition tells us this woman was named Veronica.
The earliest icon of the Holy Mother of God, again according to church tradition, was made by the holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke. She approved and blessed the icon. Church tradition says that St. Luke made three icons of the Holy Mother of God and that one of them is in our Chilandar monastery in Mount Athos. St. Sava found one of these icons on his travels to the East, purchased it, and brought it to Chilandar.”
These quotes from Orthodox sources teach that the Eastern Orthodox churches believe that icons date back to the very beginning of Christianity, based solely on tradition. Neither Christ nor the apostles mention anything in God’s inspired Word about the emergence of the first icons. Moreover, the story told by sacred tradition assigns to Christ the role of the first iconographer in the New Testament era, as it claims in the tale of King Abgar V of Edessa, who introduced icon veneration (since Abgar V of Edessa kissed the icon made without human hands), the same sort that exists today in Orthodoxy.
Also, as we have seen, sacred tradition declares Evangelist Luke to be an iconographer, whose icons were blessed by the holy Mother of God. So why is it that Luke says nothing about this in the book of Acts? If the story of Luke as a maker of icons were true,
undoubtedly, he would have written it down with his pen. All of Christianity since the earliest times would have made it clear that icon veneration in the Church was permitted, in spite of the prohibition in the Old Testament. However, these ideas remain in the domain of pure theory, for the simple reason that God’s second commandment, the prohibition for the Jews to make images and venerate them, was a part of God’s law that was intended to be obeyed for all time. Specifically, Christ said:
“Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.”
For Christ to fulfill the law, it could certainly not imply a direct violation of one of God’s commandments, which forbade the “adoration and veneration” of images. Such would not have been the case had it been true that Christ produced not just one but two icons not made by human hands, before which a person could bow down. Otherwise, Christ Himself would be unable to claim what we have just read in the Gospel of Matthew.
With regard, on the other hand, to the icon of the Blessed Virgin, we examined the issue in the chapter on Mary. History attests to the fact that these icons mentioned here were produced only in the early fourth century A.D. under the influence of the cult of the Mother Goddess resulting from pagan religions and cultures.
In order to clarify the controversy as to whether or not the early Christian Church venerated icons, which neither Christ nor the apostles taught in their doctrine, let us now examine the indisputable facts of history.