Embracing the Sacred: The Orthodox Tradition of Venerating Icons and Relics. 

What Does It Mean to Venerate an Icon?

In the Orthodox faith, venerating icons and other sacred objects is a deeply rooted tradition, transcending mere church etiquette. This act of veneration, often expressed through kissing, symbolizes trust, gratitude, and love. When an Orthodox Christian kisses an icon, it is not just an act of reverence for the saint depicted but also a way to receive blessings and assistance. This tradition, akin to kissing the cross and the relics of saints, has withstood the test of time. Such a gesture, imbued with sincerity, parallels the intensity of a heartfelt prayer.

Why Do the Orthodox Venerate Icons and Other Sacred Objects?

An icon in Orthodoxy is often seen as a “window” to the Kingdom of Heaven. By venerating an icon, through a gesture as simple as a kiss, the faithful express their connection and affection for the holy figure it represents. The spiritual realm is vast and complex, often beyond the grasp of the human mind. It’s a realm where icons are believed to hold divine energy, and the relics of saints remain imperishable, sometimes even retaining the warmth akin to that of a living body.

The miracles that seem to emanate from these holy objects are challenging to comprehend without faith. Kissing an icon becomes a natural expression of gratitude towards God for many believers. The Church teaches that “the honour given to an icon is directed to the Original Image, and he who venerates an icon is venerating the person’s hypostasis depicted on it.” This doctrine underscores the profound connection between the physical act of veneration and the spiritual act of worship.

“Many wonder, ‘Why do the Orthodox kiss icons?’ The act is a profound gesture of reverence and connection, symbolizing the believer’s respect for the sanctity of the saint or divine figure depicted, and their desire to receive blessings and grace through this venerating kiss.”

Did the Early Church Venerate Icons?

The genesis of religious icons and their veneration in Christianity is rooted in a tradition that dates back to the time of Christ Himself. As per this enduring tradition, the first icon originated from an act of Christ in response to the plea of King Abgar of Edessa, who suffered from leprosy. Believing firmly in Jesus’ healing powers, King Abgar invited Him to his kingdom. In a compassionate gesture, Christ wiped His face with a towel, imprinting His visage upon it, and sent this sacred relic to Edessa with His disciple. Upon receiving and touching this towel, King Abgar was miraculously cured of his affliction.

Icon of the Saviour Not Made by Hands
Icon of the Saviour Not Made by Hands

In those early years, when the Lord traversed the earth, the miraculous appearance of His image on the towel was revered as a divine act. This event set a precedent that continues to inspire modern iconographers, who regard the process of icon painting as a miraculous interplay of colours and brushwork, a divine art. Before embarking on the creation of an icon, painters engage in fasting and prayer, seeking divine guidance and assistance in their sacred craft. Throughout history, there have been accounts of icons and crosses that have manifested in extraordinary ways – emerging in tree saw cuts, materializing on boards and stones, or being found in seemingly miraculous circumstances. These phenomena underscore the sacral nature of icons, serving as tangible reminders of God’s omnipresence.

Icons depicting the Holy Trinity, Christ, the Virgin Mary, saints, and sacred events have been held in high esteem within Christian communities since the second century. By the fourth century, these revered images began to adorn the walls of churches in the form of frescoes and mosaics, further embedding the tradition of icon veneration in the fabric of Christian worship.

Inside the Icon-Painting Workshop
Inside the Icon-Painting Workshop

Resolving the Iconoclast Heresy: The Seventh Ecumenical Council’s Canonical Affirmation

During the tumultuous eighth and ninth centuries, the Orthodox Church was engulfed in a profound theological crisis, known as the iconoclast heresy. This period saw influential Byzantine emperors and patriarchs contesting the practice of icon veneration, arguing that it violates the second commandment’s warning against idolatry. They posited that worshiping icons amounted to idol creation, igniting intense theological debates and conflicts across the Church.

In response to this crisis, a pivotal council was convened, which initially condemned the prominent proponents of icon veneration, including Patriarch Germanus of Constantinople and the Venerable John Damascene. These stalwart defenders of icons, despite facing anathematization, remained unwavering in their belief in the religious importance of icons.

The controversy, however, was destined to be short-lived. The Church, reconsidering these early decisions, later reversed the condemnations. In a landmark event in 787, the Seventh Ecumenical Council convened and decisively endorsed the dogma of icon veneration. The canons of the Seventh Ecumenical Council were a significant turning point, affirming the veneration of icons as an integral part of Orthodox worship.

Further cementing this stance, a subsequent council in 843, chiefly driven by the Byzantine Empress Theodora’s efforts, reaffirmed the decisions made by the Seventh Ecumenical Council. This council established a formal practice of honoring the holy fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council and anathematizing those who opposed Orthodoxy. This decision continues to resonate within the Church and is celebrated each year during the Week of the Triumph of Orthodoxy.

In Kerkyra, on the island of Corfu, the legacy of this pivotal period in Church history is honored as pilgrims venerate the incorruptible relics of St. Theodora, celebrated for her role as a protectress of icon veneration. Her story, along with the outcomes of these historic councils, highlights the enduring importance of icons in the Orthodox Church as sacred windows to the divine, transcending mere idolatry.

Why Do We Venerate Relics? What Does the Veneration of Relics Mean?

Saint Ephrem the Syrian, a revered figure in Orthodoxy, eloquently articulated the enduring power of the saints, even beyond their earthly lives. He observed, “Even after death, the saints act as the living: they heal the sick and cast out demons, repelling any evil by the power of the Lord. Indeed, the miraculous grace of the Holy Spirit is always inherent in holy relics.” This profound truth is equally applicable to icons. In churches housing miraculous relics, there are numerous accounts of divine assistance and healing. Devotees often leave jewellery as offerings in the ciboria of icons, each piece symbolizing a story of healing, help, or a witnessed miracle. These acts of devotion and gratitude are further immortalized in the akathist hymns dedicated to revered relics.

Miracle-working icon "Eleusa"
Miracle-working icon “Eleusa”

Yet, it is essential to understand that miracles are not mere automatic occurrences. They are manifestations that require sincere faith and deep prayer. It is through this profound spiritual engagement that the faithful experience the divine intercession and the miraculous power of relics and icons. Each act of veneration, each prayer offered, is a step closer to experiencing the grace that saints and sacred images can channel.

Respectful Veneration in the Orthodox Church: Icons and Sacred Objects

In the Orthodox Church, the veneration of icons, crosses, and the Gospel is a tradition rich in symbolism and reverence. Approaching these sacred objects typically involves a specific sequence of actions:

  • Traditionally, when approaching an icon, a cross, or the Gospel, the faithful are expected to cross themselves twice with a prayer and a bow. After venerating the sacred object, they should again make the sign of the cross, followed by another bow. Accompanying each action with a prayer, such as “Holy Father Nicholas, pray to God for us!”, enhances the spiritual significance of the gesture.
  • Upon entering the church, the first icon to venerate is usually found on the central analogion. This icon could represent the feast day, a saint being commemorated, or the event in whose honour the church is consecrated. For instance, in a church dedicated to the Most Holy Trinity, you would find an image of the Trinity.
  • After venerating the central icon, worshippers should proceed to other revered images, the Crucifixion, and any relics in the church, ensuring not to disturb others engaged in prayer.
  • To maintain the sanctity of the icons, those wearing lipstick should wipe it off before kissing the icons, as it can be challenging to clean from the glass.
  • Ideally, worshippers should arrive before the service starts or stay after its conclusion to venerate sacred objects without haste.
  • It is customary not to kiss the faces on the icons but rather the hands, feet, or clothing of the depicted figures.
  • In the case of specific images like the Saviour Not Made by Hands or the Saviour in the Crown of Thorns, the appropriate area to kiss would be the hair and crown.
  • When venerating the Cross, the feet of the Saviour are the focus.
  • For icons depicting multiple saints, a single kiss suffices, regardless of the number of figures represented.
  • In the presence of the Crucifixion with accompanying saints, worshippers are encouraged to make profound bows with prayer, venerating the feet of Christ and the lower garments of the Theotokos and other saints depicted, like the Apostle John the Theologian or St Mary Magdalene.
  • Post-Liturgy, each parishioner kisses the cross held by the priest, followed by a kiss on the priest’s hand or arm, without making bows to avoid delaying others.
  • Confession rituals involve kissing the Gospel and the cross on the lectern, accompanied by the sign of the cross, but without bowing.
  • On special occasions like Great and Holy Friday or the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos, the shroud is brought out for veneration with deep bows and, if accessible, kissed while kneeling.
  • At home, Christians traditionally kiss their baptismal cross before bedtime during prayers and also venerate the Gospel and icons, especially during parental blessings for children.

The overarching principle in all these acts of veneration is to approach the sacred with profound reverence. Kissing holy objects is not merely ritualistic; it is an act that complements and reinforces sincere prayer.

The Veneration of Saints and Relics in the Orthodox Church

In the Orthodox temple, several sacred objects are traditionally venerated. These include icons, the cross, the Gospel (as during the Polyeleos), the Shroud, the Crucifixion scene, the Chalice after Communion, and the relics of saints. When on a pilgrimage, a Christian has the opportunity to venerate not only these traditional objects but also personal items and vestments associated with specific saints. Additionally, sacredness can be attributed to natural objects upon which God’s grace is believed to have manifested, such as specific stones or trees. The Burning Bush in Egypt is one renowned example of such a natural object.

Personal belongings of the Venerable Seraphim of Sarov, preserved in the Diveyevo Monastery
Personal belongings of the Venerable Seraphim of Sarov, preserved in the Diveyevo Monastery


Proper Veneration of the Relics of Saints

  • To venerate the relics of saints correctly, one should first make two deep, earth-low bows with the sign of the cross, then venerate the reliquary or ark, followed by another bow.
  • In the presence of a crowd, waist bows are sufficient. It is important to avoid haste and to focus on prayer rather than rush when near the relics.
  • Long prayers while approaching the relics are not customary, to prevent delaying others. Prayers and petitions should be offered quietly and in advance, similar to how bows are made.
  • There are times when the casket containing the relics is opened, allowing for the veneration of the saint’s hands or feet (but not the face or head). In cases where only the head part of the relics is accessible, it is appropriate to kiss the forehead of the saint.
Remarkably preserved relics of the holy martyr Christine of Bolsena, who suffered for Christ in the 3rd century
Remarkably preserved relics of the holy martyr Christine of Bolsena, who suffered for Christ in the 3rd century

Addressing Common Queries on Venerating Icons and Relics

What does “venerate an icon” mean in the church?

Venerating an icon in the church involves approaching the icon with reverence and prayer, typically expressing veneration through a kiss.

Can I venerate icons during my menstrual period?

While you may visit the church during your period, it’s advised not to venerate sacred objects or partake in sacraments during this time.

When is the appropriate time to venerate icons?

Icons and sacred relics are traditionally venerated before and after divine services. You may also approach the icons before Communion, after the Communion antiphon and before the Holy Gifts are brought out in the Chalice.

What are common mistakes when venerating icons and relics?

It is considered disrespectful to kiss the face of the Lord, the Virgin Mary, or any saint depicted in an icon. Touching an icon with your hands or pressing personal items like crosses, rosary beads, and other objects against it is also inappropriate.

Is it permissible to venerate icons immediately after Communion?

You should wait to venerate icons until after the priest has said the dismissal prayer following Communion.

Can I place my forehead against an icon?

In some churches, there is a tradition of not only kissing but also gently resting one’s forehead against icons. While not universally practiced, it is generally not forbidden.

Do I need to bow when venerating an icon?

Bowing should be done within your physical limits. If you have health concerns like spinal issues, knee pain, weakness, or high blood pressure, it is sufficient to cross yourself with a prayer before venerating an icon.

How to Venerate Icons at Home?

Venerating icons at home in the Orthodox tradition is a reflective and personal act. Begin by approaching the icon corner or the place where the icons are displayed with a quiet and prayerful demeanor. Typically, you would light a candle or an oil lamp to symbolize the presence of Christ, the Light of the World. Then, make the sign of the cross and offer a prayer, either a personal one or a traditional prayer, before the icon. Gently kiss the icon, preferably not on the face of the holy figure but on the hands, feet, or border of the icon. Conclude with another sign of the cross and a bow, expressing your reverence and devotion. This act of veneration, done regularly, especially during morning or evening prayers, helps maintain a spiritual connection and cultivate a sense of sanctity in the home.

Is there a risk of infection from kissing icons in church?

Churches have implemented precautionary measures, especially since the onset of the coronavirus epidemic. Icon cases and the icons themselves are regularly wiped with disinfectant solutions. However, these measures are primarily for the peace of mind of the faithful. It is a common belief that sincere faith in the healing power of icons precludes the possibility of infection. Remember, an icon is regarded as a source of grace, a window to the Kingdom of Heaven, and a reflection of the Original Image.

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