Does the Blessing of Icons Agree with or Contradict the Tradition of the Orthodox Church?

By Fr. Steven Bigham on July 31, 2012

The Question

Orthodox Christians routinely have their icons blessed by a priest or bishop. Bishops often anoint them with Holy Chrism. There are even special services for blessing different kinds of icons: of Christ, of the Mother of God, of feasts, etc. Most people would never imagine putting an unblessed icon in their houses; it would be a kind of sacrilege, but once the icon is blessed — whatever its subject, taste, canonicity, etc. — many think that what was a simple picture before the blessing becomes an icon after, because of the blessing. It becomes at least a “better” icon. Being only a “profane” image before, it becomes “holy” after, because it has been blessed. Very few Orthodox would question this practice which they feel is legitimate, traditional, and totally in agreement with Church Tradition. I hope to show that despite the widespread habit of blessing icons, this practice is not in agreement with Church Tradition, and that it is in fact contrary to it and based on a theology of the icons that is foreign to Orthodoxy.

A priest blessing several icons.

The History

From Pentecost, 33, to the 7th Ecumenical Council, 787, which condemned iconoclasm:

During this period, there is a total silence in the historical documents. As far as we know, no one ever wrote on the subject of blessing images, and there is no trace of a prayer for blessing them.

 The Time of Iconoclasm, 730-843:

The Second Council of Nicaea, 787[1]. Here is one of the attacks made by the iconoclasts against the iconodoules, read during the council along with the answer given by the Fathers[2].

The Iconoclasts: …nor is there any prayer of consecration for it [an icon] to transpose it from the state of being common to the state of being sacred. Instead, it remains common and worthless, as the painter made it.

The Orthodox: …many of the sacred things which we have at our disposal do not need a prayer of sanctification, since their name itself says that they are all-sacred and full of grace. Consequently, we honor and embrace them as venerable things. Thus, even without a prayer of sanctification, we revere the form of the life-giving cross. The very form of it is sufficient for us to receive sanctification. By the veneration which we offer to it, by the making of its sign on our forehead, and also by the making of its sign in the air with the finger, like a seal, we express the hope that it dispels demons. In the same way, when we signify an icon with a name, we transfer the honor to the prototype; by embracing it and offering to it the veneration of honor, we share in the sanctification. Also we kiss and embrace the different holy utensils which we have, and we express the hope of receiving a blessing from them. Therefore, either they [the iconoclasts] must say idly that the cross and the holy utensils are common and worthless — since it is a carpenter, or a painter, or a weaver who has made them, and because there is no prayer of consecration for them — or they will have to accept also the venerable icons as sacred, holy, and worthy of honor.

For, just as when one paints a man, one does not render him without a soul, but he remains one who has a soul and the icons is called his because of his resemblance, so it is when we make an icon of the Lord. We confess the Lord’s flesh to be deified, and we know the icons to be nothing else but icons, signifying the imitation of the prototype. It is from this that the icon has taken also the name of the prototype, which is the only thing that it has in common with the prototype. That is why it is venerable and holy[3].

The Life of Steven the Younger[4]

Chapter 55: “Recall from Exile. Conversation with Constantine V”

The saint [Steven] answered him [Constantine V]: “Oh Emperor, it is not the matter that is in icons that Christians have ever been ordered to worship, but they prostrate themselves in front of the name of the person who is seen on the icon…”

Then the saint replied: “And who then in his right mind worships what is created when he prostrates himself in front of objects that are in the churches, whether they be of wood, stone, gold, or silver, and that have been changed into holy objects by the name written on them?”

Nicephorus of Constantinople, Discourses against the Iconoclasts[5]:

“In truth, just as churches receive the name of their holy patron saints, so also images of those saints have their names written on them, for it is what is written on them [the name] that makes them holy.”

In this treatise, the Patriarch attacks the affirmations and arguments of the Emperor Constantine V who convoked the Council of Hieria in 754 to give approval to his iconoclastic doctrine. The emperor maintained that an image of someone, in order to be properly called image must be consubstantial with the prototype. So then the only image of Christ which is consubstantial with him, of the same substance as him, is the Eucharist, the holy gifts of communion. All other “images” of Christ and the saints are falsely called images because their substance — wood, stone, colors, etc. — are different from that of the persons represented. What is more, for the bread and wine to become the consubstantial image of Christ, there must be a prayer of consecration in the liturgy to change them. The “images” of Christ and the saints are falsely called images for two reasons: [their substances are different, and] there is no prayer of blessing to transform them into the substance of Christ and the saints.

In answering the emperor, Patriarch Nicephorus attacked his position saying that the emperor was trapped in a double error. First, to the argument that the image and its prototype must be consubstantial, Nicephorus answers that the link between the image — the type — and the person represented — the prototype — is not one of consubstantiality, but likeness and the sharing of the person’s name. The image of Christ, he continues, being made of wood and colors, is called Christ because it resembles him in that it reproduces the physical characteristics of his humanity and because it carries his name. Further, Constantine was again in error because he did not distinguish two types of sanctification: the sacralization which is produced by the prayers of the Church — the blessing of water at Theophany, for example — and the sanctification that comes about by imitating Christ, by participation in his acts, words, and death — the martyr and others, for example. In the first case, a prayer of blessing is necessary; in the second, no.

English even has two words, actually the same word but pronounced differently, to distinguish these two kinds of holiness: blessed, two syllables, and blessed (blest), one syllable. “Their wedding was a blessed event which was blessed by the bishop and five healthy children.” The icon does not belong in the second category but in the first. Therefore, it is holy, not because of a blessing prayer, that the Patriarch and the Orthodox in general knew did not exist, but because of its likeness to the prototype and the fact of having his or her name written on it.

From the 9th century to the middle of the 17th century

During these centuries, there reigns another silence in the prayer books and the writings of Orthodox authors on the subject of the blessing of icons.

1649, Metropolitan Peter Moghila of Kiev.

This is the publication date for the metropolitan’s Trebnik — Euchologion — in which, for the first time in an Orthodox source, we have short prayer services for the blessing of icons. See below, the texts and analysis of these prayers.

1669-1706, Patriarch Dositheos of Jerusalem[6].

L.H. Grondijs[7] quotes a passage of Dositheos

Only in the 17th century did anyone start to ask questions about the subject [of blessing icons], and Dositheos of Jerusalem discussed it in a long, accusatory text against the schismatics, that is, the Roman Catholics. In the 4th chapter of his History of the Patriarchs of Jerusalem, Dositheos attributes to his adversaries (to Catholics), who favored venerating icons, the argument that the pope recites such prayers over them. Here is what Dositheos had to say: “We answer this third argument by saying that blessing icons is neither necessary or indispensable. We refer readers to the 6th session of the present council (the 7th Ecumenical Council of Nicaea) where it dealt with the council held under Copronym [Constantine V, the Council of Hieria in 754] which criticized icons in this way: [Nicaea II quoting the iconoclasts] ‘The icon does not have a blessing to be sanctified and transferred from the common to the sacred; it remains common and profane as the painter created it.'[8] What is more, the council answered by the voice of Deacon Epiphanius but did not say that there was a blessing for icons, but that the image of the cross was not blessed and that it was made without a blessing.

1730, The First Blessing Prayer for an Icon in a Greek Euchologion[9]

When a Bishop blesses the Ikon, he anoints the four sides of it with Holy Chrism, and then says the following prayer:

Bishop: Let us pray to the Lord.

Response: Lord, have mercy.

Bishop: Master, our Almighty King, Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, You gave orders to your servant Moses to sketch a picture of a Cherub in the holy Tent, and from this, we took the custom of sketching icons as a remembrance of those whom they represent. Therefore, we pray to You, O Lord our King, to send the grace of your Holy Spirit, together with your angel, on this holy icon so that every prayer which is offered to You through this icon may be accepted by the grace, mercy, and compassion of your only-begotten Son, our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ, the Lover of Mankind.

For all glory, honor, and worship are yours due, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and always and for ever and ever. Amen.

The following passage is a note included in the Euchologion by its publisher.

About the prayer that the bishop says over the newly painted icon, please note that the Sacramentaria Latina contains a similar blessing without anointing with chrism, especially what is used in the Ordo Praedicatorum, as well as the Pontificale Romanum. Even though in the past, due to too much negligence, a blessing of this manner was rejected by usage, but now this fundamental books that [that we have] in hand conserves and maintains them.

The 19th century: the Opposition of St. Athanasius of Paros and St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite on Mount Athos.

A study by Philip Meyer on this subject[10]

Some disagreements of lesser importance were fought over alongside the main points of contention. Among them, this one: Do images need a blessing to be holy and function as icons? Athanasios of Paros[2] denied the necessity of a blessing and affirmed that images function as images because of their likeness to the person represented. Nicodemos the Hagiorite agreed[3] and referred to Dositheos of Jerusalem who had said that the blessing of icons was a « papist » affair and an innovation.

[2] (also in the Ekthesis already mentioned)

[3] The Rudder (Pedalion), S. 261, 1887, p. 261; Dositheos, Historia peri tôn en Hierosolymois patriarcheusantôn,Bucharest, 1715, p. 658.

Athanasios of Paros[11]

From Dionysios Tsentikopoulos:

The need for permanently affirming the truth in time and space as well as the reality of the creation’s participation in the divine and uncreated grace of God concerns even the smallest detail of the Church’s life-giving liturgical activity. Because of this, St. Athanasios of Paros felt it proper to correct each notion that falsified the theology and dogma of liturgical life. This is why he seized on the blessing prayer for the holy icons in the Euchologion. St. Athanasios reflected on the theological and dogmatic question of such a prayer. He saw how the very existence of the prayer overturned the Church’s teaching.

Icons spread their holiness in the Church because the grace of the Holy Spirit is not limited to the people represented [the prototypes], but it extends to the icons themselves [the types]. The Church’s icon represents the creation transfigured in the uncreated Light. St. Athanasios strongly affirmed the theological distinction between the essence and the energies of God, between the inaccessible essence and the energies in which the creation can participate. That is why we believe in the real participation in God’s uncreated and luminous grace. We also believe that this grace sanctifies the people represented and their icons. Therefore, we recognize “just how an external prayer and a foreign blessing are not necessary for the icons to become holy, sacred, and worthy of veneration since it is by their own form and meaning that they are sanctified.” The icons are holy without a blessing prayer since they represent the renewed and sanctified creation. The 7th Ecumenical Council made the theology of the icon very clear when faced with the iconoclastic challenge. (Athanasios of Paros, Ekthesis, p. 122) St. Athanasios ofParos saw iconoclastic traces in the blessing prayer for icons, and he set forth the statement of the Ecumenical Council as an argument against that prayer.

St. Nicodemos of the HolyMountain[12]

It is not necessary to anoint the holy icons with myron (or chrism oil) nor to have them sanctified by the bishop with special prayers[for three reasons]:

1) Because we do not adore [sic] the holy icons because they are anointed or have had prayers said over them, but irrespectively, as soon as we lay eyes on a holy icon, without pausing to examine into the possibility of its having been anointed or having had a special pray said over it, we at once proceed to pay adoration [sic] to it both on account of the name of the Saint and on account of the likeness it bears to the original. That is why in Act 6 of the present Council, the Council of the iconomachs in the reign of Copronymus disparaged the holy icons by asserting that the name of the pictures neither has any sacred prayer sanctifying it, in order that from what is common it might be transferred to what is holy, but that, on the contrary, it (sc. the picture) remains common and dishonorable (ie. not entitled to honor), just as the painter made it. To these allegations, the holy Seventh Council replied through Deacon Epiphanius, by asserting that it did not say that any special prayer is said over the icons, but said that like many other sacred objects they were incapable of receiving (benefit from) any special prayer, but, on the contrary from their very name they are replete with grace and sanctity, in the same way that the shape of the vivifying Cross is, which is entitled to veneration and adoration [sic] among us in spite of the fact that it is made without having any special prayer said over it; and we believe that with its shape alone we acquire sanctity, and with the adoration [sic] which we pay to it, and the marking of it upon our forehead: and the seal of it which is made in the air with the finger (note that in days of yore the sign of the Cross was not made with three fingers, as it is today, but with one finger alone, which fact is stated by St. Chrysostom in one of his discourses: and see concerning this the footnote to c. XCI of Basil) in the hope of chasing away the demons. Likewise, in the same way that we have many sacred vessels, and kiss and embrace them fondly, and hope to receive sanctity from them, in spite of the fact that they have not had any special prayers said over them, so and in like manner by fondly kissing and embracing and paying honorary adoration [sic?] to a holy icon that has not had special prayers said over it we partake of sanctity, and are analogically lifted up and carried back to the honor of the original through the name of the icon. But if the iconomachs cannot assert that the sacred vessels are dishonorable and common because of their not having had any special prayers said over them for the purpose of sanctifying them, but are just as the weaver, the painter and the goldsmith finished them, yet they regard them as holy and precious; in the same way they ought to regard the venerable icons as holy and precious and sacred even though they have not had any special prayers said over them to sanctify them.

2) The holy icons do not need any special prayer or any application of myron (or chrism) because, according to Dositheos (p. 658 of the Dodecabiblus), it is only the Papists (or Roman Catholics) that perpetrate the iniquity of qualifying pictures with certain prayers and devotions. For they boast that the Pope manufactures pictures from pure wax, holy oil, and water of sanctification that he reads marvelous prayers over them, and that because of these special features these pictures perform miracles (just as they lyingly state that Leo III sent such a picture to King Charles of France, and he reverenced it: and that Pope Urban sent another picture to John Paleologos, and this one was honored with a litany in the Church), Do you see that the prayer which is read over holy pictures is a Papal affair, and not Orthodox: and that it is a modern affair, and not an ancient one? For this reason, no such prayer can be found anywhere in the ancient manuscript Euchologia. In fact. we have noticed that this prayer is not even found in Euchologia printed only a hundred years ago!

3) It becomes evident that holy icons do not need any special prayer or application of myron (i.e. holy oil), because the picture painted on the walls of churches, and their naves and in their aisles, and in general in streets and on doors, and on the sacred vessels… are never anointed with myron and never any special prayer said over them, and yet, in spite of this, adoration [sic] is paid to them relatively and honorarily by all on account of the likeness they bear to the originals. That is why the erudite Bishop of Campania, Sir [lord] Theophilus the Saint did not conceal this truth, but stated in the book which he has just recently produced that the holy icons do not need any anointing with myron nor the saying of any special prayer by a bishop.

Analysis of the Blessing Prayers

The Slavonic Texts[13]

Let us examine first of all the prayers introduced by Metropolitan Peter Moghila into his Euchologion/Trebnik in 1646. There are five short services for blessing icons:

The Holy Trinity: the three angels (Hospitality of Abraham), Theophany, the Transfiguration, and the Descent of the Holy Spirit;

Christ and the feasts of the Savior;

The Mother of God;

The Saints;

Various icons laid out together.

First of all,  note the number of categories, five; why multiply the number of separate services, especially when the last blessing service combines all the categories. Obviously the Metropolitan thought it was a good thing to have five blessing services. Even though he had leanings toward things Latin, Roman Catholicism was the great adversary of Orthodoxy at the time, and I wonder if he did not want to impress the Catholics, as well as the Orthodox, by the number of prayers. Actually feeling inferior to the Latin Catholics, he probably wanted blow the Orthodox horn to show Orthodoxy’s superiority: “You see, you Catholics, who think you’re so superior, we Orthodox have five services for the blessing of icons.” This is, however, only my hypothesis.

The structure of each service is the same. The differences between them are found in the references to the Bible and Church history, references that change with the various categories of icons: for example, singing the troparion of Theophany for an icon of the Baptism of Christ, mentioning the story of King Abgar for an icon of Christ, etc. Here is the structure of the services:

An initial blessing: “Blessed is our God…”, initial prayers and a psalm that appropriate for the icon category;

A great blessing prayer (almost an anaphora),

Commemoration of the the event in the Bible or Church history that is the basis of the icon,

The first epiclesis which asks the Lord to bless the icon,

An ecphonesis;

A second epiclesis for blessing;

Sprinkling with holy water;

The troparion or hymn of the icon or the feast;

The dismissal.

Let us now look closer at the significant parts of the blessing: We do have here a real invocation, epiclesis, of the Lord to act and bless the images. It is noteworthy that the epiclesis is faithful to the Orthodox tradition which sees any blessing as an invocation asking that the grace of God, the Holy Spirit, come down not only on a particular object but also and, first of all, on “us,” the faithful who are going to prayer in front of the image. The most obvious example of such an epiclesis is the one in the Eucharistic liturgy.

In the first epiclesis, we hear petitions like the following:

…and we pray and entreat and humbly beseech Thy deep compassion: Do Thou look down mercifully upon us and send down Thy heavenly blessing, and in Thy Thrice-holy Name, bless and sanctify it (them)… Do Thou look down with mercy upon us and upon this Icon (these Icons)…send down upon it (them) Thy heavenly blessing and the grace of the Most-holy Spirit and bless and sanctify it (them)…

 The second epiclesis:

…do Thou harken now unto our prayer and send down Thy divine heavenly blessing and bless and sanctify this Icon (these Icons) by the sprinkling of this Holy Water… Through her [the Mother of God] prayers and intercessions, by Thy grace in the sprinkling of this Holy Water, bless and sanctify this Icon…

 The sprinkling with holy water:

This Icon is sanctified by the grace of the Most-holy Spirit, through the sprinkling of this Holy Water, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

The Greek Prayer

The first thing we notice is that the Greek prayer is much shorter;  just one short prayer. Here is its structure:

Instruction to the bishop (pontifex/archiereus) to anoint the icon on its four corners;

A very short reference to and commemoration of Moses and the cherubim;

Epiclesis for the grace of the Holy Spirit, as well as an angel, to descend on the icon “so that every prayer which is offered to You through this icon may be accepted…”;


It is very important to underscore the note added, I presume, by the Greek Orthodox editor of the Euchologion. (See the text above.) He admits that the practice of blessing icons is an innovation, but he attributes the lack of blessing prayers to “too much negligence” in the past. The editor appears happy to have “rectified” this problem by adding the prayer. He obviously gets part of his inspiration from three Catholic texts, and feels — I are reading between the lines — relieved now that the Greek Orthodox do like the Roman Catholics. Not only has he taken his queue from a Catholic model, but he also judges the Orthodox tradition of not blessing icons to be a “negligence.” What the Greek prayer lacks in length and development in relation to the Slavonic texts, it, and the note, make up for by their clarity about the reason the prayer was introduced into a Greek euchologion. I suspect, however, without direct confirmation, that Metropolitan Peter Moghila had the same reason. The Roman Big Brother blesses paintings while the poor Orthodox do not. An obvious sign that the Orthodox must abandon their own tradition and adopt a new practice, and the theology that justifies it, both of which come from a source other than that of the councils and fathers of the Church.

A comparison of the Slavonic and Greek texts shows the following similarities and differences.

1. very long and developed texts, several categories of icons 1. short, simple text, one prayer for all icons
2. published in Slavonic, 1649,Kiev 2. published in Greek, 1730,Venice
3. a priest or bishop blesses 3. a bishop blesses
4. epiclesis, invocation of the Holy Spirit on the people and the icon 4. epiclesis, invocation of the Holy Spirit on the icon alone
5. no petition for an angel to be sent 5. petition for an angel to be sent on the icon
6. sprinkling with holy water 6. anointing with myron
7. no explanation for the innovation of blessing icons 7. the editor’s note explains the reason for the new practice of blessing icons
8. theology of blessing: to transfer a profane object to the sacred domain 8. theology of blessing: to transfer a profane object to the sacred domain
9. a developed theology of sacralization: reason for the blessing: to obtain for the faithful who pray before the icon a) mercy, grace, deliverance from evil and affliction, remission of sins; b) to endow the icon with the power of healing to keep away the devil and all evil, and to make it a source of healing, deliverance, and protection. 9. an undeveloped theology of sacralization: reason for the blessing: that the prayers of the faithful in front of the icon be heard
10. complex, well structured services 10. simple prayer
11. services found among other prayers and services of blessing: for animals, youth camps, mother’s day, priestly vestments, holy vessels, and bells 11. a prayer placed between the blessing of a diskos and patten and a general prayer service (moleben)

What is the theology expressed in the blessing prayers for icons? First of all, the blessing formulas as well as the sprinkling with holy water and anointing with holy chrism are nearly the same as those used to bless other objects used in the Church: bells, vestments, fruit, etc. Icons therefore are placed in the category of objects made by artists and artisans and offered for the service of God and his glory. And to begin the service, a prayer of blessing is recited.

And here then is the crucial question: Are icons in the general category of objects we use in Church, or are they rather in a separate category because they carry the likeness and name of Christ or the saints, two things that other objects do not have? It seems that the prayers themselves, the sprinkling or anointing suppose that a painting of Christ or the saints is precisely like other Church objects, and because of the blessing, sprinkling or anointing, such paintings become icons worthy of being used in the Church, or at least, they become “better” icons. By the prayers and the priest’s action, an unsanctified, perhaps profane, painting passes into the category of “holy icons.” Is that not just what the iconoclasts said, in a slightly negative way. “Holy images are falsely called holy because there is no blessing prayer to transfer them from the category of the profane to the category of the sacred.”

A footnote

I recently ran across a little publication about the blessing of icons[14]. Mother Thekla is not so much the author of the booklet as the translator, but she does preface the texts of Metropolitan Peter Moghila’s blessing prayers with a small paragraph that is worth noting. I divide her text into two sections: the first, quite good and the second, less so. In the light of what has been said so far, I think the reader will see why I say that.


This tentative translation of the prayers for the blessing of Ikons from the Russian Trebnik (Book of Needs) [in fact Metropolitan Moghila’s texts] is primarily intended to make more generally known the theological significance[15] for the composition and veneration of our Ikons. The prayers in the first place put the veneration of Ikons firmly inside the worship of the Church to form an integral part within the whole fabric of Orthodoxy: a confession of faith; the fulness of reverence paid to Ikons, either in the making or praying, cannot be isolated from the whole sweep of the faith since, as the prayers of blessing indicate, it [veneration] rises from precisely the same common theological source as our Liturgical worship; it may be one stream amongst others, but the water is common to all and rises from the single source of the One Church.

So far so good. But then (emphasis added):

Thus, at the outset, for a true appreciation of the Ikon, it is not to the composition that we should turn, nor to the attitude of those who reverence it, nor even to personal devotion, but to the initial prayers of its blessing which make it what it is. It is these prayers which are the prologue, in effect the clue, to the theology: in the very fact of the institution of a liturgical blessing, and in the doctrine of the text.

In other words, according to Mother Thekla, to understand icons correctly we should not be greatly concerned about the “composition,” that is, what is actually painted, whether it is canonical or not, even heretical or not; nor should we pay too much attention to the “attitude of those who reverence it,” that is, whether they themselves — laymen and clergy — understand what an icon is, whether in fact they have a superstitious or, at the worst, an idolatrous attitude toward icons; and finally we should not worry much about people’s “personal devotion,” about their practices, that is, how they use icons. What is essential to properly appreciate the Church’s icons is to understand the blessing prayers because they make the icon what it is. We can only deduce that whatever the “icon” was before the blessing prayers it was not an icon, and through the prayers, the “un-icon” became an icon. Is that not precisely what the iconoclasts said: an ordinary picture is not holy or properly called an icon because there is no blessing prayer to transform it into a holy icon? Under such an attack, the Fathers of the Nicaea II in no way felt obliged to create such prayers since their understanding of what makes an image a holy icon has nothing to do with such prayers. Is it not strange then that, since the blessing prayers did not exist during 1500 years of Church history, being composed only in 1649, we can further deduce, if Mother Thekla is right, that Orthodox Christians, and the Church herself, did not truly appreciate what an icon was during all that time, because there were not only no blessing prayers, but also because they consciously refused to create any. They were obviously “negligent,” as the editor of the Greek Euchologion actually said. I hope that I have shown that the Fathers and the Church were not negligent in their appreciation of what icons really are. It is in fact Metropolitan Moghila and the editor of the Greek Euchologion, as well as those who share their thinking, who do not truly appreciate what an icon is. Pace, Mother Thekla.


So, if my analysis is correct, we must simply recognize a very bizarre phenomenon: a practice and a theology that justifies it, both of which are widely accepted among Orthodox Christians and are “officialized” by services in the euchologions/trebniks, are in fact contrary to the Tradition of the Orthodox Church as that was expressed by the 7th Ecumenical Council as well as by the universal practice of the Church until 1649. Even though some have protested against this situation, their protests have not been enough to realign the practice and thinking of Orthodox faithful and clergy about blessing icons. Is this situation surprising? Tragic yes, but surprising? No.

I answer “no” when I take into account the fact that the introduction of the icon blessing prayers coincides with the decadence of icon painting. From the 17th century, images among the Orthodox started to depart from the canonical tradition. So why should we be surprised if the theology of some and the prayers many did the same? From the point of view of the art historian, this situation is but one more phenomenon to recognize and to study, nothing more. But, for Orthodox Christians, the Church’s iconography should never be studied outside the Tradition that gave it life, as do art historians. We Orthodox must deal with the subject from within the Tradition, as an expression of our faith, of the faith of our Church — and even better, as an expression of the Church’s faith, period. Art historians — even Soviet ones — have made remarkable studies of icons, and we are enormously indebted to them for their works. The more we can learn the better, whatever the source, but for art history, as for religious studies as opposed to theology, researchers study their subject as something detached from themselves; they examine it “scientifically,” “objectively,” “coldly.” Art history can never study icons as a theological phenomenon, that is, as a manifestation, a revelation of Christ in his Church. But then, this is precisely our point of view. Therefore, it can only be catastrophic when the iconographic tradition of the Orthodox Church departs from its own sources; it can only be a pollution of that tradition and of the revelation itself. But as we have seen, there have been voices crying in the wilderness.

If it is true that we are living in the full bloom of a renaissance of traditional and canonical icons, despite the opposition of certain Orthodox themselves, we cannot limit ourselves to just the visible aspect of the tradition, that is, to icons themselves, but we must examine all the elements that surround the iconographic tradition. That is why I want to draw attention to a phenomenon which, from my point of view, is not in agreement with the Church’s purest tradition; I seek to invite the faithful and clergy to greater vigilance. If all Orthodox agree that it is always necessary to defend Holy Tradition against corrupting influences, then we must make sure that what we defend is in fact part of that Tradition.

As for a dedication ceremony to put a stamp of approval on an icon and to begin its official veneration and public reception, why do we not ask a liturgist to prepare a service of dedication that will set out the theology of the icon as found in the long prayers of the Slavonic services. This public dedication service could include a procession of the icon after which it would be placed on an analoy in the middle of the church. Then, perhaps a litany for all those connected with the painting of the icons, with an invocation of the Holy Spirit on all who will venerate it. After that, the clergy and the faithful would venerate it publicly for the first time. Finally, the priest would bless the faithful with the icon, as he does with the Gospel book. Such a ceremony would have the advantage of showing the Church’s approval and reception of a new icon while avoiding the notion set out by the present services: by priestly prayers and ministrations, an unsanctified painting becomes a holy icon.

I have prepared such services, based on translations from the Euchologion in French and English, and I present them to you here, in PDF format.

[1]              The Council of Nicaea II, Mansi XIII; Icon and Logos: Sources in Eighth-Century Iconoclasm, Daniel Sahas, Toronto, Ontario, University of Toronto Press, 1986.

[2]              Mansi XIII, 269E-272A, Sahas., p. 99.

[3]              Mansi 344B, Sahas, p. 159.

[4]              La Vie d’Étienne le Jeune par Étienne le Diacre, Marie-France Auzépy, Aldershot, Hampshire UK, Variorum Ashgate Publishing Limited, 1997, pp. 253-254. The English translation is by the author.

[5]              Nicephorus of Constantinople Discours contre les iconoclastes, Nicéphore de Constantinople, Marie-José Mondzain-Baudinet, trad., Paris, Éditions Klincksieck, III, 54, 1989, pp. 259-260.

[6]              History of the Patriarchs of Jerusalem, Bucharest, 1715, (nine years after the death of Dositheos), pp. 658-659.

[7]              Actes du VIe congrès international d’études byzantines, tome II, Paris, École des Hautes études à la Sorbonne, « Images de saints d’après la théologie byzantine », L.-H. Grondijs, 1951, pp. 168-169.

[8]             The Greek text: “Hé tôn eikonôn onomasia ouk echei euchén hagiazousan autén, hin’ek toutou pros to hagion ek koinou metenechthé, alla menei koiné kai atimos hôs apértisen autén ho zôgraphos.” Suggestion: The fact of giving the name [of image] to images does not depend on a blessing prayer to transfer them from the common [profane] to the holy, without which prayer they would remain common [profane] and not honorable [worthy of honor or veneration] as the artist made them [created, produced them]. Another suggestion : It is not because of a blessing prayer that an image is called image, a prayer that would transfer it from what is common to what is holy, and without that prayer, it would remain common and not worth of veneration, as the artiste created it.

[9]              Euchologe selon le rituel des Grecs 2, J. Goar, éd., Venise, 1730, p. 672. This English translation, except for the “Note in the Euchologion,” which is from the author, comes from the Byzantine Melkite Euchologion published by the Eparchy of Newton (Our Lady of the Annunciation), Roslindale, Massachusetts.

[10]            Meyer, Philip, « Lehrstreitigkeiten im achtzehnten Jahrhundert (vgl. Urkunde XIX) », Die Haupturkunden für die Geschichte der Athosklöster, 1894 ; Reprint Amsterdam, 1965, p. 79. (« Des différents savants du XVIIIe siècle (voir document XIX) », Les documents importants pour l’histoire du Mont-Athos).

[11]            Athanasios of Paros, Ekthesis, eitouv homologia tés aléthous kai orthodoksou pisteôs genomené hypo tôn adikôs diabléthentôn hôs kainotomôn, (ekd. Theodôrétou hierom.) pp, 122-123, quoted in Dionysios Tsentikopoulos, « Basikes kateuthynseis tés didaskalias tou hagiou Athanasiou tou Pariou », Agios Athanasios ho Parios, Paros, Greece, 2000, pp. 134‑135.

[12]            St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain on the blessing of icons, The Pedalion, « On the 7th Holy Ecumenical Council: Prolegoumena », The Rudder, Chicago, Illinois, The Orthodox Christian Education Society, 1957, pp. 419-420.

[13]            The Great Book of Needs, vol II, A Monk of St. Tikhon’s Monastery, South Canaan, PA, St. Tikhon’s Press, 1987, pp. 210‑233.

[14]       Mother Thekla, The Blessing of Ikons, MinneapolisMN, Light and Life Publishing Company, no date given, p. 1.

[15]            We suppose that Mother Thekla is quite capable of expressing her own thought, but I do wonder if there is not something missing from this sentence. Would not this sentence be clearer if “of the prayers” were added?


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  1. Fr Paul on August 1, 2012 at 9:31 am

    Fr Steven, thank you for your thought provoking and scholarly article. Whilst I bless Icons, as an iconographer I have always felt this was superfluous as there is a point when the Icon is being created that it “comes alive”, that is to say it ceases to be a jumble of colours, paint, gold and wood and gains “life”. Sometimes this is early on in its creation, other times it has not been until almost the last hilights are being applied ( and I have been quite despondent that I have failed) that the Icon comes to life.
    What you didn’t raise in your article is the practise of having icons behind the iconostasis for 40 days and then being returned to their owners. This is quite common in the Antiochian tradition. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

  2. Steven Bigham on August 1, 2012 at 10:52 am

    Hello Fr. Paul,
    About putting an icon on the altar for sometime, I suggest that in one, or all, the services of solemn veneration that are attached to the article published by Scott. I don’t know if you saw them or not. Since you are an iconographer and priest, I would especially like to hear what you think about those compiled services. There doesn’t seem to be anything particularily objectionable to putting the icon behind the iconostase unless it contributes to the notion that an icon gets it sanctity by osmossis, by soaking up the altar’s holiness, so to speak. If it is made clear, as I tried to do in the services I compiled, that the icon’s holiness comes from likeness and the name, then putting the icon there for a time could be considered part of the inaugural, solemn veneration, as I called those services, perhaps somewhat awkwardly. Your comments are most welcome.

  3. Aidan on August 18, 2012 at 1:53 pm

    Dear Father,
    Thank you for an excellent article. It is a healthy sign when we can test current practices and assumptions in the search for genuine tradition. I refer to this subject in my book, especially page 286 where I write:
    “The writing of the name is the crowning act of painting an icon. It is this naming which, perhaps above all else, makes it a holy icon, signifies that it is an image of this saint and not that saint. St Theodore the Studite wrote:
    ‘Christ’s image, on the other hand is called ‘Christ’ because of the signification of the name, but not because it has the nature of divinity and humanity.'”

  4. Rev. Dcn. Sergius Miller on August 20, 2012 at 1:10 pm

    I’ve contended for years rthat a blessing is NOT necessary. I never have my icons blessed. Thank you for the article.

    • Steven Bigham on August 20, 2012 at 5:37 pm

      You’re quite welcome.

  5. Julia Hayes on November 18, 2012 at 8:11 am

    Thank you, Father, for this article.

  6. Steven Bigham on November 19, 2012 at 7:08 am

    Hello Julia,
    You’re quite welcome.

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