For Orthodox Christians, what does it mean to properly venerate an icon?
Are there required physical actions of Orthodox when venerating an icon?
Can one simply venerate it in one’s heart and forego outward physical greetings?
Many people are already familiar with the theological teaching behind the use of icons as proclaimed especially in the writings of Ss. John of Damascus and Theodore the Studite. A little while ago, I began seeking to find if there is a proclaimed teaching and tradition of praxis, the how do we properly and physically manifest the theology of icons? For, I thought, surely there is a “right praxis” in the veneration of icons, as there is a “right theology.” Is the practice of venerating an icon negotiable, or is it nonnegotiable together with the theology?
These and other questions have been raised in my mind through various circumstances. In pursuit of understanding, I found in English the complete Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea (787), also known as the Seventh Ecumenical Council.The Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea (787), Translated with notes and an introduction by Richard Price. Liverpool University Press, 2020. All the quotes in this article are provided from this book. It seemed fitting to write a small article that briefly summarizes my findings during the first week of Great Lent and the Sunday of the “Triumph of Orthodoxy.”
From this vast Acts, which covers the seven sessions of the Council, I will be focusing mainly on the seventh session and the proclamation of the Horos from the Council. I will also be drawing on two letters from St. Tarasius of Constantinople, which are included in the corpus of the writings from the Council.
From these, it should be clear to the reader that the Council insists upon two mutually interdependent actions in relation to icons – veneration and greeting. When it decrees proper veneration and greeting, it also provides very concrete instruction and requirements. It also indivisibly unites proper veneration to proper theology. I believe this will be made clear in the direct quotes that I provide below.
In the Horos of the Council, the holy Fathers first of all truly affirm that they are proclaiming only that which is in accord with the Holy Faith, “We preserve without innovation all the traditions of the church that have been laid down for us whether written or unwritten. One of these is reproduction in painting images, as something that is in harmony with the narration of the gospel message for the confirming of the real and in no way phantasmal incarnation of God the Word, and which serves us by conferring the same benefit. For these two things provide indisputable proof of each other and give expression to each other” (pg. 564). They clearly proclaim that it is the Christian Tradition to make holy icons. They further confirm that it is the true Christian way to adorn churches with holy icons, “These things being so, we, traveling the royal road, following the teaching of our holy fathers that speaks of God and [we also follow] the tradition of the catholic church, for we recognize this to be of the Holy Spirit that dwells within her. We therefore decree with all care and precision that venerable and holy images, made in colours or mosaics or other fitting materials, in the same way as the figure of the honorable and like-giving cross, are to be dedicated in the holy churches of God” (pg. 564-565).
Having proclaimed firmly the evident Christian practice of making icons and using them in the holy churches of God, they begin to elaborate upon the manner in which Christians should relate to them, “They [ie. icons, my note] are to be accorded greeting and the veneration of honour, not indeed the true worship corresponding to our faith, which pertains to the divine nature alone, but in the same way as this is accorded to the figure of the honourable and life-giving cross, to the holy angels, and other sacred offerings. In their honour an offering of incensation and lights is to be made, in accordance with the pious custom of the men of old. For the honour paid to the image passes over to the prototype, and whoever venerates the image venerates in it the hypostasis of the one who is represented” (pg 565). The distinction between veneration and true worship is made clear, Christians do not worship icons rather they offer them a veneration of honor. Here the pious custom of censing icons and lighting lamps and candles before them is confirmed as true Christian practice (conversely, not to do so is an unchristian practice), and a summary of the theological reality is reiterated. Here two important words are also used that are vital in understanding Orthodox Christian praxis towards icons – greeting and veneration.
A footnote for this passage reads, “’Greeting and the veneration of honour’. These words refer to something quite concrete: kisses and a prostration or a deep bow. This is here contrasted to the ‘true worship (lateria) reserved to God alone” (Ibid, footnote 58). Here we understand that the Fathers of the Council intend to convey to Christians a concrete and proper way, and manner, by which to venerate icons. This way includes vital physical actions – kisses and a prostration or a deep bow. These actions are inseparable from the totality of veneration of icons, as will be made even more explicit by the following excerpts.
St. Tarasius expounds upon “greeting and veneration” in his letter to the Byzantine Emperors at the time of the Council, Constantine and Irene. He first proclaims that the Council has only followed what is clear Christian practice, “We have expressed and proclaimed the truth in unison, that the sacred images of our Lord Jesus, in that he became a complete human being, are to be fully accepted, as is every depiction of the gospel stories, and also [the images] of our immaculate Lady the holy Theotokos and the holy angels … and all the saints … As God’s holy church received from the beginning, and as was laid down in law by both the holy originators of our teaching and our inspired fathers who succeeded them – and that these are to be venerated (προσκυνειν), that is, greeted (ασπαζεσθαι)” (pg. 582-583). He clearly ties and unifies as one the theology of the icon and the proper Christian praxis in relation to them. The praxis is a manifestation of the theological reality, and an alteration of the praxis would imply a degradation of theology.
St. Tarasius further elaborates on the vital subject and praxis of veneration, “These two are the same [ie. veneration and greeting, my note], for κυνειν in the ancient Greek language means ‘greet’ and ‘kiss,’ and the addition of προσ adds an intensity of love; as in the case of … κυρω and προσκυρω, κύνω and προσκυνώ express a greeting and extended kiss. For what someone kisses he also venerates, and what he venerates he certainly also kisses, as is witnessed by our human relationships and intercourse with friends which involve both these things” (pg. 583). In the Greek words themselves, which are translated into English as “greeting and veneration,” a very physical manner and reality by which Christians venerate icons is expressed, implicit here is the very act of kissing together with bows (or prostrations), as St. Tarasius makes very clear. In proper human relationships, kisses are clearly a manifestation of love. If we love the Lord and His saints, we kiss them. The Greek word for “veneration” – “proskonesis” – expresses in itself the concrete action of “a greeting and extended kiss.” It is physical and tangible, as St. Tarasius instructs. It is not simply some inward disposition, which is an aspect of veneration, but it equally includes a visible and very distinct physical manner of greeting. The concrete action of kissing is clearly tied to the essential totality and actions of veneration and greeting. To the extent that one might say to venerate means to kiss an icon.
St. Tarasius makes another example, using the holy Cross, and clearly calls Christians to touch holy icons with their lips, which is expressly a vital part of “greeting,” “Again, when we greet the life-giving cross, we all chant in unison, ‘We venerate your cross, O Lord’ and ‘We venerate the spear that pierced the life-giving side of your goodness.’ This manifestly both is and is called ‘greeting’, as is shown by our touching them with our lips” (pg. 584). We show forth and confirm our proclamation of veneration through the touching of holy things with our lips.
Further, in his letter to the clergy of Constantinople, St Tarasius calls “greeting and veneration” one and the same, which seems to indicate that they cannot be synthetically separated and one cannot be offered without the other. To venerate means to greet with a kiss. “We, therefore, following the laws of our fathers and having received grace from the one Spirit, have kept all that pertains to the church free of innovation and diminution, according to the tradition of the holy six ecumenical councils; whatever they allowed to be honoured in the catholic church we receive without dispute. This includes, as we have said, the making of images. To these we assign the veneration of honour and greeting – for both are the same” (pg. 589-590).
St. Tarasios is simply reiterating and teaching that the Seventh Ecumenical Council already made clear. In the Acts of the Sixth Session, we find it written, “For everything dedicated to the memory of God is acceptable to him. Those who place themselves outside this tradition, which is shared by all those who have genuinely received sonship in the catholic church, are bastards and not sons. Let us therefore perceive that it is right and excellent for sacred images to be dedicated in the church and [for people] to be spiritually raised up by them to the memory of their archetypes, and for these because of their honourable status to be kissed and embraced and accorded the veneration that is their due, whether one prefers to give this the name of salutation or veneration. For the two are the same …” (pg 544). Veneration and proper greeting are the same thing, they are a unified action. The act of veneration is “due” to the icons, thus one might say that proper veneration is a Christian duty. The Councils makes clear that the believer is spiritually raised up to the archetypes and because of this absolute spiritual truth a specific and concrete manner of greeting and veneration is commanded – icons are to be kissed and embraced, which embrace seems to be shown in bows and or prostrations. Thus tied to the indisputable and non-negotiable Christian theology of the icon is an equally vital praxis of veneration.
Again the footnotes highlight the integral nature of “greeting/salutation” (ασπάζομαι) with the action of kissing, “The word ασπασμός the noun from ασπάζομαι, which in relation to images can have the specific meaning of kissing them” (Ibid, footnote 562).
The holistic vision of the Fathers of the Council between the spiritual reality and the physical manner of venerating icons is made very clear when they proclaim, “Those who say that depictions in images should serve simply as a reminder and should not be kissed, accepting the former but rejecting the latter, show themselves to be half-wicked and falsely true, acknowledging the truth in one respect but denigrating it in another. Alas the folly!” (pg 545-546). It is not enough simply to accept that icons are true and proper for use in churches, a person must also and equally properly venerate and greet them in the church. The theology and the praxis are inseparable. In a proper Christian setting, there is not a veneration of the heart detached from the veneration of the lips, as the Council outlines. The Fathers call it folly to accept in principle icons and then not to maintain and defend proper veneration, which, as is clear, presumes a physical greeting – very specifically bows and a kiss.
I found no exclusions given by the Council as to if and when icons should not be venerated (with bows and a kiss); rather it seems very certain the Council instructs and mandates all Christians to always equally uphold the theology of icons and the very specifically outlined mode of their veneration. Thus, as icons must always be accepted in the church, so they must always and without exclusion be properly venerated as instructed and decreed by the Council.
The vast spiritual importance of proper veneration is exemplified in a series of “anathemas” proclaimed by the Seventh Council at the end of the Horos, two of which relate very directly to the physical aspect of veneration – kissing. “The holy council exclaimed: ‘We all believe accordingly, we all hold the same, we have all signed in accord. This is the faith of the apostles, this is the faith of the fathers, this is the faith of the orthodox, this is the faith that has sustained the world. Believing in one God, to be praised in Trinity, we kiss the honourable images. May those who do not hold accordingly be anathema! May those who do not believe accordingly be driven far away from the church! … We accept the sacred images. We subject those who do not believe accordingly to anathema. To those who apply to the sacred images the sayings in divine scriptures against idols anathema! To those who do not kiss the holy and venerable images anathema! To those who call the sacred images idols anathema! … If anyone does not accept the gospel narratives when painted, anathema! If anyone does not kiss them as being in the name of the Lord and his saints, anathema!” (ibid. pg. 577-578).
The very act of venerating icons – kissing and embracing – is a theological proclamation. It is an act of confession that icons are holy and that they are mystically connected to the person (hypostasis) of the one we venerate in them. It is a confession that the holy things convey to us only that which is holy and blessed. For, as the person our Lord Jesus Christ, and all His saints, would never convey anything evil to us, so it is impossible for icons to do so. It is thus vital to always and at all times maintain proper physical veneration; it seems clear that the Horos of the Seventh Council patently instructs Christians to always venerate icons as they have been instructed from times of old. It is not enough to “confess in the heart” that icons are venerable, one must also “make a confession with the mouth” through proper veneration – a kiss with the lips. The two cannot, as the Council teaches, be separated in any way; this it makes clear is the “royal road of the Fathers.”
Because it is of continual profit for us as Orthodox Christians to be fed by the words of the holy Fathers, I will end this article with one last quote from the Horos of the Seventh Council. Every Orthodox Christian is called to the lofty standard of the Faith as proclaimed in the consensus of the Body of Christ. This standard is the governing guide for all equally May we hold fast to the Faith that has been entrusted to us. May we not estrange ourselves from Christ our Lord.
“As for those, therefore, who have the presumption to think or teach otherwise, or like the accursed heretics to spurn the traditions of the church and concoct some innovation, or to reject any of the things dedicated to the church – gospel books or figures of the cross or painted images or the relics of a martyr – or perversely and wickedly to intend to subvert any of the lawful traditions of the catholic church, or indeed to degrade to common use any sacred vessels or holy monasteries, we prescribe that if they be bishops of clerics they are to be deposed, while if they are monks or laymen they are to be excommunicated” (pg. 566).
About the author
Husband, father, and Priest.
Schooling: Kharkov State University (Ukraine); Brownsville School of Ministry; St. Tikhon's Orthodox Seminary (M.Div.).
Author and illustrator of St. Patrick, Enlightener of the Irish Lands (Conciliar Press, out of print) and illustrator of The Life of St. Brigid (authored by Jane G. Meyer).
Proprietor and writer at the Inkless Pen Blog, at which, based on the foundation of the teachings of Orthodox Christianity, a wide variety of topics are addressed. Fr. Zechariah has translated some works by St. Dimitry of Rostov and New Hieromartyr Seraphim (Zvesdensky), these translations are also available on his blog.
|↑1||The Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea (787), Translated with notes and an introduction by Richard Price. Liverpool University Press, 2020.|
2 thoughts on “You may not, not kiss the Icon”
Thank you very much for this important article. The confessional act of kissing holy images leaves no room for doubt that the greeter regards the kiss as passing through the image to the prototype, and that the prototype is divinized as represented by the image. Further, the Acts and the anathema leave no doubt that this is the teaching of the Church.
One of the reasons I painfully led my family away from the church we loved to another Orthodox jurisdiction when the Covid pandemic began, is because on the very Sunday of Orthodoxy in 2020, the Greek Metropolis of Atlanta, at the direction of the Greek Archdiocese in America, stated the faithful could not venerate icons with a kiss. It wasn't until the middle of 2022 I learned that the parish council of thechurch we used to attend finally removed the painter's tape barrier they had placed around the icons in the northern, so that the faithful could venerate them appropriately. I'm not sure the Archbishop or Metropolitans of the GOARCH will ever apologize to their flock for such a serious error. They don't believe preventing the veneration of icons was wrong.